Peace on Earth: The Text and Message of Luke 2:14 for Christmas Time
Posted by John Meade on December 20, 2010
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem entitled “Christmas Bells” in which the last line of every stanza is “Peace on earth good-will to men.” Of course this line echoes part of the angelic choir’s pronouncement to the shepherds that Christ, the LORD, had been born, and it is the wording of the AV. The translation preserves the correct meaning of ευδοκια, since it preserves its meaning as divine favor “to men”, but the AV obscures the intended recipients of peace and favor which is present in the original text [if you get bored with the technical, skip to the conclusion for the payoff].
The Variant in Luke 2:14
The critical edition of the Greek New Testament has the following reading:
δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας (Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of favor [understood as men of God's favor; see below]).
The genitive singular ending is considered to be the original text and not the nominative singular. Thus the angels are pronouncing peace to men of God’s favor, not peace on earth, goodwill to men [indiscriminately].
I won’t give the full listing of the evidence in NA 27, but I will draw attention to the reading in Codex א (codex S if you are a Septuagintalist). Follow the link to the on-line edition here. This link goes to the proper lief in the codex, but the settings will have to be changed. I suggest using “raking light” and zoom in on the top right hand column, where the lemma may be found. The raking light reveals a very interesting feature about the texture of the codex. Stretching over lines 5-6 in uncials, you should see ΕΥΔΟΚΙΑ (note the ε in medial/hyper position). Now, does your eye see the ruffled texture of the parchment after the letter Α? I see what appears to be a scraping (that’s an erasing in today’s vernacular) of the parchment and the remnant of the bottom part of the stroke of a lunar sigma (i.e. Ϲ). It appears that the scribe originally wrote, ΕΥΔΟΚΙΑϹ and then a later corrector erased the sigma so that what now remains in the text is the nominative singular “favor or good-will.” Supposedly, codex B had the same erasure, but when I examined the exact replica of this codex, it was not easy to see the erasure. [Perhaps an electronic online edition of B with raking light would reveal the same phenomenon .]
The external evidence favors the reading in the critical edition since the reading is preserved in the oldest and best manuscripts over and against the text underlying the AV. The later correction of the codices S and B and the text of the other witnesses probably arose either to facilitate the difficult reading or accidentally on palaeographical grounds, since in some mss the lunar sigma may have been small in size (see Metzger, Textual Commentary, 111).
Meaning of the Phrase ανθρωποις ευδοκιας
Once the genitive is restored as the original text, there is still some debate over whether the phrase should be understood as “to men with a disposition of good will”, or “to men of God’s favor” or “to men whom God favors.” The first option seems plausible only if one is not reading the text through the lenses of the LXX and DSS. In the LXX, ευδοκια means God’s favor on his people. Psalm 5:12(11)ff says, “And let all who hope in you be glad; forever they will rejoice, and you will encamp among them, and those who love your name will boast in you, because you will bless the righteous; O Lord, you crowned us as with a shield of favor.” Psalm 105(106):4 says, “Remember us, O Lord, in the good pleasure of [towards?] your people; regard us in your deliverance.” 1 Supplements (Chronicles) 16:10, “Praise in his holy name. When a heart seeks his good pleasure, it shall be glad.” Significantly, scholars have also noted a Semitic parallel in 1QH iv.32f (the sons of his [God's] good pleasure); xi.9 (the elect of his [God's] good pleasure) (see Metzger, 111). I found no examples of ευδοκια in the genitive modifying ανθρωπος in LXX, and LSJ did not have any examples. This reading in Luke 2:14 is truly difficult, yet the Hebrew examples from the DSS offer sufficient evidence to interpret this text as an indirect Hebraism or Septuagintalism.
Luke 2:14, then, is best read in light of the LXX and the DSS. This context indicates that the angels sing about peace to men whom God favors, not the favorable disposition of men or men in the disposition of goodwill.
Christmas time, therefore, is not encapsulated in the slogans, “peace, man” or “let’s end all wars” or “world peace” with a fundamentally future orientation. Fundamentally, it seems to me, Christmas is about remembering that the angels declared peace to men on whom God’s favor rests, and that declaration was actually fulfilled in the first advent of Jesus. Christ, the LORD, has brought peace to men whom God has favored. Christ came to preach the favorable year of the LORD (Is 61:2; Luke 4:19-21) and he accomplished this by shedding his own blood and inaugurating the new covenant [or the covenant of peace in Ezek. 34:25 et al.], which procures the forgiveness of sins for all who repent and believe in him (Luke 22:14-20; 24:44-49). His sacrifice made peace and formed a people, a new humanity (Eph. 2:14-18), who now endeavor to live as the people of God by speaking the truth in love [i.e. living faithfully with one another as members of the new covenant. cf. Zech 8:16-17].
The cries “to end all wars” and “world peace” refer to the second coming of Jesus Christ, when he will announce the day of the judgment/vengeance of our God (Isaiah 61:2). On this day, he shall remove the tears from the eyes of the people of God’s favor, and he will judge his enemies with absolute justice and righteousness.
Christmas, then, is not an empty hope for world peace. It is remembering how God in Christ actually brought peace on earth to the people of his favor in the past, and that past historical reality is the ground for a certain hope that he will act in the future, that he will indeed come again to establish his justice and righteousness in the consummation of his kingdom in the new creation. “World peace” is part and parcel of why we cry,”Come, Lord Jesus!” It is not a lament or a gripe to God, as if the first advent of Christ had failed. The first advent brought peace through the blood of Jesus’ cross. The second advent will fulfill or consummate what Christ’s first coming inaugurated.
With this understanding, may we have a merry Christmas indeed!