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Cathy Lynn Grossman, religion writer for USA Today, raises an intriguing issue in her blog, Faith & Reason. In her post, “Christmas cards wish good will toward (mostly) all,” Grossman notes that some Christmas cards offer peace and goodwill, following the class King James Version of Luke 2:14: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
But many modern translations appear to limit God’s good will, according to Grossman. The Holman Standard Bible reads, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people He favors!” The NIV follows suit with “peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (Photo: Govert Flinck, “Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ to the Shepherds,” 1639)
In fact, every modern translation of which I am aware appears to limit good will to those who please God, not to all people. Even The Message reads, “Glory to God in the heavenly heights, Peace to all men and women on earth who please him.”
What’s going on here? Are today’s Christians stingy with God’s good will? Are we becoming like the early Ebenezer Scrooge, wanting to hoard all the grace for ourselves?
No, Bible translators are not becoming more hardhearted and less gracious. They are becoming more exact in their effort to faithfully translate the Greek of the New Testament into today’s English, even if this appears less gracious at first. The situation of Luke 2:14 is a complicated one. The oldest and most accurate manuscripts of the Greek New Testament use a form of eudokia (“good will” or “good pleasure”) that cannot be the subject of the phrase. The translation “good will toward men” rests on some late manuscripts that use another form of eudokia. It appears that the copyists of the New Testament manuscripts were attempting to make sense of a difficult phrase in Greek. But recent research has shown that this phrase reflects a Jewish theological understanding of God’s good pleasure. Thus, based on the best textual evidence and on a better grasp of first-century language and culture, modern translators go with “Peace to all men and women on earth who please God” rather than “Good will toward men.”
Does this mean that Christmas is just for those who please God? Or do others get to share in God’s good will?
The Gospel of Luke begins by emphasizing how the birth of Jesus is relevant to Israel in particular. It fulfills Jewish hopes for a Savior who will establish God’s kingdom. God’s good will is extended, in particular, to the faithful among the people of Israel. But if you keep reading in Luke, you’ll discover that the peace and good will associated with Jesus will be available to all peoples. Shortly after the birth of Jesus, his parents take him to the Temple in Jerusalem. There they encounter a man named Simeon to whom the Holy Spirit reveals the true identity of the infant Jesus. Simeon took Jesus in his arms and prayed,
“Sovereign Lord, now let your servant die in peace,
as you have promised.
I have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared for all people.
He is a light to reveal God to the nations,
and he is the glory of your people Israel!” (Luke 2:29-32)
Simeon draws from the prophecy of Isaiah, which envisions God’s servant as a light for all peoples (Isa 49:6).
So, the message of the angels was addressed to Jewish shepherds and spoke of God’s good will for the faithful of Israel. But one needs only to read a few verses further in Luke to see that God’s salvation is meant for all peoples. Jesus came to reveal God’s love to everyone. Tiny Tim was right. Thus, I am not bothered by Christmas cards that promise good will to all people. Though they might miss the precise translation of the best biblical manuscripts, these cards embody the universal impact of the birth of the Savior.