Pope Francis hit the headlines last week, not by offering comment on politics or economics, but by suggesting that one line of the Lord’s Prayer in Italian should be translated differently. One of the better accounts appeared in the Guardian (ably assisted by yours truly):
It is not a good translation because it speaks of a God who induces temptation. I am the one who falls; it’s not him pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen. A father doesn’t do that, a father helps you to get up immediately. It’s Satan who leads us into temptation, that’s his department.
One of the immediately fascinating things about this is the way that it caught the headlines. I was contacted for opinion by the Guardian, Sky News and the New York Times, and there was some quite technical comment on Christian Today and The Conversation. Though a friend of mine bemoaned online that people prefer to spend more time debating the prayer than actually praying it, it is worth reflecting on why such a change might provoke a reaction. Even for those for whom faith is a whispered hope rather than a tangible reality, there is something significant about the familiarity of things learned in childhood, which is why many people long to hear ‘traditional’ carols at Christmas. Though this can be an inoculation against faith, it can also (if used well) be a bridge into it.
The question of the wording of a prayer of Jesus from the New Testament which now forms a central part of Christian prayer and liturgy raises questions at several levels, and most discussions only tackled one or two of them. First, there is the question of translation itself: how do you render the phrase concerned? Then there is the theological question about God and evil into which the Pope places this. Then there is the issue of how liturgical texts are revised, within a denomination and across the church. Finally, there is the question of the pastoral and spiritual impact of changing something learning by heart.
The prayer itself is given in two versions, in Matt 6.9–13 and a much shorter version in Luke 11.2–4. All liturgical uses in English are based on Matthew’s version, in part because it is fuller, but also because it has a very striking poetic structure and symmetry which suggests it goes back to a form which Jesus expected his followers to learn by heart. On the question of translation, there are two main issues: the way in which we ask God not to ‘lead us’ and the thing that we don’t want to be led into.
On the question of the verb, ‘lead us not’, Meredith Warren points out that the verb used is not an imperative (as the other petitions are) and so Pope Francis is perhaps onto something—but that it is clear God is the person being petitioned.
The next line, about temptation, is not in the imperative, so in some sense the Pope is correct that this verb is different from the others. However, it is still addressed to the subject of the prayer, to God, as a hope or a wish, being in the “you” form of the subjunctive.
In short, the Pope’s declaration that the sentence be changed to “do not let us fall into temptation” does not accurately reflect Jesus’s words in either Gospel. The Bible is clear that God is implicated in both temptation and its avoidance.
Joseph Hartropp agrees: it is not possible at the level of the text to make the side-step that the Pope is suggesting:
The word in contention is the Greek verb eisenenkes, meaning to ‘lead into’ or ‘bring in’. Grammatically, it is a second-person singular verb, in the active voice and the subjunctive (‘expressing wish or desire’) mood. That means, given that the prayer is directed to ‘our Father’ (who is grammatically singular), that God is the obvious actor of the verb ‘to lead’. That makes it difficult to argue that it is only Satan who ‘leads’ into temptation – the Greek text at least doesn’t suggest that.
Helpfully that verb aligns with the next one used, also clearly referring to God as its agent. The Greek verb rhysai, meaning ‘to deliver’ appears only twice in the New Testament, here and in the Gospel of Luke’s version of the prayer (11:4). It is also in the second person singular form, though here it takes the ‘imperative’ mood – so that while being led into evil is sought against, being ‘delivered’ from evil is positively, emphatically urged by the intercessor.
The second translational issue is the meaning of peirasmos, traditionally rendered as ‘temptation’. One of the challenges here is the refutation in James 1.13 ‘God does not tempt anyone’, using the cognate verb peirazo. But only a couple of chapters earlier in Matthew, he (with the other gospels writers Mark and Luke) are clear that it is the Spirit who leads (or ‘throws’, Mark 1.12) Jesus into the desert to be tempted/tested—though it is the devil who is described as ‘the tempter’ (ho peirazon). Warren locates this ambiguity in a longer scriptural tradition of God and Satan at times appearing to work in some kind of partnership:
A clear example of God testing one of his worshippers is the case of Job, where God actually makes a bet with Satan. Satan hints to God that Job only worships God because of his prosperity and tells God that if Job had nothing he would curse God’s name. God takes Satan up on the bet and allows him to put Job in increasingly awful conditions with the aim of tempting him to curse God’s name. While Satan brings about Job’s misery, it’s clear that God is the true the architect of Job’s misfortunes.
Another example comes from Genesis, the familiar story of the Binding of Isaac, where God decides to test Abraham by demanding that he sacrifice his only son. While Genesis isn’t clear about why God tests Abraham’s faith in this way, we know that Jews from around the time of Jesus understood the test to be another incident of Satan and God working behind the scenes to prove a point.
Although Warren is right to point out the challenge of these different perspectives from the texts, what she does not do is locate that in a wider theological question of how a good God can allow evil things to happen. The agency of Satan in this is theologically clear: any actions come under the sovereignty of God. This doesn’t solve the problem for us, but does give a particular perspective. The world is not simply a Fantastic-Four-style battleground between the forces of good and evil, in which the two sides are more-or-less equally matched, and we have to wait until the end to see who will come out on top. The biblical perspective is consistently that God is the one who is ultimately in control—even if we might have to wait to the ultimate end to see that victory realised unambiguously. Another quite different English translation brings in this eschatological perspective by rendering this phrase ‘Save us from the time of trial’, hinting at the ultimate test of the final judgement of God.
(It is fascinating to note that Colin Buchanan, writing in his 1995 Grove booklet on the translation of the Lord’s Prayer, suggested a sense similar to that of Francis:
Those who have wished to translate the text as ‘Let us not be led into temptation’ or even ‘Let us not fall into temptation’ are probably near to the thrust of the original.
It raises the intriguing possibility that the Pope has been reading older Grove booklets…!)
Moving beyond the question of translation and theology, the way that such texts which form part of global Anglophone liturgy is also complex. Although most people think of two versions of the Lord’s Prayer (the ‘traditional’ and the ‘modern’), there are at least four versions common in England:
- The BCP traditional form ‘Our Father, which art in heaven…forgive them that trespass…’
- The modified traditional version ‘Our Father, who art in heaven…forgive those that trespass…’
- The Church of England modern form ‘Our Father in heaven…lead us not into temptation…’
- The English Language Liturgical Consultation version ‘Our Father in heaven…save us from the time of trial…’
In the General Synod debates about Common Worship (in the 2000-2005 sessions), the ELLC version was rejected not so much on the basis of translation, but because of its stark difference from the traditional form and its unfamiliarity. Colin Buchanan (in his Grove booklet) also notes the additional versions produced in Australia and New Zealand, which also try to match the Greek text by restructuring the opening petitions ‘Your name be hallowed, your kingdom come, your will be done…’. There are no plans in the Catholic Church to make any changes in the liturgy, and it would be a massive undertaking; it seems as though Francis was making a casual observation without much thought about the possible consequences, as he has done before.
Some of the objection to the changing of the known text is based in a love for the poetry and rhythm of the ‘traditional’ version: there is a clear sense of rhythm to the opening invocations ‘Our Father/who are in heaven/hallowed be thy name//Thy kingdom come/thy will be done/on earth as it is in heaven’. The main problem with being attached to this pattern, even if it helps memorisation, is that it is the wrong poetic form, and is created by a rendering in English that does not match the quite clear poetic form of Jesus’ prayer:
Father ours the-one in the heavens
Hallowed-be the name of-you
Come the kingdom of-you
Done the will of-you
As in heaven even on earth
The important thing here is that lines 2, 3 and 4 have the same form and the same number of words, and so both poetically and theologically belong together. We cannot desire God’s will be done or his kingdom come without his name being hallowed.
Stability of texts is pastorally important, though it cannot be used as an excuse to rest easy with poor translation. But the power of tradition is evident whenever you suggest the revision of any well-known text. John 3.16 does not mean what most people think: ‘God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son…’ but rather ‘God loved the world in this way that he gave his only Son…’ That was the meaning of ‘so’ in 1611 but is no longer today—but the traditional rendition is so powerful that even Bible translators (let alone liturgists) have lacked the courage to make this clear.
The pastoral importance of stable, learned texts is widely evident. When we decided to teach our eldest, Lizzi, a prayer when she was 2 or 3, we thought that the Lord’s Prayer might be a good place to start. When we began, she replied ‘Oh, I know that one’ and recited it through—since we had the policy in our church of saying the prayer in the start of each service whilst the children were still in. Tiffer Robinson, a fellow member of General Synod, observed the power of this at the other end of life:
I just heard quite a thing: apparently after I brought communion to a parishioner on the Stroke ward, another patient in an adjoining bed started reciting the Lord’s prayer over and over having not spoken since her stroke, and then later regained her speech.
As I commented to the Guardian, in terms of church culture, people learn this prayer by heart as children. If you tweak the translation, you risk disrupting the pattern of communal prayer. You fiddle with it at your peril.
I don’t think there is a case to make the change Pope Francis suggested on the basis of translating the Greek New Testament, and there are good pastoral reasons not to tinker. But I am grateful that he has drawn attention to the issue—and perhaps this should lead us to focus on our own praying of this great prayer of Jesus, a gift from him to us as we look for the coming of his kingdom. And if there are questions about the meaning of the translation—why not let’s do some more teaching on what this prayer really means?
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