The Pope’s Temptation

Is anyone old enough to remember when it was not quite respectable to be in the news?   Of course, the doings of the great and the wise would have to be recorded—the birth of an heir, the discovery of a planet—but, otherwise, it  was better not to be noticed by the newspapers, which have always been properly regarded as scandal sheets.  And, of all classes of men who had to avoid notoriety, the clergy were at the top, and of all the Christian clergy, the Pope was chief among those who were wise enough to stay out of the limelight.

Alas, those days of innocence are long gone.  Since the beloved John XXIII wowed the world with his childlike joviality and John Paul II achieved rockstar status as he cruised in his Popemobile to address hundreds of thousands of screaming adolescents in sports stadiums, Roman pontiffs—Francis I in particular— are regularly in the headlines, and if there is no world crisis to solve, there is always one fool issue after another—global warming, immigration, welfare policies—on which this “low-information” Pope, his often malevolent cardinals, and the Marxist American bishops can make a pronouncement.

Fortunately, there are few people who would give even a passing thought to the Pope’s knee-jerk reaction to political issues.  But when the papal gaffe concerns long-standing Christian traditions or, worse, the Scriptures themselves, one can almost hear Christopher Hitchens chortling in his grave.

Pope Francis’ latest PR stunt is to call for a rewriting of the Lord’s Prayer to remove from translations the sentence “Lead us not to temptation.”  He is not the first to propose this alteration.  The Spanish and French have been pushing in this direction for some time.  The one sensible argument for this change is that the Church should not encourage the false notion that the Creator of the universe leads us into situations where we may fall into sin by yielding to temptation.

The argument goes rapidly downhill after this:  By changing the wording to something like “Don’t permit us to submit to temptation,”  so the advocates insist, the Church is merely giving a more correct interpretation of the Greek original.   From the LA Times comes this gem:  “Despite what some headline writers might suggest, Francis is not suggesting changing Jesus’ words, but just giving a better translation from the original Greek,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at large of America, a Jesuit magazine."  The same newspaper quotes a professor of New Testament Studies at Gregorian University:  "The Greek verb ‘eisfèro’ means ‘take inside,’ and the form used in the prayer, ‘eisenènkes,’ literally means ‘don’t take us inside,’  But that’s a very literal translation, which must be interpreted.”

Perhaps the apparent obtuseness of the professor is the creation of the newspaper editors.  His "take us inside" is deliberately nonsensical, and the nonsense seems to invite reinterpretation.  The Greek verb, however, has a range of meanings from bring in, convey, introduce, inflict.  The meaning of the sentence is straightforward and simple, and by no stretch of the imagination can it be stretched to mean anything like "Don't let us fall into temptation."

Most of the people who make this argument do it out of an ignorance of Greek and Latin that should outrage the dullest Catholic in the pews.  Why do we give money to the Church, if the seminaries do not teach Greek or Latin?  That is the best defense one could make for the editors of the America, who have gleefully jumped on their fellow-Jesuit's bandwagon, but American Jesuits would not recognize any orthodox doctrine they could turn their backs on.

But, surely, someone in the movement to legitimize this revision must know enough Greek to know it is  not simply preposterous:  It is a lie.  It is also a revelation that the learning of the clergy—Catholic as much as Protestant—did not hit rock bottom at the end of the last Millennium:  The seminaries aspire to darker and darker shades of ignorance.

Naturally, Christians of any stripe would not like to think that God and Satan would exchange roles, that the Almighty, tired of loving the world so much that he sent his Son, wants to have a little fun now and then by watching us stumble and fall.  Before rushing into the rewriting of the Lord’s Prayer, ordained Marxists might try grappling with the text before condemning it.  The problem does not lie in the perfectly correct translation of the Greek into Latin “inducas,” and English “lead into,” but with the word “temptation,” which no longer should be used to translate the Latin tentatio (or temptatio).

On a website that used to publish my ruminations, I explained the problem more than once, though I cannot seem to find any of the versions.  Like so much much of what I did for three decades plus, it is gone with the wind.

Nonetheless, here is a bit from Chapter Four of Properties of Blood:

[In Luke 10] The nomikos (not a professional lawyer but a man learned in Jewish law) wants to put Jesus to the test—the verb ekpeirazein reminds us of the tests to which Satan subjected Him.  This requires a bit of explanation.  The verb—and its simpler uncompounded form (peirazein)—are typically translated by the English “tempt,” but the meaning of that word has changed so much since the early 17th century that it is quite misleading.  To “tempt,” in this an other passages including the Lord’s Prayer, is not to entice or trap but to put something or someone to the test in order to find out what they are.  A closer English word might be “assay,” as in “The chemist assayed the ore to determine whether it was gold or iron pyrite.”

I can only just summarize the argument of my pieces on the Lord’s Prayer.  As in all uses of the word peira (temptation) and the related verbs peirazein and ekpeirazein, the context is not to be sought in instances of temptation—the diabetic in the candy store, the married man in the single’s bar—but in the testing of Job and in Jesus’ own “temptations” in the wilderness, which are nothing but Satan’s attempt to find out who and what he is.

Saint Thomas, in his discussion of whether it was fitting to describe Jesus as being tempted, begins by defining terms:  “Tentare enim est experimentum sumere.”  To tempt is then to take trial of, put to the test.  It might seem that it is wrong for demons to be permitted to make such a test, but Thomas responds, saying, Jesus wanted to be tested in order to bring us help in bearing our temptations, as Saint Gregory had said.

The Greek text, which the rewriters of the Bible apparently cannot read, has the word peira, which means trial, attempt, test.   The Latin translation, “tenationem” means the same thing, just as temptare/tentare is very close to the Greek peirazein, “to make trial of.”  The English translation of “temptation” made sense in the 17th century, when the word could still be used in the now obsolete sense of “trial.”

Satan never sleeps, and there is no apparent limit to the movement to rewrite or reinterpret the Scriptures to conform them to current fashion.  In this case, the mistake has serious consequences.

By not recognizing the meaning of “temptation.” we then fail to connect the passages in which our Lord is “tried” by his adversaries both human and diabolical.  We compound the error by thinking that the “evil” we pray to be delivered from is either misfortune or sin, when in fact the Evil One is the devil himself.  The result is that we do not understand the final two clauses of the Lord’s prayer, which might be summed up as something like:  “Do not expose us to the trials that Job and Jesus were put by the Adversary and deliver us from the Evil one that seeks out destruction.”

Theologians and bishops who cannot resist the temptation to revise the Scriptures without taking the trouble to understand them are creating a grave disorder with Christendom.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

6 Responses

  1. Avatar Harry Colin says:

    I remember at least one of your explanations from that website, because I too tried to find it after this latest “controversy” erupted. Thanks for your clarification from the Properties of Blood.

    For anyone wishing to be truly depressed to start the week, try reading some of the commentary on this issue on any of the websites or on that social media colossus. I will say that the profound ignorance concerning Bible translations seems ecumenical, at least; few commenters of any stripe seemed to have even the knowledge that the New Testament was written in Greek.

    Despite his Trump-like affinity to be the news as often as possible, on this point Pope Francis might actually be concerned that people believe Our Lord leads us into temptation, and wants to offer correction. As you rightly point out, however, the proposed re-write creates more problems than it would solve. Beyond that, it would seem the need for basis catechesis is so significant that attending to the subtleties of translation – important as they are – seems like focusing on your late inning bullpen moves when you are still trying to get out of the first inning.

  2. Avatar Robert Reavis says:

    “American Jesuits would not recognize any orthodox doctrine they could turn their backs on.”

    So true and so sad. I have never looked into what happened, how it happened or why, that didn’t leave me wanting more in order to understand. The only explanation, other than the triumph of ignorance, that makes any sense to me whatsoever is enmity and the mystery of iniquity. And the fact there were too few Tom Flemings who had the courage to fight back . Thanks for this small arms fire, Tom.

  3. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    The priest in our parish is a young traditionalist who appears to have gone to seminary straight out of high school. In his weekly lecture–which isi what his homilies invariably are–he rarely favors us with any explanation of the text, so eager is he to share what he learned in seminary. Fortunately, my mind can occupy itself with the growing list of Popes–from Peter to Hormisdas–and the Byzantine Emperors down to Anastasios II. What really puzzles me is that he introduces his reading of the English texts as “a translation of such and such.” I can scarcely but believe it, but he seems to be hinting that the Latin text is not a translation. He seems an energetic man, but his grammar is as bad as his knowledge of history.

  4. Avatar Robert Reavis says:

    Weekly Lecture… This is humorous to me as it is indeed the way of so many traditionalists in America. They were put on the defensive early and like the old nun you have mentioned before, they are mad and intend to scrub sin from the world. They cannot see the catholic experiment in repeating the old reformers experiment, is getting the same results. If they would simply stick to the sacraments, God’s grace would begin to actually do its work. When I attend the new rite, I am often called to political action in the world and when I attend the old rite, which I much prefer, I am usually called to some political action within the church. I am almost to the point of believing what Belloc said about any priests who spends more than thirty minutes over his Mass — “probably suffering from some old heresy!”

  5. Avatar Dot says:

    Dr. Fleming: Thank you for the explanation of temptation in the Lord’s Prayer. In the Divine Liturgy hymnal it is spelled “peirasmon”.

  6. Avatar Raymond Olson says:

    Tom–Although I’ve never been a Catholic and have been, for decades at a time, not a churchgoer–nor, as a punctilious Quaker would have it, am I a churchgoer now, despite and because of my faithful attendance at meeting for worship–I can’t recall when I had any other understanding of the clause, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”, than the understanding you have reminded us of more than once (I never tire of the lesson, however). Yes, as a youngster I considered the paradoxical interpretation that the Lord would tempt us, but I’d already been told, perhaps by my mother, who was no fool about matters of language and religion, that “temptation” referenced Jesus’s ordeal with Satan in the wilderness. Even “Reorganite” LDS were well-instructed in her generation, though I very much doubt that more than a handful, if any, RLDS knew Greek.