When People Die, Do Their Souls Go to Heaven? What Did Jesus Say?

It is a common and comforting belief among many Christians that when people die, or at least when “good” people die, their souls go to heaven to be with God. Does that belief actually reflect the teachings of Jesus (or any first-century Jew for that matter)?

The afterlife was not so important in the ancient world as one might suspect today. Life in the present world was difficult enough and required all one’s effort as well as continuous attention to obtaining the necessary assistance from the gods in order to survive. Death was ever present. People died from ailments easily treatable today: infected scratches and wounds, colds and flus, malaria and worms. As a result, life expectancy was about 40 years for a man, somewhat less for a woman. Women began having children early because as many as half of all children died before the age of five. Women often died in childbirth and many men and women had multiple husbands and wives over the course of their lives. As many as a third of women were widows at any given time. The struggle to survive was paramount.

For most, the afterlife was not looked upon as a remedy or reward for living justly in this life. For non-Jews, one’s departed soul was often thought to reside in Hades with the god of the dead. This was not “hell” in the modern sense but a place of repose where the shades remained for all eternity. The separation of the human into body and soul was a Platonic concept derived from the teachings of the Greek philosopher Plato and his student Socrates. It is a companion of the equally Platonic concept of a realm of perfect reality, what we might call heaven, juxtaposed against its imperfect shadow realm, our earthly world. Plato thought that souls faced a judgment resulting in reward or punishment. Some ancient eastern “mystery religions” advertised communion with its particular god in the afterlife as a benefit of membership.

Originally, Jews held the Biblical belief, not so different from non-Jews, that the dead reposed in a postmortem realm they called Sheol. There the nephesh, the essence of the human life, took up residence forever separated from God. It was not until a post-Biblical movement took root within Judaism that the hope of reward in the afterlife began to catch on.

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‘Tis the Season (for Miraculous Birth Stories)!

Most people are familiar with the basic elements of the stories of Jesus’s miraculous conception and birth as recounted in the New Testament gospels of Matthew and Luke. Though there are numerous differences between the two stories (a fact not often recognized or acknowledged – see my posts Are the Nativity Stories of Jesus Based on those of John the Baptist?, Elements from the Christmas Nativity Display, and The Imagery of the Nativity), the authors of both gospels agree that Mary conceived Jesus without the participation of a human father. Both credit the missing ingredient to the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, Jesus becomes, from the very start, a god-man: part human and part divine.

Stories of the birth of such god-men were in wide circulation throughout the Greco-Roman world at the time the gospels were composed. That is not to deny (or affirm) the reliability of the gospel narratives with regard to Jesus’s circumstances. But it cannot be ignored that the authors were writing their stories using well-known narrative forms and tropes. After all, both writers and readers of the gospels were Greco-Romans steeped in the culture of their day. They would have recognized the similarities (and the differences) in the stories which helped them to make sense of the profound interworking of the divine and the mundane.

One ubiquitous story of divinely initiated birth was that of Hercules (Herakles). According to one version (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4.9.1-10), Hercules’s mother, Alkmene, was impregnated by Zeus. In order to sleep with her, Zeus took on the physical appearance of her husband, Amphitryon, and entered her bedchamber. The erotic undertones of the story are enhanced by the fact that Zeus tripled the length of the night for the purpose of lovemaking although Diodorus cautions that this was not done out of sexual desire but to foreshadow the exceptional power of the child thus conceived. Um-hmm.

Not only did mythic heroes begin life by divine concupiscence. Highly revered philosophers, for example, were sometimes thought to have been miraculously conceived. Pythagoras, the sixth-century BCE Greek philosopher whose teachings were an essential seedbed for later philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, was also believed to possess a divine lineage. His story begins with another mythical hero, Ankaios, another son of Zeus who sailed with Hercules aboard the Argos to find the Golden Fleece. It is from the Ankaios family tree that Pythagoras descends. Others thought that the god Apollo directly fathered Pythagoras. Though this was considered doubtful by the fourth-century Arab Neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus (Life of Pythagoras 3-9), he admitted that the soul of Pythagoras, at least, did come from Apollo. It was sent down from heaven to dwell among human beings. Pythagoras, according to Iamblichus, “was the most beautiful and godlike of those written about in history.”

Apollo also figures in the genesis of the fifth-century BCE Greek philosopher, Plato. According to three sources consulted by the third-century biographer Diogenes Laertius (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 3.1-2), Plato came close to not being conceived at all. His parents, Ariston and Periktone, were trying desperately but without success to have a child. About to give up, Ariston saw a vision of the god Apollo which he took to be a sign. He thereafter abstained from having sex with Periktone who, as a result, later conceived, it was assumed, utilizing the “divine sperm” (Origen, Against Celsus 1.37) of Apollo.

Divine parentage was by no means limited to philosophers. Alexander the Great, the fourth-century BCE Macedonian conqueror who made the entire Near and Middle East part of his Greek empire, could not possibly have had normal, everyday origins according to some ancient writers. Preserved for us by the first/second-century Roman biographer Plutarch (Parallel Lives, 2.1-3.2) is the story of Alexander’s direct begetting from Apollo. It happened like this: Philip II, the previous king of Macedon, looked through a crack in the door of his sleeping wife’s bedchamber and saw a huge snake wrapped around her naked body. Repulsed, and perhaps thinking it was an omen, he sent representatives to the oracle at Delphi to inquire of the god Apollo what the imagery might portend. The response was that Philip should begin worshiping Zeus above all other gods and put out his own eye that had spied on Apollo, in serpentine form, mating with his wife Olympias. Olympias herself later recounted this sexual liaison to her semi-divine son, Alexander, and charged him to act worthily of his special beginnings.

Not to be outdone, stories of the Apollonian origin of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, flourished in Roman circles. Quoting the mysterious book Theologoumenon by the equally shadowy Asclepius of Mendes, Suetonius (Lives of the Caesars 2.94.4) says that the niece of Julius Caesar, Atia, once took up with a number of other women and visited the temple of Apollo to perform the customary rites. Staying late, they fell asleep in the temple. But it was Atia who succumbed to the erotic designs of a great snake who slipped up on her that night. In the morning, the irremovable markings of a snake appeared on her body. Nearly ten months later, she gave birth to Octavian (Augustus).

Early Jewish literature also featured stories of divine conception though these generally concerned elderly or barren women who had no further expectation of childbearing suddenly becoming pregnant. Among such stories in the Old Testament are the birth of Isaac to an elderly Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 17-18, 21) and that of the twins Esau and Jacob to Isaac and the barren Rebekah (Genesis 25). The texts do not overtly credit God with inseminating either of these women but neither do they describe any further sexual activity between the parents leading to the miraculous conceptions. In fact, God tells Abraham, “I will bless her (Sarah), and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her…” (Gen. 17:16). The emphasis is on her reproductive abilities being rejuvenated not his. The same is true in Genesis 25:21: “Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived.”

Things are clearer in a first-century Jewish recounting of the birth of the priest Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18-20). In the Second Book of Enoch, Nir, a priest, and his wife Sothonim, cannot have children because she was sterile. In her old age, she conceives but without the aid of Nir. Furious, Nir berates his wife for her (presumed) infidelity. She vainly professes her innocence but it was not until the angel Gabriel announced to Nir that the child, Melchizedek, was “righteous fruit” that Nir accepted the situation as divinely ordained. There is no question in this Jewish text that Sothonim conceived by divine insemination.

The third-century Christian theologian Origen recognized the similarities especially in the Greco-Roman divine-conception stories and those offered in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. But in typical exclusivistic fashion, he wrote off the non-Christian stories as “really fables (Greek = mythos).” He explained that “people just fabricate such things as this about a man whom they regard as having greater wisdom and power than most others.” It seems likely that Origen never stopped to consider that the same might have been done for the man he believed once possessed greater wisdom and power than others.

Did the Apostle Paul Really Tell Women to “Sit Down and Be Quiet in Church”?

The apostle Paul is blamed for many of the controversies affecting modern Christian belief and practice. Did he, for example, support the institution of slavery as some have insisted? Did he condemn homosexuality? Did he reject Judaism as a failed religion? Was he a misogynist who looked upon women as second-class human beings? Centuries of Christian teaching and tradition based on the New Testament letters attributed to Paul have resulted in answers to these questions that in many cases would have astounded the apostle.

Fortunately, this essay asks a question that is fairly easy to answer. In short, no, Paul was not a misogynist and did not tell women to sit down and be quiet in church. But before rushing to your Bibles to look up passages you swore contained instructions to the contrary, we need to examine how Biblical scholars have come to understand both Paul and the texts attributed to him in the New Testament. First, let’s first look at those offending passages, ostensibly written by Paul, that you were going to look up anyway.

The first is found in one of Paul’s letters to the Christ-believers in the city of Corinth. First Corinthians, chapter 14, verses 34-35 read: “Women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Seems clear enough. How can we deny what appears to be obvious? Before we address that question, let’s look at the next passage.

The second passage that relates to the silence of women in the churches is found in the first letter addressed to Timothy, a Christian missionary. First Timothy, chapter 2, verses 11-12 read: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” Seems to be in perfect agreement with what was written in 1 Corinthians above.

At first blush, these passages would appear to indicate that Paul wanted to issue a gag order on women in churches who felt motivated to ask questions, make comments, or even teach. The later church certainly understood Paul this way which is why it felt wholly justified in restricting church teaching, administration, and oversight to men. But was this really Paul’s position?

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Did Paul Really Say that Jesus Became “a Curse”?

Many things written by the apostle Paul have been deemed “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). One of the misunderstood passages by Paul is the one referred to in the title of this article.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians has been considered one of the most important for understanding Paul’s attitude toward Judaism and the Torah. He certainly says much about “works of the law” (he mentions it five times in this letter alone). His overall argument in this letter to his Gentile (non-Jewish) converts in the Roman province of Galatia is that they do not need to become circumcised in order to be saved from the coming wrath that the God of Israel was about to unleash on the world. A divine mechanism had just been put into place, according to Paul, by which Gentiles could join their fellow Jews in avoiding the wrath and entering into a new age, one ruled by God and administered by his messiah (Christ).

In Galatians, Paul explains how this mechanism works. Paul argues that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13). There is a lot to unpack in this seemingly simple passage so let’s begin by determining the nature of the target audience and who “us” is.

It is imperative that when reading Paul’s undisputed letters (i.e., deemed authentic by all scholars) that we remember that he is writing to non-Jews (Gentiles). They are the targets of his mission: “James [the brother of Jesus], Cephas [i.e., Peter], and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (Galatians 2:9). The Gentiles are polytheist (i.e., pagan) Greco-Romans.

When writing to these Gentiles, Paul employs a number of Greek rhetorical devices that would have been recognizable to his Gentile recipients (while, alas, they escape many modern readers). In this passage, Paul identifies with his collective audience, his Gentiles converts, by including himself among them. When Paul says that “Christ has redeemed us” he means “us Gentiles.” Paul, of course, is not a Gentile. But this technique of argumentation allows him to speak as if he is one of them. Keep in mind, too, that Paul is not writing to all people everywhere for all time. He is speaking to his Gentile converts in Galatia.

This makes sense because of what Paul says next. The “curse of the law” Paul implies they are under is not a curse for Jews. Jews have the law as part of their everlasting covenant with God. It is not a curse for them. On the contrary, it provides them with the means to live according to God’s will as a specially chosen people. The law can only curse them if they reject it. So who is cursed according to Paul’s Jewish understanding? Non-Jews! There are several passages in Hebrew scripture which provide the basis for this belief.

“Cursed is he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them” (Deuteronomy 27:26). “But it shall come about, if you will not obey the LORD your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes with which I charge you today, that all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (Deuteronomy 28:15). “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Cursed be the man who does not hear the words of this covenant that I commanded your fathers when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Jeremiah 11:3-4).”

By the time of Paul, there was an understanding among certain Jews that all the world’s people were responsible for keeping Torah but that only Israel had accepted it when it was offered. Be that as it may, it was a universal Jewish axiom that Gentiles were, by default, cursed (there were sometimes exceptions for so-called “righteous Gentiles” but these were very few in number).

Next, Paul says that Christ redeemed Gentiles from the curse of not abiding by the law by becoming accursed himself. How and why did Christ do that? Paul cites a passage from Torah that he believes refers to Christ (by the way, for those who argue that Paul rejected Torah, one must explain why he relies on it for every proof text he employs to support his arguments): “If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day – for he who is hanged is accursed of God” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). Paul equates this passage with Jesus’ death on the cross (a “tree”). In this way, Jesus became accursed. Now that we have the “how,” it is time to address the “why.”

Paul has established that Gentiles are under a curse simply for being Gentiles. They have not accepted God’s law and this situation puts them under a curse. Jesus was executed by crucifixion, hung on a “tree,” and became cursed. But Jesus did not reject Torah. Nevertheless, by being hung on a tree he found himself rejected by Torah, accursed by the provision we cited above. That puts Gentiles and Jesus Christ, at least temporarily, in the same situation: they are all accursed. For that moment, Jesus has become like a Gentile. So now what?

Paul taught that God “raised Jesus from the dead” (Galatians 1:1). The curse Jesus fell under by way of his crucifixion was divinely undone, reversed. The cursed Jesus became the exalted Christ creating a pathway from curse to redemption that others could follow. To take advantage of this new possibility, Paul advised, Gentiles must baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul wrote, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).

For Paul, then, the most important aspect of the life of Jesus Christ is this death-curse-redemption trail blazed for the benefit of the non-Jewish world, heretofore denied salvation other than by conversion to Judaism. It is this theological supposition that is at the heart of Paul’s entire missionary career. He brought this message to the non-Jewish world “until the full number of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25). Then he believed the end of the age would arrive. By doing this, Paul believed he was fulfilling the prophecy of Hebrew scripture: “At that time they shall call Jerusalem the throne of the LORD, and all the nations [i.e., Gentiles] will be gathered to it, to Jerusalem, for the name of the LORD; nor shall they walk anymore after the stubbornness of their evil heart” (Jeremiah 3:17).

A New Perspective on Paul?

Mention the apostle Paul to most people and they conjure up an image of a first-century traveling missionary bringing his new “gospel” to the masses. His “good news” is a universal message of right-standing with God obtainable by anyone who expresses faith in his son Jesus, the Christ/Messiah. Having been rejected by his own people, Christ now offers, according to Paul, eternal life for everyone through such faith. This opportunity comes enshrined in a new religion, one that is superior to and supersedes the outmoded, failed, legalist approach of Torah-based Judaism. A new people of God have been chosen to replace Israel due to the latter’s unfaithfulness.

Sound familiar? This basic summary is at the root of almost every teaching, sermon, commentary, and textual treatment of Paul and his letters. But is this summary historically correct? A small, though growing, number of scholars are adamant that it is not. They claim that reading Paul in this way simply perpetuates centuries of Christian (and Jewish) misunderstanding. The historical Paul’s intended message has become distorted even to the point of denying what Paul actually affirmed. This failure to grasp Paul’s real teaching is the result of a number of factors including faulty knowledge of first-century Judaism, a lack of facility with Greco-Roman rhetorical writing, and a built-in, centuries-old anti-Jewish bias that taints every aspect (even translation choices) of coming to terms with the historical Paul.

Where did it go wrong? From reading Paul’s letters, the Acts of the Apostles, and other New Testament texts, we learn that audiences misunderstood Paul almost from the beginning. Suspicions arose immediately as soon as the former persecutor of the Jewish “Jesus-movement” became one of its staunchest supporters. Paul made the unusual announcement that he was sent by God (or Christ) to preach the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection only to non-Jews (Gentiles). His message for them was that they did not have to become Jews by way of circumcision in order to share in the covenant promises once made to Abraham and his progeny (Genesis 17:4-7). With the death and resurrection of Christ, a new age had begun, one in which non-Jews were being called to worship the Jewish God. Paul’s belief seems to be based on scriptural prophecies (Psalm 86:9; Isaiah 49:6, 60:3; Jeremiah 3:17, etc.). Paul was not the only Jew to believe that non-Jews could be made righteous with God without circumcision (see, for example, Philo, Questions and Answers on Exodus 2.2; and Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 20.17).

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Reviews for “The Upper Room and Tomb of David”

Reviews for The Upper Room and Tomb of David: The History, Art and Archaeology of the Cenacle on Mount Zion:

“Judicious use of archaeological discoveries and insightful witnesses, beginning with the Bordeaux Pilgrim in 333, through the Muslim conquest to the crusader period, often supported by images and illustrations, enhance this first full length study of the Cenacle…With impressive reflections, Clausen concludes, inter alia, that the tomb of David was in the Lower City but Christians, assuming Jesus and James were Davidids, located David’s tomb in the more impressive New Zion… Since the identification of the Cenacle as the remains of an early synagogue prompts my focus on Clausen’s chart of early synagogues that is extremely relevant for those devoted to Jesus Research… Clausen’s superbly helpful chart should also now include the discovery by Motti Aviam of a Roman period synagogue on Tel Rekhesh a site east of and near to Nazareth… The reflections in the book prompt thought and lay the basis for more excavations and study. I find Clausen’s book well written and full of valuable information.” – James H. Charlesworth, Princeton

“This is an absorbing volume of 268 pages of detailed information, diagrams, and drawings regarding this historical site on Mount Zion…For the serious student of church history, this volume presents information that is critical to the understanding of this period of religious activity.” – “Book Reviews,” M. G. Paregian, Publisher

Is the “Lord’s Prayer” Apocalyptic?

Perhaps the most quoted of Jesus’s sayings is a short, three- or four-verse prayer, one which Jesus actually instructed his followers to recite. And they do. The “Lord’s Prayer” is routinely offered in virtually every Christian church by members of virtually every Christian denomination. But do these words mean the same to the faithful today as they did to those who first heard Jesus teach them? Were they meant as a plea for help with daily life and a promise of continued ethical behavior? While people can certainly infuse any meaning they wish into their own prayers, I suggest that originally these words of Jesus were not meant to serve as a program for living. They are better understood within the context of the apocalyptic preaching of an apocalyptic prophet.

Just what is an apocalyptic prophet? The term is based on a type of ancient Jewish writing now known as an “apocalypse.” In its original Greek, the word apocalypse means “revelation.” Thus, apocalyptic writings propose to offer revelation given by God or another heavenly being to the author who often writes under an assumed name, usually that of a Biblical figure from the past. Examples of such texts include The First Book of Enoch, The Fourth Book of Ezra, The (Syriac) Apocalypse of Baruch and The Apocalypse of Abraham. Parts of the Biblical book of Daniel are apocalyptic. Early Christians adopted this style of writing and composed their own apocalyptic texts. The New Testament contains The Apocalypse of John. Other Christian examples include The Apocalypse of Peter and The Apocalypse of Paul, both written pseudonymously long after the deaths of their presumed authors.

The revelations received by the writers of these texts usually include a cosmic recreation of worldly events as well as a future forecast. At the time the revelations are received and written down, life looks bleak for both the author and his community. They were usually facing a severe crisis that threatened their very existence as a people. The world powers of the day were arraigned against them. But fear not, says the writer. These malevolent forces are destined for destruction and the evildoers (whoever they happened to be) will be destroyed. God will then restore the world and reward his loyal and righteous followers with new life in a new age, one like the Kingdom of God promised by Jesus.

Apocalyptic prophets saw themselves as messengers who were charged with bringing their revelations to the people. John the Baptist was such a prophet. He warned that the wheat (the righteous and loyal followers of God) was about to be separated from the chaff (the wicked, ruling powers) and that the chaff would burn in fire. According to John, the ax (of final judgment) was already at the root of the trees (people) and those trees that did not produce good fruit (the wicked) would be chopped down.

Jesus, according to most scholars, was also an apocalyptic prophet. There is much to commend this view. According to the gospels, Jesus often warned of a coming judgment in which a heavenly judge called the Son of Man would separate the righteous from the wicked (Matthew 13:41, 16:27 etc.). Jesus also seems to have believed that the coming of God’s rule, which he referred to as the Kingdom – or better “Kingship” – of God, would come during his generation (Mark 13:30). Apocalyptic prophets and writers usually emphasized the imminence of such world-changing events.

Jesus differed in some ways from what we know of most apocalyptic prophets and seers. Jesus seems to have given at least equal time to the positive aspects of the coming calamity. He actually referred to his warnings as “good news.” For repentant and faithful followers, the Kingship of God would bring complete renewal to the world restoring it to the way it was intended to be. It would be like a new Garden of Eden replacing the one which was lost due to Adam and Eve’s disobedience.

Under God’s direct rule, people would once again no longer have to fret about food and clothing as they had to after being expelled from the Garden of Eden (Mat. 6:25; compare with Genesis 2:21 where Adam and Eve must begin to wear skins to cover their nakedness, and Genesis 3:17 in which Adam is sentenced to farm for his food).  In the Kingship, peace and harmony will characterize social and ecological relations (John 13:34; compare with Genesis 4:1-8 in which jealousy, duplicity, and murder mar the relationship between the first “brothers” Cain and Abel, Genesis 3:14 in which animals were set against Adam, and Genesis 3:18 in which the land began to grow thorns and thistles). Satan will no longer wreak havoc with human lives in the Kingship (Mark 3:26; compare with Genesis 3:1-5 in which the serpent successfully tempts Eve to disobey and sets humanity on its path to destruction). Physical suffering would become a thing of the past (Luke 9:2; compare with Genesis 3:16 in which Eve is promised pain in childbirth). Finally, in the Kingship, life would be eternal (Mark 10:30; compare with Genesis 3:19 in which Adam is condemned to return to dust as punishment for his disobedience). Death, humanity’s sentence for disobedience, would be overcome (Matthew 19:29, 25:26, Mark 10:17, etc.).

According to the gospels, Jesus forecasted this changing dynamic in his own work. He produced food in miraculous quantities, reached out to the socially marginalized, cast out demons, healed others of their infirmities, relieved them of their pain, and caused some to rise from the dead. By his actions, the gospels suggest, Jesus demonstrated for his followers what the kingdom would be like once it was fully established.

The authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke received the text of the Lord’s Prayer from an earlier, written collection of Jesus’s sayings which scholars have agreed to call “Q” (Q stands for Quelle, the German word for “source”). Q contained scores of sayings by Jesus including the famous prayer. Because the authors of Matthew and Luke have reworked their source material, or worked with different versions of Q, the prayer is rendered slightly differently in each gospel.

Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:9-12 NRSV)

Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial. (Luke 11:2-4 NRSV)

Luke usually preserves the original text of Q more faithfully than Matthew. In this case, however, I think Matthew preserves the apocalyptic ideas behind the prayer more in accord with Jesus’s other teachings and thus may reflect the more original form. Luke likely preserves the original word “sin” rather than Matthew’s “debts,” however. Let’s examine the prayer line by line.

To open, Jesus acknowledges the sanctity of the name of God (“Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name”). This is the essence of the first of the Ten Commandments which also serves as the basis for the shema recited in daily prayer by many Jews: “Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God. The Lord our God is one.”

Jesus next makes the apocalyptic call that becomes our key to understanding of the rest of the prayer in its original context: “Your kingdom come.” Jesus is here calling on God to re-establish his dominion over the earth and all of his creation. This expectation is at the root of the message that he and John the Baptist have been proclaiming in their ministries. This is the same kingdom, or kingship, the benefits of which Jesus has been demonstrating through his deeds. From this point in the prayer, Jesus has his sights firmly fixed on the coming kingdom.

What will the kingdom be like when it comes? First, God’s will, his original intent for his created world once manifested in the Garden of Eden, will again be realized on earth (“Your will be done on earth…”). For now, this perfect expression of God’s intent is limited to the realm in which God resides (“…as it is in heaven”). The coming Kingdom will provide so many benefits and relieve so much suffering that a brief itemization is in order to remind the faithful of what they are praying for.

Under God’s rule, he will give food to everyone in abundance (“Give us this day our daily bread”) just as all food requirements were met for Adam and Eve in the Garden. This “daily bread” will no longer be a matter of concern: God will give it. It will not be obtained by planting seed, tilling the soil, and threshing the fields as Adam and his descendants have been sentenced to do because of their disobedience.

Under God’s rule, his faithful followers will be acquitted of all their sins (“Forgive us our sins…”; see also Mark 3:28). Both mutual forgiveness (“…for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us”) and forgiveness by God are hallmarks of life under God’s reign according to Jesus. Jesus and John the Baptist spoke tirelessly of forgiveness not only in the form of baptism but as part of the physical process of healing (Mark 2:5). Forgiveness is a status commensurate with life in God’s coming kingship. Forgiveness puts right the fouled relationship that exists in the present age between God and humanity and between one and another.

With the coming of God’s rule comes a judgment, a time of trial. John the Baptist predicted it and Jesus confirmed it. The righteous people hope to avoid judgment by virtue of their prior repentance and renewed faith in God. They plead for acquittal before the coming trial of judgment (“Do not bring us to the time of trial”). Jesus further instructs his followers to pray for the day when Satan and his minions are finally destroyed (“Rescue us from the evil one”). Only under God’s rule can this prayer line become possible. Rescue from evil is a prominent feature of the final victory of God reclaiming his cosmos from the demonic forces that oppose him. Jesus looked forward to the day when Satan would be defeated (Luke 10:18). The Gospel of Luke does not include this last provision in the prayer but the criteria of contextual credibility and coherence make it likely that Jesus included it in his teaching.

It is safe to say that most modern Christians interpret the Lord’s Prayer as a supplication for daily sustenance, mutual good behavior, and spiritual support. But the focus of the historical Jesus was not about good social behavior or how to deal with the mundanities of daily life. It was on the immediate future and its imminent end. By any understanding of the apocalyptic nature of Jesus’s teaching, he was calling for the kingdom to come in his lifetime bringing the benefits so eloquently outlined in his prayer.