lead us not into mistranslation

The NYT reports Pope Francis is considering refashioning a line of the Our Father that he says is poorly rendered and even theologically misleading:

In a new television interview, Pope Francis said the common rendering of one line in the prayer — “lead us not into temptation” — was “not a good translation” from ancient texts. “Do not let us fall into temptation,” he suggested, might be better because God does not lead people into temptation; Satan does.

“A father doesn’t do that,” the pope said. “He helps you get up right away. What induces into temptation is Satan.”

In essence, the pope said, the prayer, from the Book of Matthew, is asking God, “When Satan leads us into temptation, You please, give me a hand.”

The Times also notes that these proposed changes have ignited debates between factions of Christians, some who see Francis’ suggestion as an affront to orthodoxy.

The textual tradition surrounding this prayer, however, might be Francis’ best ally in arguing for changes. Some of the most important early Christian authors, including Ambrose and Augustine, show an understanding of temptation in the Our Father that aligns quite well with Francis’ interpretation.

First, it’s worth revisiting the Greek New Testament and Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, where the Our Father appears twice. At Matthew 6:13, we have et ne inducas nos in tentationem, and at Luke 11:4 we have et ne nos inducas in tentationem. The Latin verb inducere seems pretty straightforward here: “to lead in” or perhaps “to carry in” or even “to drag in.” (For a full range of these various shades of lead/carry/drag/etc., see the TLL entry for induco beginning at vol. VII 1, 1231, 40.) The Greek is similarly clear. Both Matthew and Luke write καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν, and εἰσφέρω (the irregular aorist stem appears in Gospels) simply means “to bring in” or perhaps some minor variant, similar to what we see with the Latin inducere.

If we rely on these Gospel texts alone, the Pope will have a tough argument to make. The original languages don’t seem to offer much space for “Do not let us fall” as a faithful translation of inducere or εἰσφέρω

But an article by A. J. B Higgins in The Journal of Theological Studies (Vol. 46, No. 183/184 [July/October 1945], pp. 179-183) shows us that the story of this Gospel verse is quite complex among the earliest Christian authors. In fact, these ancient writers suggest that even if one leaves the Greek and Latin texts above unmodified, something like “do not let us fall” could be an acceptable English rendering of this compact verse.

The article proceeds through several early patristic authors who provide alternative texts for the prayer or guidance on how to interpret the verb inducere. To begin, Higgins cites Tertullian who in his De Oratione writes “lead us not into temptation, that is to say, do not allow us to be led.” (ne nos inducas in temptationem, id est, ne nos patiaris induci, 8). While for Tertullian, Higgins notes, the second phrase is not meant to be part of the original prayer but rather an explanation, Cyprian believes this explanation is “part of the actual scriptural text.” In his De Dominica Oratione, Cyprian gives the following as a Gospel citation: et ne patiaris nos induci in temptationem, or in English, “And do not allow us to be led into temptation.” (25). In English, Cyprian’s citation sounds quite close to Francis’ suggestion above.

Ambrose follows Cyprian and “regards the words et ne patiaris induci nos in tentationem as part of the text of the Lord’s Prayer,” and this patristic author goes so far as to reject the more compact phrase used in the Vulgate. In De Sacrimentis (V.4.29), he writes “non dicit: non inducas in tentationem.” Higgins explains that Ambrose here “evidently reject[s] the form non inducas in favour of ne patiaris induci.”

Perhaps the most interesting example from Higgins’ survey of early Christian authors comes from Augustine, who provides evidence of variations in the Our Father among his contemporary believers. He observes, “Many people in their prayers, however, say it this way: ‘and do not allow us to be led into temptation.’ Clearly, they are just explaining how inducas is being used” (multi autem precando ita dicunt, ne nos patiaris induci in tentationem; exponentes videlicet quomodo dictum sit, inducasDe Sermone Domini in Monte II.9.30).

This last example is especially interesting as we consider what one wants to accomplish with a translation of the original Greek and Latin texts into contemporary vernacular prayers. Should the English strive to mimic the simplicity of et ne nos inducas by using “and do not lead us” in a one-to-one correspondence between the two languages? Or should an English translation, following Augustine’s explanation, use a phrase like “and do not allow us to be led” or Francis’ “do not let us fall” for an English version, understanding that an expanded phrase better captures the meaning of inducas or εἰσενέγκῃς?

As today’s churchgoers consider this debate, they should bear in mind their ancient exegetical predecessors, those patristic authors who defined the Christian church in its first centuries. Like these early authors and their aged texts, today’s believers would do well to view themselves as malleable interlocutors rather than stubborn authorities. If Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome couldn’t quite settle on a definitive text or perspicuous meaning of Christianity’s central prayer, we should allow ourselves a little room for debate, too.

3AM Philosophy Interviews

3am Magazine has a been publishing fascinating and substantive interviews with A-list academic philosophers for years, and for whatever reason they have generally flown under the radar of both academic audiences and wider readership (at least as far as I can tell). Today they published a list of their 302 interviews, categorized quite broadly (epistemology vs. aesthetics, e.g.). Of course these interviews will be interesting to those in proper philosophy departments, but there are number of classicists in the mix.

To name a few, there are interviews with Gail Judith Fine, Brooke Holmes, Anna Marmodoro, Iakovos Vasiliou, and Katja Vogt. Go have a look at the rest, too.

Thesaurus Linguae Latinae Workshop


I learned a great deal about Latin lexicography and the information made available in the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae during my fellowship last year. On Thursday, November 16, I’m leading a practical workshop on the TLL to share some of this knowledge with other academics—how to decode its typography, how to mine the bibliographic information in its Index, and how to understand the organization of an article’s various sections. The workshop, hosted in Butler Library, should be helpful not just for Columbia’s classicists but also for those working with Latin texts in other fields, including Philosophy, History, and Comparative Literature.

To register, send me an e-mail at the address above.