Peace on Earth—To Whom?

by Eric D. Huntsman, from Good Tidings of Great Joy, 83

 Although “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men” has become one of the best known Christmas wishes, the difference of a single letter in some Greek manuscripts produces different possible meanings of this familiar expression from Luke 2:14.  Many later Greek manuscripts read eudokia for “good will,” making it a nominative form parallel to the nouns for “glory” and “peace.”  The following direct translation of the traditional rendering reflects the Greek word order and produces a canticle of three fairly parallel phrases:

Glory in the highest to God

And on earth peace

Among men goodwill

These three phrases convey a directional or locational pattern: glory to God, peace on earth, and good will to men. These Greek manuscripts formed the basis of the printed Greek editions of the New Testament used by both the King James translators of the English Bible and by Martin Luther in his German translation.

Some surviving early manuscripts, however, read eudokias instead of eudokia.[1]  This difference of a single letter makes the noun a genitive rather than a nominative.  This genitive form can then have two different grammatical functions, being either a genitive of description or an objective genitive.  This produces two different possible renderings, each one consisting of just two phrases instead of three:

Glory in the highest to God

And on earth peace to men of goodwill


Glory in the highest to God

And on earth peace to men whom [God] favors

When Jerome translated the Bible into Latin in the fourth century, he used an earlier manuscript and followed the meaning “peace to men of good will.”  As a result, this is the version of the canticle common in most Catholic Bibles.  Because most modern English translations also favor earlier manuscripts, the two readings of the genitive eudokias have become increasingly more common.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that during World War I, when these new versions were first beginning to circulate, war time feelings sometimes influenced which version people wished to accept. The implication of the descriptive genitive was that in that conflict peace ought to be the property of men of good will as opposed to those seen as being aggressors. Today, the objective genitive interpretation “whom God favors” is becoming progressively more frequent in both scholarly and some Protestant circles.[2]

While “peace, good will to men,” “peace to men of good will,” and “peace to those whom God favors” all have significantly different meanings, they each represent an important theological truth.  God does, in fact, desire peace on earth and has good will towards all men and women.  But it is also true that lasting peace will not exist on earth unless people first have good will, first towards one another, but more importantly, also to God—accepting the gift of his Son and letting his peace come into their lives.[3]  Finally, while God loves all his children, he blesses, and hence favors, those whom he chooses because of their faith and obedience.


[1]Bruce Metzger, Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 133.

[2]Marshall, Gospel of Luke, 111–112; Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 403–405.

[3] Gaskill, The Nativity, 97.