In both Christian and Unitarian-Universalist congregations, it is very common for services or songs at or around Christmas to include the short song of the heavenly host in Luke 2:14. In the King James Version that is often quoted, this reads "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men". Many churchgoers have other variants from Christmas carols and other sources floating in the back of their heads.
In an earlier discussion on this blog, I made the point that the traditional forms in which this verse is usually quoted, including the KJV, do not correspond to the text which should be read on the basis of the best early Greek manuscripts. The passage is not found in the early Greek papyrus texts of the NT from the first three centuries AD, but it does occur in the early capital-letter (uncial) Greek manuscripts of the NT. Based on them, in the modern New Revised Standard Version, the text is correctly translated
"Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors." The "heaven" is not explicit in the Greek text, but is a reasonable interpretation. The understanding of the word "peace" requires separate discussion; in this context, some understand it as approximately equivalent to salvation. The last phrase is more literally "among men of favor" or "among men of good will". The difference between the KJV "peace, good will toward men" and the NRSV text depends mainly on whether the Greek noun translated as "favor" or "good will" is read with a nominative case (case of the sentence subject, found in late Greek NT manuscripts and the early printed editions of the Greek text, from which it entered early translations such as the KJV and Luther's Bible) or in the genitive (literally "of good will", "of favor", etc.), as in the most important early Greek uncial manuscripts and in modern scholarly editions. In my library, the form with the genitive is found in scholarly editions of the Greek NT from that of Tischendorf (1869) to the modern ones of Nestle and the United Bible Societies from recent years.
The NRSV provides an accurate interpretation of the Greek text, but misses a great deal relevant to its interpretation, even in fine study editions such as those of Walter Harrelson (2003) and the Society of Biblical Literature (2006). The Greek text suggests a Semitic original; both Hebrew and Aramaic predecessors of the Greek text were hypothesized by scholars even before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Now, both Hebrew and Aramaic forms of the last phrase, literally "among men of favor" in Greek, have been found in the Dead Sea texts from Qumran. This has the effect of confirming the reconstruction of the Greek text in Luke 2:14, as discussed by Bruce Metzger in his commentary on the Greek text of the NT (1994).
The early Latin translations of the gospels revised by Jerome provide a translation "pax in hominibus bonae voluntatis" which could be translated as "peace among men of good will" with the understanding that some men deserve and receive peace because of their good will. On the contrary, the interpretation of the Greek text by some earlier (survey in Plummer ICC 1901) and most modern scholars is that the good will or favor in question is that of the deity towards men. God's favor is understood to be granted to his covenant people. Thus the earliest form of the Greek text does not indicate that any general good will exists towards all human beings; rather, peace is considered to be limited to those who participate in the covenant with God. In a Jewish context, peace is thus conferred upon Jews; in a Christian context such as that of Luke, peace is conferred upon Christians. Others are not included. This is close to the opposite of the modern popular understanding of such phrases as "good will toward men" when it is sung in Christmas carols, where "men" is generally understood to refer to all human beings. Paradoxically, I suspect that most UUs would favor the popular inaccurate interpretation based on a corrupt text. The clear brief discussion of this passage in Luke by Stuhlmueller in the first (not the second) edition of the Jerome Biblical Commentary (1968) is particularly useful; so is the fine commentary volume on Luke by I.Howard Marshall (1978).
This is one case of many in which UUs have taken over a popular and misleading understanding of a text which is well known in Christian circles. Such a practice may place in question the concept of UUism which is implied, because it can produce an interpretative problem or contradiction which is commonly overlooked. In using and interpreting such texts, many UUs take over or bring with them the degree and type of understanding of historical Christianity and its texts which is current in lay Christian circles. Others who profess UUism value Christian and Jewish traditions, but advocate that they need to be considered with more care.
Speaking from a membership point of view, there is not really a choice in the matter. If such ideas are not considered carefully, they remain in the mind as part of the unconsidered baggage left over from previous devotion to some form of Christianity, and as potential time-bombs in the adaptation to UUism. For this reason, I have long advocated that one important aspect of the orientation to UUism should be a reconsideration of aspects of historical Christianity and Christian texts, which cannot be comprehensive but at least can teach habits of analytic and historical thought which can be extended to other material as the need arises.
This issue extends to many components of tradition other than religious texts and sayings. For instance, Western attitudes towards sexuality, rarely considered in introductions to UUism, are generally based on legends which have developed into a politically explosive part of a popular ethical system (e.g. Elaine Pagels "Adam, Eve and the Serpent", 1988). They are fragments of the ethical aspects of an ancient and convoluted religious tradition, which should be considered with the same care and respect as the modern religious successor forms of this tradition. Without understanding of the earlier forms of these traditions, their modern forms are unintelligible, and trip up those who wish to move on from them.