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When in Matthew chapter 6 Jesus is talking about giving (vv.2-4), prayer (vv.5-15), and fasting (vv.16-18), the phrasing "So when you give", "When you fast", etc. is used, not "If you give", "If you fast", for instance (bolding is mine):

Matthew 6:2 (ESV):

“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others.

Matthew 6:5 (ESV):

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.

Matthew 6:16 (ESV):

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.

I've often heard this choice of phrasing used as an argument that praying, giving, and fasting are essential and expected, rather than optional. However, to me this phrasing (in English) could have equally been used because Jesus was addressing Christians that did these things already, so "when" was just the more natural choice of phrasing.

Is there anything from a translation perspective in the original text that could lend weight to one interpretation more than the other? I should reiterate I'm not asking whether giving and prayer are essential from a general biblical perspective (I believe they are), just specifically whether the use of the word "when" in the above context (in most translations I've seen) directly implies this or not.

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up vote 1 down vote accepted

As I read codices Vaticanus and the later Sinaiticus at Matt. 6:2, 5, 16, I see no clear answer to your query. Both codices contain the Greek word ΟΤΑΝ (ὅταν, whenever, syn.: if, when) at those locations.

Apparently even some of the church fathers disagreed on the best way to interpret ΟΤΑΝ. Examples: Clement of Alexandria opined "If thou doest alms,..."(Stromata IV-208, emp. added), and Cyprian penned "When thou doest an alms,..."(Treatise XII, Three Books of Testimonies Against the Jews 598, emp. mine).

Is "an argument that praying, giving, and fasting are essential and expected, rather than optional" based on Scripture? IMO, it depends on who you ask.

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Are you sure they disagreed or might this be the English translation, i.e. did you consult their works in the original language? – Dan Mar 7 '14 at 13:30
@Dan: no, I didn't "consult their works in the original language". That's why I said "Apparently even some of the church fathers disagreed ...." after looking at, in this situastion, the reputable info furnished by – Pat Ferguson Mar 7 '14 at 22:22
@PatFeguson 10-4 thanks for clarifying. It would be good to cite in your answer where you got the translation of the Fathers from (and who translated it, if known). This helps others verify your findings. – Dan Mar 7 '14 at 22:41
Acknowledged. But, since there are multiple reputable web sites where patristic evidences can be located, and primarily for brevity's sake, I prefer to leave it to the reader to make their own authentication(s). – Pat Ferguson Mar 7 '14 at 23:18
That's what footnotes are for ;) – Dan Mar 8 '14 at 12:39

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