This past week, Pope Francis suggested that the traditional translation of the Lord’s Prayer (also known as the “Our Father”) is incorrect. Specifically, he pointed to the phrase “lead us not into temptation” from Matthew 6:13.
Francis said this is “not a good translation,” and he suggested a better one: “Do not let us fall into temptation.” He told Italy’s TV2000 that “do not let us fall into temptation” would be a better translation. The pope said God does not lead people into temptation, but Satan does.
“A father doesn’t do that,” Francis insisted. “He helps you get up right away. What induces into temptation is Satan.”
Last Sunday, French churches began using an updated version of the historic and biblical imprecation. The original line “Ne nous soumets pas à la tentation” (“do not expose us to temptation”) became “Ne nous laisse pas entrer en tentation” (“do not let us give in to temptation”).
Francis’ suggested alteration would not sit well with Roman Catholics, most of whom learn the “Our Father” by heart at a young age.
Philip F. Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, told The New York Times that the pope’s criticism of the traditional translation “isn’t reasonable.”
“Pope Francis has made a habit of saying things that throw people into confusion, and this is one of them,” Lawler said. “It just makes you wonder, where does it stop, what’s up for grabs. It’s cumulative unease.”
“I was shocked and appalled,” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told the Times. “This is the Lord’s Prayer. It is not, and has never been, the pope’s prayer, and we have the very words of Jesus in the New Testament. It is those very words that the pope proposes to change. It is not only deeply problematic, it’s almost breathtaking.”
Some defended the pope’s alternate translation, suggesting that the traditional version may not have captured Jesus’ words.
“NB: Pope Francis has not proposed changing Jesus’s words in the ‘Lord’s Prayer,’ aka the ‘Our Father.’ He’s just proposing a more accurate translation from the original Greek,” Jesuit priest James Martin tweeted. “Jesus most likely taught it in Aramaic (less likely: Hebrew), and the Gospels were written in Greek.”
NB: Pope Francis has not proposed changing Jesus's words in the "Lord's Prayer," aka the "Our Father." He's just proposing a more accurate translation from the original Greek. Jesus most likely taught it in Aramaic (less likely: Hebrew), and the Gospels were written in Greek.
— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) December 9, 2017
Martin is correct that Jesus likely did not teach in Greek, the language in which the gospels were originally written. Even so, there is no surviving copy of Jesus’ famous prayer in Aramaic or Hebrew. In calling back to the unavailable Aramaic, Martin argued from a vacuum.
That does not make the text of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) unreliable, however. The Early Church had high standards for the gospels, and only selected texts with a direct connection to eyewitnesses.
Furthermore, Luke 11:2-4 contains another version of the Lord’s Prayer. The Luke prayer is shorter than the Matthew one, but it still includes the phrase “lead us not into temptation.”
The Greek word in both verses is eisenenkēs, which means “to carry inward.”
Were Francis to translate Matthew 6:13 and Luke 11:4 as “do not let us fall into temptation,” he would be the one mistranslating the actual text. He would be applying his own interpretation on the Bible over and above the actual words of Jesus.
Then again, James 1:13-14 says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being 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.”
If God does not tempt people, how should Christians interpret — and pray — Matthew 6:13 and Luke 11:4?
The book of Proverbs may suggest an answer. “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps,” according to Proverbs 16:9.
When millions of Catholics and other Christians pray “lead us not into temptation,” they are not asking God to decide not to tempt them, as if God were the one doing the tempting in the first place. Instead, they are asking to live lives shielded from too much temptation.
St. Paul promised that God will not allow Christians to be tempted beyond their abilities to resist. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it,” he said in 1 Corinthians 10:13.
These complex theological discussions about how to interpret the Bible revolve around the trustworthiness of scripture. Jesus promised that another person of God Himself, the Holy Spirit, would remind the disciples of His words (John 14:26).
Furthermore, the Bible testifies that it is trustworthy and “profitable” for guiding disciples into a perfect relationship with God. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work,” Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
Matthew 6:13 and Luke 11:4 are reliable accounts of Jesus’ words, and there is nothing to suggest the traditional translation of the Lord’s Prayer is incorrect. Instead, there are reasons to think the version recorded in scripture would perfectly fulfill its important role — in teaching Christians how to pray.