The controversy surrounding a change in translation of the Lord's Prayer as approved by the Pope has led many to question the accuracy of translating biblical texts.
In May 2019, Pope Francis approved a change made to the English translation of the Lord's Prayer in the Italian Missal. The alteration reworded the original Greek translation of Matthew 6:13, "lead us not into temptation," changing it to "do not let us fall into temptation."
The change to the translation was made because the Pope did not appreciate the inference that God might perhaps, in his good and holy nature, be leading Christians into temptation.
Sheila Klassen-Wiebe, an associate professor of the New Testament at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) in Winnipeg, says she can see both sides of the controversy surrounding Pope Francis' translation.
Klassen-Wiebe, who teaches an introductory-level class in Greek, says that the language is very different from the other more abstract and concept-based courses she instructs. "There's something really nitty-gritty about Greek but it's also really cool to be able to read the New Testament in its original language."
Ancient Greek is a dead language, says Klassen-Wiebe, making it very different from modern Greek and not a spoken language.
"Translation is an art as well as a science... anytime you go from one language to another, you're making choices because there's not a one-to-one correspondence... you're making interpretive choices."
Particularly when it comes to dealing with ancient languages, a loss of understanding of the social, historical, and cultural conditions surrounding the text will impact and perhaps even impair the full extent to which a translator can interpret.
"Does God really tempt people to do evil? That is the question."
Even with gaps in knowledge and understanding, however, Klassen-Wiebe believes in the importance of translation, particularly when it comes to the Word of God.
"We need to be able to translate things in order to communicate," the professor said.
A new translation
When it comes to the Pope's newly approved translation of Matthew 6:13, Klassen-Wiebe says she can see both sides of the controversy.
"I think it's important to note that what Pope Francis is suggesting isn't anything new; Christians have struggled with how to understand that line of the Lord's Prayer since the beginning of Christianity."
In fact, the translation "do not let us fall into temptation" or "do not let us be tempted" was used as early as the second century by a church father, according to Klassen-Wiebe.
"The church has been struggling with [Matthew 6:13] since the beginning of the church's existence."
To that end, the professor says she can see why the Pope would decide to include a looser translation. "To say, 'lead us not into temptation,' well, does God really tempt people to do evil? That is the question."
A further look through the Bible reveals an answer found in James 1:13: "When tempted, no one should say, 'God is tempting me.' For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone."
So if God indeed cannot tempt us, how could he lead us into temptation, as verse 13 of the Lord's Prayer seems to suggest?
"Throughout the Bible, God does test people."
Many scholars, Klassen-Wiebe says, have tried to suggest that the Greek word within the verse does mean "do not let us be tempted" to remedy this confusion. For this reason, she says, the choice in translation makes sense.
Accuracy in the Greek translation
But then emerges then a new question emerges, says Klassen-Wiebe. Does the permissive translation, "don't let us fall into temptation" accurately translate what the Greek says?
Klassen-Wiebe says no.
"The Greek word there, eispherō, always means 'to bring into' or 'to lead into', not 'don't let us be,'" says the professor. "In most cases, maybe all cases, that word has a more direct, positive sense, 'don't lead us' or 'don't bring us in.' As far as I know, I don't think anywhere it means 'don't let us be.'
"I don't think the Greek can be translated accurately to mean 'don't let us fall into temptation.'"
The professor says she finds herself preferring the true Greek translation, but understands the intentions behind the Pope's recent alterations to the translations regardless.
"I resist a little bit the either/or because usually, that doesn't adequately capture [the whole issue]," Klassen-Wiebe explained. "I would say we should stick with the Greek... but I think we need to understand what that's saying. How do we understand that petition?"
Understanding Matthew 6:13
An important point to understand is the alternate translation of temptation, where it means "trials" or "testing." As a result, the suggestion that we pray for God to not lead us into a time of testing has arisen, but that too stands at odds with Biblical truth.
"Throughout the Bible, God does test people, and God even leads them into situations where they are tempted. God tests Israel in the wilderness and God tested Abraham, and in the Gospels, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted.
"The line between being tested and tempted is a fine one," explained Klassen-Wiebe, "when someone is put to the test, that person might also be tempted to fail the test."
There is also a difference between saying "God tempts us" and "God leads us into temptation," the professor notes. "God is not the source or the origin of the temptation... God isn't evil and God doesn't cause people to do evil."
While God does not tempt people to sin himself, the Bible does suggest that He leads people into situations of testing, where they are tempted and they will struggle.
"I think that that is how it has really functioned for people, as a prayer for God to deliver us from evil."
As with anything in the Bible, the context within the greater passage plays a large role in ensuring the text is properly understood. Klassen-Wiebe says that she believes that Matthew 6:13 is best understood when taken with the succeeding verse.
"I think too often people isolate it... and forget the second half of it, 'but deliver us from evil.'"
New Testament petitions often take on a particular framework, explained the professor, where they begin with a petition in the negative, often exaggerated, and the second half provides an opposing, more positive statement. "You have to hold together the sixth petition and the seventh."
Taken together, Klassen-Wiebe explains that a more modern translation might actually read, "God, don't only lead us into times where we will be tested and tempted, but even more so, protect us from the evil one."
With the emphasis falling on deliverance, the good and perfect qualities of God perhaps questioned in the controversy surrounding verse 13 are restored and perhaps finally understood.
"I think that that is how it has really functioned for people, as a prayer for God to deliver us from evil," Klassen-Wiebe suggests.
"Deliver us, save us from evil, and give us strength."