Thursday, December 10, 2009


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.


Bill Baar said...

...and it's not even much of a Christian Holiday as any J. Witness will tell you.

I can't imagine what the gospel authors would have thought about having their words uttered around a Teuton's pagan tree god.

DairyStateDad said...

Serious progressive Christians--that is, serious about their progressivism but also serious about their Christianity--are also likely to find this challenging. At DairyStateMom's church the overriding message about God and Jesus is that of a boundless and extravagant love from God to humanity, in the person of Jesus.

(This is not a church, notwithstanding its Calvinist roots, that especially emphasizes the Fundamentalist's Jesus as the atonement for Adam's sin or the only protection from eternal hell. But it is a church that is very serious about its Christian identity.)

The exclusivity reflected in the translation you cite certainly is not what that church embraces...

LinguistFriend said...

Bill Baar - I do not advocate modern Christmas as a particularly Christian holiday. It seems to be more an odd mixture of Roman and German customs, as I think you know. But it has come to be the holiday celebrated as the birth of Jesus, and hence it is cited in relation to the accounts of the birth of Jesus given in Matthew and Luke.

DairyStateDad - I am friendly to
progressive Christianity. However, I must point out that the issue is not one simply of a particular NT translation. The Greek language of the NT is one that I read routinely and have read with care from the first word of Matthew to the last one of Revelation, so that I vouch for these translations as cited. The issue of exclusivity and inclusivity in Christianity is indeed still a painful issue for a number of forms of Christianity.

fausto said...

It all depends whether you think the original Greek word translated as "good will" in the KJV was the nominative eudokia or the genitive eudokias in the original Greek text. If it's eudokia, then the KJV's "good will toward men" is the more accurate translation, but if it's eudokias, then a more accurate rendition would be something along the lines of "toward men of his good pleasure". The question cannot be settled purely be appeal to the ancient source texts, either: the original autograph is lost, and the oldest available manuscripts contain examples of each. Even the witness of the early Church Fathers is inconclusive, with (for example) Eusebius preferring eudokia and Origen in different instances quoting both versions.

In the earlier discussion to which you refer, I argued for the "good will toward men" sense over the "toward men of his good pleasure" sense -- not on the grounds of its more accurate rendition of the original autograph, which I don't think can be determined with confidence one way or the other, but on the grounds that it reflects the superior witness to the historic understanding and doctrine of the Church down through the centuries. Scripture as used within the community of faith is not an historical or cultural artifact; it is living inspiration; and the consistent witness of the broad Church for 2,000 years (with the anomalous exception of a relatively small predestinarian Calvinist minority for a few centuries only), as well as the witness of most of its scriptures in translation over the same period, has indeed been that Christ was born in order to bring God's good will to all humanity.

For a brief essay along similar lines, click here.

DairyStateDad said...

LF, I probably got a little off track in my comment earlier; in referring to "the translation you cite" I was merely trying to be precise and not intending to imply that this was a matter of dispute depending on translation.

I don't fundamentally disagree with your point, based on the information available to me, although I note fausto's counter argument. In the end, though, it's all Greek to me! ;-)

LinguistFriend said...

As Fausto states, he and I have
already engaged in a "frank and vigorous discussion" (State Department euphemism for a verbal fight)on this issue. The conclusion on which I lean is that of the greatest specialists on criticism of the Greek text of the New Testament, in particular of Tischendorf (1869), Westcott and Hort (1881), and in the last century of Kurt Aland and Bruce Metzger. Besides the reference in my post to Metzger's book on particular passages in the Greek text of the NT (1994), a good discussion of the issues involved is given in Metzger's more general treatise "The Text of the New Testament", most recently in the 4th edition (2005) assisted by Bart Ehrman (pp.327-328). Fausto's comments suggest that the conclusion is based on theology. In fact, it is based on a type of deductive logic which is beautifully discussed and illustrated in Metzger's book for those who read Greek, but inevitably cannot be convincing for those who do not read it.

Anonymous said...

Peace on Earth???

Aren’t humans amazing Animals? They kill wildlife - birds, deer, all kinds of cats, coyotes, beavers, groundhogs, mice and foxes by the million in order to protect their domestic animals and their feed.

Then they kill domestic animals by the billion and eat them. This in turn kills people by the million, because eating all those animals leads to degenerative - and fatal - - health conditions like heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and cancer.

So then humans spend billions of dollars torturing and killing millions of more animals to look for cures for these diseases.

Elsewhere, millions of other human beings are being killed by hunger and malnutrition because food they could eat is being used to fatten domestic animals.

Meanwhile, few people recognize the absurdity of humans, who kill so easily and violently, and once a year send out cards praying for "Peace on Earth."

~Revised Preface to Old MacDonald’s Factory Farm by C. David Coates~

Chalicechick said...


I find it weird that this bit from Coates criticizes people for eating domestic animals yet criticizes people for not letting predators eat them at the same time.

Anyone who thinks that in the absence of humans, animals would peacefully share food hasn't seen the nature channel, and the constant competition of plants, with death from lack of sunlight and nutrients going to the loser, goes on hour by hour in my front yard.

Coates has set his standards for "peace" so high that the only places that meet them are planets without any life at all.


LinguistFriend said...

DairyStateDad - Thank you for your additional note. As regards the issue of the text, I might state it differently. The Greek text with the genitive, which is reconstructed by the agreement of competent scholars since the late 19th century, is hypothesized to come from a Semitic source. In fact, it is supported by agreement with the Semitic phraseology of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Therefore it is most probably ancient.
From a different point of view, if one points out that any reading in the Greek NT is supported by the agreement of the Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Vaticanus, Codex Bezae, and the Freer Codex, as is the case for the reading with the genitive, anyone who knows the essentials of the textual criticism of the Greek NT would recognize that it is next to impossible to reject that reading. Ask any well-educated minister. By the way, half of the material for my doctoral dissertation depended on my ability to use such material and such reasoning.

fausto said...

Canonicity and textual authenticity are mostly congruent, but not perfectly overlapping, sets.

LF is making his argument from the point of view of presumptive (but nevertheless speculatively reconstructed) textual authenticity: which of many varying ancient copies is most likely to resemble the lost original manuscript? I am making a different argument, from the point of view of canonicity: if ancient practice confirms the sumultaneous acceptance and circulation in antiquity of differing textual alternatives, which one best embodies not the most likely meaning of the lost original manuscript, but the consensus testimony and belief of the entire Church Universal from then until now?

LinguistFriend said...

Fausto, as I said in my response to DairyStateDad, anyone who is trained in textual criticism of the Greek NT would have a hard time rejecting the common reading in this passage of the indicated set of manuscripts.
You are right, of course, that the later reading with the nominative is in better agreement with what we like to think of as Christian ethics, and more ethically attractive to UUs. That supports the archaic character of the text fragment that Luke inserted in his gospel. It would not have been produced as part of the later religious development that you cite, so it is old.
You make reference in your last section to concepts which had no reality. Difficulties of distance and communication meant that there was no such thing as a Church Universal in the early period of Christianity, as scholars such as Pagels, Bart Ehrman, and Philip Jenkins have emphasized. Christianity varied greatly in different areas until it was made more uniform by imperial fiat backing the decrees of councils. In some areas such as christology, the prevailing views became more nonsensical with time. Further, in such cases, as is shown by the techniques of linguistic and textual history, it is not the most widely spread state of the text or language that allows one to reconstruct the early state of the text or language, but the one from which the observed textual or linguistic states found can be generated. You have still missed the basic logic. I have great respect for your ability and general broad information, but you are not trained or experienced in this area, despite the eloquence of your writing.

kimc said...

...peace is considered to be limited to those who participate in the covenant with God.

Looking at this from a more pragmatic standpoint, couldn't we put across a competitive challenge to Christians a la Calvin: In much the same way that Calvinism encourages competitiveness at wealth because wealth shows one to be favored by God, wouldn't this idea quoted above encourage competitiveness in peacefulness, because having peace shows one to be favored by God? This should work on both a personal and a national level: we are godly to the extent we have peace. Therefore, we must stop fighting wars or be known to be not favored by God.
That's the potential I see in this.

The Dancin' Hippie said...

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.

What exactly is wrong with this? I'm happy to use current lay Christian circles as a legitimate source for UUs in the honest search for truth? I don't want to limit my sources to the Bible, let alone a strict translation of the Greek, nor do I want to limit authority to the Pope or my local UU pastor. So in this case I'm content to use an inaccurate translation that expresses a theology that resonates for me.

While I find your analysis interesting, it seems to me that an orientation to UUism that included a reconsideration of aspects of historical Christianity and Christian texts would be used more as a tool to denigrate Christians, whether that is your intent or not.

LinguistFriend said...

kimc, your comments follow a logic that was developed by Max Weber in his analysis of the Protestant ethic (especially Calvinism) and the rise of capitalism, as you are probably aware. In these comments I was mainly working to follow out the internal logic and history of the ideas, rather than advocating that one should follow them. I think that the main issue that is really important for us is that of inclusivity versus exclusivity, as was spotted by DairyStateDad. I quote from "Christian Century" (Dec.1) a comment of Bishop Mark Lawrence in rejecting "the false gospel of indiscriminate inclusivity" as his diocese began to withdraw from some bodies in the Episcopal church in protest of the liberal attitudes of the denomination on gay and lesbian issues.

LinguistFriend said...

Dancin' Hippie brings up important issues. The Bible by itself can be a dangerous text. It has to be looked at in context, which for practical purposes can most often be provided by a good commentary.
The NRSV editions that I mention, especially that of Harrelson, go a long way in providing solid commentary incorporated in the edition. Informed guidance is necessary to identify appropriate sources of information, however. So those carrying out orientation
to UUism need to have a solid orientation in the sense of understanding where friends and new members are coming from.
The denigration of Christians in UU circles mentioned by Dancin' Hippo does happen. I have seen it at its worst in groups with a large proportion of members still bitterly angry at experience with conservative Christianity. It is particularly painful when it sneaks into RE groups, presumably through chldren quoting their parents. If it is not handled well, this negative feeling is an issue which can hold back congregations from calling a minister, relating productively to the UUA etc. Moreover, the UU Christians are a significant group within the denomination. My experience is that very concrete information about historical Christianity helps members attain more objectivity and move past this anger. A minister, a lay leader, the person who deals with adult education, need to work with the congregation on these issues. CC's following post on these issues has useful discussion and references.

LinguistFriend said...

Oops, not Hippo but Hippie! I usually follow sources with greater accurary.

kimc said...

LF -- Yes, I was purposely paralleling Calvinistic ideas. I know you were just being abstract. I'm of a more practical mind: since the Calvinist attitude about wealth has produced pernicious capitalism, wouldn't it be better to substitute the wealth test with a peace test? Challenge Christians to be peaceful to "prove" their faith? It might make for a much better world.
And yes, I agree with Dancin' Hippie: it seems more useful to me to study ideas that make for a superior religion rather than a historically accurate religion. Why doesn't it ever occur to anyone that someone may have just used a wrong word or phrase in the Bible? Even God makes mistakes.
Would you like a new idea to chew on? How about this: the age of miracles is over because god grew up and changed heaven into a democracy instead of a dictatorship. :-)

LinguistFriend said...

I would not argue against you. One point of view is the text or historical view which come out of historical study; such is Marshall's fine commentary for Luke, for instance. A second point of view is a popular understanding of the material. In this case, it is an ethical point of view which, like Fausto, I prefer to the historical view. But they are not the same, and examination of that difference tells us something about what has happened to our religious views over the millenia.
One needs to know where one starts
in order to know where one has arrived. And in a third, or fourth, or fifth, point of view, it is certainly possible to look for a better formulation, as you suggest. UUism is free to do so, relatively free from the agony and religious politics that have (for instance) characterized the gradual adaptation of even liberal religious groups to such problems as LGBT issues. But you need to know your starting point in order to know how far you have come, and in what direction.