The plaintive cry of a frightened girl fending off an incestuous father, or a son resisting his father’s efforts to make him a partner in crime? Neither! This is what millions of English speaking Christians devoutly, but unthinkingly, say every time that they recite “Our Father … lead us not into temptation”.
“Recite” is the key word. Children recite poetry – Baa Baa Black Sheep … blah blah blah. Most of them would never have seen a black sheep. Neither have I. Parrots in a cage (including the CBI) repeat or recite what their masters teach them. Is the CBCI (Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India) also a caged parrot, unthinkingly reciting what its perceived master has taught it? Why blame the bishops, when most of the “faithful” blindly follow suit?
After the liturgical reforms of Vatican II (1962-65), the English translation of the Lord’s Prayer (LP) for this particular phrase was “do not bring us to the test”. I was fairly comfortable with that, as also its Hindi translation “Hame pariksha mein na daal”. Along came the Eurocentric Latinized panzer cardinal Ratzinger, who got elected as Pope Benedict XVI. He reverted to “lead us not into temptation”, that is a literal translation of the Latin text “ne nos inducas in tentationeim”. The CBCI and all the other caged parrots followed suit.
I didn’t. So I keep shut whenever the LP is recited in common. In private I use the previous English translation, minus the archaic thy, thou and temptation. There are other texts that Ratzinger introduced in the English language liturgy that I decline to recite. But let me not digress from the LP.
This issue got re-ignited when the French bishops objected to a translation of the LP, similar to what I have just referred to. Pope Francis then jumped into the fray saying that “Lead us not into temptation” is a poorly translated line. He categorically stated, “It is not God who pushes me towards temptation to see how I fall. A father doesn’t do this, a father helps us to get up right away … the essence of that line is ‘When Satan leads me into temptation, please give me your hand, just as Peter said to Jesus; give me your hand, so that I don’t drown’”.
Of the four gospels only two, Mathew and Luke, have the LP (cf Mat 6:9-13, Lk 11:2-4), and their language differs. This is further complicated by connotation of different languages. Jesus spoke in his native Aramaic. The New Testament is written in Greek, and we follow translations that may be based on the Latin Vulgate prepared by St Jerome, the great biblical scholar in the 4th century AD. In turn, most modern English translations are based on French scholars. How do we find a way out of this babel of languages to arrive at what may have been the original meaning?
There are multiple sources for exegesis (biblical scholarship) with varying opinions. So I will restrict myself to the official documents of the Catholic Church. Vatican II promulgated 16 documents, variously classified as Dogmatic Constitutions, Pastoral Constitutions, Decrees and Declarations, in descending order of merit. There are only two Dogmatic Constitutions, one of which is the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation – Dei Verbum (DV). I will also quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) promulgated by Pope John Paul II on 11/10/1992.
To begin with, “In the period 75-90 an unknown Christian wrote the gospel that has come to be known as the Gospel according to Mathew … In the period 80-95 another writer, later identified correctly or incorrectly as Luke … produced a Gospel (DV 61). The church while “eventually including four different gospels in its selection of scripture, did nothing to harmonize their differences” (DV 62). The church is here admitting that divergence does not mean disharmony. However, the problem with the average believer is the desire to be provided with “gospel truth”, that brooks no argument. But we are warned that “Jesus does not give us a formula to repeat mechanically” (CCC 2766). So we cannot be parrots.
To the contrary, “Those who search out the intention of the sacred writers must, among other things, have regard for literary forms. For truth is composed and expressed in a variety of ways, depending on whether a text is history, or whether its form is that of prophecy, poetry or some other type of speech (DV 12). And again, “For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of perceiving, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the customs men normally followed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another” (DV 12). To put it bluntly, “A text without a context is a pretext”. So we should not use the pretext of – So it is written, so I believe, and so shall I continue to recite.
The Church gives similar advice. “The words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse” (DV 13). Let me simplify this by saying that what we popularly call the Word of God is in fact the “Voice of God in the words of men”. The Voice is eternal, but the words are subject to constant critique. At the same time, lest the interpreter be tempted to be greater than the writer, the Church again adds these words of wisdom, that its “teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it” (DV 10). With this nuanced approach we can move forward in our search for truth.
I will make a comparison of various texts. I have a collection of various translations/ versions of the Bible. For the last thirty years I have been using the New Jerusalem Bible brought out in 1984 with the Imprimatur of Cardinal Basil Hume of Westminster Abbey. For the Concordance I also use the King James Version. The latter uses the traditional phrase “Do not lead us into temptation”, but the former says “Do not put us to the test”, while the CCC uses the words “lead us not into temptation”. But the CCC also says that the English word “lead” is from a Greek verb. “It is difficult to translate the Greek verb used, by a single English word. The Greek word means both – ‘do not allow us to enter into temptation’ and ‘do not let us yield to temptation’” (CCC 2846).The Hebrew word for temptation is nasah, which means to try or to test. This would be closer to the Aramaic word that Jesus probably used.
In contrast the English word “temptation” has a very different connotation. Today it is not perceived as a test or trial, but as an inducement or seduction, usually of the carnal type – pertaining to food or sex. The same goes for the word “trespass”, which is more of an encroachment/ infringement than a moral transgression.
In the light of the above I would support the critique raised by Pope Francis that “lead us not into temptation” is a very very poor translation, and a misleading one. Pope Francis’ views are echoed by two other scripture writers – Peter and James, and the last book of the Bible – Revelation. This is what they have to say.
“I will keep you safe in the time of trials which is coming for the whole world, to put the people of the world to the test” (Rev 3:10). “The Lord is well able to rescue the good from their trials” (2 Pet 2:9). James the sociologist gives us the punch line “Never, when you are being put to the test say ‘God is tempting me’; God cannot be tempted by evil and he does not put anybody to the test. Everyone is put to the test by being attracted and seduced by that person’s own wrong desire. Then the desire conceives and gives birth to sin” (Jas 1:13-15).
James would surely have been present when Jesus taught the LP. What may sound like Greek to us today (pun intended) was pretty clear to him and Peter. God was not tempting, but protecting us. However, the obverse is also true, that God allows us to be tempted/ tested, though not beyond our strength. Far from seeing temptation as a necessary evil, James sees virtue in it. “It is a great joy when trials of many kinds come upon you, for you will know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Make sure that your perseverance carries you all the way without failing, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (Jas 1:2-4). This is why the Church teaches us that “There is a certain usefulness to temptation” (CCC 2847).
During this holy season of Lent, let us not get overly anxious about temptations that may come our way, but see them as a means of purification and perfection. Trusting in God’s grace we look forward to rising above all evil at Easter.
* This Lenten reflection is in continuation of “Never Ending Temptations”(Published on 12th March 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 11)