I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
And in despair I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."
Why does the Authorized Version (i.e. KJV) differ from all modern translations in rendering the praise of the Angelic Hosts after announcing Jesus' birth to the shepherds? It is the difference of but one letter in the Greek text, but has a profound difference in meaning.
The KJV reads:
"Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace,
Good will toward men." (Luke 2:14)
The ESV reads:
"Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!"
The reason these two differ so significantly has to do with the Greek text behind the two translations. The Authorized Version (commissioned by King James the be the authorized Bible of the Church of England) was completed in 1611 (though it underwent revisions for the next 150 years, and the current KJV is based on the 1769 edition). It was based on the manuscripts (ancient copies) available at the time now known as the Byzantine text (also known as the Majority text and roughly equivalent to the Textus Receptus - "received text"). Since that time many more and much earlier biblical manuscripts have been uncovered resulting in greater access to the original writings (autographs). Modern translations are based on Greek New Testaments that collate all known manuscripts to determine the most likely original reading (known as critical texts).
So, what is different about the Greek text behind the KJV and the ESV in Luke 2:14? I'm glad you asked.
The NA27 text (Nestle-Aland 27th ed. - a standard critical text) reads:
δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ
καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη
ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας.
The Byzantine text reads:
Δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ,
καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη·
ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκία.
Notice two differences.
- The Byzantine text has a semicolon after the second line (the half colon · ), whereas the NA27 has no punctuation between the second and third lines.
- The NA27 text has a sigma (ς) at the end of the last word, making it a genitive case instead of nominative (more about this later).
Glory in the highest --- to God
Peace --- on earth
Good will --- among (in, to) men
However, it is better to view them as two parallel lines covering the heavenly and earthly ramifications of Jesus' birth.
Glory --- in the highest --- to God
Peace --- on the earth --- among men with whom he is pleased
But how do we get from "good will toward men" to "among men with whom he is pleased"? That's where the sigma comes in.
BDAG (the standard lexicon for biblical Greek) gives two defintions for εὐδοκία (eudokia)
- "state or condition of being kindly disposed, good will"
- "state or condition of being favored, favor, good pleasure this would refer to the persons upon whom divine favor rests"
For a good summary of the textual evidence for the genitive reading see footnote 44 of the NET translation.
So, the angles are not announcing that Jesus' birth will produce peace on the earth and a good will towards men (from God? from one another?), but that Jesus' birth will bring peace on earth among only those who find favor with God.
As can clearly be seen by the 2000 years that have transpired since Jesus' claim to have accomplished what he came to accomplish, the earth is not in a state of peace and abounding in good will. Quite the contrary! Jesus admitted that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword that would tear families apart and pit brother against brother. The peace announced by the angels is not for the the earth as a whole, but is only promised to those who find favor with God. And this is done only by faith in his son.