A 10-Point Primer on the Lord’s Prayer Kerfuffle
Is Pope Francis likely to approve a change in the Italian translation of the Lord’s Prayer? What’s the real story, and what does it mean for us?
Several newspapers are reporting that Pope Francis is likely to approve a change in the Italian translation of the Lord’s Prayer.
This is causing concern in some quarters.
What’s the real story, and what does it mean for us?
Let’s take a look …
1) Is Pope Francis about to change the Lord’s Prayer for everyone?
No. The Italian bishops’ conference has petitioned him to approve a new translation of the Lord’s Prayer, so that’s the only thing currently on the table: The translation commonly used in Italy.
2) Does this signal any kind of change in the English version?
No, for reasons we will cover below.
3) What’s different about the new Italian version?
The final line of the prayer would be translated differently. The current version has a literal rendering of the original Greek, which says, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
According to the British newspaper The Express, the proposed translation will have the Italian equivalent of “abandon us not when in temptation.”
4) Why would anyone translate it that way?
Translators sometimes use non-literal renderings to clear up potential misunderstandings.
In this case, the potential misunderstanding is that God might literally cause us to be tempted. This is something that Scripture elsewhere makes clear that God does not do. As the Book of James (13-14) states:
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.
The petition in the Lord’s Prayer thus needs to be understood as a request that God protect us from temptation.
5) Has Pope Francis said anything about the Italian bishops’ proposal?
Not as far as current press reports indicate. However, he is thought to be favorable to the proposal because last year he made remarks regarding a parallel move by the French bishops. On that occasion, he reportedly said:
“The French have changed the text and their translation says ‘don’t let me fall into temptation.’ … It’s me who falls. It’s not Him who pushes me into temptation, as if I fell. A father doesn’t do that. A father helps you to get up right away. The one who leads into temptation is Satan.”
It is thus likely that he will (through the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments) approve the translation.
6) Are the Italian bishops doing this in response to what Pope Francis said?
It does not appear so. According to The Express, the current proposal was made after a 16-year study of the question, so John Paul II was pope when the initiative first got underway.
7) Are the French and Italian bishops the only ones who favor translations of this kind?
No. The common Spanish version of the Lord’s Prayer has read this way for a long time.
It also has a non-literal translation, with the Spanish equivalent of “Do not let us fall into temptation.”
As a native speaker of Spanish, Pope Francis is already used to a non-literal translation, again suggesting he’s likely to approve the Italian proposal.
8) Is there significant doubt about what the original Greek says?
Not when it comes to the verb translated “lead” in English. In Greek, that’s the verb eispherô, which means “bring” or “lead,” so “Do not bring us into temptation” or “Lead us not into temptation” would be good literal translations.
There is more question about how to translate the Greek word for temptation — peirasmos — which can mean “test,” “trial” or “temptation.” Thus “Do not bring us into testing,” “Do not put us to the test,” or “Lead us not into trial” would also be good translations (and they would help avoid the idea of God literally causing us to be tempted).
9) Is there anything wrong with non-literal translations?
Not in principle. Languages do not map onto each other in a one-to-one fashion, and translators sometimes must use non-literal translations if they are to make the meaning of a statement clear.
In other cases, a non-literal translation can be helpful even if it isn’t strictly required.
We see an example of that in Luke’s version of another line of the Lord’s Prayer. In Matthew’s version (6:12), we find this line:
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
The key word here is “debts,” and there also is no doubt about that use of the word in Greek. The word opheilêmata means “debts” in the financial sense, but it was used in Aramaic as a metaphor for the debt of sin.
This figurative meaning was not clear to ordinary Greek speakers, however, and so in Luke’s version of the prayer (11:4) we find:
And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
Here, Luke has changed opheilêmata to hamartias (“sins”) to clarify for ordinary Greek speakers what the meaning is.
The New Testament itself thus uses a non-literal translation in a part of the Lord’s Prayer, so there’s nothing wrong with doing so in principle.
In fact, Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is quite different from Matthew’s version. There were thus at least two different versions of the Lord’s Prayer in use in Greek in the first century. Since both versions were written under divine inspiration, this shows that we don’t all have to use the same version of the prayer.
By the way, note that the standard English version of the prayer that Catholics use also contains a non-literal translation of the “debts” line. Our version says: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
“Trespasses” is not literally what it says in Greek, so we English speakers are already using a partly non-literal version of the prayer.
10) Is there likely to be any change in the English version of the prayer that we use in the U.S.?
No. For that to happen, the U.S. bishops would need to ask the Holy See for a change, and I don’t see that happening any time in the foreseeable future.
The standard English version has been in use for a very long time, and it is deeply ingrained in Anglophone Catholic culture.
We’re still using it even though some parts of it are not contemporary English at all. Thus we say “Hallowed be thy name,” even though most people have little idea what this means. If we were to say this line in contemporary English, it would be something like, “Let your name be sanctified” or “Let your name be held holy.”
There would be a huge ruckus if the U.S. bishops proposed changes to the English version of the Lord’s Prayer, and I don’t see them wanting to undertake such a challenge. They have more pressing issues to deal with (to say the least).