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Why isn’t the Our Father translated exactly as Jesus prayed it?

Full Question

In the Our Father, Jesus taught his disciples to pray for deliverance from the “Evil One,” not merely from “evil” as such. Why hasn’t this prayer been translated accurately? Shouldn’t we be praying what Jesus taught us to pray, word for word?

Answer

First, Jesus probably didn’t teach the Our Father in Greek (the language we have the Gospels in) but in Aramaic, so any English version is a translation of a translation.

Second, you can’t always translate word for word because the results would be awkward or even unintelligible. Translation invariably involves splitting words in two, combining them, dropping them out, adding them, or rearranging them, depending on the rules of the language you are translating into. To refuse to do any of these things would result in a lousy translation.

If it were translated in a strictly word-for-word manner, the Our Father would read like this:

Father of-us the in the heavens, let-be-made-holy the name of-you, let-come the kingdom of-you, let-come-about the will of-you, as in heaven also upon earth. The bread of-us the daily give to-us today and dismiss to-us the debts of-us, as also we dismissed to-the debtors of-us. And not into-bring us into trial, but deliver us from the evil.

Third, languages obey different rules and translations cannot be done in a strictly word-for-word manner. Translators are sometimes confronted with situations where they have to make a decision about how to render something, because the original can have more than one meaning, and there is no good way to express this ambiguity in the translation.

An example of this is the one you mention. Greek tends to use the definite article (in English, the word the) much more than we do. For example, you might read about “the Paul” going and saying something to “the Peter” about “the Jesus the Christ.” Because it gets used in Greek so frequently and in ways that English doesn’t use it, translators have to decide when to drop it and when to include it in their translations.

One such case is at the end of the Our Father. The Greek literally says “the evil.” Does this mean “the evil one” or does it just mean “evil”? Because of the way the article is used in Greek, it can have either meaning. In fact, because language can be deliberately ambiguous, it could mean both—i.e., “deliver us from the evil one and from evil in general.”

The English translators of the Our Father chose one option rather than another, but it isn’t an option where you can look at the Greek and say, “That’s wrong. That’s not what the Greek says.” On the other hand, one can look at the “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” and say “That is wrong. The words in Greek are clearly debts and debtors, not trespasses and those who trespass against.” This criticism affects only the English version of the Our Father. (The Pater Noster, for example, has it right: debita and debitoribus.)

 









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20 comments

  1. deb monks Reply

    I think the person asking the question wants to know why dont we say it like it is stated in the Bible. It is much shorter seems like our version has had a lot added to it..

    1. Proph Reply

      We do say it like it is in Scripture, i.e., the original Latin in Matthew’s. (Not exactly but fairly close). Perhaps you are thinking the definitive translation is the stripped-down modern English ones, but, in Catholic use, they aren’t. They come to us from Latin.

  2. Visuca Mazo Reply

    wonderful reply on ‘translation’.: Anyone who does not understand it, should attempt to study at least another language.

  3. Douglas Reply

    In the latin languages we ‘do not let us fall into temptation,’ in Englsi we say LEAD US NOT………..I have had a problem or issue with this for many years…God does not and cannot Lead us into temptation surely!

  4. Sandile Khumalo Reply

    You forgot to speak about the last part. “For thy is thy Kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever Amen.” That does not exist in the Greek Bible.

    1. catstclair12000 Reply

      That was added by a monk copying the Bible. It was not just a job to copy scripture. One was supposed to pray as one copied. He got carried away and added those words on the side of the page. The next monk to copy the Bible thought it was a correction as corrections were made on the sides of pages. There are two gospels with the Lord’s prayer in them. One had the addition and the other does not.

  5. maciator777 Reply

    the father is everywere as the spirith is everywere, so saying in heaven is actually very misleading for some and not actual. in heaven means in spiritual realms or in the kingdom of god. Better translation would be not in heaven but heavenly father and more better spiritual father. The other thing is, god is not only father. Of course jesus referred to father in a male world at that time cause israel was calling god father. But clearly the bible ingenesis states let US make MAN in OUR IMAGE, lets make THEM MALE AND FEMALE. Thats it, GOD is both, father and mother, but because god is both in one, the translation of father should be parent. So it should be Spiritual Parent, lets keep your name, your word, your image, your only begotten son, holy, open our eyes our heart our soul our spirith for thine world, thy will be done and not our will, as its in thine world so shall it be in our presence, give us the daily need that is spiritual and material, and forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins commited against us by others, and dont let us enter in any kind of sin, visible and invisible, but deliver us before it should happen, then thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever now and forever amin

    1. Proph Reply

      “the father is everywere as the spirith is everywere, so saying in heaven is actually very misleading for some and not actual.”

      Yes, as Jesus himself tells us: “And being asked by the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come? he answered them, and said: The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say: Behold here, or behold there. For lo, the kingdom of God is within you” (Lk. 17:20-21). It is only “misleading” if you read Scripture like a Protestant, as if it were stereo instructions always to be understood in the most literal sense possible.

      “But clearly the bible ingenesis states let US make MAN in OUR IMAGE, lets make THEM MALE AND FEMALE. Thats it, GOD is both, father and mother, but because god is both in one, the translation of father should be parent.”

      Man is made in God’s image to the extent that he is united by nature in a community of self-giving love; and the fact that man exists male and female is one way we, too, are able to be united in such communities. That is the sense in which we are made in God’s image. Traditionally God is understood as male (even though, being spirit, he is unsexed) because it is his life-giving initiative which gives life to other things, in much the same way as it is the male who transmits life to the woman, who receives it, in the conjugal act.

      1. catstclair12000 Reply

        We are in the image of God, not in a physical body, but in having intellect and free will.

  6. Karen Dinsfriend Reply

    What was wrong with the way it was originally in Hebrew/Aramaic? Too much of a Jewish prayer?

    1. catstclair12000 Reply

      Nothing. I just don’t know anyone who speaks Aramaic. I have tried Hebrew, but I think God speaks English too
      .

  7. Juliet la Torre Reply

    I just like to know why the tune of Our Father always changes.

    1. catstclair12000 Reply

      It wasn’t meant to be sung. Different composes use different tunes when it is sung. It can also be chanted.

  8. Maria Dworzak Reply

    The “Our Father” isn’t actually a prayer but an example of how to pray. Jesus said to pray LIKE this. He didn’t say to pray this. In fact just before the Our Father Jesus tells the disciples not to pray pre-written prayers over and over as the Pharisees do. He says that they have no meaning when you do that but instead to pray from your heart.

    1. Proph Reply

      “The “Our Father” isn’t actually a prayer but an example of how to pray. Jesus said to pray LIKE this. He didn’t say to pray this.”

      If you were to ask me “How do you spell ‘Mississippi’?” and I said, “Like this” (and then proceeded to spell it), no one would imagine that I am saying Mississippi should be spelled otherwise.

      “In fact just before the Our Father Jesus tells the disciples not to pray pre-written prayers over and over as the Pharisees do. He says that they have no meaning when you do that but instead to pray from your heart.”

      The issue with the Pharisees was the emptiness of their (public) prayers, not their repetition of them. There is nothing wrong with praying according to prayers given us by the Church if we pray them with as full a heart as we can muster. Not all of us are gifted linguists or speakers, and those of us who cannot articulate beautiful prayers on the fly are grateful to be given wonderful examples from Scripture and the saints.

  9. Ty Toups Reply

    Jesus says to pray LIKE this. Not to pray this exactly. Boring memorization was not the objective.

    1. Proph Reply

      Nor was it to enable tedious pedants to spray anathemas at people for failing to pray with spontaneity.

  10. catstclair12000 Reply

    Jesus did not speak or pray in Greek. He taught in Aramaicand the apostles had the gospels written in Greek, which was the language of the day. St. Jerome translated the Greek into Latin; and the Latin has been translated into many languages. Anyone who speaks two languages knows that an exact translation is seldom possible. If you compare various Bibles, you will see the differences even in modern English. Anyone ever try to read Chaucer in the English of his time?

  11. Peter Moritz Reply

    while we are about translations…why has the real second commandment been changed / deleted in catholicism?…the one about making idols?

  12. jimboylan Reply

    As long as we’re comparing to Christ’s original spoken Aramaic (or written Greek) words, did He use the Familiar or Deferential, 2nd person singular or plural pronouns? Did His language have separate words for Thy and Your, etc.?

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