Pope Francis has caused another round of cheering and dismay by calling for a “better translation” of the words of the Lord’s Prayer. Specifically, he says that the line familiar to us English speakers as “lead us not into temptation” should be rendered as “let us not fall into temptation,” because a loving Father does not subject His children to evil. We may cite here, in apparent support of that statement, the words of St. James: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (Jas. 1:13–14). It was not God who tempted Job, but Satan. It was not God who tempted David with the sight of Bathsheba bathing in her garden, but David himself, whose desire gave birth to the sins of adultery and murder. All Christians, I suppose, will agree.
And yet, and yet: The words of Jesus are clear. The original Greek is not ambiguous. There is no variant hiding in the shelves. We cannot go from an active verb, subjunctive mood, aorist tense, second person singular, with a clear direct object, to a wholly different verb—“do not allow”—completed by an infinitive that is nowhere in the text—“to fall”—without shifting from translation to theological exegesis. The task of the translator, though he should be informed by the theological, cultural, and linguistic context of the time, is to render what the words mean, literally, even (perhaps especially) when those words sound foreign to our ears.
Here someone will shout, “But sometimes the meanings are not literal.” I agree. Sometimes the primary meaning is figurative; but that is still a linguistic judgment, and not theological exegesis. Even so, we are far more likely to paint for our readers a broad range of figurative meaning by keeping close to the literal field wherein that meaning takes root and flourishes, than by dispensing with the literal, and losing it and much of the figurative to boot. Hence translations that suppress the word “seed” (as in “Abraham's seed”), or “fruit” (as in “be fruitful, and multiply,” or Jesus’s parable of the vineyard owner who sent his servants to gather the “fruit” of his land), replacing these words with “offspring” and “produce,” are not only pallid English. They make it impossible for us to hear the figurative resonances of these words as Jesus and his fellow Jews heard them, across all of Scripture. They distance us—who are already farther off than is healthy—from what Chesterton has called “the warmth and wonder of created things,” of fruit, and seed, and the marital act that sows the seed.
Someone else will say that language changes over time, and that is why we need revisions. Perhaps; but the ancient Greek has not changed, and English in this regard has not changed. “Lead us not into temptation” means “do not lead us into temptation,” and that is that. We might revise and render “temptation” as “testing” or “trial”: “Do not lead us to the test,” but that would still fall under the pope’s disapproval.
No, I believe that the Greek means what it means, and what it means is accurately rendered as “lead us not into temptation,” exactly the same in Matthew as it is in Luke.
Then someone objects, and says that the Greek is just a translation of the Lord’s Aramaic, so that we, by guesswork, can efface the Greek and replace it with a supposititious original. There are three problems here. First, the Greek is the text we have, and it is canonical. Second, there is no reason to suppose that Greek-speaking Jews did not pray the prayer exactly as the Greek-speaking Saint Luke records it, which in this line is identical to Matthew’s. Third, if we consider a Semitic substrate it becomes more likely, not less, that the Greek me eisenenkeis hemas eis peirasmon is an exact rendering of what would be a verse of psalmic poetry, as I believe all of the Lord’s Prayer is. We would have A + B + C, where A is the negative, B is a causative verb (in Hebrew, “lead” = “to cause to go,” as in Psalm 23) with affixes for second-person singular subject and third-person plural object, and C is “into-temptation.” Such a verse or half-verse would be familiar to every one of Jesus's listeners, and they would have expected it to be completed by a second half. And so it is, in another A + B + C: “but + free-us + from-evil,” each element in correspondence with its partner in the previous half. No, I’m afraid that all attempts to justify an alteration on linguistic grounds fail. But what about the theology?
Let us be careful here. Jesus himself, in Gethsemane, instructed his apostles to pray “lest they be put to the test,” echoing his own words in the Lord’s Prayer. It is not a prayer that they should not fall into temptation, much less that they should not yield to temptation. It is parallel instead with Jesus’s prayer in the garden, that he might be spared the cup that he was about to drink. Jesus knows our weakness, and knows that trials will come. He knows that, as James says, “blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him” (1:12). But we are weak. We are not yet heroes. We are hardly soldiers at all. So we confess our weakness.
We pray, then, that God will spare us that test—even as we know that tests will come. Jesus himself says it. Satan has demanded Peter, to sift him like wheat, says Jesus, “but I have prayed for you, that your faith might not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:31). We are not heroes, we are poor and unprofitable servants, yet we are called to say, with St. Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 3:7). And a Father might very well allow His grown sons and daughters to stand the test, that they might show their strength—His strength in them!—and triumph over the Slanderer.
The words of Jesus, as words, are clear. Their implications are profound. They are hard for us to fathom. They strike us as strange. That is as it should be. Let them stand.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this essay characterized the Greek word for “lead” as in the indicative mood, present tense, when in fact it is in the subjunctive mood, aorist tense.
Anthony Esolen is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.