Clearing the confusion over the word "temptation"

Duccio - The Temptation on the Mount


The English word “temptation” can give rise to two areas of confused interpretation. When we speak of the temptations of Jesus, are we saying that He had the same lustful and disordered feelings that we have to fight against? And in the Our Father, do we really need to ask God not to entice us to sin?

The problem is that the English word “temptation” used to have a wider range of meaning. Its normal use nowadays refers solely to the internal experience of being allured to an evil by the perceived pleasure that it might give. We are familiar with the graphic illustration of this in the account of the fall in Genesis; Eve sees that the tree with the forbidden fruit is “good to eat, and fair to the eyes, and delightful to behold.” Being thus tempted, she eats it.

What is unfamiliar to us is that in the 16th century, temptation also had a wider meaning of testing or trial. Nowadays we would not generally be understood if we used the word in this wider sense. If your back pain is a trial, you would not say “Ooh, my back – it’s such a temptation!”

The development of the language is sometimes (though not always) shown in the translation of the Greek word peirasmos. The Revised Standard Version (RSV), an accurate modern translation, has Jesus saying to the apostles at the last supper: “You are those who have continued with me in my trials.” (Lk 22:28) The Douai-Rheims translation is: “And you are they who have continued with me in my temptations” which scarcely makes sense in modern English.

Similarly, the RSV has St Paul speaking of
“...serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which befell me through the plots of the Jews” (Acts 20:19 RSV)
in the Douai-Rheims, his words are given as “the temptations which befell me…” and again this makes less sense.

Unfortunately, modern translators do not always help us to get the obviously proper sense. Notoriously, the Jerusalem Bible renders Hebrews 4:15 as follows:
“For it is not as if we had a high priest who was incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us; but we have one who has been tempted in every way that we are, though he is without sin.”
This makes it look as though Jesus had all the same temptations as we do to such sins as greed, lust, and anger. Sometimes, the texts of prayers go even further, saying that Jesus was “tempted in every way that we are, but he did not sin” leading people to the error of thinking that Jesus could have sinned but did not in fact.

Probably the best translation of Hebrews 4:15 is the one given by the great classicist and scripture scholar, Mgr Ronald Knox:
“It is not as if our high priest were incapable of feeling for us in our humiliations; he has been through every trial, fashioned as we are, only sinless.”
This rendering which is completely faithful to the original Greek (and understands it far better) helps us to a much more doctrinally accurate understanding of the relationship of Jesus to us. He sympathises with us and has been through the same trials that we endure, but He is sinless and therefore is a perfect priest for us.

Let us be clear: given our current use of English, Jesus was not “tempted” in every way that we are. He did not have the disordered desires which result from original sin and our own past sins. He was perfect in His humanity, sinless and incapable of sin. Incidentally (in case some buffoon brings it up) this does not make Jesus less human, it makes Him more human. Jesus is the perfect model for our humanity.

Understanding the narrowing use of the word “temptation” also helps us to understand the phrase “lead us not into temptation.” We know that God does not entice us to sin, allure us to evil, or lead us into any feelings or desires that will cause us to sin. If we know that “temptation” in 16th century English can also mean test or trial, it is easy to see that when we pray “lead us not into temptation,” we are asking God not to put us to the test or lead us into a time of trial. (We don't need to change the translation of "lead us not" - to propose that is to miss the point.)

If we want to meditate on this clause of the Our Father, we might consider the example of Our Lord in the garden of Gethsemane. He was subjected to the greatest trial and testing, that of taking on His own shoulders the sins of the world. In His anguish, he cried “My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me” (Mt 26:39) and then added “Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” He was put to the test and asked the Father to spare Him. We ask the same in the Lord’s prayer, knowing that sometimes the answer will be “No.”

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