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Angela Tilby: Translating the message of Christmas

15 December 2017

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“PEACE on earth, good will towards men.” For many, this phrase, from the song of the angels to the shepherds in Luke 2.14, simply is the Christmas message. It is found in this form in the Gloria of Cranmer’s 1549 Prayer Book, in which he echoes the Coverdale Bible’s “peace on earth, and unto men a goodwill”.

But the familiar phrase “good will towards men” is not the only, or even the most natural, translation of St Luke’s original. The problem lies with the word for good will, eudokia, and whether it is in the nominative case, or the genitive eudokias — the preferred reading. It is if it is nominative, then the two phrases form a couplet: peace and good will being God’s gift to all. But if the more likely genitive is correct, good will becomes a human condition of God’s peace on earth. This is why the Vulgate reads: “Pax hominibus bonae voluntatis”, “Peace to men of good will.” It was Luther who insisted, on the grounds that human merit could never contribute to salvation, that peace and good will both came from God.

Modern translations have tended to follow the Vulgate. So the RSV has “Peace among men with whom he (God) is pleased”; the NRSV, “Peace among those whom he favours”; and the NIV, “Peace to those on whom his favour rests”.

The Common Worship Gloria leaves out “good will” altogether, and has just “peace to his people on earth”. These translations represent a narrowing of the reach of Christmas, a loss of the universalism that is its true appeal. The Common Worship version could even be taken to mean that God’s peace is extended only to the Church, “the people of God”, which sounds weirdly sectarian and is far from the inclusivity that characterises Luke’s Gospel.

In interpreting a text, though, it is always important to reflect on the process of its reception, and why a mistranslation might have embedded itself creatively in the life of the Church. In this instance, I think that Luther’s instinct is right, and, although scripture should surely be translated as accurately as possible, it is justifiable to use the more inclusive version in carols and liturgy.

Carol services are surely popular because they make no conditions, no hidden rebuke for having failed to attend church regularly, no demand for “discipleship”. They offer God’s gift as a genuine gift. This is surely what Luke was intending when he had the nativity angels appearing to shepherds, who were hardly likely to be the most pious and particular of Jews.

Above all, the mistranslation (if it is) reflects instincts found elsewhere in scripture: that the coming of Christ works a deep change in the human condition, confirming dignity on the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters. The incarnation is for the many, not the few.

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