Pope Francis is Only Partly Right on the Lord’s Prayer

Pope Francis was right that the traditional English translation of the Lord’s Prayer is deficient, but his suggested change, and even his identification of which part needs to be changed, is simply wrong, and requires some comment, partly because it is a question so easily answered, partly because others have answered it easily. There is, however, a very important part that is today a poor translation due to the transformation of English over the last 400 years.

In the December 8 article from The Guardian, Pope Francis is quoted saying three things, 1) “It is not a good translation because it speaks of a God who induces temptation”; 2) he believed the wording should be altered to better reflect that it was not God who led humans to sin. And finally, 3) it ought to say, “do not let us fall into temptation” instead. The second point is important, since many have reported the Pope saying this, but none use quotation marks.

The part of the prayer that the Pope targeted for change is undoubtedly translated correctly as “lead us not,” and anyone who suggests changing it is making a theological argument (and one against the original author of the prayer), not a philological one. For an example of a philological argument, read the next section.

The Argument from Lexicography
In the first place, there can be no question that μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς (mḗ eisenéngkēis) means “lead [us] not,” and that εἰσενέγκῃς (eisenéngkēs) is a compound of the verb φέρω (fé), “bring, bear,” and the preposition εἰς (eis), “into.” This is the same verb féro that the Romans used. No difference whatsoever. One might prefer “lead” or “bring,” but to change it into the a passive form of a different verb entirely is wrong on 1) semantic and 2) morphological grounds.

In the second place, there can be no question that πειρασμός (peirasmós) is “temptation” or “testing.” This Greek noun is cognate with the Greek verb πειράζω (peirázō), “tempt” or “test.” The English words “tempt” and “test” are cognates, uniting the notion of “tempting” and “testing.” To the ancient Greek and Roman mind, there is no distinction, since there is no desire for the object of testing to fail the test, but merely to reveal the truth about the object.

The Argument from Historiography
Basil the Great (329–379), one of the Three Greek Doctors of the Church (along with John Chrysostom, and Gregory Nazianzen), told his disciple Chilo (pronounced like the name of the bad guy in the new Star Wars movie) that “the faithful is proven by all sorts of temptations”: Πειρασμοῖς δὲ ποταποῖς δοκιμάζεται ὁ πιστός (Peirasmoîs dè potapoîs dokimázetai ho pistós, Epistle 42.2.42–43). He even uses language reminiscent of the Epistle of James (1.12–13) that is being used by some to support the Pope’s criticism. Basil here is not only evoking for his student the Gospel teaching that God brings the faithful into temptation: he is doing it in language that would resonate with Chilo as a fourth-century student.

Such a young man would go off to his university studies, usually at another city, under a teacher called a rhetor. There he would learn everything necessary to become what Cato in the first century BC called an orator (the literal Latin equivalent of the Greek word rhetor): vir bonus peritus dicendi. A good man who is also skilled at speaking. This unites moral (first) and technical (second) training as the irreducible united goal of the education of the young person.

In the fourth century AD, as a graduated student of rhetoric, Chilo would have gone home to face his proving—his δοκιμασία (dokimasía). This was a special exhibition of the fruits of the graduate’s time spent abroad, given to his own community, a “proof” of his education. So when Basil tells Chilo that the faithful is proven by temptations, he is encouraging him that the tests he undergoes will reveal for all the gold of which he is made, in all its glitter.

The Argument from Philology
So perhaps we need to revisit the pope’s criticism, and consider changing “temptation” to “test.” For the modern Anglophone, there is a difference between a “test” and a “temptation.” After all, as a teacher, I do not tell my students that I am going to give them a “temptation” to prove their knowledge of Greek and Latin. In fact, the Greek noun from which both these words are derived—πεῖρα (peîra)—is the root of the Latin word experimentum: perhaps you noticed the -pe(i)r-, the image-bearing root of both words. Experimentum, I think, has an obvious English derivative.

Peirasmós means “test” then. Fine. What about the question whether it is impious to say that God “puts man to the test”? We need not adduce the examples of Abraham and Isaac (Gen. 9), or Job, or Lot’s wife (Gen. 19): we need not stray from the Gospels themselves to prove that this is true. There we will find three increasingly compelling examples of God leading man into temptation.

First, in Luke 22, immediately before exhorting his disciples to pray that they enter not into temptation (22:40), Jesus tells Peter that Satan has sought the opportunity “to sift you (pl.) like wheat” (22:31), but that he has prayed “that your faith not fail you” (22:32). As we know well, Peter would fail and sin against the Son of Man, but, going out immediately and weeping bitterly, he would find a merciful master later on (walking on the seashore in John 21). Jesus did not pray that Peter be not put to the test, but rather that the gold of which he is made be revealed by that fire.

Second, in John 6, (in my opinion the most important single chapter in all of the Scriptures), Jesus himself puts his disciple Philip to the test. When the crowds are gathered, and he is about to multiply loaves of bread, he asks Philip where they could buy bread for everyone to eat. The Evangelist then tells us directly, “he was saying this because he was testing him”: τοῦτο δὲ ἔλεγεν πειράζων αὐτόν (toûto dè élegen peirázōn autón, John 6:6). Not only is it Jesus’s will that his disciple’s faith be tested, but he himself will test the disciple.

Finally in the first verse of Matthew 4, we are told that Jesus was “led by the Spirit into the desert to be tested by the devil”: Τότε ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἀνήχθη εἰς τὴν ἔρημον ὑπὸ τοῦ πνεύματος, πειρασθῆναι ὑπὸ τοῦ διαβόλου (Tóte o Iēsoûs anḗchthē eis tḕn érēmon hupò toû pneúmatos, peirasthē̂nai hupò toû diabólou). Two strong semantic parallels invite comparison.

One. We can see here that Jesus was “led” into the desert.

Two. Jesus was led into the desert “to be tempted” or “tested,” πειρασθῆναι.

This is the same verb (πειράζω) we keep seeing, from which the abstract noun “temptation” (πειρασμός) is derived. In the narrative that follows, the devil is referred to as The Tempter (ὁ πειράζων, 4:3), and Jesus tells him, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” (οὐκ ἐκπειράσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου, 4:8).

The Argument from Common Sense
What an absurd notion, to think that one of God’s creations could “tempt” him. Far more absurd than thinking that God will “test” one of his creations!

Jesus is being tested, and we would be right to translate Matthew 4:1 with “to be tested,” and we would also be right to translate verse 3 with “the tempter” and verse 8 with “you shall not test.”

The Holy Spirit led Jesus into temptation (Matt. 4:1). If saying those words strikes you as wrong, it is because of the failure of the modern English word “temptation” to convey the neutral image of a “testing” that is not eager to see the subject fail the test. The lynchpin of the issue is not the verb “lead”; it is the noun “temptation.” This is what we ought to change, if we change anything.

If we can accept that it happened to Jesus, then surely we need not lose our peace if we humbly ask to be spared a difficult testing. After all, the same God that brings us to the test has prayed that our faith will not fail. May he make in us a soul of gold to be revealed in his time.

Lionel Yaceczko


Lionel Yaceczko, PhD, is on the faculty of The Heights School in Potomac, Maryland, where he teaches Greek and Latin. His articles have appeared in Studies in Late Antiquity, Cavalcade, and The Forum.