The word ἐπιούσιον has been translated in numerous ways, but the greatest modern consensus is to translate the word as 'daily.' Was the word ἐπιούσιον used prior to the Lord's prayer (Matthew 6:11; Luke 11:3)? What does it mean?
Bruce M. Metzger writes in Bibliotheca Sacra 150 (July-September 1993) (pp 277–278):
The great majority of these hapax legomena occur also in other Greek sources, and so the meaning of most of them is not often in dispute. The meaning, however, of a word in the Lord's Prayer as recorded in Matthew 6:11 and Luke 11:3 has often been debated. Does "Give us this day our ἐπιούσιον bread" mean "daily bread" or "bread for tomorrow"? Except in subsequent quotations of the prayer, no other piece of Greek literature is known to contain this word. The only time it seems to have turned up was in 1889 when A. H. Sayce edited a fragmentary Greek papyrus containing a householder's account-book listing the purchase of provisions. Here, according to Sayce, in one of the broken lines of the list was ἐπιούσι—, with the end of the word defaced. It is most unfortunate, however, that scholars who wish to double-check this information are unable to do so, for the papyrus fragment has disappeared and cannot be found. Furthermore its loss is particularly distressing because Sayce (whose shortcomings as a decipherer of Greek papyri were generally recognized) may have misread the householder's list. And in any case, even if Sayce did correctly read the word, lexicographers do not know much more about its meaning than was known before, namely, that the expression signifies either "daily bread" or "bread for tomorrow." In such cases when a word is susceptible of two equally legitimate renderings, translators have no choice except to place one in the text and the other in a footnote.—Bruce M. Metzger, "Persistent Problems Confronting Bible Translators"
Context might give us some clues. It sounds a bit odd to ask for tomorrow's bread today (σήμερον). Also, given Jesus' subsequent instructions to not be anxious about what we will eat, drink, and wear, the context lends itself to "daily" or regular bread. Especially striking is:
Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.—Matthew 6:34 (ESV)
So Jesus seems to teach that we ought to pray for our needs and then trust God to deliver.
Wikipedia cites A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature for the primary definition of the word:
- deriving from Epi and Ousia: necessary for existence, in agreement with Origen, Chrysostom, Jerome and others
It should be noted that Jerome only used supersubstantialem for Matthew's version of the prayer.
Chrysostom seems to take the word mean both daily and needful:
But mark, I pray thee, how even in things that are bodily, that which is spiritual abounds. For it is neither for riches, nor for delicate living, nor for costly raiment, nor for any other such thing, but for bread only, that He hath commanded us to make our prayer. And for “daily bread,” so as not to “take thought for the morrow.” Because of this He added, “daily bread,” that is, bread for one day.
And not even with this expression is He satisfied, but adds another too afterwards, saying, “Give us this day;” so that we may not, beyond this, wear ourselves out with the care of the following day. For that day, the interval before which thou knowest not whether thou shalt see, wherefore dost thou submit to its cares?
Origen considers "needful" to be a better translation than "daily":
But it will be said that the word epiousion, needful, is formed from epienai, to go on, so that we are bidden to ask for the bread proper to the coming age, in order that God may take it in advance and bestow it on us now. Thus what was to be given as it were tomorrow would be given us today, today being taken to mean the present age, tomorrow the coming. Since, however, as far as I can judge, the preceding interpretation is better, let us go on to consider the added reference to today in Matthew or the expression daily written in Luke.
We can make an educated guess about what Matthew, Luke, or their common Greek source (Q) meant by ἐπιούσιον from context, etymology, and historical translations. The various proposals ("needful", "daily", and "for tomorrow") cluster around the idea that we should ask for the required sustenance that ultimately only God can give.
We have no records of the word being used prior to the Lord's prayer. The NET Bible translates:
6:11 Give us today our daily bread
They then note that other potentially valid translations would include “Give us bread today for the coming day,” or “Give us today the bread we need for today.”
Unfortunately, the Greek term appears only in early Christian literature such as Luke 11:3 and the Didache 8:2. Therefore, we have little to work with.
Working from the construction of the word and possible related words, we find επιουσιος might be related to επιουσα which means "tomorrow."
Take the word apart: έπι + ούσιον = on/upon/above essence/substance. It most likely means "necessary for existence" or "more than necessary." Origen taught that the Evangelists invented the word. The earliest translations into Syriac interpreted the word as continual or for our need. Supersubstantialis was the original translation into Latin by Jerome, but it was later changed to quotidianus, meaning "daily," in Velus Itala. English is based on the rendering from Latin. But the Orthodox Greeks, Slavs and Russians kept the original sense of the unique word when they recite the Lord's Prayer.
Origen, Chrysostom, and Jerome all understood it as "necessary for existence." This early Christian understanding (which is still retained by the Eastern Orthodox Church) has nothing to do with daily needs such as bread we eat for calories in our diet. Why would Jesus turn around and tell his disciples not to worry about food and drink right after telling them to ask God for it? The Latin best transliterates into English: this is "supersubstantial" bread that we pray for. It is a play on words also (deriving from ἐπιέναι/ἐπιόν): it is the bread of the age to come. Jesus himself is the bread of life; his bread is spiritual bread of eternal life. The Eastern Orthodox Church believes that it partakes of this bread in the Mystical Supper every Sunday.
Most evangelicals assert that it simply means "daily" and thus avoid the sacramental and eschatological language concerning the 'nature/essence' of the bread. Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that this rejection of the sacraments and this sort of language in scripture represents a quasi-Gnostic worldview. That is, the early Christians viewed the world only in terms of Uncreated (God) versus created (everything/one else). The Gnostics viewed the world as a dualism between physical matter and the spiritual realm, a worldview which early Christians rejected. Modern (post-Enlightenment) evangelicals often share this Gnostic dualistic worldview which rejects that physical and spiritual elements can both be holy and even mystically conjoined.
ἐπιούσιος, ον according to Origen, De Orat. 27, 7, coined by the evangelists. Grave doubt is cast on the one possible occurrence of ἐ. which is independent of our lit. (Sb 5224, 20), by BMetzger, How Many Times Does ἐ. Occur Outside the Lord’s Prayer?: ET 69, ’57/58, 52–54=Historical and Literary Studies, ’68, 64–66; it seems likely that Origen was right after all. Found in our lit. only w. ἄρτος in the Lord’s Prayer Mt 6:11; Lk 11:3; D 8:2. Variously interpreted: Sin. Syr. (on Lk) and Cur. Syr. אמינא continual (DHadidian, NTS 5, ’58/59, 75–81); Peshitta דסונקנן for our need; Itala ‘panis quotidianus’, ‘daily bread’; Jerome ‘panis supersubstantialis’ (on this JHennig, TS 4, ’43, 445–54); GHb 62, 42 מָחָר = Lat. ‘crastinus’ for tomorrow. Of modern interpretations the following are worth mentioning:
- deriving it fr. ἐπὶ and οὐσία necessary for existence (in agreement w. Origen, Chrysostom, and Jerome are e.g. Beza, Tholuck, HEwald, Bleek, Weizsäcker, BWeiss, HCremer; Billerb. I 420; CRogge, PhilolWoch 47, 1927, 1129–35; FHauck, ZNW 33, ’34, 199–202; RWright, CQR 157, ’56, 340–45; HBourgoin, Biblica 60, ’79, 91–96; Betz, SM p. 398f, with provisional support).
- a substantivizing of ἐπὶ τὴν οὖσαν sc. ἡμέραν for the current day, for today (cp. Thu. 1, 2, 2 τῆς καθʼ ἡμέραν ἀναγκαίου τροφῆς; Vi. Aesopi W. 110 p. 102 P. τὸν καθημερινὸν ζήτει προσλαμβάνειν ἄρτον καὶ εἰς τὴν αὔριον ἀποθησαύριζε. Cp. Pind., O. 1, 99.—Acc. to Artem. 1, 5 p. 12, 26–28 one loaf of bread is the requirement for one day. S. ἐφήμερος.)—ADebrunner, Glotta 4, 1912, 249–53; 13, 1924, 167–71, SchTZ 31, 1914, 38–41, Kirchenfreund 59, 1925, 446–8, ThBl 8, 1929, 212f, B-D-F §123, 1; 124, PhilolWoch 51, ’31, 1277f (but s. CSheward, ET 52 ’40/41, 119f).—AThumb, Griechische Grammatik 1913, 675; ESchwyzer II 473, 2.
- for the following day fr. ἡ ἐπιοῦσα sc. ἡμέρα (cp. schol. Pind., N. 3, 38 νῦν μὲν ὡς ἥρωα, τῇ δὲ ἐπιούση ὡς θεόν=today viewed as a hero, on the morrow a god; s. ἔπειμι): Grotius, Wettstein; Lghtf., On a Fresh Revision of the English NT3 1891, 217–60; Zahn, JWeiss; Harnack, SBBerlAk 1904, 208; EKlostermann; Mlt-H. p. 313f; PSchmiedel: W-S. §16, 3b note 23, SchTZ 30, 1913, 204–20; 31, 1914, 41–69; 32, 1915, 80; 122–33, PM 1914, 358–64, PhilolWoch 48, 1928, 1530–36, ThBl 8, 1929, 258f; ADeissmann, Heinrici Festschr. 1914, 115–19, RSeeberg Festschr. 1929, I 299–306, The NT in the Light of Modern Research, 1929, 84–86; AFridrichsen, SymbOsl 2, 1924, 31–41 (GRudberg ibid. 42; 3, 1925, 76); 9, 1930, 62–68; OHoltzmann; ASteinmann, D. Bergpredigt 1926, 104f; FPölzl-TInnitzer, Mt4 ’32, 129f; SKauchtschischwili, PhilolWoch 50, 1930, 1166–68.—FStiebitz, ibid. 47, 1927, 889–92, w. ref. to Lat. ‘diaria’=the daily ration of food, given out for the next day; someth. like: give us today our daily portion—acc. to FDölger, Ac 5, ’36, 201–10, one loaf of bread (likew. WCrönert, Gnomon 4, 1928, 89 n. 1). S. also s.v. σήμερον.
- deriving it fr. ἐπιέναι ‘be coming’ ⓐ on the analogy of τὸ ἐπιόν=‘the future’, bread for the future; so Cyrillus of Alex. and Peter of Laodicea; among the moderns, who attach var. mngs. to it, esp. ASeeberg, D. 4te Bitte des V.-U., Rektoratsrede Rostock 1914, Heinrici Festschr. 1914, 109; s. LBrun, Harnack-Ehrung 1921, 22f. ⓑ in the mng. ‘come to’: give us this day the bread that comes to it, i.e. belongs to it; so KHolzinger, PhilolWoch 51, ’31, 825–30; 857–63; 52, ’32, 383f. ⓒ equal to ἐπιών=next acc. to TShearman, JBL 53,’34, 110–17. ⓓ the bread which comes upon (us) viz. from the Father, so AHultgren, ATR 72, ’90, 41–54. ⓔ The petition is referred to the coming Kingdom and its feast by: REisler, ZNW 24, 1925, 190–92; JSchousboe, RHR 48, 1927, 233–37; ASchweitzer, D. Mystik des Ap. Pls 1930, 233–35; JJeremias, Jesus als Weltvollender 1930, 52; ELittmann, ZNW 34, ’35, 29; cp. EDelebecque, Études grecques sur l’évangile de Luc ’76, 167–81.—S. also GLoeschcke, D. Vaterunser-Erklärung des Theophilus v. Antioch. 1908; GWalther, Untersuchungen z. Gesch. d. griech. Vaterunser-Exegese 1914; DVölter, PM 18, 1914, 274ff; 19, 1915, 20ff, NThT 4, 1915, 123ff; ABolliger, SchTZ 30, 1913, 276–85; GKuhn, ibid. 31, 1914, 33ff; 36, 1919, 191ff; EvDobschütz, HTR 7, 1914, 293–321; RWimmerer, Glotta 12, 1922, 68–82; EOwen, JTS 35, ’34, 376–80; JHensler, D. Vaterunser 1914; JSickenberger, Uns. ausreichendes Brot gib uns heute 1923; PFiebig, D. Vaterunser 1927, 81–83; GDalman, Worte2 1930, 321–34; HHuber, D. Bergpredigt ’32; GBonaccorsi, Primi saggi di filologia neotest. I ’33, 61–63; 533–39; JHerrmann, D. atl. Urgrund des Vaterunsers: OProcksch Festchr. ’34, 71–98; MBlack, JTS 42, ’41, 186–89, An Aramaic Approach3, ’67, 203–7, 299f, n. 3; SMowinckel, Artos epiousios: NorTT 40, ’42, 247–55; ELohmeyer, D. Vaterunser erkl. ’46.—Lit.: JCarmignac, Recherches sur le ‘Notre Père’, ’69; CHemer, JSNT 22, ’84, 81–94; Betz, SM 396–400.—M-M. EDNT. TW. Spicq. Sv.
William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 376-77.
What does this word mean and connotate?
When the Israelites were in the wilderness, the manna appeared as an act of God's command, and so they were not mediately dependent on the manna for survival as much as they were immediately dependent upon God's very commandment, which brought the manna into existence in the first place. (Jesus quoted this line of reasoning to the devil by citing Deut 8:3 in this exact context.) The subsistence of bread therefore has to do with our reliance or dependence on the words of God, which for the Israelites was a "daily" occurance in the wilderness.
Now if our "inheritance" in the New Testament is not the geographical area of Palestine, but the heavenly Jerusalem above (Gal 4:26 and Heb 12:22), then our sojourn on the earth is indeed a wilderness journey of trials and temptations. Until we "cross the Jordan," we are "daily" in need of the words of God. These words not only provide the grace to give us "daily" food as nourishment for our bodies (for which we are of course grateful), but are also the very words that bestow eternal life upon us.
It is interesting that Jesus described himself as the manna from heaven (John 6:51), and then Peter replied that it was that Jesus had the very words of eternal life (John 6:68). So the words, or commandments of God, are the very source of life. It is no surprise then that Jesus is also personified as the "Word of God" in the New Testament.
In Exodus 16:4, the narrative indicates that the Lord had served "le mot du jour" to the Israelites as their food.
Ex 16:4 (NASB)
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day....
In Biblical Hebrew, there is a play on words here (which I have highlighted in bold above). That is, the phrase "דְּבַר־יֹום" is not an adverbial phrase of time (as can be found in the Hebrew text of Ex 5:13 or Ex 5:19, for example), but is an objective phrase in Hebrew. That is, this phrase is the object of the Hebrew verb לָקַט, to gather or pick up. (In Ex 5:13 or Ex 5:19, "mud bricks" function as the object of the transitive verb לָקַט, and in those verses דְּבַר־יֹום functions as an adverbial phrase of time.) But in Ex 16:4 we read that the Israelites gathered "le mot du jour" from heaven in order to eat it -- that is, they were eating the DAILY ALLOTMENT of the WORD (of God). We know that this juxtaposition of meaning is certain because Deut 8:3 says so.
So the manna from heaven was the Daily Word ("Mot du Jour") from heaven. God's word therefore was their DAILY food.