Scripted Prayers in Civic Religion and the Gospel of Matthew

While this blog is dedicated to studying Paul in his Graeco-Roman context, since I have lived all semester with Matthew, I felt the need to address one grave error that is popular among Matthean scholarship.

One of the things Matthew constantly disparages throughout his Gospel is pagan mores. Readers of the First Gospel are encouraged to love their enemies and thus not be like Gentiles (Matt 5:47), they are not to seek after the necessities of life like the non-Jewish nations (Matt 6:31-21), and anyone excommunicated from the churches of which Matthew was a part was considered a Gentile (Matt 18:17). Not only does Matthew belittle Gentile customs, but also he disdains the way in which the non-Jewish nations pray. Hence, Matthew’s audience is specifically instructed not pray like them: “When you pray, do not βατταλογέω like the Gentiles, for they suppose that with their many words they will be heard” (Matt 6:7; translation mine).

Most commentators suggest the Greek term βατταλογέω means to stammer non-sensically and they surmise that Matthew condemns pagans for their unintelligible prayers to their deities (cf. Sim, “Attitude to Gentiles,” 177; Luz, Matthew 1-7, 1.305; France, Matthew, 240-41; Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 1.588)

The difficulty with interpreting this verse is that not only is βατταλογέω a hapax legomenon (i.e., it appears only one time) in the NT, but also βατταλογέω is a rare term in the broader Graeco-Roman world, with the majority of its subsequent uses by authors dependent upon the NT (BDAG, 172; LSJ, 311; MM, 107). As a result, I am suspect of the definition provided by the majority of commentators.

Contrary to popular opinion, I suggest that Matthew’s critique of Gentile prayer accurately reflects the manner in which prayer was offered in civic religion of Matthew’s day.

With regard to prayer in Graeco-Roman religion, Valerie Warrior, Roman Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 18 notes, “In any kind of prayer, precautions had to be taken to ensure that no error (vitium) might prevent its fulfillment. Formulaic invocations were like passwords that opened communication with the gods. If any mistake in the prayers or the ritual should occur, the gods would not respond to the request.”

This accords well with the polymath Pliny the Elder’s description of prayer in the first century CE:

“In fact the sacrifice of victims without a prayer is supposed to be of no effect; without it too the gods are not thought to be properly consulted. Moreover, there is one form of words for getting favourable omens, another for averting evil, and yet another for a commendation. We see also that chief magistrates have adopted fixed formulas for their prayers (certis precationibus); that to prevent a word’s being omitted or out of place a reader dictates beforehand the prayer from a script; that another attendant is appointed as a guard to keep watch, and yet another is put in charge to maintain a strict silence; that a piper plays so that nothing but the prayer is heard. Remarkable instances of both kinds of interference are on record: cases when the noise of actual ill omens has ruined the prayer, or when a mistaken has been made in the prayer itself; then suddenly the head of the liver, or the heart, has disappeared from the entrails, or these have been doubled, while the victim was standing” (Pliny Hist. Nat. 28.10-11; translation from LCL).

One of the reasons for scripted prayers was the fact that the gods were not mind readers. Because Graeco-Roman religion was founded on the principle of orthopraxy and not orthodoxy, one had to spell out word for word what one wanted from them. It was not that you said something to the gods, but what you said, how you said it, and when you said it that mattered. As Pliny indicates above, there were devastating effects if prayers were not properly offered: “when a mistaken has been made in the prayer itself; then suddenly the head of the liver, or the heart, has disappeared from the entrails, or these have been doubled, while the victim was standing” (For more information see Jean-Louis Durand and John Scheid, “‘Rites’ et ‘religion’. Remarques sur certains préjudgés des historiens de la religion des Grecs et des Romains,” Archives de sciences sociales des religions 85 (1994): 23-43).

In sum, the necessity of the right words at the right time accounts for scripting prayers, which I suggest is what Matthew has in mind with his use of the term βατταλογέω and that Gentiles use numerous words (πολυλογία) as they petition their deities (Matt 6:7).

Contrary to popular Christianizing assumptions not only about Matthew, but also Graeco-Roman religion (cf. Craig Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 210, who suggests Matthew means you do not pray “to manipulate an answer from their deities”), by actually examining the way in which prayer was offered in Matthew’s day, something about which Matthew was indeed familiar, we are able to arrive at a better explanation for Matthew’s condemnation of pagan prayers.


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