Most of us have grown up praying the Our Father (or the Lord’s Prayer) from a very young age: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” When I was a child, I was unsure what “hallowed be thy name” meant. I eventually learned that “hallow” is an older word meaning “to make holy.” As such, it makes sense that many modern translations have rendered the phrase similar to the NLT:

Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy. 

Matthew 6:9 NLT

This rendering may not capture the connotation the phrase had for Jesus and his disciples, though. In his book A Marginal Jew: Mentor, Message, and Miracles, Fr. John Meier analyzes the Old Testament roots of making God’s name holy. He finds two related meanings, which are both encapsulated in Ezekiel 36:23:

But I will show the holiness of my great name, desecrated among the nations, in whose midst you desecrated it. Then the nations shall know that I am the LORD — Oracle of the Lord GOD — when through you I show my holiness before their very eyes.

Ezekiel 36:23 NABRE

The two meanings are: 

  1. God sanctifies his own name by manifesting his power, glory and holiness in the world: “I will show the holiness of my great name…”

  2. Israel sanctifies God’s name by being faithful to the covenant and observing his precepts: “through you I show my holiness before their very eyes”

Fr. Meier explains that Ezekiel envisions a future when God will definitively reveal his glory as he regathers Israel from exile. In so doing, he will manifest himself to all the nations, Jew and Gentile alike. This theme echoes throughout later writings. Consider the prayer in Sirach (otherwise known as Ben Sira) 36:1-4:

Come to our aid, O God of the universe, 
and put all the nations in dread of you!
Raise your hand against the foreign people,
that they may see your mighty deeds.
As you have used us to show them your holiness,
so now use them to show us your glory.

Ben Sira 36:1-4 NABRE

Considering the evidence, Fr. Meier concludes that the original connotation of “hallowed be thy name” was probably not a hopeful prayer that all people would come to love and praise God, nor was it a way of saying “help me to honor your name as I should.” Instead, it was very closely connected with the next phrase of the Our Father: “Your kingdom come.” When we pray “hallowed be your name,” we are asking God to sanctify his name — to manifest his power and glory in the world and establish his rule for all time.

Most translations I’ve checked either stay very close to the traditional language (some form of “hallowed be thy name” — NRSV, NABRE, REB) or they render the passage similar to the NLT (Good News Bible, JB, NJB). The CEB and The Message come the closest to communicating the connotation Fr. Meier is proposing:

Our Father who is in heaven, uphold the holiness of your name.

Matthew 6:9 CEB

Our Father in heaven, 
Reveal who you are.

Matthew 6:9 The Message

One thought on “Bible Study Tidbit: “Hallowed be thy name””

  1. I once read an article I can no longer find that cited a sociological law named after some sociologist whose name I can no longer remember, and cannot find despite endless searches…

    But anyway, this sociologist whose name I can no longer remember made an important point, namely that the language used in religious contexts tends to become fixed to a certain place and time and remains unchanged for centuries even long after the language itself has become archaic.

    A little thought shows this observation to be true. Catholics still use Latin centuries after Latin ceased to be the vernacular, Jews still pray in ancient Hebrew, Hindus still use Sanskrit, Muslims still read the Koran and pray in ancient Arabic, even Native American tribes still perform religious rites in their own ancient languages, long after those languages have fallen out of use for every other purpose.

    It happens even in the English language, where certain prayers such as the Our Father and the Hail Mary remain fixed for centuries, even though they use archaic language.

    The common Our Father or ‘Lord’s Prayer’ that is recited in Catholic and Protestant churches every week, actually dates from the 16th century and comes not from any specific translation of the Bible, but from the Book of Common Prayer.

    You are right to point out just how ‘weird’ the current translation that we all use really is, few people know what ‘hallowed’ means, and we never use the archaic verb forms ‘art’, or the archaic pronoun ‘thy’ in any other context.

    And yet, if you were to suggest that maybe it was time to abandon this archaic 16th-century translation and start reciting a more modern translation, you would probably start a near riot.

    Old what his name’s law is very true.

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