Early Church Grappled With ‘Temptation’ Translation Issue in Lord’s Prayer

Biblical scholar Father Francesco Giosuè Voltaggio says translation changes are possible, but the real solution is better catechesis.

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VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis made headlines around the world earlier this month when he drew attention to the sixth petition of the Our Father — “lead us not into temptation” — saying it is “not a good translation” in Italian — and English — and implying it should be changed.

But the issue is an ancient one, and the early Church Fathers had the same problems, according to biblical scholar Father Francesco Giosuè Voltaggio, a specialist in ancient Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic.

Pope Benedict XVI once noted that the phraseology can be “shocking,” but explained how the petition means asking God not to allow oneself to be led into temptation, as well as calling on the Lord not to mete out more suffering than one can endure.

In a video series for the Italian television network TV2000 broadcast Dec. 6, the Holy Father said he had problems with the translation, as “I am the one who falls; it’s not [God] who pushes me toward temptation to see how I fall. A father doesn’t do this; a father helps us to get up right away.”

He went on to say that the one who leads people into temptation “is Satan” and that the petition is actually saying that “when Satan leads me into temptation,” please, God, “give me your hand. Give me your hand.”

In the same way that Jesus gave Peter his hand to help him out of the water when he began to sink, the prayer also asks God to “give me your hand so that I don’t drown,” the Pope added.

The Holy Father noted that the Church in France recently translated this version of the prayer to read “do not let me fall into temptation” — a rendering also used in Spanish.

The Italian bishops have already adopted a new translation — “do not abandon us to temptation” — but it has not yet been incorporated into liturgical use.

St. Thomas Aquinas interpreted “not to lead into temptation” as meaning that God can allow a person to be led into evil “to the extent that, because of his many sins, He withdraws His grace from man, and as a result of this withdrawal, man does fall into sin.”

St. Augustine wrote of two facets to temptations: the evil one, whereby “men are deceived and brought under the yoke of the devil,” and temptation in the sense of trial, whereby it is written: “The Lord your God tempteth (proveth) you to know whether ye love Him.”

He said the Lord knows already whether a person loves him, but the trial is “to make you know” in order to “fight against our lusts.”


Benedict XVI

In his 2007 book Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, Benedict XVI devotes a whole chapter to interpreting the Our Father and acknowledges that the phrasing of the sixth petition is “shocking for many people.”

“God certainly does not lead us into temptation,” he writes, reminding the reader of the words from James 1:13: “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.”

Benedict recalls how Jesus was tempted by the devil and stresses that temptation comes from the devil, but that part of Jesus’ messianic task is to “withstand the great temptations that have led man away from God and continue to do so.” Jesus descends “into the domain of our temptations and defeats” to “take us by the hand and carry us upward,” Benedict explains.

Referring to the Old Testament trials of Job, Benedict points out that God gave Satan the freedom to test Job, but within “precisely defined boundaries.” God does not “abandon man, but he does allow him to be tried.” And doing so, Benedict added, God “restores man’s honor.” The trials of Job are an anticipation of Christ’s sufferings — Christ who restores the honor of all of us, showing us “never to lose faith in God even amid the deepest darkness,” he says.

Job, he adds, can “help us distinguish between trial and temptation” and reminds the reader that man needs to be tried “in order to mature.” As the “juice of a grape has to ferment in order to become fine wine, so, too, man needs purifications and transformations,” Benedict writes. Love, he continues, is always a “process involving purifications, renunciations, and painful transformations of ourselves — and that is how it is a journey to maturity.”

Having understood all this, Benedict says we are “now in a position to interpret the sixth petition of the Our Father in a more practical way.” When we pray it, we are saying to God: “I know that I need trials so that my nature can be purified,” but “don’t set too wide the boundaries within which I may be tempted, and be close to me with your protecting hand when it becomes too much for me.”

Benedict then quotes third-century St. Cyprian of Carthage, who said that by praying the sixth petition, we are showing our awareness that the “Evil One is not permitted to do anything unless he is given authorization.” The two reasons God might do this, the saint added, were to “dampen our pride” in order to “re-experience” faith, hope and love and, in a mysterious way, give glory to God.

When we pray the sixth petition, therefore, we must “be ready to take upon ourselves the burden of trials that is meted out to us,” Benedict writes, but the object of the petition is to “ask God not to mete out more than we can bear, not to let us slip from his hands.”

Each member of the faithful, he adds, should have the “trustful certainty” that St. Paul articulated in 1 Corinthians 10:13: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”


Translation Difficulties

In his comments to the Register Dec. 13, Father Voltaggio, a native of Rome who now teaches sacred Scripture at the Studium Theologicum Galilaeae in Jerusalem, said he agreed with the Pope that the translation could be changed to make it more understandable.

But he also said “it’s practically impossible” to translate the Our Father “into the right words in our languages,” as the words of God are a “treasure and so full of meaning.”

What is needed most, he said, is better catechesis, “not just in grammatical aspects or the modern exegesis [interpretation], but also the Tradition of the Church,” so the faithful can better understand the true meaning of the petition.

He welcomed modern exegesis, as it has “helped us to understand many things,” but he said that sometimes we make the mistake of looking for the “exact translation for a word.” Such an approach, he said, was “not in the mind of the rabbis and the Fathers of the Church,” and he pointed to the Greek word peirasmon that literally can mean either “temptation” or “trial.” It is the same in Hebrew and Aramaic, he added, as the word has the same root, and he cited as an example Genesis 22, when God puts Abraham to the test by requesting him to sacrifice his son Isaac.

“Of course, we don’t say God introduced temptation to Abraham, but he gave him a test, a trial, an examination of his faith for the good of his growth in sanctity,” Father Voltaggio said, in common with Benedict XVI and the early Church Fathers. For this reason, he believes these discussions over new translations often “don’t consider the richness of terms of the Our Father in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic.”

He said that as a scholar also of rabbinical literature, he is aware of the “important principle” of “double meaning,” where words in Scripture have a literal meaning and a symbolic or figurative one.


Translation Temptations

Father Voltaggio further stressed that the early Church Fathers already addressed the problems of translating Jesus’ words in the prayer into Greek. “They had the same problem,” he said, but they “solved it.”

But he believes the Italian and English translation of the Latin inducas (induce or lead) could be changed and that the Spanish or French translation of “not to fall” is a better one (although he said it, too, is not perfect).

The Italian priest also warned against criticizing new translations as “heretical.”

“That’s exaggerated to me,” he said, adding he is concerned that some in the Church are using such an issue “not in order to find the truth of the Gospel, but to try to accuse others,” which is “not in the spirit” of God, or the Sermon on the Mount — the context in which Jesus taught the Our Father.

He said he sincerely thinks the Pope “wants a better way to understand” the petition, and he “didn’t propose a wrong translation.”

But Father Voltaggio warned against accommodating the efforts of some theologians and bishops who seek to tone down some of the seemingly harsher words of Jesus in the Gospels.

“Christ is a sign of contradiction,” he said, adding that, if he came to tell us things we already knew, we “wouldn’t convert.” So he warns against being led into the temptation of changing the radicalness of the Gospel. “We mustn’t fall into that trap,” he said. “It’s a big temptation to destroy the radicalness of the Gospel.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.