Pope’s changes to the Lord’s Prayer may be valid

A change in the wording of the Italian Lord’s Prayer, approved earlier this month by Pope Francis, could be theologically justified but was not preferable, New Testament scholar Michael Bird says.

The new wording of the Italian version changes “lead us not into temptation” to “do not let us fall into temptation” because of theological objection to the idea “of a God who induces temptation.”

“I am the one who falls. It’s not him pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen,” the Pope told Italian TV in 2017.

The new wording will appear in the third edition of the Messale Romano, the liturgical book that contains the guiding texts for mass in the Roman Catholic Church.

Michael Bird, who is lecturer in theology at Ridley College in Melbourne, said at one level the change was valid because the Book of James 1:13, says: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.”

However, to change the Lord’s Prayer seems “overbearing” when the Greek text of that line in Matthew 6:13 is pretty clear.

“It talks about ‘not bring us into temptation or the time of trial,’ so it can mean bringing in like bringing a lamp into the room or some people take it to mean bring into the condition of something, so bring into a condition where we could face temptation or some sort of trial,” he said.

“So there might be a theological rationale for the decision but you would have to agree you were giving Matthew 6:13 not just a translation but a bit of an interpretation, a bit of a gloss as well in line with a theological principle.”

He says such an approach is not always illegitimate because all biblical translations require some element of interpretation.

“Sometimes you can try and maintain the ambiguity of the original Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic, but more often any translation requires some element of interpretation already.

“So it happens in the case of the Italian Bible that they’ve gone for a somewhat thicker element of interpretation to make a theological point.”

He said the only case to be made in support of such a change was that the Syriac version of the Lord’s Prayer rendered the contentious line as “Do not let us fall/go into temptation.”

“This is a question that translators face all the time. Do you give the most literal rendering, or do you add an interpretive gloss, and what evidence do you incorporate from other versions (Aramaic, Syriac, Latin, Coptic) in adding in your own English translation?

“Given that Syriac is cognate to Aramaic and Aramaic was the language of Jesus, you can kind of see the point that’s going on there. I think the theological justification makes it permissible, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s preferable.”

Bird points out that the word for temptation, parasmos, can also mean the ‘time of trial’, so it may not be talking about temptation in the sense of enticement to sin but rather the eschatological ordeal that is predicted to happen before Christ’s return.

“So, in other words, ‘don’t bring us into that time of trial’ or sometimes ‘deliver us from within the time of trial should it come upon us’.”

He believes debates about the wording of the Lord’s Prayer will continue among theologians because there are a lot of issues with its translation. Sometimes the meaning of words is unclear and there is more than one possible translation.

“Calling God as Father – is that a patriarchal thing we should abandon? – and that’s one issue in the first two words of the prayer; then there’s a translation issue related to ‘daily bread’; there’s also translation issues related to the parasmos – does that mean enticement to sin or does it mean the eschatological ordeal? – and then you’ve got the debt/sins.

“So there’s a few curious translation issues people have to wrestle with …

“But when you’re dealing with the Bible and key parts of the Bible, even the most subtle, nuanced or even justified changes can always be met with resistance.”