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]".)

  • there is no certain pagan tradition of specific prayer in question here as the instruction is given to followers of Jesus who would never think of reciting some pagan prayers or ways. The vain blabbering is in question and this act may be done by any believer.
    – Michael16
    Commented Oct 15, 2016 at 11:19

2 Answers 2


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.

  • 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
    – user3173
    Commented Dec 26, 2013 at 5:31
  • 3
    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
    Commented Dec 26, 2013 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
    Commented Dec 26, 2013 at 14:36
  • 1
    @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
    Commented Dec 26, 2013 at 14:41

Since there is no one 'comprehensive' source on how "Gentilim" pray, we must infer from the text what Jesus is talking about, and modeling our understanding accordingly.

But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. 7But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. 8 Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him. 9 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. 10 Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen

This passage of Matthew 6:1-18 is talking about the 3 disciplines of a believer: Almsgiving, Praying, and Fasting. Just as they were disciplines in the life of a Jew, so also were they to be disciplines in the life of a believer.

In each admonition, the recurrent theme is:

and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly(vss 4,6,18)

Jesus is telling His audience that when you do any of these things, 1)The Father sees you doing them, 2)The Father will reward you for doing them. Therefore, faith must accompany any of these activities. Paul says in Hebrews 11:6,

But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.

Our reward does not come our "much speaking", just as it doesn't come from what men see, but what God sees.

An OT example of this is found in 1 Kings 18;24-29 when Elijah contends with the prophets of Baal:

And Elijah said unto the prophets of Baal, Choose you one bullock for yourselves, and dress it first; for ye are many; and call on the name of your gods, but put no fire under. 26 And they took the bullock which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, O Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any that answered. And they leaped upon the altar which was made. 27 And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked. 28 And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them. 29 And it came to pass, when midday was past, and they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded

Their "much speaking" did not produce any result, and after a while Elijah starts ridiculing them, telling them more or less 'he's hard of hearing'.

But you will notice when Elijah prays(vs 37):

Hear me, O LORD, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the LORD God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again

Then the fire of the LORD fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench

James 5:17-18 says:

Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. 17 Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. 18 And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.

"Effectual fervent prayer" does not count the amount of speech or number of repetitions used, rather it trusts in being rightly related to a personal God who hears and answers prayer.

Jesus's admonitions are to believers to pray "as if God were listening to every word you say", therefore "much speaking" isn't going to make Him hear you any better, believing will.

  • I like your pointing to Elijah's encounter with the prophets of Baal as an example of how pagan's pray(ed) and how the man of God prayed.
    – J. Allan
    Commented Jun 28, 2018 at 10:49

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