Many news outlets have reported that Pope Francis wants to change the translation of the Lord’s Prayer. Specifically, he objects that “lead us not into temptation” (Matt. 6:13) makes it seem like the Lord leads us to sin.
With all due respect, I strongly believe he is wrong. The pope said, “That is not a good translation.” Actually, it is an excellent translation as you’ll see in this article.
So his solution is to change the translation to “do not let us fall into temptation”. However, there’s one pesky problem with that–the Greek text doesn’t support it! So unless he’s willing to do some textual gymnastics like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, he has no basis upon which to change the text. And here’s the evidence.
I took a look at the Greek text upon which the New Testament is based. Here’s what I found. The Greek word for “lead…into” is in the aorist tense and subjunctive mood. The aorist tense has no temporal quality (meaning no time aspect) and can be used in various ways, which is determined by the context. The subjunctive mood denotes the possibility that something could happen (as opposed to it actually happening). When that tense and mood is used in the construction they’re in, the verb is usually translated as an imperative. (In this case, it’s understood as an imperative of dependence, meaning that it is not a command but an expression of dependence on the other party to do the action.) This translation is consistent across English versions of the Bible:
- KJV: And lead us not into temptation
- NASV: And do not lead us into temptation
- NIV: And lead us not into temptation
- RSV: And lead us not into temptation
- ASV: And bring us not into temptation
- ESV: And lead us not into temptation
- DRV (Catholic): And lead us not into temptation
Well, what about the word “temptation”? The word “temptation” (Greek peirasmos) means just that: temptation. There’s not a lot of wiggle room there. This noun, in various forms, is used 20 times in the NT and is translated every time as “temptation”, with the notable exception of 1 Peter 4:12, where most translations use “test”, “try”, “trial”, or “testing” instead. The context in that verse is “suffering”, which explains the deviation. Regardless, the word means something which will prove your faith or bring you down, depending on your choice in the circumstance. The same can be said of the Old Testament Hebrew word nasah which means “temptation”, “testing”, “trying”, or “proving”. (see Gen. 22:1) The basic idea of both words is a proving of someone’s faith. Just because we have a negative view of the word “temptation” and don’t want to associate that with God, doesn’t mean it’s a bad translation or that God doesn’t use temptation.
So there is nothing wrong with the way this verse has been translated. It is possible (subjunctive mood) for God to lead us into temptation. Now before you dismiss me as a heretic, I give you this example.
“Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.” (Matt. 4:1)
So let’s analyze this. Who led Jesus to be tempted? The Holy Spirit. Is the Holy Spirit God? Yes. Therefore, that scenario is possible. (I can give you the textual reasons why this verse should be understood as the Spirit leading Jesus with the expressed purpose of temptation, but that’s a subject for another post.)
But you might say, that was Jesus, but we’re different. So how about this:
“For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb. 4:15)
Jesus was tempted “like as we are”. So there is a similarity with His temptations and ours. Let’s continue:
“There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” (1 Cor. 10:13)
Notice that God uses temptation. There is no mention of Satan or demons here. It is God Who will do something “with the temptation”. It is God Who is “faithful” while you are in the temptation. It is God Who orchestrates a way out of the temptation (but it is left to us to make the choice either to bear it or give in to it). There is no doubt that God is involved in the process. Many commentators make a distinction by saying that Satan “tempts us” and God “tries/proves us”, but this is arbitrary. The Greek text uses the same word.
And the pope’s proposed translation, “do not let us fall into temptation” is not a translation at all, but rather an interpretation. There is nothing about “falling” in the text. The verb is “lead”. Besides that, he is still implying that God could let us fall into temptation, so how’s that any better?!
So I would argue that God can use temptation however He wants, even if we have a preconceived notion that God doesn’t do that. And we need to understand that God does lead us and we are dependent on His leading. As He is leading us, we certainly don’t want to end up in temptation, hence the phrase in the prayer. However, we do realize that temptation is a part of life and God uses it to grow us in our faith.
With that said, contrary to what the pope is saying, the verse isn’t saying that God is leading us to sin, but that we should prefer to not have to endure temptation . (Besides, there is a big difference between “leading into temptation” and “leading into sin”. Temptation is not sin–it’s how we react to it which can lead to sin.)
I think maybe the reason Jesus wanted us to pray that is so that we would be cognizant of the ever-present threat of temptation and be prepared for it (but that’s only one possible application). But when we do have temptation, it’s not that God is enticing us to sin, but rather we are being given a choice to obey or not to obey; to exercise faith or not. God did this with Israel time after time. (see Deut. 11:26-28; 30:19-20) So why should it bother us?