Human Agency and the Lord’s Prayer

Caveat: I am neither a theologian nor a specialist in Biblical Greek (my specialty is Homeric Greek). I claim no authority in what follows and will gladly add any comments or corrections.

A twitter correspondent recently noted that Pope Francis wants to change the standard translation of the Lord’s Prater because of the line typically translated as “lead us not into temptation”. The Pope’s objects is that this version might lead people to believe that God is the cause of human sin.

Even though I probably said this prayer a thousand times as a child, I never really thought about it or where it came from. So, Master Clarke’s question made me nervous. I looked at the Greek, and it is straightforward. Then I started thinking about the objection. So, here is my very basic translation (the hubris!) followed by the Greek, the Latin and a short comment. (Wikipedia’s discussion is decent as a starting point)

“Our father, the one in the heavens,
May your name be sacred.
May your kingdom come,
May your desire be done
On the earth as it is in heaven.
Give to us today our bread for the coming day.
Free us of our debts
As we have freed those indebted to us.
And do not compel us to a test
But protect us from wickedness.

Πάτερ ἡμῶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς·
ἁγιασθήτω τὸ ὄνομά σου·
ἐλθέτω ἡ βασιλεία σου·
γενηθήτω τὸ θέλημά σου,
ὡς ἐν οὐρανῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς·
τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον δὸς ἡμῖν σήμερον·
καὶ ἄφες ἡμῖν τὰ ὀφειλήματα ἡμῶν,
ὡς καὶ ἡμεῖς ἀφήκαμεν τοῖς ὀφειλέταις ἡμῶν·
καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν,
ἀλλὰ ῥῦσαι ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ τοῦ πονηροῦ.

Compare to the King James Version

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

Here’s the Latin Vulgate

Pater noster, qui es in caelis,
sanctificetur nomen tuum,
adveniat regnum tuum,
fiat voluntas tua,
sicut in caelo, et in terra.
Panem nostrum supersubstantialem da nobis hodie;
et dimitte nobis debita nostra,
sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris;
et ne inducas nos in tentationem;
sed libera nos a Malo

Image result for lord's prayer greek manuscript

A few notes:

An Anglican scholar (Rev. Ian Paul) suggests that the problem comes from the ambiguity of peirasmos (πειρασμόν) which the Latin vulgate translations as tentationem (“temptation”) but which conveys a sense of “test”, “trial” etc. The root peira is also relation to words of experience. As a Classicist and not a theologian, if I can break away from my own protestant upbringing, I would also add that the “lead” of English is not really appropriate for the Latin (inducas) or the Greek (εἰσενέγκῃς). Both of these verbs seem to imply a request for the deity not to force the speaker of the prayer into a test (perhaps crucible or evaluation). But the peirasmos in the context of the New Testament recalls, for me, Jesus’ testing by Satan in the wilderness.

Late antique and Byzantine lexicographers (Hesychius, Photius, Etymological texts, the Suda) often gloss Ἐπαγωγή with πειρασμός, defining the former as “a punishment, captivity, or anything bad that happens to a person” (Suda, epsilon 1921: ἢ ζημία, αἰχμαλωσία, ἤτοι τὸ ὁπωσοῦν ἐπαγόμενον κακόν). The Etymologicum Gudianum glosses notes that peirasmos is a noun from the verb “to test” which means “to attach or engage in war” (Πειρασμὸς, παρὰ τὸ πειράζω, ὃ σημαίνει τὸ καταλαμβάνω καὶ πολεμῶ). So, rather than denoting a mere solicitation or inducement (as might be implied by our “temptation”) this noun may carry the force of a violent trial.

So—and again, I am not only not a theologian but I am an agnostic who would claim classical atheism if the modern atheists hadn’t made such a mess of things—what I see from my years of reading Greek is not a blaming of sin on God, but rather a plea that God not make a test of man’s ability to resist. The point of the Greek, I think, is that good and evil exist and man has the ability to choose. The first request is one for God not to force us into testing our mettle.

When followed by the next line (ἀλλὰ ῥῦσαι) where the speaker requests to be “protected from evil”, it seems to me that we have an expanded idea: essentially, “don’t force me into a test [of good and evil] [which I might fail as an imperfect being] but preserve me from the evil” [so I may choose the good, because, as I said, I am imperfect]. And this binary request within the polarization of good and evil seems as well to dovetail with the previous lines where the speaker asks to be released from “debts” or “obligations”.

So, based just on the English of the King James (“lead us not into temptation”), I think the Pope probably has a point that the translation could mislead people about human agency in error. But the “lead” does not do this alone…Also, I think we must content with the radical difference between the translations “debts” and “trespasses” (property anyone?) in addition to the difference between “temptation” and “test”.

I ignored another important problem:



And this:


But I did get this:

19 thoughts on “Human Agency and the Lord’s Prayer

  1. I often wonder how biblical literalists who don’t read the original languages wrap their brains around translation, since there is so much interpretation in it!

      1. I wonder if we more accurately depicted translation in entertainment (particularly aimed at children) if it would make any impact. So often translation is depicted more like breaking a code than interpreting.

      2. Right? As if there is a direct truth to be elicited with the perfect key. You know what would help with the literalists? More foreign language training at a young age…

    1. The Bible claim Adam was the first human 6000 years ago but history records human life existed on earth few hundred thousand years ago. How does the evidence of life on earth millions of years ago equate with the Bible claim that God created life on earth recently by comparison? Starting with a deep commitment to the inerrancy of God’s Word, has calculated a span of just a few thousand years, most likely close to 6000 years, since creation. The age of the earth can be estimated by taking the first five days of creation (from earth’s creation to Adam), then following the genealogies from Adam to Abraham in Genesis 5 and 11, then adding in the time from Abraham to today. Adam was created on day 6, so there were five days before him. If we add up the dates from Adam to Abraham, we get about 2,000 years, using the Masoretic Hebrew text of Genesis 5 and 11.3 Whether Christian or secular, most scholars would agree that Abraham lived about 2,000 B.C. (4,000 years ago). Historians date Abraham’s biblical story around 2000 B.C., based on clues in Genesis Chapters 11 through 25. So a simple calculation is: 5 days + 2000 years + 4000 years = 6000 years.

  2. I think the King James translator accurately rendered the verb, but not the noun. While semantically temptation might eventually imply some kind of test, testing is hardly akin to tempting. Clearly, some translators struggle to keep up with the text for theological reasons. Assuming that ‘our God is a testing father’ is more complicated to grasp/explain (theologically) ‘than our God is a loving father’.

  3. In Irish, it’s “Ná lig sinn i gcathú” = don’t allow us into temptation, so the issue doesn’t arise in our version. As people have said above, Biblical fundamentalism is a nonsense, unless you somehow pretend that all Biblical translators work under divine inspiration. You’ll be very lucky to find a translator who works under any kind of inspiration, in my experience. My favourite story about translations of the Paternoster is the old one about the Inuit version which translated literally as “Give us this day our daily seal” – obviously bread wouldn’t mean much in that particular culture.

  4. So I’ve had a post on the Lord’s Prayer bumbling around for awhile, but as I only have two years of Greek, and it’s pretty rusty (I’m diving back into Plato, so I’m trying to break up the rust now), and my site isn’t really about biblical theology unless it’s of historical interest to the development of the West as a heritage unconsciously assimilated or consciously rejected or else translated into secular terms, I haven’t touched it.
    However, I’ll say that the English translations miss a lot, and I strongly suspect the received version –not reduced to either of the two in the Biblical books themselves– is a chiasm.
    Even aside from that, look at the rhythm that’s lost in the descending from God to the bread
    The English rips up this crescendo with
    Hallowed be thy N/name, [there is a lot of hypostatization of the divine Name in the Biblical text]
    Thy kingdom come
    Thy will be done
    in the first of these, the verb precedes the object, whereas in the second and third, the object comes first. Why? No need. The second and third can’t have the verb frontloaded in an English translation without making it suuuuuper clunky, so it seems best to have it be
    Thy N/name be hallowed
    Thy dominion come [basileia denotes, as I understand it, not primarily a territory, but the act of ruling as it extends effectively — correct me on this?]
    Thy will be done
    Then the “hos en ourano, kai epi tes ges” is really “as in the heaven, also upon the earth”, which continues the downward flow, as one sees in most Jewish prayers during this time. The Vulgate has this, but the English just carelessly reverses them…unless it has some anti-Catholic stuff frontloaded into it?
    The arton […] epiousion is tricky. Origen, as I recall, thought it clearly referred to some divine reality; in Jewish folklore, the angels’ food is the glory of the divine presence (see Golitzin’s work on this, probably locatable on the Marquette Jewish Roots of Eastern Christian Mysticism website — I can’t recall which work of his I found that in). Originally, I was convinced that something like that was happening here. After all, there is a heavenly doppleganger tradition in the later HB and in the NT (“they thought it was [Peter’s] angel” and “let the children come to me, for their angels always see the face of my Father in heaven” [making Jesus seemingly the earthly counterpart to the heavenly divine face]), and in much of the Gnostic literature. Paul seems to talk about this tradition. A. Segal has some works on this, if I’m not mistaken.
    Then I talked to (I hope he doesn’t mind that I’m naming him! it was a private conversation…) Geoffrey Smith, who, if I’m not mistaken, digs up stuff from the Oxyrhynchus dump. He admitted that “epiousion” is a hapax legomenon, but that we have lots of other words from this time period where the “epi” prefix is attached, and it’s just an intensifier in this period. The sense would seem to me to be (and I’m not quoting Dr. Smith anymore) “really essential” or the hyperbolic “more than essential”, which is sloppy, but manages to hit every register at once — the “I really need this food” register, and the possible background heavenly reality (and possibly Eucharistic) register.
    Sorry to interlope! Hope I didn’t create confusion. My Greek sucks, but I love your daily posts to help me keep my eyes used to seeing it, and my mind not totally unfamiliar. As I began diving into Plato yesterday with Steadman’s help (I should probably go through the Hansen & Quinn first), I realized how good it’s been to see your posts, as well as to try and fumble through the daily scripture readings at Liturgy, which carries the added benefit of distracting me from the sermons.

    1. Hey, thanks for adding to this. This is not interpolation or annoying. I was straight up from the beginning about not being very comfortable in this period. My sense is that we don’t take into account the education of the church fathers enough…but I think that your take is pretty good here.

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