The church has a long history of fiddling with the Lord’s Prayer and debating the right wording.
Scripture itself isn’t unified on the wording. The Bible gives us two versions of the prayer—often referred to as the Our Father—one from Matthew’s gospel (Matt. 6:9–13) and one from Luke’s gospel (Luke 11:2–4).
Additionally, today we often forget that the last two lines (“for thine is the kingdom…”) aren’t from Scripture but were added later by well-intentioned churchmen who felt that ending with sin didn’t tell the whole story.
Then there’s the question of translations and traditions. If Matthew’s wording probably borrows a term that refers to financial debts in the original Greek, is it okay that many traditions say “trespasses”?
Pope Francis recently waded into the wording of the Lord’s Prayer by supporting a decision by the French Catholic church to change the wording of a line in the French translation of the prayer.
In an interview last week, Francis agreed that the new wording adopted by the French Catholic church was theologically clearer, suggesting that the previous version was not a “good translation.”
The phrase, “Ne nous soumets pas à la tentation” (roughly “Don’t subject us to temptation”) was updated this Sunday to be “Ne nous laisse pas entrer en tentation” (meaning “Don’t let us go into temptation.”) In English, the phrase is traditionally rendered “lead us not into temptation.” The concern for the French church and the pope is that the wording may suggest that God causes people to sin.
“It’s not about letting me fall into temptation. It’s I, the one who falls, not Him pushing me toward temptation, so as to then see how I fall,” Francis said, in an Italian interview with TV2000, a television channel owned by Italy’s conference of bishops. “No, well, a father won’t do that. A father will immediately help you pick yourself up. Satan’s the one leading you into temptation. That’s Satan’s task.”
The Lord’s Prayer is a deeply loved and familiar invocation memorized and recited by millions of Christians around the globe every week. The Roman Catholic Church considers it a brief paraphrase of the whole gospel, and for centuries theologians of various traditions have insisted that the way the church prays indicates what the church believes (“Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi”). So, it’s important to get the wording right.
But is this change a good one? We asked a group of experts for their take on this change:
“I think that the pope is correct in his concern about the way the English translation can be misconstrued. (Of course, this is not the only place it can be misunderstood by those who recite it without understanding it. As I recall, they still prayed this prayer in public schools when I was little, and I wondered what it meant to make a name ‘hollow.’) The most likely sense is for God to protect us from succumbing to testing (as is clear in the parallel text in Matthew 26), and in Matthew it is parallel to deliverance from the evil one. The liturgical problem would be that people accustomed to praying the prayer a particular way might not adapt well to the change in wording. But whether they change the wording or not, the public raising of the question will help people have a better understanding of what they mean—or should mean—when they pray this prayer.”
~Craig S. Keener, professor of biblical studies, Asbury Theological Seminary
“It's very common for Bible teachers to note possible misunderstandings in the course of explaining a passage of Scripture. When I read the pope’s comments, I thought, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what a Bible teacher should do: ward off theologically and pastorally harmful misinterpretations.’ Furthermore, the pope’s perspective could be supported with an appeal to James 1:13: ‘No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one’ (NRSV). On the other hand, there would seem to me to be less invasive ways to avoid the problem than what this new French translation does. The 1988 version from the ecumenical English Language Liturgical Consultation, for example, renders it more word-for-word literally as, “Save us from the time of trial.” Surely there's a similar middle way possible in French?”
~Wesley Hill, assistant professor of biblical studies, Trinity School for Ministry
“The expression ‘do not lead us into temptation’ could suggest God might do this. Others texts say he never does (James 1:13–15). The rhetorical point of the request is the disciple knows that if one is to be protected from sin and temptation, God must take us there. So the sense of the request is very much ‘protect us from temptation.’ It is expressed negatively to make the point. It expresses a dependence of disciples on God for every area of life while recognizing who he is and affirming a desire for his will to take place. Interestingly we call it the Lord’s Prayer as it comes from the Lord, but it really is the Disciples’ Prayer, a prayer from Jesus we are to pray for each other. (Note all the plurals showing it is not a private prayer only but what we pray as a group for each other). I would prefer a rendering that says ‘protect us from temptation.’ The second part of the request is deliver us from the evil one, a point that underscores the protection idea. The one problem with ‘let us not fall into temptation’ is it suggests God is reacting to us. In fact, the request is the opposite. It is a request from the disciple to be responsive to God, recognize the need to be responsive, and ask him for a leading that does not take the believer into temptation, thus for protection that the disciples recognize God must do in order for things to go well.”
~Darrell L. Bock, executive director of cultural engagement and senior research professor of New Testament studies, Dallas Theological Seminary
“This is newsworthy, in one sense, because it’s the pope trying to make changes to the tradition in yet another area, which will cause all the usual flutters (as indeed it already has). But in another sense, it’s as old as the hills. A member of my church made the exact same point about that line in the Lord’s Prayer a month ago: What Jesus actually said (‘lead us not’) is different from what he should have said (‘don't let us fall’). Personally, I think we should translate texts accurately and leave the strangeness as it is, although I can see why people and pastors (and popes) want to tidy it up. As to the meaning of the original, though, it’s pretty clear. I’m going to stick with ‘lead us not ...’”
~Andrew Wilson, teaching pastor at King’s Church London
“It is important at times for readers of the Bible to struggle with the same, often intentional, ambiguities found in the original text. Further, the notion that we can change the wording to fit the meaning that we find somewhere else might actually be doing a disservice to the biblical authors’ intentions. The Bible is full of paradoxes, figurative language, jolting imagery. To simplify and pacify such language cuts off the legs of its literary and even spiritual power. Pope Francis’ translation (‘do not let us fall into temptation’), however, subverts all this. The original text speaks clearly of God leading, not permitting. To tamper with the wording misses the connection with the Lord’s temptation. Matthew 4:1 compared with 6:13 reveals some fascinating parallels and major differences: Whereas the Spirit led Jesus to be tempted, Jesus asks the Father not to lead his disciples into temptation; whereas Jesus was delivered over to Satan for tempting (testing from the Father’s perspective), Jesus prays that his followers will be delivered from the evil one. It is precisely because of Jesus’ vicarious death and life that Christians can recite this prayer today with the full assurance that God will answer us.”
~Daniel B. Wallace, executive director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts and senior research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary
Editor’s Note: These remarks have been edited for length and clarity.
Further discussion about this topic from Dr. Wallace can be found on his blog.