Pope Francis recently created an international theological incident when he told an Italian TV interviewer that the classic, traditional wording from the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation,” is “not a good translation.” Instead he favors translating this particular petition in the Lord’s Prayer something like, “Don’t let us fall into temptation.” The pope argued,
I am the one that’s falling. It’s not [God] who’s leading me into temptation to see, then, how I fall. No, a father doesn’t do this. A father helps you to get up right away. The one who is leading you into temptation is Satan. That is Satan’s mission. The prayer that we say means: “When Satan leads me into temptation, please give me your hand.”
Is the pope’s (re-)translation of the Bible here right or wrong?
Defending the pope
My Italian is a bit rusticchio, so I asked a native speaker to translate the whole portion of the interview in which the pope appeared. I wanted to give Pope Francis a full hearing. I discovered that, in spite of the internet hoopla over his comments, Pope Francis didn’t actually say much; he didn’t mount any lexical arguments, discussions of the meaning of the relevant Greek term—instead he made a very brief theological case. But that case is clear enough.
I’d like to start my evaluation with three important things the pope got right:
1. The pope mixed theology and Bible translation, and that’s fine.
It’s tempting to cordon off Bible translation into some objective corner, free from all bias. But theological arguments like the one used by the pope are allowed in Bible translation. If the wording of a given Bible passage appears to conflict with accepted theology, it is not just permitted but necessary for the translator to look to theology in order to properly translate the passage. Ultimately, theology needs to fit the Bible and not the other way around. But it’s naïve to think we can go to our translation work without a theology. If at first blush it seems like a passage should be translated, “And behold, Jesus insisted that he was not divine,” you’d be right to scratch your head. You know your theology well enough to find this translation unlikely.
So if indeed “Lead us not into temptation” (Matt 6:13) seems to conflict with “[God] tempts no one” (Jas 1:13), we should definitely consider that we may be misunderstanding the Greek somehow.
To suggest a different translation of the Lord’s Prayer is not necessarily the same thing as changing the prayer. Jesus gave us the prayer; it’s not going away. But the way we render it in our various vernaculars may indeed need to change. The pope deserves a hearing on this.
2. The pope was willing to alter highly traditional terminology.
It takes major mental and spiritual energy to scrutinize familiar wording. How many times has Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis, spoken the words “Lead us not into temptation” in Spanish (No nos metas en tentación), Italian (Non ci indurre in tentazione), and Latin (Ne nos inducas in temptationem)? No matter how unsettling it may be to re-examine such traditional renderings, sometimes it must be done—namely when they’re wrong. Again, the pope deserves a hearing—no matter how strong the tradition is against him.
3. The pope mounted an implicit critique of the Vulgate.
The pope is doing something like what Martin Luther did in the first of his 95 Theses: he’s (at least implicitly) correcting the standard Bible translation of Catholicism, the Vulgate. This Latin translation, used by the Roman Church for sixteen centuries, has always said inducas, a common transparent compound of ducere, to lead, and in, whose meaning you may be able to guess. The main Bible of Catholicism since time immemorial says, “Lead us not into [ne nos inducas] temptation,” and Pope Francis is saying that’s not good. To my knowledge he hasn’t offered a Latin alternative, but that’s the next logical step. For the record, I’m with the pope on this one: I’m for subjecting the Vulgate to critique.
Disagreeing with the pope
I’m very glad for this conversation, and I think the pope’s argument is important to consider. Ultimately, however, I side with Christian tradition against the pope. (Boy, that felt weird.) Here’s why.
1. The new rendering is lexically unlikely.
This is the ultimate issue: What do these Greek words mean, and how do we know? We’re not asking, “What will get the right message across to Christians?” We already know the answer to that: it’s whatever God in fact said. And he said “Lead us not into…”
Εἰσενέγκῃς (eisenenkēs) is, like the Latin inducere, a transparent compound—in this case from εἰς (“into”) and φέρω (“bring”). Etymology doesn’t clinch the meaning; butterfly doesn’t mean a dairy product sailing through the air. But all the standard Greek-English dictionaries concur: the word means “bring in” or “cause to enter.”
And the final court of appeal, usage, is also clear. In the New Testament, everybody who “brings in” something using this word is actively involved in the bringing. It isn’t a mere permitting. The men who “brought in” the paralytic to be healed didn’t allow him to enter the house; they carried him (Lk 5:18). The priests didn’t permit the blood of sacrificial offerings to enter the holy place; they carried it (Heb 13:11). I’ve looked at this word in the LXX, too, and I can’t see a lexical way out of the “lead us into” rendering.
It’s a bracing truth, but it’s a true truth: God can and does “lead” or “bring” us into temptation and yet he encourages us to ask him not to.
2. The new translation doesn’t necessarily help.
Let’s turn from the lexical back to the theological, where Pope Francis began.
The fact is, I’m not sure Pope Francis’ translation helps—God or us. If people really are thinking that “Lead us not into temptation” means God sometimes pushes us into sin, the new rendering might raise the same basic question. We still need a theodicy here (a justification of God) if what Jesus is saying is, “Don’t let us fall into temptation.” You mean, God could have held me back but instead he let me fall? Instead of an active sadist, he’s a passive one? Why didn’t God give me his hand before Satan even showed up?
This is the basic question my own children have asked me repeatedly—but about Adam and Eve. Why did God permit them to sin? The Bible gives an indirect answer; that is, it gives us a number of responses, but it doesn’t fit them all together. God is love (1 John 4:7), God doesn’t sin or tempt us (Jas 1:13), God does all for his own glory (Isa 48:9–11), God sends us trials and even led Jesus into temptation (Matt 4), mankind chose sin (Gen 3:6), every person is responsible for his or her sins (Ezek 18:20)—somehow these truths all fit together whether God leads us into temptation or lets us into it. And putting them together is a theological challenge. In the end, I think every Christian will find he must simply trust the Lord.
When I’m in a bad situation, I want to know that God is truly in control—not reacting but directing (Gen 50:20). I must accept that God is allowed to lead me into temptation without himself sinning—or tempting me. That takes a big God. That’s the kind of God I want when I’m facing temptation. I want to know that even the bitter cup was measured out by his hand.
3. Sometimes tradition starts to look like providence.
This is sanctified speculation readers may take or leave, and I myself hold it very lightly, but I think it’s worth some rumination: if nearly every Christian in the West for many centuries has been handed the same wording at their mother’s knee (I checked 77 Bible translations across multiple European languages, and they overwhelmingly stick with “Lead us not into temptation”), what does it say about God’s providence if this wording is simply wrong? Has God permitted some of the most famous and important and personal words in Scripture, the very prayer our Lord taught us to pray, to be radically misleading? I know the role played by the faulty Vulgate rendering poenitentiam agite in the Reformation; I’m a dyed-in-Genevan-wool Protestant. Semper reformanda and norma normans non normata forever and ever, amen. But sometimes tradition starts to look to me like providence. This is one such case.
A suggestion for the pope
There is one more option that deserves consideration. If Bible interpreters feel they simply cannot reconcile “Lead us not into temptation” with the rest of the Bible (particularly James 1:13), perhaps they need not alter “lead us not into” but instead should find a different word than “temptation.” Πειρασμός (peirasmos) can mean “trial” or “temptation” depending on the motivation of the one doing the trying/tempting. It is indeed Satan’s mission to devour us, and God’s to refine and save us (1 Pet 1:6–7). So what about “Do not lead us into hard testing”?
This is the rendering in the Complete Jewish Bible—and a suggestion in a number of major Matthew commentaries (Carson, Blomberg, France, Nolland, Davies/Allison, Hagner). It is strange, in fact (though not unheard of), that so many commentators would prefer this option and it be picked up by so few translations (this tends to support a contention I’ve often made that Bible translations are generally conservative). I’m comfortable with the strong existing translation tradition, in part because I think the best interpretation of it still amounts to something quite like “Lead us not into trials.” Using that wording directly in the Bible text has to be a viable option, too.
May I humbly suggest that the pope try it instead?
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (forthcoming, Lexham Press).
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