The memorized “Lord’s Prayer” is so frequently recited by countless Christians that it can be easy to slide past what the familiar words are saying. For instance, how do we understand its most puzzling phrase: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13 per the King James Version and many other English translations. A condensed wording for the prayer also appears in Luke 11:2-4).
So, does God lead us into temptation? Why would He? After all, the New Testament tells us elsewhere, “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man” (James 1:13, also King James wording).
Pope Francis delved into this in December during a series about the Lord’s Prayer on the Italian bishops’ TV channel. “It is not a good translation because it speaks of a God who induces temptation,” he said. Rather, “I am the one who falls; it’s not Him pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen. . . . It’s Satan who leads us into temptation; that’s his department.”The pontiff suggested this colloquial paraphrase: “When Satan leads us into temptation, You, please, give me a hand.” More formally, he embraced the wording recently adopted by the church in France: “Do not let us fall into temptation.”
U.S. Catholics’ New American Bible formerly read “subject us not to the trial,” while the 2011 revised edition says “do not subject us to the final test.” An official footnote explains, “Jewish apocalyptic writings speak of a period of severe trial before the end of the age, sometimes called the ‘messianic woes.’ This petition asks that the disciples be spared that final test.”
Some scholars adopt that end-times interpretation, but there are other choices. Experts also disagree on whether believers ask delivery from abstract “evil” or from a personal “evil one,” namely the Devil. Here The Religion Guy will bypass that one.
Other modern translations:
“Keep us from being tempted” (Contemporary English Version). “Do not cause us to be tempted” (New Century Version. “Don’t allow us to be tempted” (God’s Word). “Do not bring us to hard testing” (Good News Translation). “Keep us clear of temptation” (J.B. Phillips paraphrase). “Keep us safe from ourselves” (The Message paraphrase). “Keep us from sinning when we are tempted” (New International Reader’s Version). “Don’t let us yield to temptation” (New Living Translation). “Rescue us every time we face tribulation” (The Passion Translation).
Roughly similar, but those different shadings are the sort of thing that keeps theologians up nights.
The Pope’s approach drew dissent from Anthony Esolen at the strictly Catholic Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. He defended the old “lead us not” rendition at firstthings.org as a stickler on grammar and translation. “The words of Jesus are clear” and “the ancient Greek has not changed,” he declared. The translator’s task is “to render what the words mean, literally, even (perhaps especially) when those words sound foreign to our ears.”
Esolen noted that Jesus himself prayed to be spared from the cross, just as we pray that God will spare us from the tests we all know are inevitable in life.
M.J.C. Warren, Bible lecturer at Britain’s University of Sheffield, likewise thought the Pope “ignores the plain meaning of the Gospel text.” She stated at theconversation.org that the biblical God “is implicated in both temptation and its avoidance,” as “uncomfortable” as that might make modern-day Christians. She cites God’s bargain with Satan in the Book of Job, God testing Abraham with a fearsome command to sacrifice his son, or the Holy Spirit leading Jesus himself into temptations in the wilderness.
Another Brit, the late John R.W. Stott, combined the ideas of “testing” and the personal “evil one” to yield a concept like that of Francis: “It is the devil who is in view, who tempts God’s people to sin, and from whom we need to be rescued.”
In his classic “Hard Sayings of Jesus,” the late F.F. Bruce of Britain’s University of Manchester proposed tht Jesus meant that “when surrounded by temptation, may we not be overpowered by it.” He doubted the prayer would have asked “do not let our faith be tested” because Jesus — and we –know testing is inevitable. Rather, the believer asks to avoid “tests so severe our faith cannot stand up to them.”
Bruce’s onetime American student Donald Hagner at Fuller Theological Seminary offers this paraphrase in his Matthew commentary: “Do not lead us into a testing of our faith that is beyond our endurance, but when testing does come, deliver us from the Evil One and his purposes.”
Many words in the Lord’s Prayer echo ancient Jewish devotionals. A rabbinic commentary on the Gospels by Samuel Tobias Lachs of Bryn Mawr College notes this prayer in the Talmud: “Do not accustom me to transgression, and bring me not into sin, or into iniquity, or into temptation, or into contempt. And may the good inclination have sway over me and let not the evil inclination have sway over me. And deliver me from evil . . .” (Berakhot tractate, 60b).