“The Link” – January 2018 – “Lead us not into temptation” – a good translation, despite the pope’s comments

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

May the Lord bless you with a wonderful new year and may 2018 bring you great joy in him!

It was requested of me to respond to the pope’s statement about wanting to change the Lord’s Prayer. You may have read about this. In an 8 December 2017 article by Elisabetta Povoledo, Laurie Goodstein and Alan Cowell, “Lost in Translation? Pope Ponders an Update to Lord’s Prayer,” The New York Times reports:

In a new television interview, Pope Francis said the common rendering of one line in the prayer — “lead us not into temptation” — was “not a good translation” from ancient texts. “Do not let us fall into temptation,” he suggested, might be better because God does not lead people into temptation; Satan does.

“A father doesn’t do that,” the pope said. “He helps you get up right away. What induces into temptation is Satan.”

Space does not allow a complete analysis on the petition or give a rundown on the intricacies of exegesis. However, I can touch on the translation and point you to an excellent article that addresses the issue. I’m going to use some technical speak, but hopefully my explanation will clarify it for you.

We find the petition in Matthew 6:13 and Luke 11:4 – “kai« mh\ ei˙sene÷gkhØß hJma◊ß ei˙ß peirasmo/n.\” The term mh\ ei˙sene÷gkhØß consists of a negative (mh\) with the verb (ei˙sene÷gkhØß). Parsing the verb tells us that it is the word ei˙sfe÷rw in the form of what is called an aorist active subjunctive. It is also second person singular (i.e. “you”). With the mh\, Daniel Wallace, in his “Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics,” calls it a “prohibitive subjunctive,” describing it thus:

This is the use of the subjunctive in a prohibition—that is, a negative command. It is used to forbid the occurrence of an action. The structure is usually mh/ + aorist subjunctive, typically in the second person. Its force is equivalent to an imperative after mh/; hence, it should be translated Do not rather than You should not.

The verb, ei˙sfe÷rw has a meaning consistent across lexicons (as given by Louw-Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains), “to cause someone to enter into a particular event or state—‘to cause to, to bring in to, to lead to.’” In the list of petitions the Lord leads us through in the Lord’s Prayer, an appropriate interpretation is “do not lead [or bring] us”—with “us” being the translation of hJma◊ß. Such is the New American Standard Bible’s translation: “do not lead us” (also the NET Bible). Another way of translating it in a prayerful petition, saying it another way while saying the same thing, is “lead us not.” Hence, the King James Version, NIV, and ESV all translate it as “lead us not.” The New Revised Standard Version along with the Holman Christian Standard Bible translates it as “do not bring us.” All of these translations correctly pick up on the parsing of the verb: with its prohibitive subjunctive and active voice, along with its lexical meaning in context. Simply, the phrase is a petition to God asking that he not lead us into something—temptation. To try to get around this sense of translation/interpretation/rendering of the verb is just not warranted in the text.

Therefore, the pope’s statement, “Do not let us fall,” is simply not a valid translation of the original Koine Greek of this passage. It may be a way to understand what is written, as the pope has stated he understands it, but that is not what the Scripture actually says. I think Daniel Wallace’s observation concerning the pope’s take is spot on:

The pope makes a good point that our heavenly Father does not tempt us. And yet, he argues that point from a theological construct derived elsewhere in the Bible (see James 1.13). “Do not lead us into temptation” does not mean that God tempts us; the petition is for God’s protection from the evil one, as the rest of Matt 6.13 says. …

At bottom, what the pontiff is doing is interpretation—but interpretation that removes the tension and paradox from the text, is not true to the force of the original, and buries the connection to Jesus’ temptation. Better to leave the text alone and allow God’s people to experience the joy of discovery of the meaning of Holy Writ.

Wallace’s excellent article is a sound resource for your better understanding of the dynamics of the interpretation of this petition and why the pope’s got it wrong: https://danielbwallace.com/2017/12/12/pope-francis-the-lords-prayer-and-bible-translation/