AT THE HEART of the Paternoster is a problem. The very phrase which has always been perceived by Christians to be crucial – determining its traditional position in the eucharistic liturgy between the eucharistic prayer and the communion – is to all intents and purposes untranslatable. ‘Give us today our daily bread’ contains a word (epiousios) found virtually nowhere else; one whose meaning is doubtful and obscure.

So uncertain of the meaning was Jerome that his Vulgate translates ‘epiousios’ differently in the two renderings of the prayer in Matthew and Luke. His Luke has the familiar: ‘Panem nostrum quotidianum (daily) da nobis hodie’; his Matthew, an unfamiliar verbal transcription of the original Greek: ‘ Panem nostrum supersubstantialem da nobis hodie’. ‘Supersubstantialis’, Jerome explains, means ‘that which is above all other substances, and more excellent than all creatures, to wit, the body of the Lord’. Yet the saint was much agitated about this translation, which he revisited in other writings a number of times.

The philology of the word, though fascinating in itself (a fascination increased by the variety of early translations and interpretations), need not detain us. As the Catena Aurea of St Thomas makes abundantly clear, virtually every early authority refers it in some way or other to the eucharist, and to the great saying at John 6.51, ‘I am the living bread which came down from heaven’. The Lord’s Prayer, then, is appropriately read as a continuation of the prayer of the disciples: ‘Lord, give us this bread always’ [Jn 6.34].

Such unanimity, however, does not let the modern interpreter off the hook. There is a problem about the centrality of bread symbolism in the New Testament (and especially in John’s Gospel) which needs to be addressed. How did imagery which, in the Old Testament, had been associated with the worship of Pagan deities become so central to the gospel message and the life of the Church?

The Jews were, by origin, a race of pastoralists. By whatever route we suppose the tribes who made up the amphictyony of twelve to have entered Palestine, it is clear that they came as nomadic outsiders. And it is equally clear that they despised and rejected the traditions and mores of the agriculturists among whom they now lived and moved .

The murder of Abel – exegetically one of the most challenging incidents in Genesis – seems to be a tale expressing and fixing this animosity. The offering of Abel, a keeper of sheep, is acceptable to Yahweh; that of Cain, a tiller of the ground, is not. The abruptly narrated murder is ascribed directly to jealousy of that fact; and Cain, the patriarch of the Kenites, is damned and driven out on the strength of it.

The punishment for making an unsuitable offering to Yahweh is appropriately a return to pastoralism. So, like their relatives, the Rechabites, the Kenites henceforward haunt the fringes of the Jewish imagination, a constant reminder of a desert heritage and a nomadic past somehow inextricably interwoven with the worship of the true God; a heritage constantly endangered or under threat.

Not surprisingly, in a land of promise that flowed with honey and milk, the Jews became agriculturalists themselves. The basic ideological antagonism, however, remained. In sexual morality and political organisation they found the sedentary empires to north and south of them repugnant.

‘This will be the way of the king who will reign over you,’ Samuel told the elders of Israel at Ramah, when they clamoured for a King. ‘He will take your sons and appropriate them to himself for his chariots and as his horsemen… and he will require some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest…and he will take your daughters to be confectioners and cooks…and he will take a tenth of your grain and of your vineyards for his courtiers and his servants’. [cf I Sam 8: 10-18]

Agriculture in the ancient near-East implied slavery and a command economy; nomadism meant a subsistence economy, but tribal and individual freedom. Perhaps these antagonisms are more than merely local; in his poem ‘In Praise of Limestone’ [Collected Poems, Faber and Faber 1976, pp 414-415] W.H. Auden goes some way to universalising them.

Whatever the strength of the generalisation, it remains the case, with limited exceptions, that the sacrificial cultus of the Jerusalem Temple was one of blood; and that the fertility cults of Baal and Astarte, with their ritual prostitution and ‘sacred gardens’, were viewed with abhorrence. The tradition identified the temple mount in Jerusalem with the Mount Moriah of the aborted sacrifice of Isaac, thus (in a different but no less fundamental way) associating animal sacrifice with a direct expression of the divine will. From Gideon [Jud 6:25-28] through all the stories of the kings, a titanic religious and ideological struggle is taking place, which seems to result in a definitive rejection of Canaanite practices.

It is surprising then to find, in the late and beautiful novella of Joseph and his brothers [Gen 37-50], interwoven elements of precisely the agriculturalist cultus which was being energetically rejected. And it is equally surprising to find (Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 apart) that this story about wheat and bread is not more prominent in the New Testament as a typological source text.

In his epic recasting of the biblical tale (‘Joseph and his Brothers’ Berlin 1933-1943) Thomas Mann pointed up the connections between the Genesis story and the legends of Tammuz/Adonis. In Bk II, Chapter 3 Joseph and Benjamin meet in a garden of Adonis, an incident which Mann uses to emphasise the implications for the whole of the narrative of the sheaves and sacks and granaries of corn and loaves of bread which litter it. (Mann was anticipating by twenty or thirty years the structuralist approach of Edmund Leach.)

The story of Joseph is the story of Jesus anticipated.

The dreamer and visionary, rejected by his brothers for hubris, is condemned to death by them. But at the last minute (by analogy with the story of Abraham and Isaac?) a substitution is made, and a lamb from the flock which they are tending is slaughtered instead. Joseph is thrown down a well (= grave #1). In a parody of a communion sacrifice (one, like the Passover, in which those who offer the sacrifice pour out the blood, as a libation, and eat the meat), the brothers eat it, dipping Joseph’s coat in the blood to cement the identification. From the well (= grave #1) Joseph is hauled out, and sold into slavery in Egypt (= the land of the dead).

As a result of his resistance to the projected adultery of Potiphar’s wife (= ‘whoring after strange gods’ [Exod 34:15; Lev 20:5; Deut 31:16; Ezek 6.9; etc.]) Joseph is thrown into prison (= grave #2 ). His imprisonment is ended by divine intervention (note the prominence of bread and wine in the dreams which Joseph successfully interprets), and he achieves a plenipotentiary status [Exod 41: 44 ‘without your consent no man shall lift up hand or foot in the land of Egypt’; cf. Matt 28: 18 ‘All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me’].

Meanwhile Death, the one constant factor of human existence, finds out the brothers also. Famine comes, and they too must go down to the land of the dead. There they find Joseph, who has gone before them, to prepare a place [cf Jn 14:2 and Gen 45:5]. In a moving moment of reconciliation, Joseph absolves the brothers of their sins, is reconciled to a father and younger brother who thought him dead, and feeds those who had feasted on the lamb which substituted for his murdered corpse, with bread that represents the mercy and providence of God.

So the eleven corn sheaves bow to the twelfth [Gen 37: 6-7], in a dance which is as inevitable and eternal as the stars in their courses [Gen 37 9].

This tale, as Mann convincingly demonstrates, weaves elements of the cyclical nature myth of the dying and rising God with the linear historical myth of the Israelite people. Curiously, yet significantly, it is the prelude to Yahweh’s great act of salvation in the Exodus.

It is just such a strange and explosive combination that surfaces again in the New Testament. The Jesus story completes and concludes the Old Testament pattern. This pattern, too, we can set out almost diagramatically:

Blood sacrifices are acceptable to God; cereal offerings are not. Why? Because the life of the nomad is one of transience and dependency; the life of the farmer one of stasis and self-reliance. And because the blood is the life – the sacrament of the offering of the whole self, which the sovereign God of Israel demands. Isaac, the bearer of the promise, the ground of all hopes and aspirations, the flesh and blood of Abraham his father, is the type of all offerings of blood. The lamb replaces the boy. The sacrifices of the Temple were all, in the same sense, substitutionary. The slaughtered beast represented the sinful giver, just as the ram in the thicket stood for Isaac bound.

But now, in the substitutionary sequence, God replaces Isaac with a son of his own begetting, whose self-sacrifice is wonderful in its completeness. At the time of the slaughter of the lambs on Abraham’s mountain [Jn 19:14], the Lamb of God himself is slain. He leaves, as a perpetual memorial of his death until his coming again, the very offering of Cain which was rejected. Now, like the pagans to the olive root of the patriarchs, it is gathered up and grafted in. (Rm 11: 24]. Bread is transmuted into flesh, and an age-old and archetypal antagonism is set aside.

This reconciliation of mythologies previously at variance with one another, is prefigured in the story of Joseph, but completed in the rites of the Paschal Triduum. The Bread who is hidden in the garden (Holy Thursday) feeds his people with bread of life on the Easter morning. He does so in the context of the New Passover, when the outstretched arm of God leads his pilgrim people through the waters of death to the land of promise.

So the cyclical is reconciled with the linear; the historical legend makes its home with the nature myth.

It was, apparently, some time after he had completed his differing translations of epiousios in Matthew and Luke, that St Jerome came upon a passage in the apochryphal Gospel to the Hebrews. There, he says, “supersubstantialis is rendered mohar, that is to say tomorrow’s; so that the sense would be ‘Give us today tomorrow’s bread”‘.

Both the blood sacrifices of the Temple and the bloodless sacrifice of the Church are merely shadows and types. Nourished by the marvellous completeness of God’s sacrament and word, a pilgrim people still hungers for the supersubstantial bread of the kingdom – the bread of that eternal sabbath when manna need no longer be gathered.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark