Even though it has been central to Christian devotion since Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer has not remained unchanged over these past two millennia, especially as those ancient words were adapted for later believers and their novel tongues. In the history of English liturgical texts, the words of the Anglo-Saxon “Fæder ūre” have metamorphosed into the “Our Father” of today’s Roman Missal. Not merely a matter of translation, controversies surrounding the correct text of the prayer have been unavoidable since its words were set down in the New Testament, for the gospels provide two slightly different versions—one in Matthew, another in Luke.
While the English translation heard in today’s churches differs only slightly from the King James Version printed four centuries ago, a significant change may be right around the corner. Pope Francis has reignited debates about the prayer’s proper translation by suggesting that one line of the Our Father—“lead us not into temptation”—is poorly rendered and even theologically misleading. The New York Times reports:
In a new television interview, Pope Francis said the common rendering of one line in the prayer—“lead us not into temptation”—was “not a good translation” from ancient texts. “Do not let us fall into temptation,” he suggested, might be better because God does not lead people into temptation; Satan does.
“A father doesn’t do that,” the pope said. “He helps you get up right away. What induces into temptation is Satan.”
In essence, the pope said, the prayer, from the Book of Matthew, is asking God, “When Satan leads us into temptation, You please, give me a hand.”
The Times also notes that these changes have agitated certain factions of Christians who see Francis’s suggestion as an affront to tradition and orthodoxy. The textual history surrounding this prayer and its early commentators, however, might turn out to be the pope’s best ally against these critics. Some of the most important early Christian authors, including Ambrose and Augustine, show an understanding of temptation in the Our Father that aligns well with Francis’s proposed modification.
First, though, it’s worth revisiting the Greek New Testament and Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. At Matthew 6:13, the church’s authoritative translator provides et ne inducas nos in tentationem, and at Luke 11:4 he uses the almost identical et ne nos inducas in tentationem. The Latin verb inducere seems straightforward here: “to lead in” or “to carry in” or even “to drag in.” The Greek text is similarly clear. Both Matthew and Luke write καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν, and the word εἰσενέγκῃς is an irregular aorist form of εἰσφέρω, which simply means “to bring in.” A 2013 Biblica article by Joseph A. Fitzmyer (“And Lead Us Not into Temptation”) similarly explains that the Greek here carries the meaning of “causing someone to enter an event or condition, as if it were a place.”
If we rely on these gospel texts and our dictionaries alone, it seems, the pope will have a tough argument to make. These ancient languages won’t easily contort themselves into “do not let us fall.”
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