Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The Poetry of the Lord's Prayer: A Study in Poetic Device

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The Poetry of the Lord's Prayer: A Study in Poetic Device

Article excerpt

This study argues the Lord's Prayer (Matt 6:9-13) belongs to the tradition of ancient Jewish religious poetry, as evidenced by its use in every sentence of multiple, coordinated poetic figures that were characteristic of the tradition and determinative of its strophic form. The study defines each device using the terms and conceptual categories of the ancient world and identifies examples from poetic texts in both the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint. The study then shows the concentrated use of these same devices in every line of the prayer, as well as the strophic form that emerges from this usage. The devices identified are homoeoteleuton, homoeokatarkton, antistrophe, epanaphora, anadiplosis, polyptoton, antithesis, parisosis, and paronomasia. These devices work together to shape the prayer into two stanzas, each a tripartite petition expressed in tricolon form. The study concludes with English translations that attempt to capture both the devices and their resultant stichometry.

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Scholarship has given some attention in the past to the poetic dimensions of the Lord's Prayer (Matt 6:9-13). Several scholars have argued for a poetic original in Aramaic or Hebrew.1 Some have interpreted the prayer in translation as a poem.2 A few have argued that the final, Matthean form should be considered poetry.3 Generally, however, commentators make no mention of the prayer as a poem,4 and translators ignore or efface its poetic qualities.5

This study argues that the Lord's Prayer employs in every line a number of coordinated poetic devices characteristic of poetry in both the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint. These devices, through their symmetries of sound, sense, and structure, lend the prayer a discernible strophic form. Given the thematic and liturgical ties that the prayer obviously shares with ancient Jewish poetry, this form suggests that the prayer is a poem belonging to the Jewish religious literary tradition.6

I. The Devices in Ancient Jewish Poetry

To illustrate the use of these devices in the Lord's Prayer, I first examine their use in ancient Jewish poetry. In the survey that follows, I define each device using the terms and conceptual categories of ancient Hellenistic literary theory,7 and I highlight examples of each device from poetic texts in both the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint.8 I limit my survey to texts identified in previous scholarship as poetry9 and to those devices that appear in the Lord's Prayer: homoeoteleuton, homoeokatarkton, antistrophe, epanaphora, anadiplosis, polyptoton, antithesis, parisosis, and paronomasia.

1. Homoeoteleuton

Homoeoteleuton is similarity of sound at the conclusion of affiliated cola, usually in the concluding syllable(s) of the concluding word(s).10

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For the Lord is our judge,

the Lord is our ruler,

the Lord is our king;

he will save us. (Isa 33:22)

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Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger-

The club in their hands is my fury. (Isa 10:5)

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When I was a son with my father,

tender, and my mother's favorite. (Prov 4:3)

See also Job 10:8b-12; 21:14-15a; 31:25; Pss 15:1; 18:3, 15; 123:3ab, 4bc; Prov 4:5, 6, 8; Nah 1:2; 2:1.11

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Justice and judgment are the establishment of your throne:

mercy and truth shall go before your face. (LXX Ps 88:15)

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They go up to the heavens,

and go down to the depths;

their soul melts because of troubles. (LXX 106:26)

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For I also was a son obedient to my father,

and loved in the sight of my mother. (LXX Prov 4:3)

See also LXX Job 40:8, 14; Pss 1:2; 2:11; 35:1; 77:4; 150:2; Prov 4:2; Eccl 10:9; Isa 40:4, 12; Nah 1:10; 2:10; 3:2.12

2. Homoeokatarkton

Homoeokatarkton is similarity of sound at the beginning of affiliated cola, usually in the concluding syllable(s) of the opening word(s).13

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I am like an owl of the wilderness,

like a little owl of the waste places. …

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