The Lord’s Prayer is the most widely known Christian prayer in the world. But is the version we know in our contemporary languages really the prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples when they asked, “Lord, teach us to pray...” (Luke 11:1)?
First of all, we must remember that Jesus spoke Aramaic, but the evangelists wrote down this and others of Jesus’ sayings in Greek. Only a few words in the New Testament, like Abba (father), maranatha (Come, Lord!), and amen are preserved in Aramaic. The attempt to reconstruct the prayer in its source language is further complicated by the fact that some Greek words and phrases in the prayer, like the “daily” bread, are open to alternative interpretations.
Then we have two versions of the prayer, one in Matt 6:9-13, another in Luke 11:2-4. A quick look at both versions reveals some differences. The common form in use is mainly based on Matthew, which, in most Bibles, ends with the petition “But deliver us from evil” (or “the evil one”), lacking the concluding doxology familiar to many (“For yours is the kingdom,” etc.) and the final amen. This is because textual scholars think the doxology was added to the prayer at some later stage.
The text has come down to us in Greek manuscript copies. Although a majority of manuscripts include the doxology, the most ancient and trustworthy manuscripts, like the fourth-century parchment codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, the fifth-century Codex Bezae, and most of the earliest Latin Gospel manuscripts as well as Hieronymus’s Latin Vulgate translation, lack the words. In addition, important church fathers like Cyprian, Origen, and Cyril knew the short version. The doxology is preserved in a number of different forms in the sources, which is not surprising: readers and users, especially in liturgical contexts, could have been expected to add a suitable doxology, which at some point (or at many separate times) entered the text and continued to develop.
The Lukan version of the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2-4) is shorter than the Matthean version and differs in some Greek wordings: for example, “forgive us our sins” instead of “our debts”; and “as we ourselves forgive” instead of “have forgiven.” Already at an early stage, however, some scribes added words and phrases in Luke in order to bring the text in harmony with Matthew. For example, the original scribe as well as a later corrector of Codex Sinaiticus have added phrases from Matthew’s version in the text and margin of Luke. These additions from Matthew are present in the majority of extant Greek manuscripts of Luke, representing the Byzantine text. On the other hand, Papyrus 75 (175-225 C.E.) and Codex Vaticanus, primary witnesses to the Alexandrian text, preserve the shorter, more authentic version of the prayer in Luke.
At some point, another fascinating addition was made to the prayer in Luke in some manuscripts. Although we do not know the exact wording, the Gospel text used by Marcion (85-160 C.E.), who accepted only the Gospel of Luke, included some sort of request for the Holy Spirit. The fourth-century bishop Gregory of Nyssa wrote about the prayer in Luke that read “May Your Holy Spirit come upon us and purify us” instead of “Your kingdom come.” This rare textual variant is preserved in an eleventh-century manuscript of the New Testament. Codex Bezae (fifth century) possibly also preserves a trace of it: “Hallowed be your name upon us.”
The Lord’s Prayer, in particular Matthew’s fuller version, became very popular at an early stage. The Didache, an early Christian writing (circa 100-150 C.E.), contains a version similar to Matthew’s, but with a few unique variants and a brief doxology, followed by the exhortation “Pray like this three times a day.” For various reasons, early Christians inscribed the Lord’s Prayer on papyrus and parchment amulets to be carried on the body. About a dozen of such amulets have been preserved in the dry climate of Egypt.
In answer to the question “Is the version of the Lord’s Prayer that we know really the prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples?” we can say yes, in general terms. We have the Lord’s Prayer as it has been handed down to us, as Matthew and Luke wrote it down in Greek, and as best we can reconstruct the words from the many ancient manuscripts and sources that preserve it.