By Mark Michael
“Lead us not into mistranslation,” ran one of the snarkier headlines last June. For a day or two the religious end of the internet was abuzz with the news that Pope Francis had commended a revision to the text of the Lord’s Prayer. In an Italian news interview, he advocated replacing the phrase “lead us not into temptation” with “do not let us fall into temptation,” believing this will say more clearly that God does not send temptations our way while standing back and seeing what will happen. “I am the one who falls;” he told Italian journalists. “It’s not God pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen.”
Evangelical leader John Piper crowed that the pope was “reading the Bible upside down,” while progressive Catholics touted it as a yet another sign of the pope’s warm pastoral heart. For a brief moment, people were even rousing New Testament textual critics from their dusty perches in the library to pass judgment on exactly how to render that tricky Greek noun peirasmos.
Few seemed to notice that the change in question was only for the Italian liturgical books or that it had been approved last December by the local bishops’ conference after 20 years of study. This was not an idea that popped into the pope’s head during his morning meditation. Besides, the new version simply brought the Italian text of the prayer closer to earlier revisions of the French and Spanish texts. And, of course, all of these prayer texts are translations of a Latin rendering of a Greek original, which was itself a translation of Jesus’ original words. They were in Aramaic, and were lost many centuries ago.
The change does not apply to English translations of the Roman Catholic liturgy, which aren’t due for review for some time. The German bishops, incidentally, considered the idea carefully, only to answer with a decided nein. One of their primary reasons was that they didn’t want to surrender their ability to pray with their Protestant brothers and sisters in the same words. They did, though, say that more teaching was necessary to avoid the misunderstanding that the pope pointed out.
For now, at least, we Anglicans use the same words as English-speaking Roman Catholics when we pray the Lord’s Prayer (that doxology aside, most of the time). That’s because they use our words, or at least the ones chosen for the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. They weren’t new then, though. “Leede us nat in to temptacion,” so far as I can tell, was first coined by John Wycliffe in 1389 — but don’t tell the National Catholic Register, as it would certainly spoil their fun.
As Melanie McDonagh pointed out in her column in The Spectator, it almost wasn’t so. In 1537, while drafting The Institution of the Christian Man, the document that set the program for the English Reformation, King Henry VIII proposed changing what was then the new text of the Lord’s Prayer in English to cut out the pastoral difficulties from the beginning. Wouldn’t it be better, he wondered to his archbishop, to have it as “suffer us not to be led into temptation?” If Pope Francis had been around, might the whole “English matter” have turned out differently?
Cranmer put his foot down in the matter, a proper Teutonic nein. “Christ taught us thus to pray, ‘Lead us not into temptation.’ And we should not alter any word in the scripture … although it shall appear to us in many places to signify much absurdity. The scripture must be set out in God’s own words, and if there be any ambiguity, absurdity, or scruple, [let it be explained] after it [is]declared, according to the true sense thereof.”
Don’t move the landmarks (Deut. 19:4), Cranmer insists. Receive the word given to you with reverence. Don’t forget that faithful interpretation demands patience and humility. If you file away the sharp edge of the phrase too earnestly, you may lose sight what Jesus is trying to teach.
Temptation, after all, is the testing ground for the Christian character, and we are blessed when we face it with endurance and prevail (Jas. 1:12). God clearly tested Abraham and Job, perhaps even our Lord, when he fixed his face toward his destiny, choosing “not my will, but thine be done” (Luke 22:42). It’s only the temptation beyond our strength that we ask God to drive away; facing the weaker variety is just what we need to grow in his grace. Leaving the technical matters entirely to the experts, there are good pastoral reasons for leaving the prayer as it has been.
Sometimes a strange word in a Bible reading or a liturgical text may be a stumbling block to one “almost persuaded” (Acts 26:28). We discover new things in old texts, or hear words intended for building up used only to tear down. Just how much time do we have to explain in an age of shortened attention spans and sporadic Sunday attendance? I’ve been asked just the question Pope Francis brings up at least half a dozen times by good people who were afraid God was setting them up to fail.
But a strange word can often teach us something we would miss otherwise. Caution in revising saves us from the idolatrous urge to have God parrot back only what we already wanted to hear. Many of the best sermons and most fruitful meditations arise from the detail we find most out of place in a Bible passage. Are we 1979 prayer book Episcopalians better Christians for no longer reckoning ourselves “miserable offenders” or asking that “our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body? “Am I just being a miserable curmudgeon if I admit I’m not at all certain?
The Living Church magazine has just published our Fall book issue, which features a number of essays and reviews on foundational books: Bible and Common Prayer, texts often both familiar and strange. Paul Wheatley engages with John Barton’s magisterial effort to read “the Bible as-it-is,” while Isabelle Hamley explores a neo-traditional approach to Judges and Ruth. Micah Latimer-Dennis finds an entre for post-Holocaust theology in a most unlikely place, the Prayer of Humble Access. Meanwhile, Cal Lane summarizes what we hope will be the first of many careful studies before this generation tries its hand at the delicate task of prayer book revision, and flags up an important conference on the subject coming up in Cincinnati this fall.
Take up and read — perhaps especially if the word is strange to your ears. God may be saying just what he needs you to hear.
Fr. Mark Michael is editor of The Living Church Magazine and rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland.