Ronald D. Witherup PSS

This article examines Pope Francis' recent comments on the translation of the Lord's Prayer from a biblical and theological point of view, with attention to pastoral ramifications. Ronald D. Witherup PSS is Superior General of the Society of the Priests of St Sulpice. 

our fatherPope Francis obviously does not hesitate to go where 'angels fear to tread'. Recently he waded into a debate about the translation of the Our Father in English, stating clearly that he thought the translation of the first part of the sixth petition  -  'lead us not into temptation'  -  should be changed. The reason: it misleads people into thinking God toys with humanity by frivolously 'tempting' them. ,Unsurprisingly, this led to astounding headlines like, 'Pope Seeks to Change the Lord's Prayer'! 

What is going on here, and what is at stake? 

Biblical background
To understand the root of the problem, we need to explore the biblical concept of temptation, which appears in both Old and New Testaments. Already in the Bible, the vocabulary of temptation is complex. The Hebrew verb nissah and the Greek verb peirazō -  can mean both 'tempt' and 'test'. The difference is that tempt/temptation implies a kind of inducement to do evil, whereas test/testing means to be put under pressure to prove one's faithfulness or endurance. The predominant (English) New Revised Standard Version of the Bible rightly tends to use 'test' and its cognates to translate the biblical concept, although 'tempt' and its cognates are used in various New Testament contexts. 

Does the translation make a difference? Yes, because, for the most part, the Bible does not conceive of God tempting human beings in the way we normally interpret the word, as if he tries to seduce us to do evil. The Letter of James, for instance, explicitly says:

No one, when tempted, should say, 'I am being tempted by God'; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one's own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin...1.

So, the Pope's instincts about God not tempting us are correct. But the picture is a bit more complicated.

Does God tempt?
Let's take a quick look at some examples from the Bible of stories that deal with 'temptation'. Four narratives from the Old Testament stand out.

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