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Pope Francis’ Change to the Lord’s Prayer: Another Cheap Applause Line

(Credit Image: © Silvia Lore/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press)

“His purpose seems to be diverting attention from these real concerns, by projecting a revolutionary image of a kind Pope who preaches a loving God, far removed from the deity who destroys Sodom and Gomorrah with sulphur.”

Pope Francis has recently announced that in the third edition of the Messale Romano (the ritual book for the celebration of the Catholic Mass), the Lord’s Prayer will no longer include, “Lead us not into temptation” but rather: “Do not let us fall into temptation”. This change, in fact, has already been made for the translation of this prayer into various other languages (French, being the most recent). But what actually seems strange is the Pope’s rationale for this change.

According to Pope Francis, the original rendering of the prayer is, “not a good translation because it speaks of a God who induces temptation…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.”

The history of Christianity has a tortuously long tradition of disputes over little words. These little words have actually morphed into huge snowballs that, ultimately, leave a trail of confrontation in their wake. Consider, for example, homoousion. The most common translation of this Greek word is “consubstantial,” or something to the effect of “same in being, same in essence.” Theologians of the fourth century AD came up with this word in order to describe the relationship between Jesus and God the Father, i.e., they are of the same substance, meaning that Jesus, as the Nicene Creed states, is, “begotten, not made.”

It seems like a rather arcane theological thing that no ordinary person would ever pay much attention to. But, if Gregory of Nyssa’s testimony is to be trusted, in Constantinople during the fourth century, “if you ask about the price of bread, the reply is ‘The Father is greater and the Son is subject to him.’ If you say ‘Is the bath ready?’, they declare the Son has his being from the non-existent.”Actually, bakers and bath attendants gave their unsolicited theological opinions because the stakes were high. This was much more than about just a little word—or even about the confusing ideas of theologians. It was about the unity of the Roman Empire. Arius, a theologian from Alexandria, had argued that the Son is not consubstantial with the Father (meaning the Son was created at some point in time). Apparently, his opinions found favor with some theologians, but the recently converted Constantine understood that theological diversity could put at risk the political unity of the Empire, so he summoned bishops to settle the issue at the Council of Nicaea in 325.

That council decided in favor of homoousion, and Arius was pushed to the margins. But, years later, new adherents to Arius’ doctrine proposed a modification of the word, thus rendering it homoiousion, meaning “of similar essence.” As the famed historian Edward Gibbon remarked, one single detail was enough to invoke a new wave of theological confrontation that, once again, heightened political tensions in the Roman Empire.

By the same token, we should beware that Pope Francis’ change from, “lead us not into temptation” to “do not let us fall into temptation” is also likely not just about linguistics or theology. There is probably a political angle to it too.

But, first things first. Linguistically, the Pope is simply wrong. The Lord’s Prayer, found in Matthew 6 and Luke 11, has the verse “kai me eisenenkes hemas eis peirasmon.” The key word here is eisenenkes, which unequivocally refers to directly leading into, not anything like “letting fall into.” The text is clear. Jesus is teaching his followers to request God not to push them into a trial. The apocalyptic context is important here. As much as Christians may be embarrassed about it today, Jesus was expecting the imminent end of the world. And, as part of that apocalyptic mindset, there was the idea that, when the Kingdom of God would arrive (“Thy Kingdom come!”, another of the verses in the Lord’s Prayer), the Judgment would begin. Jesus’ line about not being led into temptation expresses the hope that God does not drive anybody into a trial before the arrival of the Kingdom.

So, the text is clear: Jesus said, “lead us not into temptation,” imploring God the Father to suspend his active role in driving people into trials before the imminent arrival of his Kingdom. Perhaps Pope Francis might think that a slight change in the phrase is fine because maybe these words have been re-worked by tradition and did not come verbatim from Jesus himself. Actually, although many (if not most) sayings in the gospels are probably inauthentic, “Lead us not into temptation” is likely authentic. Biblical scholars have long known that those sayings found only in Luke and Matthew come from a now-lost document called Q, which is probably the closest we can ever get to Jesus’ original sayings. “Lead us not into temptation” is included in Q.

So, both historically and linguistically, the current Pope is on shaky ground. What about theologically? I am afraid that the theology side is much ado about nothing, as there is no firm empirical or rational base to defend one posture over another (how on Earth could those theologians ever non-arbitrarily decide that homoousion or homoiousion was the right word?). But perhaps Pope Francis does have a point. If God is a loving father, then surely, he would not lead people into temptation. Fine. But then, why does he let Satan do the dirty job? Isn’t God omnipotent? This would mean that Satan only works under God’s permission—because if God did not want Old Nick to be doing his dirty business, God does have the power to stop it. At any rate, in some other Biblical passages, God himself does the dirty job, not the red horned guy. Cecil De Mille’s The Ten Commandments would obviously not mention it, but according to the account in Exodus, it was God himself who hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Yahweh did lead the poor Egyptian ruler into temptation. Is Pope Francis also going to change that story with a new translation?

The problem with Pope Francis is actually a very old one in theology. The Bible says many unpleasant, inaccurate, and confusing things. Some theologians have been brave enough to bite the bullet and try to wrestle with the words, while not changing them. But, some other theologians, and most especially, copyists, have made the Bible into a ventriloquist’s dummy, and have deliberately altered the original words to fit their theological agenda. This is intellectually dishonest at best and fraudulent at worst. Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus is an excellent review of the many interpolations found in the Bible. Many of these interpolations have been honest mistakes, but some have been deliberate attempts at expressing a theological point that was not present in the original manuscript. Pope Francis is not tampering with the original Biblical text as such, but by advancing spurious translations with a clear theological agenda, he is engaging in the same type of textual corruption that Medieval copyists did when, for example, they probably added in a description of Jesus as Messiah in Josephus’ work, because they could not bear the thought that the Jewish historian would not acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God.

Pope Francis’ theological agenda seems to be a simple message of love. That explains why he would want to present a God who never leads anybody into temptation. But, very much as in the fourth century, the discussion about whether, “lead us not into temptation” is more accurate than, “do not let us fall into temptation” is actually very political. Pope Francis is a populist, a political style that he probably learned very well in his native Argentina, where politicians as such Perón and the Kirchners have used populist tactics for decades. Very much as Pope John Paul II (but unlike Benedict XVI), Pope Francis is eager for the spotlight. He loves to wash prisoners’ feet, but he always makes sure there are cameras around. He plays the old trick of beginning to speak, waiting for the people’s reaction, and then he goes the direction signaled by the crowd. He is a master of publicity stunts.

The new translation of the Lord’s prayer is yet another publicity stunt. It is a way of giving the appearance of advancing meaningful changes in the Church, when in fact, he leaves things intact. The Church has a sex abuse problem, and Pope Francis is partly to blame, because he has offered protection to some pedophiles. The Vatican Bank is in urgent need of audits, yet Pope Francis is in no rush to order them. No reasonable person understands why women should be excluded from the clergy, but Pope Francis seems to agree with this old rule. It is also hard to figure out how condoms are immoral; he is no fan of contraception. Yet, instead of addressing these real and sensible concerns, Pope Francis prefers to engage in silly little games deliberately mistranslating ancient texts. His purpose seems to be diverting attention from these real concerns, by projecting a revolutionary image of a kind Pope who preaches a loving God, far removed from the deity who destroys Sodom and Gomorrah with sulphur. Yet sadly, it amounts to nothing more than cheap applause lines.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade teaches ethics and behavioral science at St. Matthew’s University School of Medicine. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post.

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