“How to Pray” complex

LOY Commentary 2 Comments

David Bivin and Joshua Tilton propose a reconstruction of Jesus' teaching on how his disciples ought to pray and about the character of the God to whom their prayers are addressed.

At the Entrance of the Wailing-Wall in Jerusalem by Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka (oil on canvas, 1904). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Revised: 12-April-2016

Original arrangement of “How to Pray” pericopae in the conjectured Hebrew Life of Yeshua.

During the period when Jesus was schooling his disciples, one of the disciples asked on behalf of the others that Jesus give them instruction regarding prayer. In response to this request, Jesus taught the disciples what has come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer.[1] After teaching them what to pray, Jesus further instructed the disciples on how to pray, namely with confidence that God already knows their needs and intends to grant their requests. In the many illustrations with which Jesus concluded his teaching on prayer, Jesus focused on the character of the God to whom they pray. The God of Israel is not a monster or a miser; he is neither an unscrupulous judge nor a boorish friend. The God to whom the disciples pray is a good father who knows how to give good gifts to his children, just as the disciples knew how to give good gifts to theirs.[2] On the basis of God’s character as the true judge of the nations, the faithful friend of humankind, and the loving father of all creation, Jesus encouraged his disciples to have full confidence when they prayed the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. God would indeed sanctify his name and vindicate his people, and he would indeed supply the disciples, who had cast themselves completely upon his care, with what they needed each day in order to serve him.

The Anthology’s rearrangement of “How to Pray” pericopae.

Matthew’s Gospel contains almost all of the pericopae that, according to our reconstruction, originally belonged to the “How to Pray” complex; the only exception being the Persistent Widow parable, which is unique to the Gospel of Luke. Nevertheless, very few of the “How to Pray” pericopae occur in Matthew in their original order. In part this is due to the reordering of material by the author of the Anthology (Anth.), but much of the rearrangement should be attributed to the author of Matthew. It is possible to gauge how much of the rearranging of the “How to Pray” pericopae was due to the author of Matthew because in Luke’s Gospel almost all of the pericopae that originally belonged to the “How to Pray” complex occur in a single block of material (Luke 11:1-13). This block of material is what remained of the original “How to Pray” complex after the author of Anth. had removed the Praying Like Gentiles pericope (Matt. 6:7-8) and Yeshua’s Discourse on Worry (Matt. 6:25-34; Luke 12:22-31) and after the author of Luke had removed the Persistent Widow parable (Luke 18:1-8).[3] Thus, the author of Luke copied Anth.’s block of “How to Pray” material in its entirety, preserving almost all of it (except the Persistent Widow parable) in the same order as it had appeared in Anth.[4]

Luke’s rearrangement of “How to Pray” pericopae.

Restored to its conjectured original sequence, we find that a central theme of the “How to Pray” complex was the disciples’ utter dependence on God to provide for their bodily needs. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught the disciples to pray only for their present needs. The petition for daily bread reflected the rigorous lifestyle Jesus demanded of his disciples, whom Jesus required to leave behind family and personal property and to abandon their livelihoods in order to itinerate with him full time. In return for committing themselves exclusively to the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus assured his disciples that God would provide for their needs day by day, just as God had provided manna day by day for Israel during their forty years in the desert. Agreeing to such rigorous demands with only Jesus’ word for surety was an expression of radical trust on the part of the disciples—a trust that the disciples must have found difficult to sustain. This difficulty explains why a daily renewal of their commitment to their rigorous lifestyle through the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer was considered to be necessary; it also explains why so much of Jesus’ instruction in the “How to Pray” complex focused on God’s generosity and trustworthiness of character. When the disciples were tempted to doubt that God could or would provide, the down-to-earth illustrations of God’s provision for the birds of the air and the grass of the field, and the homely reminders of how the disciples treated their own friends and family members reassured the disciples that God was no less able and no less willing to provide for them. Jesus’ gentle handling of the disciples’ fears and his understanding of their doubts is a model of wise leadership and mature pastoral care.

Matthew’s rearrangement of “How to Pray” pericopae.

Click on the following titles to view the Reconstruction and Commentary for each pericope in the “How to Pray” complex.

Lord’s Prayer



Praying Like Gentiles (in preparation)


Yeshua’s Discourse on Worry (in preparation)



Persistent Widow parable (in preparation)



Friend in Need simile (in preparation)



Fathers Give Good Gifts simile (in preparation)



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  • [1] The prayer recorded in Matt. 6:9-13 // Luke 11:2-4 has been referred to as the Lord’s Prayer at least since the time of Origen (late second to mid-third century C.E). See Betz, 370.
  • [2] At least one of Jesus’ disciples, Peter, was married and may have had children prior to being engaged as a full-time disciple. There is no reason to suppose that there could not have been other full-time disciples in a similar situation.
  • [3] Cf. Montefiore, 118; Knox, 2:60-61. Bivin and Tilton owe the suggestion that the Lord’s Prayer, Persistent Widow, Friend in Need, and Fathers Give Good Gifts pericopae all belonged to a narrative-sayings complex on prayer to Robert Lindsey. See Lindsey, JRL, 111-113.
  • [4] It appears, however, that the author of Luke swapped out the more original form of the Lord’s Prayer, the one reflected in Matthew, for a simpler, less Hebraic form of the prayer, which he found in his second source, the First Reconstruction.