Pope Francis has a problem with “lead us not into temptation,” the penultimate line of the Lord’s Prayer in English as it appears in Matthew’s Gospel and is recited at Catholic Mass and in Catholic devotions. Francis objects that it’s not God who tempts us to stray from His path of righteousness (that’s the devil’s job), so “lead us not” could prove confusing to ordinary Catholics. As he put it in a December 6 interview with an Italian Catholic television channel: “It is I who fall, it is not God who throws me into temptation and then sees how I fell . . . . A father does not do that, a father helps you to get up immediately.” Francis suggested that the world’s Catholics should pray “do not let us fall into temptation,” in place of “lead us not.”
And indeed French Catholics, on order from France’s bishops, have duly changed the offending words. Starting this past Advent, they’ve dropped the traditional ne nous soumets pas à la tentation (“do not subject us to temptation”) for a more Francis-friendly ne nous laisse pas entrer en tentation (“do not let us go into temptation”).
The problem, as Anthony Esolen has argued, is that “lead us not” is in fact a faithful translation. Nearly all manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate Bible—the fourth-century text that is baseline Scripture for the Latin-Rite Church—some dating to the very early Middle Ages, have either ne inducas nos or ne nos inducas for the words Jesus used with respect to temptation in both Matthew and Luke. Inducas is the second-person singular present active subjunctive form of inducere, a Latin verb that means, precisely, “to lead in.” Inducas is itself a literal translation of the Greek me eisenenkeis hemas eis peirasmon, found in the very oldest manuscripts of the New Testament (eisenenkeis is a second-person singular aorist—past-tense—subjunctive form of the verb eisphero, meaning “carry in,” while peirasmon means “trial” or “temptation”). And although we don’t have the precise Aramaic words that Jesus would have spoken, Esolen observes certain parallels in the phrase to the Hebrew psalmic poetry with which Jesus was familiar and in which God plays a causative role.
Those are important observations, but there is something more: Lay people and clergy in the English-speaking world have been praying “lead us not into temptation” for nearly 1,200 years without confusion or complaint. One of the oldest extant English translations of the Lord’s Prayer is in a manuscript known as the Bath Old English Gospels, compiled during the eleventh century around the time of the Norman Conquest. The pertinent phrase reads: Ne gelæd þu us on costnunge (gelæd is our modern English “lead” and costnunge means “temptations or “trials”). William Tyndale’s English Bible of the early sixteenth century, whose prose style influenced such later Protestant Bibles as the Geneva Bible and the King James Bible as well as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, preserved the language “lead us not into temptation,” which became standard for Protestant services. During the mid-eighteenth century, an English Catholic bishop, Richard Challoner, revised the clumsily Latinate Douay-Rheims English translation of the Vulgate that had been standard for Catholics during the Counter-Reformation in order to make its diction resemble the mellifluous cadences of the King James version. All of those Bibles preserved the words “lead us not into temptation.” They also afforded Catholics and Protestants a prayer that they could say more or less in common, despite their doctrinal differences.
So what happened to make a clause that had been understood for centuries as not really meaning that God tempted people to sin suddenly too difficult for ordinary people to take in? Blame a theory known as “dynamic equivalence,” which has afflicted biblical and other religious translations (such as the Catholic Mass) since the 1960s. The idea is that most modern people can’t make heads or tails of ancient diction—so instead of formally rendering phrases of the sacred languages into precise English, French, or whatever, the translator tries to figure out what the authors of those phrases generally meant to say and then puts that meaning into lowest-common-denominator vernacular, even slang, which may in no way resemble the original phrasing. This seems to have been the thinking behind the French bishops’ alteration of the Lord’s Prayer.
Besides replacing the exalted with the banal, the dynamic-equivalence theorists have severely underestimated people’s yearning for and devotion to ritual, including ritual language. People like the Lord’s Prayer precisely because it sounds archaic: the “hallowed be Thy name” (who says “hallowed” or “thy” these days?), the nearly obsolete optative subjunctive (“thy kingdom come”), the “trespasses” (no, that doesn’t mean cutting through someone’s back yard). They like to sing Christmas carols that were composed in the seventeenth century, and they have a sneaky fondness for the King James Bible, even though they can’t understand half the words and scholars tell them it’s not based on the most reliable manuscripts.
So, Pope Francis, I understand your frustration with “lead us not into temptation.” But really—you’re trying to fix something that ain’t broke.
Charlotte Allen is a writer living in Washington, D.C.