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What Did the Angels Tell the Shepherds? It Depends. Mailbag Sept. 10, 2017

I will be dealing with an interesting question in this week’ Readers’ Mailbag, having to do with the translation of the New Testament from Greek into English.  It involves a problem with a familiar verse (recited every Christmas!) that has a textual problem: different manuscripts have different readings – involving a single letter! – that affect the translation.



A lot of different hymns and liturgies and suchlike make reference to or paraphrase the Gloria, which in turn is based on Luke 2:14. I’d always heard (various permutations of) two different versions: “Glory to God in the highest and on Earth peace to men of good will” and “Glory to God in the highest and on Earth peace, goodwill to men”. That is, of course, quite a significant difference in meaning. The Latin is “Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis”, which I understand is is unambiguously “…men of good will”. Unfortunately, I don’t read a word of Greek; the text of the Gloria I found online was Δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις Θεῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκία, but I couldn’t read it, so I asked a friend who is a classical scholar. She translated it as “Glory to God in the highest (things) and upon the earth peace (and) goodwill among people.” But I don’t know if I had the right text, or if there are different texts of the Gloria, or how it corresponds to Luke 2:14 or if different manuscripts have different texts of the latter. Apologies if I’m confused or being silly (I’m a lawyer, not a Biblical scholar).



This is a reference to a passage in the birth narrative of Luke’s Gospel, where, at Jesus’ birth, the angelic host comes from heaven and makes a proclamation to the shepherds that “to you has been born this day in the city of David a Savoir, who is Christ the Lord.  The angels then break out into a chorus and sing out, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, goodwill to people.”   Or do they say, instead, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to people of goodwill”?

To some readers it may not seem like much of a difference, but in fact it is.  The question involves…

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Too Much Money and the Afterlife
A Satirical Lesson about the Afterlife



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 10, 2017

    This, on the surface, sounds like rather trivial nitpicking about an incidental detail, but, once again, it illustrates yet another example of the problem of not really having a “the” Bible to quote literally even if one wants to do so. I was just told yesterday by a Bible “scholar” that “all” of the Bible is “inerrant” since one cannot have a “guiding document” that has errors. Thanks

  2. Avatar
    Crixtian  September 10, 2017

    Does Beethoven’s “Ode of Joy” have anything to do with the cited paragraph ?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 11, 2017

      I don’t know!

    • Avatar
      RuthB  October 19, 2017

      Hi Crixtian, no, Ode to Joy isn’t a biblical text. It’s a poem by Friedrich Schiller, part of which Beethoven uses in his choral symphony. The poem envisages Joy as a divine being, calling her ‘Daughter of Elysium’.

      The text above is of course used in a famous chorus in Handel’s Messiah, with the wording: ‘And peace on earth, goodwill toward men’ – which I think makes for a much more uplifting chorus than the original would have!

  3. Avatar
    doug  September 10, 2017

    When the author of Luke refers to “people of goodwill”, is he referring to followers of Jesus? Would they need to be Jewish followers of Jesus, or could Gentile followers of Jesus be among the “people of goodwill”? I liked the “goodwill to everybody” version, but it looks like the original version had a narrower favored group.

  4. Avatar
    ardeare  September 10, 2017

    When I read about some but certainly not all of the changes which differ from the KJV, my mind is often drawn to a vision of a Sunday School teacher with a room full of youth. Which version sounds best? Which version can be most easily understood? Could children and youth have played an unwitting role in this particular scriptural change? I’m not suggesting that a Sunday School teacher could use his pen and make lasting changes but rather, as a group, they could query the bishops and hierarchy which may have prompted the leaders to review certain passages.

    If so, it certainly doesn’t appear as though modern theologians are nearly as concerned with a deity who looks upon everyone with goodwill in mind. Nor do they seem overly concerned with teaching children the inclusive goodness of God. At least, not in this passage. I looked up the NIV translation and was somewhat surprised. It reads, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Wow, talk about harsh. My interpretation of their translation is this: Old Testament meet your twin brother, New Testament.

  5. Avatar
    Tony  September 10, 2017

    The NRSV translation is more to the point. Luke 2:14:

    “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

    Never mind “goodwill”! Only those favored by God will get peace! A lot less warm and fuzzy feelings next Christmas.

    The phrase itself seems to be a Luke original. I’m unable to find reports of something similar in the Jewish scriptures, or, more precisely, the synoptic’s favorite Jesus history book – the Septuagint.

    That brings me from minutia to the bigger picture. Is there ANYTHING in the gospels that provides definitive evidence of an historical Jesus? Personally, I can’t find it. Same with Paul, who appears to know nothing of an itinerant preacher who got himself executed in Jerusalem.

    Bart, I really support the suggestion by Patylt on your August 24, 2017 blog, (“My New Scholarly Project”), that you dedicate your considerable skills to further address the Mythicist Jesus model a la Carrier.

    You already have your own Historical Jesus model in, “Jesus Before The Gospels”. Doing a heads on probability analysis of the two models would be a significant academic achievement.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 11, 2017

      I’m afraid I have other fish I’m frying! And my pan is only so big….

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  September 15, 2017

        Without reading Carrier himself (I find him hard to follow even in blog posts) do you know of anyone who has explained or critiqued his use of Bayesian logic to estimate the probability that Jesus did (or did not) exist? It seems like a stretch, to put it mildly.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 15, 2017

          I’ve had a number of statisticians, mathematicians, and other experts write me to explain why his use of the theorem is completely bogus. And I know that Joseph Hoffman has posted on it.

    • Avatar
      Pattylt  September 12, 2017

      Hey there! I didn’t mean to suggest that Bart should tackle this topic (mythiscism). I’d like to see many scholars investigate parts (or all ) of Carriers ideas. I’m not convinced with Carriers argument but I do think he brings up some serious challenges to what current scholars assume. Besides Carrier and a very few other accredited scholars, how many have ever entertained his ideas? I’d just like to see scholars think outside the box a bit more. While Carrier definitely went outside mainstream scholarship, I found it possible. I want others to also investigate and see if it is plausible! Bart has enough on his plate.

      • Avatar
        Tony  September 14, 2017

        You are a diligent comments reader! Bart Ehrman and others have rejected the mythical Jesus model because, in a Christian dominated society, it damages reputations and careers. There is certainly no lack of evidence that Jesus Christ was a mythical figure.

        One of the fantasies promoted by scholarship (including Carrier) is that only “scholarship” can make the call on Jesus historicity. The basics of mythicism are not rocket science. However, it does require reading legitimate scholarship and, most importantly, the New Testament. The irony is that Bart Ehrman unwittingly contributed a great deal to the current mythicism movement.

        Carrier correctly expresses his finding for a mythical Jesus in terms of probability. The quality of the data is such that any call for certainty would be foolish. My reading is that Christianity started as a small Judeo-Hellenistic mystery religion. The undisputed letters of Paul supports a mystery religion, which believed, based on visions and scripture, that a celestial Jesus, the son of God, was voluntarily sacrificed in the lower heavens for the sins of mankind.

        A generation (or more) after Paul, someone we call Mark wrote a story based on Paul’s Jesus, but placed the Jesus sacrifice on earth. That story succeeded. Others copied and modified Mark, and we now have the historical Jesus of the Gospels.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 15, 2017

          I would say, to the contrary, that my reason for rejecting mythicism has absolutely NOTHING to do with my fear about my reputation. Nothing at all.

  6. Avatar
    dragonfly  September 10, 2017

    That’s interesting. Certainly the early apocalypticists weren’t wanting peace for everyone. They were clearly hoping for horrible torture for the likes of Antiochus who were against God. It makes sense for Christ to bring peace to those who side with God, and punishment for those who don’t. So peace to those of goodwill, and torment for those of ‘badwill’. The question is whether that fits with the rest of Luke, and does that tell us something about what Luke thought?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 11, 2017

      Well, think about the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke 16, e.g. And compare the Magnificat in 1:46-55 (esp. vv. 51-53)

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  September 11, 2017

        “Peace on earth to people of goodwill?” What about the “other people”? Oh, I see, this is not a paean to God—a statement of universal goodwill and blessing–it’s a political statement, separating the good guys from the bad guys. I respectfully suggest this does not seem to be the tenor of these words. For me (illiterate in Greek), there is only one possible translation:
        Glory be to God in the Highest. Peace on earth, goodwill to man(kind). “People” is a feeble word, only responding to political correctness and theories of inclusivity. “Mankind” includes “Womankind. ”

    • Avatar
      godspell  September 12, 2017

      “Those of good will” is not a term used in Christianity to refer only to other Christians.

      It basically just means people who want to do good for good’s sake.

  7. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  September 10, 2017

    I failed to mention Bart,

    I am a volunteer usher at one of the most beautiful Churches in Colorado Springs. Yes, the guy with so many questions. If you should visit one day, I will greet you at the door with a smile and a pure heart. Good news is good news. If they are not against, they are for. My degree is communication, and my senior year, I am able to work on my masters. Mysterious ways have been displayed in my life. I have quit drinking, because I do not do well with a strong drink. Reminds me on a angel saying “he should not have strong drink.”
    I want the footprints of my mind and heart pure, but also, show action. Again, being an usher is perfect for me, since I do not preach, because that does not go well. I just stay in the background and open the door for you when you want to come or leave. Best of wishes Bart. KU has a great Ph.D program, and my intimate partner being an alumni, is pushing me to go all the way.
    Also, I do apologize for wasting your time professor, as I was intoxicated when I had contacted you. I also have a passion for what really happened in our past, and do not know had come over me.

    Joseph (AJ)

  8. Avatar
    godspell  September 11, 2017

    People of ill will are the primary obstacle to peace, so this seems reasonable enough to me.

    My objection would be to the failure to include non-humans. Species-ism has no place at Christmas-time! We used to go see the living creche scene at a neighboring church, with horses, cows, ass, you name it. It was a Protestant church, too. My dad felt this was important enough to disregard heresy.


  9. Rick
    Rick  September 11, 2017

    Professor, I find it …. odd that Luke, who I thought tried to appeal more broadly (i.e.. to the gentiles), was probably less inclusive in this case. Terribly open question but: Are their other instances of probable corruption of Luke toward a broader more inclusive appeal?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 11, 2017

      I’m not quite clear what you’re asking.

      • Rick
        Rick  September 11, 2017

        Sorry, my bad. I saw the angels .. blessing to “men of good will” as less inclusive than “goodwill among [to all] people”. So, an apparent scribal corruption changed it from less to more inclusive. Luke, overall to me, leans to a more inclusive (gentile) audience. So, I was wondering if there was any other evidence that the Luke we have was altered to be more inclusive than the autograph.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 12, 2017

          Ah, now I see. Good question — but nothing comes to mind. It would be interesting to look for such things. (I didn’t know about Orthodox corruptions of Scripture till I started looking for them.)

  10. webo112
    webo112  September 11, 2017

    Great example where one single letter makes such a significant difference.
    Did you cover this in your tOCoS book?, I’m about 2 thirds through and don’t recall seeing this (although this change is not in regards to countering the Adoptionist, & Gnostic etc views you show the book )

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2017

      No, I didn’t cover it there, since it isn’t connected with any of the early Christological controversies (so far as I could tell)

  11. Avatar
    jdh5879  September 11, 2017

    After all these years, whenever I read those verses. I hear them in Linus’s voice. (A charlie Brown Christmas)

  12. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  September 12, 2017

    The likely older reading comes off more like a royal proclamation. The Emperor would not offer greetings of peace to people of ill will. I find it hard to believe, as one reader suggested, that Luke was not modelling a standard form — that he made this kind of greeting up on his own.

  13. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  September 12, 2017

    “…a Savoir, who is Christ the Lord.”(!) Wouldn’t that give the scholars fits?

  14. Avatar
    James Cotter  September 12, 2017

    Dr Ehrman

    mark 16:7 says ,

    “… There you will see him, JUST AS he told you”

    mark 14:28 says :
    But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.

    my confusion: “there you will see him” is dependent on “just as he told you”

    but he didn’t say in 14:28 “there you will see me”

    is 14:28 an interpolation?

    or is it possible mark 16:7 said originally

    “he is going ahead of you to galilee” and FULL stop, no “there you will see him” ?

    • Avatar
      James Cotter  September 12, 2017

      mark clearly said that the women said nothing to anyone. then the only evidence we have of reunion is mark 14:28 :

      jesus said, ” after i am risen, i will go before you to galilee”

      imagine we discovered a first century gospel which said, “and they went to galilee, but did not find jesus”

      the apologist will say,

      “jesus only said he will go before them to galilee, not that he will MEET them in galilee”

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2017

      I think the idea is that Mark knows that Jesus met his disciples in Galilee (as in Matthew) but he also wanted to end his Gospel with secrecy — one of his major motifs.

      • Avatar
        James Cotter  September 14, 2017

        is the man who tells the women that jesus is on his way to galilee jesus himself? has any scholar suggested that?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 15, 2017

          No, it appears to be someone else, talking *about* Jesus.

  15. Avatar
    bamurray  September 12, 2017

    How does this actually work grammatically? Is eudokia nominative and eudokias genitive? I can’t quite figure out the actual translation.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2017

      Yes, that’s right. The “s” makes the nominative a genitive (in the first declension).

  16. Avatar
    ddorner  September 12, 2017

    I’ve heard a few numbers provided (typically by apologists) for how accurately the New Testament has come down to us. Numbers like 95% or 99.99% etc. And the people providing these numbers claim this is agreed upon by the majority of scholars.

    Yet, if we don’t have the original documents, and a single letter can substantially alter the way we interpret a text, I don’t see how those percentages can be known. Whether they’re accurate or not.

    Is there any scholarly consensus on what percentage of the NT is “original?”

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2017

      No, there is *literally* no way to say how accurate the reconstructed NT text that we use is in relation to the original. The one and only way to know would be if we had the originals and could compare our text to them (to see, e.g., if of 100 words our reconstructed text gets 98 of them correct.) Having said that, most of us act on the assumption that we’re pretty close. But if certainty is required, then, well, we’re sunk.

  17. Avatar
    Kirktrumb59  September 12, 2017

    Excellent post. One of your best. I would love to know how JS Bach, who taught Latin in Leipzig until he farmed out this chore, understood this verse.

  18. Avatar
    DavidNeale  September 14, 2017

    I have another unseasonal Christmas question, for when you have time.

    I’d always believed, as most people do, that the date of Christmas, 25 December, was a Christian appropriation of a pre-existing pagan Roman festival. I’d also heard the claim (made by Stephen Fry on QI and a million atheist memes) that 25 December was the birthday of Mithras. But I read recently (on Tim O’Neill’s blog and a few other places) that it may be more complicated than that. As I understand it, the only evidence linking 25 December with a pagan festival is the Calendar of Philocalus in 354 which lists 25 December as N.INVICTI.CM.XXX, which is taken to be short for Natalis Invicti or “Birth of the Unconquered” – which is a reference to Sol Invictus, but Mithras and Sol Invictus were different gods. Meanwhile, Hippolytus, writing more than a century earlier, explicitly links 25 December with the birth of Jesus. So is it possible that there was some reason for the 25 December date other than co-optation of an existing pagan festival?

    I’ve also read in various places (but unsourced) that there was a Jewish belief that prophets died on the day they were conceived, and that since Jesus was believed to have died on 14 Nisan, which is 25 March, it was assumed he was born on 25 December. I have no clue whether that is true or not; it might be an apologetics myth.

    (Apologies if you’ve answered this before! I’ve read most of the archives, but not everything.)

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2017

      Wow. It’s a complicated question, and calendrical issues have never been my long suit. But the way I understand it (for what it’s worth) is that in the Julian calendar the winter solstice was celebrated on Dec. 25, so this was understood to be the “birthday” of Sol Invictus (the god known as “the Unconquered Sun”). As early as Constantine — probably earlier — Christ was identified as this divinity. That’s why his “birthday” after Constantine was set for Dec. 25. (Mithras was a different divinity, but was also sometimes identified as Sol Invictus).

      • Avatar
        DavidNeale  September 15, 2017

        Thank you. Is it true, to your knowledge, that there was a Jewish belief that prophets died on the day they were conceived (known as “integral age”)? I’ve read that in various places, but I’ve never seen it attributed to a specific historical source, so I have no idea whether it is actually true. I suspect it might be an apologetics myth.

  19. Avatar
    Duke12  September 19, 2017

    I’ve been seeing the March 25 conception date/death date apologetic going around for the past couple years as a counter to the “conventional wisdom” (in the eyes of “orthodox” believers) that Dec. 25 was solely a pagan solstice holiday appropriated by Constantine as Jesus’ birthday.

    I guess it all boils down to this: did early Christians celebrate March 25 as Jesus’ conception date prior to Constantine?

    (I don’t know, but I also note that the Armenian Orthodox Church celebrates Nativity, The 3 Wise Men, and Jesus’ later baptism on Julian Calendar January 6 (now January 19) — I was told that the January 6 feast day _does_ predate Constantine, but I can’t source that either.).

    I don’t have a scholarly reference for the Mar. 25 apologetic, but here’s a sample from a Catholic Church website:

    • Bart
      Bart  September 20, 2017

      Not to my knowledge, no. But, well, my knowledge is limited.

  20. Avatar
    JamesSnappJr  September 23, 2017

    I looked into this variant a while back and reached a different conclusion; see http://www.thetextofthegospels.com/2015/08/luke-214-peace-on-earth-goodwill-to-men.html . Your final sentence — “If you’re not a person of goodwill, you won’t be getting that peace!” — seems to overstate, inasmuch as Luke reported the angel’s words as glad tidings of great joy which shall be to *all* people just a couple of verses earlier in the text.

    I don’t see anyplace in your post where you interact with Ropes’ case against the Alexandrian reading. Have you closely considered it?

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