Recently Pope Francis declared what amounts to a fundamental modification of how believers should recite and pray the Lord’s Prayer. The word on the street is that the traditional translations that read “lead us not into temptation” are faulty translations, on account of the claim that God supposedly never “leads” us into temptation. The “edit” reads something like “do not let us fall into temptation.” That is apparently far more comforting and satisfying to the Pope, and presumably to those who think he somehow has some kind of spiritual significance to followers of Christ.
On the Fox News website, the tag line for this story was, “The Infallible Edit.” How disturbing. Some Catholic theologians deny that the Pope actually modified the original language of the prayer, but only corrected what they claim are faulty translations. I wonder how many people have stopped to consider the inescapable fact that if the translations are not faulty, then the Pope actually modified the original language of the prayer.
There are several ominous problems with this maneuver, but I’ll limit my comments to the ones I consider the most pernicious.
First of all, we need to observe that Language Translation 101 contains a fundamental principle all translators should follow without compromise: you never translate based on theology. I repeat: never. But that is exactly what the Pope is doing. is about identifying the meaning of the original words and phrases and faithfully rendering that meaning in the target language. That’s it and that’s all. If a translator invokes theological principles to influence his translation, he will go off the rails. What if his theology is flawed? You never base a translation on theology. The comprehension of the language of Scripture informs our theology, not the other way around.
Jesus usually spoke in Aramaic as far as we know. But there are several passages of Scripture that suggest he may have been speaking Greek in some cases. It’s highly likely that Jesus spoke both languages. He had conversations with the Romans who were occupying ancient Judea, and it’s a fairly good bet that many of them didn’t know Aramaic. Greek and Latin were the official languages of the Roman Empire, and it’s not much of a stretch at all to assume that those were the only languages most Roman officials ever knew. It’s possible that some of them learned Aramaic for the purpose of communicating with Jewish religious and political leaders at the since that’s who Rome was occupying. But it’s just as possible that the Jewish religious leaders also spoke Greek, the language Romans were more likely to know. Therefore it’s more than likely that Jesus knew Koine Greek and that was the language he spoke when he interacted with them. The point of all this is that the idea that Jesus always spoke Aramaic is an unwarranted assumption.
So what does that have to do with the Lord’s Prayer? When Jesus taught people that prayer, it was in the context of the Sermon On The Mount we read about in Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7. Jesus delivered that sermon from the side of a mountain or large hill to both his disciples and to large crowds of people. Right before the sermon, the narrator indicates that “large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.” Then he goes on to say, “when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.” At the end of Chapter 7, the narrator tells us the crowds were amazed at his teaching. So when Jesus delivered his teaching on the Lord’s Prayer, it was to crowds of people from a broad spectrum of geographical regions, including Galilee, the Decapolis, Judea, and so on. The Decapolis is particularly interesting in this context. It was a league of 10 Greek cities in Eastern Palestine and formed a significant manifestation of Hellenistic culture. Translation: they spoke and understood Greek.
The point here is that it is quite possible that when Jesus delivered the Sermon On The Mount, he did so in the Greek language so that his largely Greek-speaking hearers would understand him. This is further reinforced by the fact that Jesus often used Capernaum on the shore of the Sea of Galilee as a kind of ministry headquarters. Capernaum was a busy seaport, and even though Aramaic was the main language of the locals there, you would have expected to find people from all over the ancient Mediterranean world, traveling and engaging in commerce—a world where the most common and convenient language would have been Greek. That is also one of the main reasons the Gospels were written in Greek rather than Hebrew or Aramaic.
You may be asking, what does this have to do with the Lord’s Prayer again? Just this: the manuscript where we find the Sermon On The Mount, and thus the Lord’s Prayer, was written in Greek, and therefore may very well be direct quotes of Jesus, as opposed to having been translated from Aramaic to Greek. That means that the Greek construction of the Lord’s Prayer is even more relevant than it might be if Jesus hadn’t spoken those words in Greek. But even if he was speaking Aramaic, the Greek words in that passage are still the definitive guide for comprehending the meaning of what Jesus said about temptation in the prayer. The fact that we can’t have any guarantees that he wasn’t speaking Greek is just icing on the cake, and at the end of the day, the Greek words rule.
On this basis, we can be confident that a careful analysis of the Greek word translated “lead” will have the final word (no pun intended) on what Jesus was communicating. That word is εἰσφέρω, and the transliteration is eispheró (pronounced ice-‘-o). The literal translation of the word is “to carry into.” If you hire caterers for your party, they will eispheró the food into your clubhouse. It can also mean “to lead,” and that is one of its common usages. The word is never used to denote the concept of “falling.” The sentence structure containing the word here is unmistakable: the idea is deliberately and intentionally leading or carrying someone into something—in this case, temptation
If the word was meant to indicate the concept of falling, it would be a completely incoherent grammatical arrangement in the Greek. It would have to be accompanied by a word, phrase, or ending that indicates the idea of “letting” something happen, as in “don’t let us fall into temptation.” So the alternate rendering the Pope and his acolytes are suggesting is a complete departure from the meaning of the passage. The phrase in the Greek indicates that the speaker is asking another person not to do something, not to refuse to let something happen. It’s a difference of such magnitude that this alteration in the understanding of the passage is unwarranted and monumentally misleading. In short, it is gravely irresponsible. No scholar with any hint of integrity would give credence to it. This is nothing more than theological meddling on the part of scholastic charlatans.
So does this mean that God would lead us into temptation? Not necessarily. We know that God does not directly tempt anyone (James 1:13). But directly tempting someone and leading them into a place where they could be tempted by someone else or something else are two different things.
That issue is worthy of discussion. But in the final analysis, this prayer is simply expressing a desire. Namely, that God would not lead us into temptation. If we believe that God would never do this, then the prayer is consistent with our theology. The idea that whoever is praying this prayer is asking God not to do something does not necessarily imply that he ever would. Nor is he automatically guaranteed to do so unless this prayer magically stops him in his tracks.
The next phrase in the prayer is “but deliver us from evil.” This idea compliments asking God not to lead us into temptation nicely. To focus on the phrase about temptation on its own and to ignore the complimentary phrase that accompanies it is not only poor exegesis, but frankly indicates a lack of common sense.
The whole idea behind this so-called “edit“ is reckless and erroneous. It is just one more example of fallen man thinking he has the wisdom to revise and improve upon the Word of God. Our responsibility in this issue is to defer to the superior wisdom of Christ, and to be faithful to his words of revelation. To rely on fallible religious bureaucrats who think it’s OK to tamper with those words and their valid translations is abject foolishness, and a recipe for disaster.