Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Question Of Scripture

Kenneth M. O’Brien

In what many will regard as a dramatic change of focus, I wish to raise a question regarding Christian scripture that has long troubled me. I will preface my remarks with the observation that I am the product of a Catholic elementary and secondary education. My favorite course in college was a survey course on the history of religions.

It is widely acknowledged that the most perfect prayer in Christianity is the Lord’s Prayer. It is the only prayer that was taught by Christ to his followers. While I accept that there must clearly be allowances made for possible inartful translations from Aramaic to Greek to Latin to English, I must also believe that the existing English language translation that currently exists is accepted by virtually all biblical scholars and theologians.

While there is a minor difference between the Rheims-Douay and King James versions of this prayer in its conclusion that is not what troubles me.

Rather, it is the phrase “… and lead us not into temptation…”

I have always wondered why the divine Son of God would petition the Father not to lead us into temptation. It is not phrased as “spare us from temptation”. Rather, it clearly says that the Father, the author of all that is good and who cannot do evil, might willfully lead us into being tempted to do evil. Isn’t that inherently contradictory to His nature? Isn’t that supposed to be the role of the devil? Yet, His own divine Son seems to acknowledge that He might indeed do this.

Could someone please provide me with a reconciliation of this seeming contradiction?


  1. Well, Ken, perhaps this is one for the theologians. To me it is one of the many conundrums the Bible presents. I'm sure there is an explanation provided, but not one that does not require mental gymnastics.

    Consider something such as Good Friday and Easter which Christian believers will be observing soon. The Bible says that Christ was in the tomb for 3 days and 3 nights. How is that reconciled?

    Fundamentalists assert that there are no contradictions in the "inerrant" Word of God. Well, good luck with that.

    As an agnostic, I take my lead from Doubting Thomas who would believe that which he could see. Christ may have called the non-doubters "more blessed," but he did not reject the doubter and offered tangible proof.

  2. The King James Version and the Douay-Rheims versions are both translations into English of the Latin Vulgate. This was done by Saint Jerome in the fourth century. He lived in Bethlehem and studied both Hebrew and Greek to translate the Scriptures into the vernacular language of the people, Latin. Thus the translation was called the vulgate, from which also comes the word vulgar, meaning language of the street.

    Later, the Vulgate was used for every other translation into another language, eventually into English. So, the translation came not from the original texts, but was a translation from a translation and therefore not accurate as such. In the 1940s and 50s, as Biblical scholarship gained steam and then was encouraged by the Second Vatican Council, translations in the 1960s and 70s went back to the original texts to produce translations.

    At the same time, the Mass texts were changing from Latin into vernacular languages. At that time, there was no official translation of the Lord’s Prayer in English because the official text was only in Latin. Since there were so many changes already, it was decided to import the familiar text of the Lord’s Prayer rather than change it (a poor decision in hindsight).

    Now, as we are preparing for new translations of the Mass texts with the Third Edition of the Roman Missal, there was extensive discussion on updating and correcting the theology of the Lord’s Prayer in English. Since just about every other prayer was changing, it was decided rather than endure the heat this time, they would forgo the change (a second missed opportunity!), so the prayer is still incorrect in the new translation, in spite of all the other changes they made and the argument about being closer to the Latin originals.

    What Ken points out is valid, but what is incorrect is because our translation is inferior; not what Jesus taught. The truer rendering would be ‘do not us be led into temptation’ or ‘do not allow us to fall into temptation’ or ‘let us not suffer temptation.’ That is the truer sense of what is written in the Greek and what is prayed in other languages. Find out from those who learned their prayers in French, Italian, Polish or Spanish, and you will discover that the meaning of what they pray is different from our English and more in tune with the issue that Ken raises to be more authentic to the teaching of Jesus.

    Most people don’t think about it because we learned the prayers as children and simply repeat them without considering what we actually say and mean when we pray.

  3. Fr. Peter:
    I can’t help but feel like Fox Mulder in the X-files, “I want to believe”.
    But, by the same token, I have serious problems with an explanation that is based upon the contention that, in the 700 years since Wycliffe began the first translation of the Bible into English, no one raised the question that I have.
    Even if that is not the case, I also find it hard to believe that The Lord’s Prayer, the only prayer that Christ imparted to his followers, was so carelessly translated. Did no one, at whatever time, notice a distinction between the imperative tense of a Greek verb and the passive tense in such a critical passage?
    You are telling me that, if I read the Bible in Italian, Spanish, Polish or French the distinction would be clear. However, I have to assume that these translations are also based upon the Latin Vulgate. Why would their translations be more correct than the English version?
    I really do not think that I am raising a trivial point.
    If the phraseology “lead us not into temptation” is a legitimate interpretation that, ultimately, goes back to the Aramaic, then there is a fundamental inconsistency in Catholic, as well as most Christian, theology.
    To attempt to dismiss it as simply an error of translation appears to me to be disingenuous. These were the words of Christ himself. If those were sloppily translated, how much else of the Holy Scriptures can be accorded any integrity?

  4. I think you better go along with this and force your mind to believe, otherwise a lake of liquid hot magma awaits you.


  5. I think modern translation theory is attempting to close the question. But, as you pointed out, it's been there for so long. Why? I think because it's basically accurate. The Christian God is both good and evil. There is the left hand of god -- a loving, nurturing, caring presence; and the right hand of God -- a vengeful, punishing God that tests you at every corner. The sciptures are full of these examples. To try to explain it away would be false as if it was some "lost in translation" episode would be false. Jesus meant what he said. Period.

    "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?" Epicurus


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