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What ancient tradition of prayer is Jesus critical of in Matthew 6:7?

In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. (NABRE)

But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. (KJV)

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. (NIV)

And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. (RSV)

And when you are praying, speak not much, as the heathens. For they think that in their much speaking they may be heard. (DRA)

I'm not asking for a personal interpretation of this passage, and I especially don't want opinions on the controversial matter of 'literal' prayers (which may or may not include the Lord's Prayer and the Psalms).

What is clear is that Jesus is making a reference to pagans/heathens (εθνικοι), who do something displeasing during their prayers (βαττολογησητε). The prayers of these pagans were presumably recognizable enough to be known both to the direct audience of Jesus and to the direct audience of Matthew. What do we know about these pagans and their way of praying? Was there a specific group? Are there any sources that describe the prayers of pagans at that time?

(An ideal answer might have the form "Jesus is talking about [pagan group], who would [way of talking] while praying ... that they did this is mentioned even in [extra-biblical source], which describes them as [quotation]".)

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3 Answers

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No particular pagan group is named in regards to these prayer practices. But, we can reasonably assume that, since none is named, many of the pagan groups in the area and time practiced similar forms of prayer. So, we can safely use one of the more notable groups -- the Romans, under whose occupation of Jews were living. And in light of their occupation and the other references to Rome in the NT, we could argue this is the most likely group of pagans being referred to.

Wikipedia summarizes the qualities of ancient pagan Roman prayer like so:

All sacrifices and offerings required an accompanying prayer to be effective. Pliny the Elder declared that "a sacrifice without prayer is thought to be useless and not a proper consultation of the gods." Prayer by itself, however, had independent power. The spoken word was thus the single most potent religious action, and knowledge of the correct verbal formulas the key to efficacy. Accurate naming was vital for tapping into the desired powers of the deity invoked, hence the proliferation of cult epithets among Roman deities. Public prayers were offered loudly and clearly by a priest on behalf of the community. Public religious ritual had to be enacted by specialists and professionals faultlessly; a mistake might require that the action, or even the entire festival, be repeated from the start. The historian Livy reports an occasion when the presiding magistrate at the Latin festival forgot to include the "Roman people" among the list of beneficiaries in his prayer; the festival had to be started over. Even private prayer by an individual was formulaic, a recitation rather than a personal expression, though selected by the individual for a particular purpose or occasion. (Religion in ancient Rome, Prayers, vows, and oaths)

The major theme in all pagan prayer, as far as I've researched, is that the outward actions or words are the efficacious aspect of prayer. Hence, as in the lines I've emphasized above, the correct formula and names were vital. And preforming the correct formula and names was sure to bring about the desired result. The gods themselves seemed to have very little say in the matter.

Hence, pagan prayer often entailed a set of formulaic prayers to various deities, since the pray-er couldn't know for sure which deity or which formula was correct.

Jimmy Akin, Catholic author and apologist, explains the vain repetition of pagan prayer similarly, but also reminds us that the pagan gods did not know what people wanted before asking, whereas the Jewish/Christian God "knows what you need before you ask." He further notes that Jesus, at other times, praises repetition in prayer (e.g., the parable of the unjust judge).

It is therefore the attitude towards and perception of God that Jesus condemns. Again, the pagan attitude is one of gods who are oblivious to our needs, and prayer as a formulaic key to unlock the gods' power.

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In response to the statement above that "we can reasonable assume that, since none is names, many of the pagan groups, etc" prayed with long repetitions. This is not necessarily a reasonable assumption. In light of Matthews other factual mistakes, we cannot discount the possibility that Matthew is just inaccurate or that like other "facts" in his gospel he is making them up. jcl –  jim Crocker-Lakness Dec 26 '13 at 5:31
This could do with some references. You mention having done some research and having found experts that agree with your analysis of the text. In the context of this site it would be a really good idea to actually identify said experts and cite their statements. –  Caleb Dec 26 '13 at 12:42
Indeed. No promises though. It's been long enough since I submitted this answer that I can't remember what I was reading and listening to at the time. (Maybe Jimmy Akin?) –  svidgen Dec 26 '13 at 14:36
@jim It has little to do with the factuality of the Gospel. He's referring to "the pagans." It is reasonable for us, not the Gospel writer, to assume the most prominent group of pagans at the time are relevant. It matters little to us who the author had in mind if he's just regurgitating what Jesus said. –  svidgen Dec 26 '13 at 14:41
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It matters little what pagan "group" Jesus was referring to. He could have been talking about the pharisees for all we know. It is a generic statement. I know you didn't want any ones personal interpretation, but this is mine and I think it might answer your question better. Jesus was simply revealing some of the true nature of God to His disciples. God listens, no matter what you say, so don't say things you don't mean. Pray about what's on your heart, because God knows already. Take from your context clues, a lot of the religious people did things to get recognition and to be better than someone else. If they were the best, then they would have more riches, more blessings. They wanted fame. But Jesus is very clear about discouraging that motivation. He emphasis the importance of the secret place. Not because faith should be kept silent, but because the the public place was being abused and the private place had been forgotten. In fact you can hear people with "vain repetitions" today. People pray long winded prayers that they think sound spiritual, like if they say the right thing God is more likely to answer their prayers. But that's not who God is. He listens, because His name was called on. He answers, because it gives Him pleasure to give to His children.

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Vates would go to the Oracle sitting above the crack in the earth breathing in the gasses and babbling her demonic speech while possessed by the chemical vapors. The Vates would interpret her mumbling and perform rites to the gods of the catacombs, and their Lord cthulik. First they would mutter lowly to themselves followed by offerings and interpretation of mumblings to the audience.

There has always been churches who incorporate remnants of this stuff into worship.

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