The language of the Lord’s Prayer

It always strikes me as interesting that no matter how many other changes are made in liturgies, the language of the Lord’s Prayer remains pretty much the same, though we may say “them” instead of “those” or “which” instead of “Who,” depending on the Book of Common Prayer we are using.  It’s pretty much the same thing with the Hail Mary.  The Thees and the Thous, the “art thou” and so on, seem to be untouchable, no matter how much everything else has changed.  Don’t get me started on modern translations of The Magnificat!  And it really makes a mess of things when people gather to pray when no one is familiar  with the latest translation in use, unless everyone has a leaflet to read.

Pope Francis recently raised some concerns about the phrase  “Lead us not into temptation,” that many of you have probably followed.  A friend sent me a link to this piece by Charlotte Allen in First Things that looks at the Lord’s Prayer in light of fashionable modes of translation that rather ran amok and seem to be making a comeback.   She also makes some points that are of interest to us Catholics of Anglican patrimony.

Those are important observations, but there is something more: Lay people and clergy in the English-speaking world have been praying “lead us not into temptation” for nearly 1,200 years without confusion or complaint. One of the oldest extant English translations of the Lord’s Prayer is in a manuscript known as the Bath Old English Gospels, compiled during the eleventh century around the time of the Norman Conquest. The pertinent phrase reads: Ne gelæd þu us on costnunge (gelædis our modern English “lead” and costnunge means “temptations or “trials”). William Tyndale’s English Bible of the early sixteenth century, whose prose style influenced such later Protestant Bibles as the Geneva Bible and the King James Bible as well as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, preserved the language “lead us not into temptation,” which became standard for Protestant services. During the mid-eighteenth century, an English Catholic bishop, Richard Challoner, revised the clumsily Latinate Douay-Rheims English translation of the Vulgate that had been standard for Catholics during the Counter-Reformation in order to make its diction resemble the mellifluous cadences of the King James version. All of those Bibles preserved the words “lead us not into temptation.” They also afforded Catholics and Protestants a prayer that they could say more or less in common, despite their doctrinal differences.

So what happened to make a clause that had been understood for centuries as not really meaning that God tempted people to sin suddenly too difficult for ordinary people to take in? Blame a theory known as “dynamic equivalence,” which has afflicted biblical and other religious translations (such as the Catholic Mass) since the 1960s. 

Allen writes:

Pope Francis has a problem with “lead us not into temptation,” the penultimate line of the Lord’s Prayer in English as it appears in Matthew’s Gospel and is recited at Catholic Mass and in Catholic devotions. Francis objects that it’s not God who tempts us to stray from His path of righteousness (that’s the devil’s job), so “lead us not” could prove confusing to ordinary Catholics. As he put it in a December 6 interview with an Italian Catholic television channel: “It is I who fall, it is not God who throws me into temptation and then sees how I fell . . . . A father does not do that, a father helps you to get up immediately.” Francis suggested that the world’s Catholics should pray “do not let us fall into temptation,” in place of “lead us not.”

She goes on to describe how “lead us not into temptation” is in fact a valid translation of the original texts.  Then she points out its patrimonial dimension:

Those are important observations, but there is something more: Lay people and clergy in the English-speaking world have been praying “lead us not into temptation” for nearly 1,200 years without confusion or complaint. One of the oldest extant English translations of the Lord’s Prayer is in a manuscript known as the Bath Old English Gospels, compiled during the eleventh century around the time of the Norman Conquest. The pertinent phrase reads: Ne gelæd þu us on costnunge (gelædis our modern English “lead” and costnunge means “temptations or “trials”). William Tyndale’s English Bible of the early sixteenth century, whose prose style influenced such later Protestant Bibles as the Geneva Bible and the King James Bible as well as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, preserved the language “lead us not into temptation,” which became standard for Protestant services. During the mid-eighteenth century, an English Catholic bishop, Richard Challoner, revised the clumsily Latinate Douay-Rheims English translation of the Vulgate that had been standard for Catholics during the Counter-Reformation in order to make its diction resemble the mellifluous cadences of the King James version. All of those Bibles preserved the words “lead us not into temptation.” They also afforded Catholics and Protestants a prayer that they could say more or less in common, despite their doctrinal differences.

So what happened to make a clause that had been understood for centuries as not really meaning that God tempted people to sin suddenly too difficult for ordinary people to take in? Blame a theory known as “dynamic equivalence,” which has afflicted biblical and other religious translations (such as the Catholic Mass) since the 1960s. 

Go on over and read the rest!   Thank God, for Anglicanorum coetibus, for Divine Worship, for the Ordinariates for Catholics of Anglican patrimony.

 

 

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