Pope Francis wants to change the Lord's Prayer – but has he got his Greek wrong?

Pope Francis has encouraged Catholics to make a change to the Lord's Prayer, saying that the current form wrongly implies that God can lead humankind 'into temptation'. But is he right?

The pontiff made the provocative suggestion in a TV interview on Wednesday, according to The Guardian, saying the current phrasing of the prayer famously taught by Jesus – and prayed by Christians ever since – was 'not a good translation'.

Instead of 'lead us not into temptation' it should be read 'do not let us enter into temptation', as many French Catholics now put it, Francis said.

He explained: 'I am the one who falls. It's not him pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen. A father doesn't do that, a father helps you to get up immediately. It's Satan who leads us into temptation, that's his department.'

It's an interesting proposal from the pontiff, who's well established as one willing to break with long-held traditions and expectations, often inviting a more radical approach to faith.

Pope Francis has suggested a change to the Lord's Prayer. But some scholars might not like it.Reuters

Biblical scholars might take issue with his translation though. After all, the current renderings are the fruit of hundreds of scholars pouring hours of deep study into ancient languages to communicate to the words of Scripture accurately. Others might simply surprised that the Pope has taken such a clear line against a particular phrasing – one that doesn't necessarily imply God actively 'pushing' people into sin.

The prayer originates in its fullest form from Matthew 6:9-13. The key verse in question is 13: rendered in the popular NIV as, 'And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.' Most modern translations follow the same general direction, which is in part because translators are often wary of too dramatically adjusting a verse known and loved in a particular literary form. Accuracy is important, but so is a sense of familiarity, especially with such a famous prayer.

The word in contention is the Greek verb eisenenkēs, meaning to 'lead into' or 'bring in'. Grammatically, it is a second-person singular verb, in the active voice and the subjunctive ('expressing wish or desire') mood. That means, given that the prayer is directed to 'our Father' (who is grammatically singular), that God is the obvious actor of the verb 'to lead'. That makes it difficult to argue that it is only Satan who 'leads' into temptation – the Greek text at least doesn't suggest that.

Helpfully that verb aligns with the next one used, also clearly referring to God as its agent. The Greek verb rhysai, meaning 'to deliver' appears only twice in the New Testament, here and in the Gospel of Luke's version of the prayer (11:4). It is also in the second person singular form, though here it takes the 'imperative' mood – so that while being led into evil is sought against, being 'delivered' from evil is positively, emphatically urged by the intercessor. 

Clearly the Pope is a learned reader and conscientious thinker. He may have other reasons for expressing his interpretation, but from an initial reading at least, they don't yet seem to find much source in the Greek text. It's also worth noting that though God is the implied actor who 'leads us not' into evil that doesn't necessarily mean there's a real danger of the believer being lead into evil by God unless they pray otherwise. It may just be the literary, poetic style of the prayer, making clear the contrast between walking into evil and being delivered from it – the challenge a disciple faces daily.

We don't pray the prayer thinking that God might 'push' us into temptation, we simply ask for the mercy of being lead on a better path. And temptation itself is not damnable; acting on it is the vice. Jesus was 'lead into temptation' in his 40-day sojourn in the desert, but he never gave into it. Praying that we be 'led' does not negate the possibility of human freedom as well.

The Pope is right of course that the role of the tempter or the accuser is that of Satan, not God. Perhaps he is speaking into a reality he knows better – he may have met many who see God as a distant, capricious deity who's desperate to 'push' sinful humans into temptation to test them – a damaging view indeed.

That said, the God Jesus knew as Father clearly wasn't one who promised a life without challenge or struggle, especially in a fallen world with both forces of good and evil at work. What is promised is that we'd never be alone or without help. Hence, thankfully, the Lord's Prayer.

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