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Pope Francis Suggests Translation Change To The Lord's Prayer


Lead us not into temptation. That appeal in the Lord's Prayer is recited by Christians the world over in many rites and many languages. The prayer, which begins Our Father - or, in Latin, paternoster - is a translation from the Greek. And translations of that phrase, lead us not, vary. And Pope Francis has now weighed in on how they might be improved.


POPE FRANCIS: (Speaking Italian).

SIEGEL: Francis told the Italian bishops channel TV2000 last week it's not a good translation. The pope says it shouldn't be lead us into temptation. We fall into temptation. God doesn't push us, he says.

Well, for more on the significance of these words and the pope's opinion of them, we turn to Father James Martin. He's a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America Magazine and author of the book "Jesus: A Pilgrimage." Welcome to the program once again.

JAMES MARTIN: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: If the issue here is that Christians believe God would not actively lead them into temptation, how has it taken a couple of millennia for this translation to be revisited?

MARTIN: (Laughter) Well, it's actually a question that's been bedeviling translators for a long time. Jesus would have said the prayer in Aramaic, and it was translated into Greek. And of course, you know, there are different translations of the Greek words. I think what's challenging people is that some media sort of outlets have said the pope is changing the Our Father, but it's really he's looking for a better translation.

SIEGEL: But if Christians don't believe that God should lead us into temptation, implying that it's possible that he might, wouldn't that make God a passive enabler of people who do enter into temptation?

MARTIN: (Laughter) It doesn't make sense that God would lead us into temptation. The homey example I came up with a few days ago was, if you're crossing the street - you're a child crossing the street with your parent. You know, you would say to your parent, you know, protect me from the traffic - you know, the oncoming traffic. You would never say, do not lead me into the traffic.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

MARTIN: I mean, it would be obvious that the parent would not do that. And I think that's what the pope is getting. He's saying, you know, let's go back to the Greek, and let's see, you know, what might make more sense and what might be more accurate.

SIEGEL: Although as you note, the Greek is presumably a translation of a missing Aramaic...

MARTIN: That's right.

SIEGEL: ...Which would be a Semitic language - very familiar to Jews from their worship.

MARTIN: Right. And so we can't get back to Jesus' original words. Of course you can pray the Our Father in Aramaic. It's very beautiful. But we don't really know Jesus' words. And once again, Matthew and Luke, where the Our Father, you know, originate, you know, are also in a sense translating Jesus' Aramaic for their community. So there's a distance of about, you know, a couple of decades between when Jesus said it and when it was recorded in Matthew and Luke.

SIEGEL: So it's a matter of translation, but it's a matter of translating some of the most commonly uttered words in Christian prayer. How significant is it?

MARTIN: Oh, hugely significant. That doesn't mean the pope is going to come to every Catholic Church and, you know, scold everyone who uses the old translation. He's just saying, you know, let's look at the Greek and see if we can come up with something more accurate.

SIEGEL: You used a verb earlier - bedeviled. This question has bedeviled the church for some time - perhaps an important word here. If God doesn't lead us into temptation, who does?

MARTIN: Well, in Christian theology, that would be Satan. You can say the evil spirit, a spirit that moves us away from God. But it is not God who is, you know, forcing us into temptation. There are - it's a battle in a sense between, you know, good forces and bad forces. And we're asking God for help. That's basically the point of the prayer.

SIEGEL: What happens with this, and should we expect Catholic churches in the U.S. to change their translation of the prayer soon?

MARTIN: Not necessarily. The Italian bishops in 2008 adopted a new translation, and the Lord's Prayer changed a bit. And the French bishops just decided to do it this past weekend. But that does not mean that bishops in the United States are going to change things. We just went through a whole mass translation, so I would doubt that in the U.S. you are going to see any change whatsoever.

SIEGEL: Father James Martin, author of "Jesus: A Pilgrimage," thanks for talking with us.

MARTIN: My pleasure.


FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) And lead us not into temptation. But deliver us from... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.