The Lord’s Prayer: It’s all in the words, but which ones?
The Rt. Rev. Shannon Johnston
XIII Bishop of Virginia
Probably all Episcopalians know that our Book of Common Prayer Rite II liturgies over two versions of the Lord’s Prayer, one in the “traditional” English (which dates from the 14th century) and the other in our contemporary language.
When you think about it, that makes perfect sense, given that Rite II services are composed in the contemporary style. But why, then, is the traditional one offered at all in Rite II? Well, I have it from rst-hand authority that the only reason that the traditional version of the Lord’s Prayer is offered in Rite II is that it was simply too controversial to replace the well-known (and much loved) traditional prayer with the new version and no one wanted the then-new Prayer Book to be rejected simply for that reason!
But we notice right away that the contemporary-style prayer not only “modernizes” the 14th century version but also provides an entirely new translation of key passages. As a result, the Lord’s Prayer is substantially different, not only in the words but—most importantly—in the actual meaning.
This is puzzling, if not outright confusing. A parishioner once told me, “I think I prefer what the new version says, but I wish it could be in the traditional language!” That comment raises the real issue at hand: words matter, certainly. Familiarity and “feeling” count. But more to the real point, the meaning of the words matters much more. And there’s no getting around the problem that the traditional version—as we understand those words today—now says things that the prayer Jesus gave us never intended to say. Yes, it is that serious.
Surely, what the prayer means to say is the reason why the contemporary version commends itself and commands our attention. All translation seeks to do precisely this—to get at what was actually meant in the original language by using words through which we can easily understand that meaning. My point is this: Scholars have learned much more about Biblical languages and texts than the Church knew 650 years ago. So it is that the modern version of the Lord’s Prayer is much clearer theologically for speech today than the old version. An additional problem arises from the fact that some of those “old” English words and phrases had one sense of meaning for people in 1380 but for us today the implications are entirely dfferent—and not to the good!
Let me provide you two examples of what I’m getting at here:
“LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION…”
Who hasn’t had a problem with this? Are we to conclude from these words that God actually LEADS us into facing temptation? Surely not, as if God would toy with us in such an unfaithful—even absurd—a fashion. That is terrible theology! Why would we want to teach our children such a thing? Why would we, as adults, subject ourselves to such a non-sensible thing in our prayer to God? In all of my 30 years of ministry, I’ve had to deal with more fall-out from this unhelpful notion than from any other idea of what our relationship with God is like. It is much more to Jesus’ point that we pray to be “saved from” (as the contemporary version has it) those times in human life that threaten to take us into serious depths of despair or faithlessness, as contrasted to being “led into” such times.
Moreover, it’s not mere and vague “temptation” that is at stake here but outright trials, both those in which we are now embroiled and those we will surely face in the future. Furthermore, Biblical scholars agree that these words originally held apocalyptic meaning (i.e. God’s judgment at the End-Time)—thus, the modern version says our “time of trial.” Obviously, “temptation” is far too weak a word to convey what is meant here.
“FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES…”
In Jesus’ own Aramaic language, He was clearly getting at the hard reality of sin when it comes to being forgiven by God as we forgive others. The softer and less specific “trespasses” carries neither the weight nor the sharp, jarring focus that was originally conveyed. Today, when we use the word “trespass” to mean sin, offense, or wrong-doing, it is euphemistic or poetic. That is a runaround that the blunt, straightforward original meaning would hardly allow! I think that we need to know and to speak exactly what is meant here.
None of this is to suggest that our congregations should stop using the traditional version of the Lord’s Prayer. I’m simply trying to point out what the prayer says – and doesn’t say. So, when you pray through the traditional version, it is important to keep the true meaning of the words in mind.
The contemporary version of the Lord’s Prayer was produced in 1975 by the International Consultation on English Texts, which is an official body of the English-speaking Churches throughout the world. It was intended to be the one version for every English-speaking Christian to use regardless of denomination, so that we might have at least this one prayer—given to us by Jesus Himself—in common with one another. There is much in the modern translation of our Lord’s own prayer that is well worth considering and taking to heart.
From the Virginia Episcopalian