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Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men?

Christmas cards frequently proclaim, and Christmas carols echo, the well-known angelic pronouncement at Jesus’ birth of “peace on earth, good will toward men.”[1] Or do they? A closer look at the actual passage in Luke 2:14 proves both intriguing and illuminating. In context, Luke opens his narrative of the birth of Jesus Christ regarding the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus (31/27 BC–AD 14) who presided over the “Golden Age” of Rome and was widely heralded for having ushered in the period of Pax Romana, the “Roman peace.” Jesus was born during the reign of Augustus, the Roman “Prince of peace.” In keeping with Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus, too, came as the “Prince of peace,” and yet, the peace he came to bring was of an entirely different kind (cf. Isa 9:6; see also John 14:27). Jesus’ peace was not coercive, backed up by Roman military might; it was an otherworldly, supernatural peace—peace with God—that no human power can procure and no amount of money can buy.

In God’s providence, the census ordered by Caesar Augustus brought Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father, and Jesus’ mother Mary from Nazareth where they lived to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem, the town of David. Per Micah’s prophecy, this was the city where the Messiah was to be born (cf. Mic 5:2, cited in Matt 2:6). In the tradition of David, the shepherd-king, it was there—in Bethlehem—that Mary gave birth to Jesus. Local shepherds became the bewildered recipients of an angelic visitation pronouncing good news: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:11–12 NIV).

At this announcement, a contingent of angels appeared, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (NIV; δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας). Grammatically speaking, the subject of the first clause is δόξα (“Glory”) and the subject of the second clause is εἰρήνη (“peace”). The contrasting locations are ἐν ὑψίστοις (“in the highest”) and ἐπὶ γῆς (“on earth”), and the respective recipients θεῷ (“God”) and ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας (“those [lit., the men/people] on whom his favor rests”). Most modern English translations render the noun εὐδοκίας (literally, “of good pleasure”) as denoting an attribute of the recipients of peace rather than as a second subject on par with “peace.”[2] Are those Christmas cards and carols that proclaim “peace on earth, good will toward men,” then, wrong? Let’s look.

First, there is a text-critical issue.[3] Does the original text of Luke 2:14 read εὐδοκίας (“of good pleasure,” genitive case) or εὐδοκία (“good will,” nominative case)? In Greek, the difference is only a single letter, a final sigma (ς). A look at the oldest and most reliable manuscripts makes clear that all three major codices—Sinaiticus (א), Alexandrinus (A), and Vaticanus (B)—point to εὐδοκίας as the original wording. Interestingly, in both Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, later correctors erased the final sigma to change the harder genitive to the easier nominative reading which subsequently found its way into many Byzantine manuscripts and writings by the Church Fathers. Later still, the King James Version based its rendering of Luke 2:14 on this textual tradition, issuing in the translation, “on earth peace, good will toward men.” And many Christmas cards and carols followed suit!

But, you may ask, what difference does it make whether “good will” is in the nominative or genitive case in the present passage? Is there an actual difference in meaning between these two renderings? In fact, there is. The traditional English translation “peace on earth, good will toward men” pronounces peace and good will toward all people, that is, humanity at large. While at some level, this is doubtless true regarding Christ’s birth (see the reference to “great joy for all the people” in Luke 2:10), the angels’ pronouncement is almost certainly restricted more specifically to “those on whom God’s favor rests,” that is, “the people of God’s good pleasure.”[4] And how does one become the recipient of God’s good pleasure? In short: by putting their faith in Jesus the Messiah.

At his baptism, and again at the Transfiguration, Jesus himself was uniquely declared to be God’s beloved Son with whom God was well pleased.[5] Now, through Jesus’ human birth and ultimately through his sacrificial cross-death on our behalf, peace with God is available to those who become recipients of divine favor through faith in God’s beloved Son. This is the “good news” the angels proclaimed at Christ’s birth, and this is the gospel we are called to proclaim to others in our day. Thus, knowledge of textual criticism and Greek grammar, along with careful study of the context of Luke 2:14, reap rich dividends in theological understanding. The angels rejoice and praise God for working out his salvation in and through the birth of the Messiah. And “the people in whom God draws near through Jesus will experience the harmony and benefits that God bestows on his own.”[6]

[1] An example is It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, written by the Unitarian minister Edmund Sears.

[2] ESV: “on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased”; HCSB: “and peace on earth to people He favors” (footnote: Or earth to men of good will).

[3] See Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (New York: UBS, 1994), 111.

[4] The Dead Sea Scrolls attest to the fact that this was a common Semitic phrase. Metzger mentions 1QH 4.32–33; 11.9 (“the sons of his [God’s] good pleasure”); and 8.6 (“the elect of his [God’s] good pleasure”; Textual Commentary, 111). See also Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 220.

[5] While the noun εὐδοκία is rare in the biblical Gospels (elsewhere only in Matt 11:26 // Luke 10:21), the verb εὐδοκέω is found in the Synoptic accounts of Jesus’ baptism (Matt 3:17 // Mark 1:11 // Luke 3:22) and Transfiguration (Matt 17:5). Luke 12:32 also includes reference to Jesus’ saying that it was the Father’s “good pleasure” to give his followers the kingdom.

[6] Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, 221. For a study of the NT birth narratives as well as John’s prologue, see Andreas Köstenberger and Alexander Stewart, The First Days of Jesus: Virgin-Born Messiah, Lowly King, Word Become Flesh (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015).

Originally published at B&H Academic Blog: http://www.bhacademicblog.com/peace-earth-good-will-toward-men/


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