Pope Francis has voiced an objection to the Italian translation of the Lord’s Prayer. He made his case briefly in a recent interview on TV2000, the television network of the Italian bishops’ conference. Like many people, Francis finds it odd to imply that God leads people into temptation. “The one who leads you into temptation is Satan,” he says. “That’s Satan’s office.”
Major news organizations have run exaggerated headlines. They are wrong to report that the pope has called for the familiar form of the ancient Christian prayer to be “updated” or reworded, although he does seem poised to do so. A new translation of the Notre Père, the Lord’s Prayer in French, went into effect in the Catholic Church on December 3, and in the interview Pope Francis expressed his approval. The French translation represents a movement away from what he says the Italian translation gets wrong. His idea of how the Lord’s Prayer should read in Italian approximates the revised French translation and even more closely the Spanish translation used in Catholic liturgy: No nos dejes caer en la tentación (“Do not let us fall into temptation”). In criticizing the Italian translation, Francis speaks cogently in theological terms of sin and free will but is silent on the need for translations of the Lord’s Prayer to hew as closely as possible to the biblical Greek.
The gist of his critique of the Italian translation applies to the English translation as well and betrays what in my view is a common misapprehension, which the French revision reflects and reinforces. At the heart of the controversy is the noun “temptation” (tentazione in Italian, tentación in Spanish, tentation in French). Its meaning has shifted over the centuries. We tend to lose sight of what it means literally, stripped of its theological associations with naughtiness, bad thoughts, and sin.
“Temptation” is cognate with “attempt.” Call it “a trying.” Better yet, “a trial”—as in “Paul suffered many trials on his way to Rome.” The mission that God called him to was marked by beatings, shipwreck, hunger, exposure to the elements. He could have backed out, but he persisted, faithful to his vocation to the end. It was hard. Note, too, that God “tempted” Abraham: that’s the verb in the King James Version where he commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac (Gen. 22:1). The only way to make sense of the word in that context is to assume a shade of meaning that doesn’t quite match what Francis means when he says that it’s not God who “pitches me into temptation, to see how I fall. No, a father doesn’t do this.”
In the Septuagint, the Greek verb for what God does to Abraham is ἐπείραζεν. Its root is the same as that of πειρασμός, the Greek noun that occurs in the Lord’s Prayer and gets translated as “temptation” and its cognates in modern languages. God’s trial (“temptation”) of Abraham was the situation in which that man of faith would make manifest the magnitude of his fidelity to the Lord’s will. It could not have been easy for Abraham to accept and obey.
Through his gift of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus gives us permission—no, he instructs us —to ask God to spare us from such demanding assignments. In her book The Face of Water, Sarah Ruden suggests that “torture” is “more or less” what Jesus’ contemporaries would have understood by πειρασμός. The word is related to the English “peril” and to the Latin periculum, meaning “danger.” The semantic sweep of the Indo-European root per or peir includes the concepts of experience and experiment. To try and be tried, prove and be proved, imperil and be imperiled—these define the contours of πειρασμός, the “temptation” that we ask God not to lead us into.