Good Will toward Men

Many a Christmas card or carol contains the words of the angels from KJV Luke 2:14: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Virtually all modern translations offer a different rendering, however. Consider, for instance, the following:

RSV and NASB: “and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”

NIV: “and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

NET: “and on earth peace among people with whom he is pleased!”

Why the difference? Which rendering most likely reflects the original?

Let us begin by considering the structure of the song. In the modern versions (which I will represent here with the RSV) the angelic hymn is a couplet:

Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!

The parallel elements are glory//peace, God//men and highest [heaven]//earth, although the second line is longer than the first due to the words “with whom he is pleased.” This structure can be symbolically represented as follows:


Note the partial chiasm effected by the reversal of the A and C elements:

in the highest
on earth

In contrast, the structure of the KJV puts the song in three lines, as follows:

Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace,
good will toward men.

Symbolically, this can be represented as


This structure breaks up the parallelism and is really based on the anchoring presence of a nominative noun (see below), designated A, in each line. The knowledge of parallelism waned over time, until eventually it was lost and had to be rediscovered. It would certainly be odd if the original song were incomplete in its parallelism and then restored to completeness by later scribes.

Textually, the difference between these two renderings hangs on a single letter (and a small one at that). In English we represent the function of nouns in a sentence by word order and prepositions. But in Greek, nouns were “declined” into “cases” that defined their function; therefore word order was much less significant. The four principal cases in Greek (ignoring for this purpose the vocative) were the nominative (what we call in English the subjective), which served as the subject of a verb; the accusative (what we call the objective), which served as the object of a verb; the genitive, which we represent in English with “of” or “‘s”; and the dative, which we represent with “to/for.” The word “good will” in the KJV is the nominative form eudokia; in the other translations it is the genitive form eudokias. meaning “of good will.” With such a small difference between the two forms of text, it is certainly possible that the variation arose accidentally. But this possibility does not necessarily answer which form was original and which the likely variant; the change could have gone in either direction.

When we look at the substance of the two versions, it seems apparent that the genitive is what textual critics call the lectio difficilior, or “more difficult reading.” At least Metzger sees it that way, and since I prefer the KJV rendering as a sentiment I must say that I agree with him. What we Latter-day Saints sometimes fail to realize is that scribes generally tried to smooth out difficult readings rather than intentionally create them. Thus, to the extent that the change either arose intentionally or arose accidentally but was sustained intentionally, the probabilities favor the modern rendering as the earlier one.

In the abstract this would be a weak argument. But we need not rely on this argument alone; the textual evidence strongly favors the genitive, which is attested both widely and early, over the nominative, which is found mostly in the late Byzantine manuscript tradition.

Once we decide that the text read “peace on earth to men of good will” rather than “good will toward men,” we next have to ask what those words mean. “Men of good will” could be a reference to those who are an object of esteem by their fellows, as it was taken in the Syriac. Or, it could refer to men who have good will towards their fellow humans, which is the traditional Catholic position. Most scholars today, based on the Semitic background to this usage (in particular the use of the Hebrew retson in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the way that word was interpreted in the Septuagint), see the word good will here as referring not to men having good will towards one another, but the favor or good pleasure God has towards men.

If we follow the majority view, the implication is that God’s pleasure did not extend to all people (the term “men” here should be understand generically of humankind). Why not? This becomes a theological question that we cannot answer based on the text itself. The most common reading (apparently deriving from the lack of an answer in the text itself) is that God’s favor is just a matter of his inscrutable predilection; there is no reason for it, at least not in human terms that we could understand. This sounds very much like Calvinist election. Some Christians would argue that the elect are those that have accepted Jesus and been born again. Perhaps. Mormons generally do not face the issue, since it does not arise in the KJV; presumably they would see God’s favor as falling upon the righteous and those that keep his commandments. Dummelow makes an interesting suggestion; he reads this as a reference to all men who happened to be alive at the time Jesus was born. That is, those were favored by God to participate in this important event (rather like our Saturday’s Warrior ethic that posits certain elect spirits have been preserved to come forth in these last days).

Although I think the modern translations probably capture the original sentiment of the canticle, I must confess that I prefer the universalism that was created by the scribes and found its way into the KJV. There is a strong strand of universalism in Mormonism, perhaps reflecting the influence of the universalist beliefs of the Prophet Joseph’s paternal grandfather, Asael Smith. I cannot help but wonder whether, had the KJV read as the modern translations do, the JST would have emended the text to read something like the KJV does today. I still envision the angels singing

Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace,
good will toward men.


  1. Nice post and kindly sentiment. Almost hear the stamp of Essene particularism in the genitive reading.
    One could still have a semi-universalist reading and see it as a statement that “men of ill will” would not be particularly excited to see Jesus born (I think of Herod, and perhaps so did the angels). In that reading, how you respond to the event in a sense describes the level of your good will.
    re: Universalism, Joseph Sr was also universalist, as were many in the early Republic’s frontier, seeking to liberate themselves from the perceived fetters of Calvinism.

  2. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    A lot of that was a bit over my head. Theologically speaking, I prefer the KJV version because Christ was sent for all of us, not just a special few with whom God may be pleased. I’m sure He is pleased with us at times but Christ’s sacrifice was made so all of God’s children could return to him.

    Just because a reading is the earliest doesn’t make it the most correct. Things get lost, misheard and mistranslated even before they see print.

  3. Fascinating question, Kevin.

    What is beyond dispute is that God blesses somebody with peace. We are uncertain, which kind of men the blessing applies to. In particular, we are unsure about the good will qualifier.

    Lets turn it on its head and look for the men who had peace and those who didn’t. If God made this promise then the consequences ought to be observable.

    Jesus teaches us how to obtain peace. Those who live by the sword, shall die by the sword. Disciples have to turn the other cheek and walk the second mile.

    Gandhi has put that claim to the test. In our age, national liberation struggles have regularly resulted in tyranny. Democracies require a broad middle class and an educated populace. The glaring exception is India, which established a democracy against all the odds.

    Of course, India has horrible problems including communal massacres. When one puts the Indian experience into a comparative perspective, however, then one realizes that the violence is normal in countries on a similar level of economic development. The success of democracy is extraordinary.

    The reason may well be the non-violent nature of the Indian liberation struggle. Approaching their suppressors with good will, India obtained more peace than her peer countries.

    The Gandhi movement conducted a “good will to other men” experiment that generated more peace.

  4. I still envision the angels singing…

    This is exactly what I was thinking while reading the post. Kind of funny, actually. There are certain things like the scriptures used in Handle’s Messiah that are indelible in my conceptions of them

    Thanks for the write-up. Fascinating.

  5. Nice to read your work, as always Kevin. Has your new book on the New Testament Greek notes come into print yet? I smell a Christmas present if it has……
    Always enjoying reading you.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Kerry, regarding my book, see here.

  7. Thank you! I have linked to it from my Backyard Professor blog. Now yer gonna get thousands looking at it – GRIN!
    I have browsed it a bit. GREAT work…… very nice and useful. Thank you you three gents for all your hard work on that. I know you have been hinting about it for years. It’s nice to see it come to fruition.