The Lord’s Prayer kerfuffle, from a Hebraist’s perspective

Pope Francis has a gift for generating news, even over the nuttiest things. I’m not a big fan (even though I’m Catholic), but I do recognize the genius of his media strategy (assuming it’s a strategy).

His latest news-making comment was an offhand remark about translating the Lord’s Prayer / Our Father, specifically the line “Lead us not into temptation” (Matthew 6:13). He apparently suggested that, since a father doesn’t lead his children into temptation, nor would God; rather, this is what Satan does. (See here and follow the youtube link for the interview with Pope Francis).

Now, apart from the theological fireworks this engendered (see here or here for basically intelligent discussions, or here for a less intelligent conversation, or google it and read until you drop), it has also raised questions about translation. One might think that this is interesting, but in fact the lack of grammatical thinking about the issues has made it a largely misguided discussion.

But not to fear, a grammarian is here!

The Greek in question is this: μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν, in which the verb εἰσφέρω “to bring in” is inflected as a 2nd person singular aorist active subjunctive. But let’s forget this Indo-European language and consider what the Hebrew or Aramaic prayer would have looked like and what that could have meant.

Though I think it entirely plausible that Jesus and disciples spoke Hebrew or perhaps Aramaic, rather than starting with a reconstruction, it’s easier and philologically more defensible to begin with an attested text, in this case the Syriac Peshitta. The relevant text is below:

ܘܠܳܐ ܬ݁ܰܥܠܰܢ ܠܢܶܣܝܽܘܢܳܐ

In the Syriac, the verb used is ܥܠܠ or in square script, עלל, which is functionally equivalent to Hebrew בוא. The form of the verb is a 2ms imperfect in the Aphel, with a 1cp attached pronoun as the object (like Hebrew Hiphil jussive אַל תְּבִיאֵנוּ or in the imperfect לֹא תְּבִיאֶנּוּ), hence “do not cause us to enter” or “do not bring us in” and the following PP is “to trial” or “to testing” (or even, if you really prefer, “to temptation”). So this seems pretty straightforward, no?

No. In Syriac, as in Hebrew, the causative formation can have a modal nuance that indicates permission or toleration; thus, the connotation could also be “do not allow us to enter” or “do not permit us to enter”. And I strongly suspect the Greek can tolerate the same range of nuances (pun intended).

And so Pope Francis’ wild and hairy suggestion may have some real (Semitic) traction. Whether or not Jesus intended this permissive nuance or the more straightforward nuance is almost beside the point (as it often is, really); the absence of any grammatical nuance in the plethora comments about Pope Francis’ suggestion is the real point — why doesn’t anyone study grammar deeply anymore? This whole non-issue has been painful to read about.

As a final thought, concerning the theology of God inducing temptation, what about putting that damnable tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden and then proscribing its juicy fruit? Seems kind of temptation-inducing, doesn’t it? But oops, that’s just the text getting in the way of theology again.