A new commentary on Christianity’s most famous petition
IN a world of conservative Catholics, bent on proving that the current pontiff is a theologically dubious innovator, it feels as if Pope Francis has just given them a new weapon. According to newspaper reports in many countries, the Argentine pontiff has just changed the Lord’s Prayer, the petition beginning with the words “Our Father” taught by Jesus Christ and used by all his followers.
To some traditionalists, such carelessness is tantamount to changing the Declaration of Independence, in other words fiddling with a set of words that, once delivered, were meant to stand forever the time. Think how ridiculous this kind of restriction would look to Muslims, who believe that God’s message was revealed at a specific time, in a specific form of Arabic words, and not one iota of these can be changed. For a pious Muslim, portions of the Koran in other languages are approximate at best; the original Arabic is the only definitive one. For a devout Jew, only the original Hebrew of the Torah has true standing as the word of God, although there are slightly different versions of that text. However, the fact that Christianity now accepts the idea of spiritual translation, identical to the original one, makes things more complicated.
So what has really happened to that Christian prayer? In 2017 Pope Francis told an Italian TV channel that he was unhappy with the standard translations of one particular line in the prayer that Christ praised. That line is “do not lead us into temptation” or in Italian “non indurci in tentazione”.
He explained: “It’s not a good translation because it talks about a God who stirs up trouble… I’m the one who falls. He is not the one beating me in temptation to see how far I have fallen. Dad doesn’t do that, dad helps you get up right away. It is Satan who leads us into temptation, that is his division.”
As a result of that papal bombshell, it was up to national bishops’ conferences, responsible for translating into their languages, to decide how to respond. In fact, long before Francis spoke, French bishops had ordered a similar change to the one he proposed. “Ne nous laisse pas entrer en tentation” (let us not enter into temptation) replaced “Ne nous soumets pas à la tentation”, which could mean something like “Do not lead us into temptation .” Indeed, Francis gave credit to the French bishops for having set out a new linguistic path, and they may have given him the idea to propose a similar change in other languages.
The Catholic prelates of Germany, and England and Wales, discussed the issue and decided to let their versions (“don’t let us in…”) stand. The latest development, which has recently made headlines, is that the Italian bishops, in consultation with the Holy See, have given final approval to an Italian version which ‘ reflect the thought of the pontiff and will be used in a forthcoming Missal or prayer book. The new saying “non abbandonarci alla tentazione…” means something like “don’t abandon us to temptation…”
So who is right? Your interlocutor does not claim to sit in a theological judgment on the pope but the question has a purely linguistic aspect.
“Lead us into confusion” is undoubtedly a very accurate statement of the early Greek texts from which later Bibles were translated. “Lead us not into temptation” is perhaps even closer. In fact, the word that needs careful thought is not the word but the noun, periasmosthe term usually translated as “temptation”.
In ancient and modern Greek, there is a range of senses, covering many different things, small and heavy, that may try, test or torment us or somehow throw away In the context it is reasonable to assume that trials of a more serious kind are being referred to. So a loose but relatively fair translation of the controversial phrase might be something like “test us not more than we can bear…”
That’s what some people high up in the American Catholic hierarchy think, at least. Look at the Bible text as published on the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and you will find the following rather memorable, but perhaps frightening, version of the relevant verse (Matthew 6:13), taken from the New American Bible (Revised Edition) of 2011.
“Do not subject us to the last test, but deliver us from the evil one…” The American production is very daring but it avoids one of the possible problems with the new Italian formula which is blessed by papa. To a humble soul, being “abandoned to temptation” could be pleasant, indeed almost… unthinkable.