The Origin of the Jesus Prayer and What the Scripture Says about It

Question: When Jesus was asked how we are to pray, he gave the “Our Father” prayer, and said nothing about the “Jesus Prayer.” Some Orthodox writers almost give the impression that a person will not be saved without the Jesus Prayer, but Christ never taught such a thing. Why would God require a mantra from people every conscious moment of their lives? Repetitive prayers (mantras) are a Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic thing. Does not the same practice imply a common source?
Did Christ Teach it?
Are you sure Christ did not teach us to pray the Jesus Prayer? In the Gospels we have many examples of people calling upon Christ in ways that are similar to the Jesus Prayer:
“And when Jesus departed thence, two blind men followed him, crying, and saying, Thou son of David, have mercy on us” (Matthew 9:27).
“And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil” (Matthew 15:22).
“And, behold, two blind men sitting by the way side, when they heard that Jesus passed by, cried out, saying, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David” (Matthew 20:30).
“And as he entered into a certain village, there met him ten men that were lepers, which stood afar off: and they lifted up their voices, and said, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” (Luke 17:12-13). 
But in the parable of the Public and the Pharisee, the prayer that the publican says, for which he is commended, is “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). And so unless one disputes that Christ is God, Christ did teach us to pray a prayer that is substantively similar to the Jesus Prayer.
The Name of the Lord
We are also taught in Scripture to call upon, praise, and trust in the name of the Lord:
“I will give praise unto the Lord according to His righteousness, and I will chant unto the name of the Lord Most High” (Psalm 7:18).
“Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we will call upon the name of the Lord our God” (Psalm 19:8).
“Blessed is the man, whose hope is in the name of the Lord Psalm” (Psalm 39:5).
“Praise the Lord, O ye servants, praise ye the name of the Lord. Blessed be the name of the Lord from henceforth and for evermore. From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same, the name of the Lord is to be praised” (Psalm 112:1-3).
“All the nations compassed me round about, and by the name of the Lord I warded them off. Surrounding me they compassed me, and by the name of the Lord I warded them off. They compassed me about like unto bees around a honeycomb, and they burst into flame like a fire among the thorns, and by the name of the Lord I warded them off” (Psalm 117:10-12).
“Praise ye the name of the Lord; O ye servants, praise the Lord” (Psalm 134:1).
“The name of the Lord is a strong tower; The righteous run to it and are safe” (Proverbs 18:10).
“For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Roman 10:13).
“And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21).
“And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Colossians 3:17).
Vain Repetitions?
But if the content of the Jesus Prayer is admitted to be Biblical, the next objection that is raised is usually in reference to Matthew 6:7, which says in the King James Version:
“But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.”
So does this apply to the Jesus Prayer? No. To begin with, while the King James is general a very good translation, in this case, the translation is a bit debatable. The word behind that translation “vain repetitions” is the Greek word “battologeō” (βαττολογέω), which more precisely means “to stutter” to “babble”. Some examples of contemporary translations that reflect this are:
“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (ESV).
“And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (RSV).
“And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (NIV).
The Word Biblical Commentary has this to say about the meaning of this text:
“In view is the attempt to manipulate God through repetitive, perhaps even magical phrases, as the verb battalogein, “babble,” and the noun polylogia, “much speaking, ” suggest. Battalogein, an onomatopoetic word, is probably derived from the cognate noun meaning “stammerer” or “stutterer.” The verb here, however, refers not to a speech
impediment but to the repetition of meaningless syllables. Polylogia seems to have in mind vain repetition and lengthiness. They “think” (dokousin) they will be heard by means of these devices, but in this they are mistaken” (Donald A. Hagner, Word Biblical Commentary: Matthew 1-13, vol. 33a (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1993), 147).
And Blessed Theophylact says:
“But when ye pray, do not babble as the Gentiles do.” “Babbling” means praying foolishly, as when someone asks for such worldly things as fame, wealth, or victory. “Babbling” is also inarticulate, childish speech. Therefore you, O reader, must not pray foolishly, For they think that they shall be heard for their many words. It is not necessary to make long prayers, but rather short and frequent prayers, uttering few words, but persevering in prayer” (The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to Matthew. Fr. Christopher Stade, Trans. (House Springs, MO: Chrysostom  Press, 1992), p. 57).
And so what Christ is speaking of are prayers that meaningless… perhaps treated like magical words, which because of their repetition are intended to make God respond in some desired way. But this is not true of the Jesus Prayer.
For one thing, the words are not meaningless — they are filed with deep meaning. And the proper use of the Jesus Prayer requires that one pray it attentively, focusing on the meaning of the words. A prayer is only vain, if you don’t mean it, or if you pay no attention to what you are saying, or have no understanding of what you are saying.
Is it a Mantra?
The purpose of a mantra is for the person saying it to empty his mind of all thoughts. The purpose of the Jesus Prayer is to fill our mind with the meaning of the words, and to raise up our thoughts to God.
St. Paul teaches us to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
St. Augustine, in commenting on Psalm 37[38]:9, speaks about the meaning of unceasing prayer:
“And who observed and noticed the cause of his groaning? “All my desire is before Thee” (ver. 9). For it is not before men who cannot see the heart, but it is before Thee that all my desire is open! Let your desire be before Him; and “the Father, who seeth in secret, shall reward thee.” For it is thy heart’s desire that is thy prayer; and if thy desire continues uninterrupted, thy prayer continueth also. For not without a meaning did the Apostle say, “Pray without ceasing.” Are we to be “without ceasing” bending the knee, prostrating the body, or lifting up our hands, that he says, “Pray without ceasing”? Or if it is in this sense that we say that we “pray,” this, I believe, we cannot do “without ceasing.” There is another inward kind of prayer without ceasing, which is the desire of the heart” (St. Augustine, Commentary on the Psalms 37:14 (NPNF1 8:106-7).
This prayer of the heart is what the Jesus Prayer helps us to achieve. The words of the Jesus Prayer are not magical. There are various forms of the Jesus Prayer in use. But the words of the Jesus Prayer are Biblical, the practice is Biblical, and the purpose is also Biblical.
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