Editing Jesus by John M. McCarthy


Editing Jesus

John M. McCarthy on the Implications of Changing the Pater Noster

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."

On the first Sunday of December, the Catholic Québécois recited a new "translation" of the Our Father. "Ne nous soumets pas à la tentation" ("lead us not into temptation") is now rendered "Ne nous laisse pas entrer en tentation" ("do not let us enter into temptation"). Earlier this past November, the Italian Bishops' Conference approved a similar change to the Italian translation, from "non indurci in tentazione" ("lead us not into temptation") to "non abbandonarci alla tentazione" ("do not abandon us to temptation"). Rather than making a unilateral move in altering the Our Father according to Pope Francis's inferred wishes, it appears that Catholic bishops are taking a "synodal" approach.

A little over fifty years ago, the same Latin translation of the Our Father was said in every Roman Catholic Mass. Now, to go along with just these three languages—Latin, Italian, and French—Catholics can celebrate a genuine diversity in what is signified. Why should any single language, say Latin, maintain a monopoly on meanings? Surely the Catholic Church in her economy can offer a more evolved range, a full smorgasbord.

The English translation of "lead us not into temptation" has been a point of continuity among English-speaking Christians through many centuries—it is identical in the King James Version, the Revised Standard Version, and even the Douay-Rheims Bible. At the end of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, which I attend regularly, it is an edifying experience to stand with my Christian brethren reciting the Lord's Prayer using the same words. Pope Francis has advocated for a robust ecumenism; perhaps he could have used the Our Father as a point of emphasis.

Clearer Translations?

Still, the pope had worried that the old translation would lead to confusion: "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."

One may readily find other passages in Scripture that confirm the pope's theology: "Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am tempted by God'; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire" (James 1:13–14).

Fr. Scott Lewis, a New Testament scholar at Regis College, commented, "the Pope is correct. The word in question is peirasmon, and although it can mean temptation, the more common understanding is 'testing' or 'trial.'" Unfortunately, Father Lewis's assessment did not, and does not, accurately describe the change in the translation. The word in question is not peirasmon, which stays tentation in French and tentazione in Italian, but eisenenkēs (carry into), which is now "translated" laisse entrer (let enter) in French and abbandonarci (abandon) in Italian.

Cardinal Giuseppe Betori said, "the Latin (inducas) and Greek (eisenenkēs) have only a concessive value: in practice, 'to let in.'" The director of the University of Montreal's Institute of Religious Studies, Alain Gignac, with the Greek Gospels in hand no less, claimed that the Greek phrase could be translated literally as "let us not go in the direction of temptation."

Not Translation but Revision

This, I am sorry to say, is wrong. It is not the right verb, nor the correct person. Crack open Louw and Nida's Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament. Throw in the unabridged ninth edition of Liddell and Scott's irreproachable Greek-English Lexicon. You will not find in either, "go in the direction of," "go," "let in," "abandon," or any synonym of such verbs under eispherō. The same can be said for the Latin induco.

Whether or not it is in the pope's purview to adjust the translation of passages, even poorly, is not a pertinent question in the matter at hand. These new translations are not bad in the sense that they are awkward, or because they are ambiguous where the Greek is not, or precise where the Greek is not. The new translations are bad because they put words in the mouth of Christ that he does not say. In other words, this is not a translation; it is a revision.

Unsurprisingly, another argument is being made that we cannot know what Christ said. After all, the Our Father is not identical in Matthew and Luke. "We must give up on retracing the exact Our Father that came out of the mouth of Jesus," Gignac said. Bishop Poitras encouraged us to reflect on the "distance" between us and the Gospel phrasing. We are merely dealing with a "theological construction." Marie-Josee Poire, a liturgist, noted that the old liturgy "no longer speaks the language of the majority."

With such enlightened standards of translation, there will be no end to revisions of Scripture. In this portion of our Lord's prayer, the texts of both Matthew and Luke are identical: mē eisenenkēs hēmas eis peirasmon. If these words, presented in two Gospels in the exact same form, are subject to change due to the hypothesized deficiencies of the ever-ethereal Q text, what passage is not? "[T]he Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart" (Ex. 9:12). "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). "Now therefore, behold, the Lord hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these thy prophets, and the Lord hath spoken evil concerning thee" (1 Kings 22:23).

Missing in this ecclesial initiative is any evidence that there is a pastoral necessity to change the words, or any indication that there is widespread confusion about God's relationship to evil because of the traditional translation of the Our Father. On the contrary, there is a pastoral reason not to change the Our Father: it will further undermine a sense of stability after a year of hell for the Catholic Church. Need we add to the helter-skelter with a tweaking of the Our Father, too?

Christ's Chosen Words

One of Christ's disciples asked him, "Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples" (Luke 11:1). Christ responded, "When you pray, say . . . " (Luke 11:2). Something as serious as altering Christ's own instruction on prayer requires serious reflection. St. Jerome took more than 20 years to translate the Vulgate, and he engaged in extended discussions with noted biblical scholars such as St. Augustine. Maybe the Catholic Church could call another synod about it—but after she has had adequate time to recover from her trying year, say in 2085.

Does it really matter?

Christ chose to speak in the way that he does:

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, "What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "Of David." He said to them, "How then does David in the Spirit call him Lord, saying, 'The Lord said to my Lord, sit on my right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet?' If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?" No one was able to answer him a word, neither did any man dare ask him any more questions from that day forth. (Matt. 22:41–46)

As Anthony Esolen has said, "The words of Jesus, as words, are clear. Their implications are profound. They are hard for us to fathom. They strike us as strange. That is as it should be. Let them stand." Christ's words arrest our attention and unsettle our humanistic preconceptions. "The hidden harmony," Heraclitus observed, "is superior to the apparent"(DK 54).

A Worthy Question

The question of what is God's relation to evil is worthy of consideration. Augustine, after recognizing the mysterious connection between the literal and figurative meanings of Scripture, found the question helpful in ridding himself of a dualist Manichaenism and in preparing him for conversion. Such a question led Boethius to distinguish between eternity and everlasting time and to discover the transcendent perfection of God's wisdom. It encouraged Thomas Aquinas, a master of the Sacred Page, to articulate the necessary implications of a material world. For Thomas More, a humanist for whom Scripture was the first book of literature, reflection on this question provided consolation while he was in the Tower.

On the one hand, there is a Father whom we must ask not to carry us into evil. On the other hand, there is a Shepherd who suffers unspeakable agony in his triumph over evil. From Job to C. S. Lewis, Christianity has a rich spiritual and intellectual history of reflecting on God's relation to evil. We could let the words of the Our Father continue to prompt the faithful in this consideration.

Or we could whitewash all the timeless tensions in Scripture and play master over Christ's words. 

John M. McCarthy is a fellow at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire, where he lives with his wife, Aja, and their three children. He is a Roman Catholic and holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Boston College.