Peace on Earth, But Only to Men of Good Will?

According to some translations of the Bible, the Heavenly Host sang “peace, goodwill towards men.” According to other translations, they sang “peace to men of good will”? One is a promise of peace. The other is a thinly veiled threat. If you want to promote peace, you need to have good will toward everyone.

According to the Gospel of Luke, an angel appeared to a group of shepherds and announced the birth of Christ. At that point, a choir of angels (the Heavenly Host) appeared and started singing. Here’s where the story gets interesting. Luke 2:14, which is the verse that tells us what the Heavenly Host sang, has been translated in different ways that give sharply different messages. In A Charlie Brown Christmas, Linus recites text from the Authorized King James Version, culminating in this version of Luke 2:14:

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men

Linus then adds,

That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

It’s a feel-good lesson that would promote peace on earth. Yet other translations of the Bible render Luke 2:14 differently. For example, the Douay-Rheims Bible, which was published in 1582 in support of the Counter-Reformation, read as follows:

Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will.

In other words, the Authorized King James Version seems to be offering peace to all. In contrast, the Douay-Rheims translation tells us that the Heavenly Host offered peace, but only to some. Men who were not “of good will” would thus be fair game in a holy war. Various other translations offer peace to men with whom the Lord is pleased. This leaves open the possibility that the Lord will be displeased with some other people. In that situation, the Christian soldiers will again be marching off to war, with “Gott mit uns” embossed on their belt buckles, to make war in the name of the Prince of Peace.

Nobody knows which translation of Luke 2:14 would be the most faithful to the original text, because nobody knows what the original text was really like. The story of the Nativity was set at the beginning of the first century. However, the oldest surviving copies of the Gospel of Luke were produced a few hundred years later. Even the oldest surviving copies seem to be at least third-generation copies of an original text, and these copies differ from each other in important ways. Yet in the end, the “true” translation of the text may not matter.

Peace on Earth” is something that most Christians say only at Christmastime. But as an antiwar activist, I try to spread the message of Peace on Earth all year round. My message is this: If you want to have peace in the world, you must have good will toward all human beings, not only to the ones who please you.

Photo by Waiting For The Word

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