Why We Shouldn’t Change the Lord’s Prayer

Pope Francis has caused another round of cheering and dismay by calling for a “better translation” of the words of the Lord’s Prayer.

Someone else will say that language changes over time, and that is why we need revisions. Perhaps; but the ancient Greek has not changed, and English in this regard has not changed. “Lead us not into temptation” means “do not lead us into temptation,” and that is that. We might revise and render “temptation” as “testing” or “trial”: “Do not lead us to the test,” but that would still fall under the pope’s disapproval.

 

Pope Francis has caused another round of cheering and dismay by calling for a “better translation” of the words of the Lord’s Prayer. Specifically, he says that the line familiar to us English speakers as “lead us not into temptation” should be rendered as “let us not fall into temptation,” because a loving Father does not subject His children to evil. We may cite here, in apparent support of that statement, the words of St. James: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (Jas. 1:13–14). It was not God who tempted Job, but Satan. It was not God who tempted David with the sight of Bathsheba bathing in her garden, but David himself, whose desire gave birth to the sins of adultery and murder. All Christians, I suppose, will agree.

And yet, and yet: The words of Jesus are clear. The original Greek is not ambiguous. There is no variant hiding in the shelves. We cannot go from an active verb, subjunctive mood, aorist tense, second person singular, with a clear direct object, to a wholly different verb—“do not allow”—completed by an infinitive that is nowhere in the text—“to fall”—without shifting from translation to theological exegesis. The task of the translator, though he should be informed by the theological, cultural, and linguistic context of the time, is to render what the words mean, literally, even (perhaps especially) when those words sound foreign to our ears.

Here someone will shout, “But sometimes the meanings are not literal.” I agree. Sometimes the primary meaning is figurative; but that is still a linguistic judgment, and not theological exegesis. Even so, we are far more likely to paint for our readers a broad range of figurative meaning by keeping close to the literal field wherein that meaning takes root and flourishes, than by dispensing with the literal, and losing it and much of the figurative to boot. Hence translations that suppress the word “seed” (as in “Abraham’s seed”), or “fruit” (as in “be fruitful, and multiply,” or Jesus’s parable of the vineyard owner who sent his servants to gather the “fruit” of his land), replacing these words with “offspring” and “produce,” are not only pallid English. They make it impossible for us to hear the figurative resonances of these words as Jesus and his fellow Jews heard them, across all of Scripture. They distance us—who are already farther off than is healthy—from what Aidan Nichols, O. P. has called “the warmth and wonder of created things,” of fruit, and seed, and the marital act that sows the seed.

Someone else will say that language changes over time, and that is why we need revisions. Perhaps; but the ancient Greek has not changed, and English in this regard has not changed. “Lead us not into temptation” means “do not lead us into temptation,” and that is that. We might revise and render “temptation” as “testing” or “trial”: “Do not lead us to the test,” but that would still fall under the pope’s disapproval.

No, I believe that the Greek means what it means, and what it means is accurately rendered as “lead us not into temptation,” exactly the same in Matthew as it is in Luke.

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