Does Luke 2:14 say "goodwill toward men" or "among men with whom He is pleased?"

by Luke Wayne
12/12/2019

The opening chapters of Luke's gospel provide a classic account of Jesus' birth with which we are all quite familiar: Mary and Joseph's trip to Bethlehem for the census, Jesus placed in the manager the angel's appearance to the shepherds, etc. Yet just here, with the angel's words, the attentive reader will discover a small but noteworthy difference between major Bible translations. The classic account found in the King James Version (as well as modern versions like the NKJV and MEV), and echoed in many of our hymns and Christmas traditions, reads:

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men," (Luke 2:14, KJV).

Other modern translations (like the NASB, ESV, NET, etc.) read mostly the same, but with a significant difference in the final clause:

"Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased," (Luke 2:14, NASB).

Why do we find this difference? Which version is correct? Does it really make a difference? Such questions are worth exploring.

The Source of the Difference

These two versions of the verse actually stem from a rather tiny variant between the manuscripts of Luke's gospel. It all actually boils down to the presence or absence of a single Greek letter. The phrase "goodwill toward men" in the traditional reading is a translation of two words: ἀνθρώποις (anthropois) and εὐδοκία (eudokia). The first word is what's called a dative, plural form of the word "ἄνθρωπος" (anthropos), a word for "man." The fact that it is in the "dative plural" form means that it should be translated "to men." The second word, εὐδοκία, is a word for "goodwill, favor, a gracious disposition." Thus, the KJV aptly renders this "goodwill toward men," a commendably straightforward, literal reading.

Translations like the NASB differ because they are based on ancient manuscripts that different ever-so-slightly from the wording discussed above. While the first word, "to men," is entirely the same, the second word has one additional letter, making it εὐδοκίας (eudokias) instead of εὐδοκία (eudokia). This is merely what is called a "genitive" form of the same word, which in this case just means that, instead of "goodwill/favor," the word should be translated "of goodwill/favor" or "possessing goodwill/favor." Since, in context, the "goodwill" is clearly still that of God, the phrase is more difficult to plainly translate but would mean something like "to men possessing [God's] favor" or "to men toward whom [God] has goodwill." Thus, the NASB's "among men with whom He is pleased" is a very good approximation.

Both versions of this verse are solid translations of the respective manuscripts on which they are based. So which manuscripts better reflect the original?

The Manuscript Evidence

Both readings are well attested both in early Greek manuscripts and ancient translations. The classic "goodwill toward men" reading (ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκία) is found in many notable copies such as Codices P and Ξ (sixth century), E and L (eighth century), and G, H, K, Δ, Θ, Ψ, Uncial 53, and minuscule 892 (all ninth century), as well as in the majority of the later medieval Greek manuscripts.  Though the ancient codices א and B originally agreed with the "men with whom He is pleased" reading, later scribes erased the final "s" to bring them in line with the "goodwill toward men" version. The 8th-century Uncial 0233 is damaged in this place, but appears (based on the available space and the size of the letters) to likely have also contained the "Goodwill to men" reading. Among the Syriac translations, though there are mild variations in exact wording, all basically agree with the traditional reading, as do other ancient translations like the Bohairic Coptic, Armenian, Slavonic, Georgian, and Ethiopic.

On the other hand, the "men with whom He is pleased" reading (ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας) is supported by all of the earliest sources, such as the original scribes of א and B (fourth century), and Codices A, D, and W (fifth century), as well as a minority of other later Greek manuscripts. The entire Latin tradition favors this reading, both in the early Old Latin (some dating back to the 4th and 5th centuries) as well as the later and more numerous Vulgate manuscripts. Other ancient translations support this version as well, such as the Sahidic Coptic and the Gothic.

As you can see, both sides have a large body of diverse witnesses. The traditional "goodwill toward men" reading has more Greek manuscripts (and some of them fairly early), though the "whom he is pleased" reading has all of the earliest Greek manuscripts. The unanimity of the Latin translations (which is not only a very large body of material but also reaches back to a notably early date) is on the side of the "whom he is pleased" reading, and that is no small matter, though the Syriac is also an early and important translation and favors "goodwill toward men." If we simply look at all the copies, a reasonable case can be made for both sides. The fact that all the very earliest sources agree on the "whom he is pleased" reading perhaps gives it a slight edge, but this is a scenario where more lines of evidence can be helpful.

The Biblical Context

One important question to ask is how these words might be used elsewhere in Scripture. The exact phrase ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκία/εὐδοκίας does not occur anywhere else in the Bible, but various forms of the key word εὐδοκία (including the genitive εὐδοκίας) are used in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament. There, we find that the word often refers to God's favor which He bestows distinctively on His people. To take just one example, we read:

"And let all who hope in you be glad; forever they will rejoice, and you will encamp among them, and those who love your name will boast in you, because you will bless the righteous; O Lord, you crowned us as with a shield of favor,” (Psalm 5:12[11] NETS).

The last words "of favor" are, you might have guessed, the Greek word "εὐδοκίας," precisely what lies behind the "with whom He is pleased" reading. What is important here, however, is not merely the presence of the word form, but rather what it is saying. The message is "let all who hope in you be glad!" Why? Because God has blessed such men (i.e., those who hope in Him) with His divine favor. God does not shield all men with His favor, but He will do so for those men who hope in Him. This fits well with ideas expressed at the beginning of Luke's gospel even before the angel arrives in the shepherd's field:

"And His mercy is upon generation after generation Toward those who fear Him. He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, And has exalted those who were humble," (Luke 1:50-52).

The idea of peace to those upon whom God has bestowed His gracious favor is consistent both with the biblical use of εὐδοκία/εὐδοκίας and with what Luke has already said about what Jesus is coming to do. Thus, the "with whom He is pleased" reading, which emphasizes that God's peace and mercy are given specifically to those upon whom he has bestowed His favor (i.e., those who believe in Jesus) fits better in both the immediate and the broader biblical context.

The Cultural Context

In considering this question, it can also be useful to notice that there are similar expressions in other Jewish literature from the time period. Since this kind of language was known among first-century Jews, the angels probably would have used it in a way that made sense to them in order to get the right point across. For example, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, there is a very similar phrase that occurs more than once in a hymn scroll known as 1QH.1 We find it in phrases like:

"In thy wrath are all chastisements, but in thy goodness is much forgiveness and thy mercy is toward the sons of thy goodwill,"2

The term "sons of thy goodwill" is very close to the idea of "men of [God's] goodwill." Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Geza Vermes elsewhere translates the expression as "sons of His grace."3 That we find such similar expressions uniquely present in the culture of that day increases the likelihood that this was the expression the angel used to speak to those first-century Jewish shepherds. Conversely, it seems highly unlikely that later Christian scribes in a culture that did not use such a phrase would have just so happened to invent a phrase so much like how first-century Jews talked. The best explanation is that the Greek reading behind the NASB's "among men with whom He is pleased" is the correct reading. Similarly, if we look at the apocryphal "Book of Enoch" (a popular Jewish book in the time that Jesus was born), we find the phrase: 

"But He will make peace with the just, And will protect the favored ones, And mercy will be upon them," (Enoch 1:8)

In the Greek version of "Enoch," the phrase translated here as "favored ones" is, again, εὐδοκίας. The point here is not that the Book of Enoch has any authority (it does not) nor that it influenced Luke's gospel (it didn't.) The point is simply to note another example where this kind of expression was used and understood by Jews of the time period. Here we have a statement that God will make peace with a favored people on whom He has graciously bestowed His goodwill. Compare this to Luke 1:18 in the NASB, or even more so, in the wording used in the NIV: 

"Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests," (Luke 2:14, NIV).

Given what we see here in the Biblical and cultural context, the NIV (and similar translations like the CSB and NRSV) may capture the sense of this particular verse even better than the NASB, but they are all based on the same Greek text, and that Greek text appears from all the evidence to be the correct one. God's peace is not ultimately bestowed on all men but is given specially to those who, by faith alone, receive the finished work of Christ and are thus recipients of God's favor and gracious goodwill.

 

 

 

 

  • 1. In this article, I cite a passage from Column 19 in the arrangement used by Geza Vermes, "The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English: Revised Edition" and by Florentino Garcia Martinez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, "The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition," though others sometimes site this same passage as Column 11 using the old system of Eleazar Sukenik. You can also find the relevant expression in 1QH, column 12 in the sources cited here, which is column 4 in Sukenik's arrangement.
  • 2. Geza Vermes, "The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English: Revised Edition" (Penguin Books, 2004) 293
  • 3. Ibid, 271