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Pope Francis is no stranger to controversy. This week he suggested that Catholics need to re-translate part of the text of the Lord’s Prayer. Now, before you say, so what?, consider that Christians the world over pray the Lord’s prayer weekly in worship and some daily in their personal devotions. It is part of the spiritual heritage of the ages.
Now, I realize, I’m limited in this post to the English language and more Catholics around the world don’t speak English than do. But still, it seems, from my limited knowledge of languages, that the idea the Pope is concerned about is reproduced in other western language versions of the Lord’s Prayer.
In particular, the line in question is the one which says “lead us not into temptation” (Matt 6:13; Luke 11:6). The phrase makes it seem, he says, as if God actively leads his people to be tempted to sin. Instead, he says, we should translate the line “do not let us fall into sin.”
Now let’s see how three major English translations render that line.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil . . . (King James Version)
And do not bring us to the time of trial
but rescue us from the evil one. (New Revised Standard Version)
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one. (New International Version)
Four observations. First, most western Christians have memorized the King James Version (KJV). Second, the power of the KJV to shape modern translations should not be underestimated. Even translations like THE VOICE use the same language. Third, the NRSV comes closest to the Pope’s suggestion. Four, modern translations view the prayer as poetic and so render it in poetic verse.
The challenge of translation from one language to the next is a significant one. I’ve written about this problem on this site. But with the NT it is even more challenging because we are even further removed from the original source than we might imagine. Jesus spoke Aramaic. The Gospels are written in Greek. And most of us rely heavily on English translations.
Now, I think the Pope is onto something to which Christians—Protestant, Catholics and Orthodox—need to pay attention. God does not tempt people to sin. They are tempted by their own desires, or so says James (1:13-15).
The crux of the matter is the meaning of the word peirasmos. It is a word that does not occur outside the New Testament, so we can’t appeal to other Greek texts from the period—what scholars call comparative philology. Based on the NT itself, it seems the semantic field or range of meanings of this Greek word includes temptation (to sin) and trial or testing (of faith). If we take the rest of the NT seriously, as it seems the translators of the NRSV, it is best to take this as something like “(to God) do not bring us to a time of testing.” The opposite is this: “(God) rescue us from the evil one.”
It seems to me that the prayer of Jesus is similar to Jewish prayers from the same period. They ask roughly the same thing. “God, do not hand your people over to trials and tests, instead rescue them from evil.” In the arc of the Scriptural story think of someone like Job, Abraham (and his near sacrifice of Isaac), and the people of Israel in exile.
Whether Pope Francis’ teaching on this makes it down to your average congregation, we will see. If I were a “bettin’ man,” I’d say it will. In the end, no we don’t need a new Lord’s prayer, what we do need is good translations of the one we have.
I come from a tradition that privileges “spontaneous prayer” and looks suspiciously on scripted prayers or prayers written beforehand. According to this perspective, spontaneous prayer means prayer from the heart while prescribed prayers or prayers written down beforehand are not from the heart. I accepted this myself for many years until I met some remarkable Christians and began to read and reflect on Scripture.
One day I was looking for a guitar pick in the guitar case of a friend of mine. He was a famous Christian recording artist. Because I was a budding musician, I looked up to him not only for his talent but also because he was a man of faith. As I looked for the guitar pick, I found a stack of papers on which my friend had written out a series of prayers to God. Later he told me that he found that writing out his prayers helped him focus and pray more faithfully. Often when he prayed silently or spontaneously, he said, he found his mind wandering. One minute he was praying. The next he was thinking about something else entirely. I knew well what he meant and think you probably do too. What was clear to me is that the prayers he had written truly reflected his heart, much like love letters written to one you love.
On another occasion I heard a deacon pray before collecting the evening offering and the sermon. The prayer went something like this: “God, we thank you for this day. We thank you for your many blessings. Be with the missionaries in foreign fields. Be with the preacher as he brings the message this evening. Bless the gift and the giver. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” This was a spontaneous prayer—it was from the heart of a kind, generous Christian—but it was also in many ways a collection of thoughts and prayers we had heard many times before. As I have listened to others pray publically, I realize that in many ways spontaneous prayers are not that different than prayers scripted beforehand.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus instructed his disciples to pray:
Our Father in heaven,
let Your name remain holy.
Bring about Your Kingdom,
Manifest Your will here on earth,
as it is manifest in heaven.
Give us each day that day’s bread—
no more, no less—
And forgive us our debts
as we forgive those who owe us something.
Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9-13; The Voice)
Any good commentary on Matthew 6 and Luke 11 will advocate that Jesus wanted his disciples to pray this prayer and he also wanted his followers to pray prayers like this. One is scripted. The other is more spontaneous. Peter Davids, one of the scholars who worked on The Voice, has written a wonderful piece recently on the Lord’s prayer. You can read it here.
One pastor I admire claims that prayer is the hardest work he does. Perhaps you will agree. I have come to appreciate both kinds of public prayers: spontaneous prayers spoken from the heart that collect bits and pieces of earlier prayers and scripted prayers written from the heart that reflect someone’s desire to speak honestly before a gracious God.
Here is a good prayer exercise. Read a biblical psalm through several times and then turn it into your own prayer. It may help to write it down on a piece of paper. In any case make it your own. There are many wonderful prayers in the Bible that can be models for us.