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A Pope, a Prayer, and Proper Translation

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By now you may have seen the headlines claiming that Pope Francis wants to change the words of the Lord’s Prayer from “lead us not into temptation” to “do not let us fall into temptation.” The Pope’s reason is theological: “It is not He [God] that pushes me into temptation and then sees how I fall. A father does not do this. A father quickly helps those who are provoked into Satan’s temptation” (cf. James 1:13–14).

This is not the first time the current Pope has said something unexpected and provocative and it will probably not be the last. Whatever we might think about the Pope, his comment raises good questions for all of us about the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer, our theology of God’s sovereignty, and even about the role of Bible translation. Let’s look at each one.

Meaning

What is the meaning of the last line of the Lord’s Prayer as found in Matthew 6:13? The ESV translates this verse as “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” This is close to what you find in the NIV, NASB, and RSV as well. However, the NRSV has “And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one” and this shows us the two main interpretive questions: (1) is it “testing” or “temptation” that we are asking God not to lead us into and (2) is it “evil” or “the evil one” from which we need rescue? In both cases, the Greek is ambiguous. It could mean either and that is why English translations differ.

What clarifies the meaning for us is the context, particularly the account of Jesus’ temptation in Matthew 4.1–11. From that text, we gain two key insights.

First, we learn that the Devil is called “the tempter” (Matthew 4:3) and that suggests that we should see this same Tempter behind the request to “deliver us from evil,” that is, the evil one who tempts us.

Second, the Greek word translated “to tempt” (peirazō, πειράζω) can mean either to tempt someone to sin or it can mean to test someone’s faith. Which does it mean here? Again, the prior account in Matthew clarifies. There we are told that Jesus “was led into the desert by the Spirit to be tempted by the Devil” (Matthew 4:1). Note the role of both the Spirit and the Devil in Jesus’ temptation. The Spirit leads; the Devil tempts. This suggests that we should read the last line of the Lord’s Prayer through our interpretive bifocals. When we do that, the meaning becomes, “Please don’t lead us into trying situations, but if you do, deliver us from the Devil who will try to use them to tempt us to sin.” One only need to think of Job to see how closely connected trials and temptations often are.

Theology

Once we understand the final request in the Lord’s Prayer this way, the theology becomes much clearer. The issue is God’s relationship to our trials and temptations. We know from Joseph’s story in Genesis that God in his sovereignty can use the same exact situation for a completely different purpose than what others intend. This theology comes out in a remarkable way when Joseph says to his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50.20). The same action, but with two opposite intentions.

The same theology lies behind the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus’ followers know that our heavenly Father loves us, but we also know that testing our faith is part and parcel of that love. As 1 Peter 1:6–7 tells us, such testing refines our faith, helping us see it for the imperishable and precious gift that it is. We need not go looking for trials and difficulties, but when they come, we ought to pray that God would keep our character from buckling under their weight. We ought to pray that God would deliver us from the evil one who is all too eager to capitalize on our human weakness.

Translation

If these observations help address the meaning and theology of the Lord’s Prayer, what can we say about the question of translation? As we have seen, the Greek text is potentially ambiguous on its own. In the case of translating the phrase as “evil” or “evil one,” there is good reason for the latter and translations would serve us best by printing that in the main text, perhaps with a footnote explaining the alternate rendering. With the translation of “temptation,” the choice is more difficult since we have no word in English which can mean either “temptation” or “testing.” In this case, a good translation simply must use a footnote to show the ambiguity. Happily, translations like the NIV and NRSV already do this. The ESV and NASB should follow suit.

So, do we need a new translation of the Lord’s Prayer as the Pope has suggested? I won’t speak for Italian, but for the reasons given above, the answer for English speakers is no. We already have a number of English translations that do a good job of noting the ambiguity in the Lord’s Prayer. What we need is to use these translations with a sensitivity to the context—both of Matthew and of the Scripture as a whole. If we do that, our current English Bibles will serve us quite well.

Further reading

Daniel B. Wallace, “Pope Francis, The Lord’s Prayer, and Bible Translation” (December 12, 2017).

R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 126–127, 231, 251.


About the Author

Peter Gurry joined the Phoenix Seminary faculty in 2017. He teaches courses in Greek Language and New Testament literature. His research interests range across Greek grammar, New Testament textual criticism, the General Epistles, the doctrine of the atonement, and the history of Biblical scholarship. He is married to Kris and they have four young, highly-energetic children. Among other things, he enjoys cheap fast food, good typography, and Jack London stories.

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