A multitude of the heavenly host appeared, praising God!

A fascinating verse of Scripture found in the Gospel of Luke 2:14 has been a source of controversy among Biblical scholars for centuries. This is the famous Song of Adoration by the angels at Christ’s birth often referred to as “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” meaning “glory to God in the Highest.” It is the first hymn found in the New Testament, is known to liturgical churches as the “Greater Doxology” and might be called the first Christmas carol.

Mary had just given birth to the Christ child when nearby shepherds witnessed a Divine appearance of a heavenly host. The King James Version beginning in verse 8 reads, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

The earliest Christian manuscripts documenting this spectacular event vary by just one letter in a single word which changes the entire meaning of the passage. Baker’s New Testament Commentary says, “What did the angels exclaim or shout? In verse Luke 2:14 did they use the word eudokia = good pleasure, good will? Or did they say eudokias (the same word with an additional sigma or ‘s’)? The latter means of good pleasure [or good will]. The Greek texts vary.”

There are four common interpretations of this verse. 1. Good will toward men; 2. Peace among men of His (God’s) good pleasure; 3. Peace among those whom God has graciously chosen (i.e. physical Israel and/or spiritual Israel, the church); 4. Peace to men of good will (or good pleasure).

This is not a minor matter of interpretation. The Church Pulpit Commentary says, “No one would dream of disturbing words consecrated by long usage, yet in all probability the text does not represent what Luke actually wrote…The question…turns on a very minute point, on the insertion or omission of a single letter in the Greek text. But there is a real difference of meaning between them.”

Biblical scholars have taken sides on this issue, sometimes with strong opinions concerning the true meaning of this passage.

The Bible Commentary, edited by Wilber Pickering, favors the first meaning over the second: “‘Good will toward mankind’ reflects some 1700 Greek manuscripts; only six known Greek manuscripts, of objectively inferior quality, read ‘among those with whom He is pleased’ (as in NIV, NASB, LB, TEV, etc.; the New Living Translation favors us with a footnote: ‘Some manuscripts read . . . , goodwill among people’—by ‘some’ they mean ± 1700 against six! (How could the editors be so perverse?)” The Pulpit Commentary agrees: “the Greek text, from which our Authorized Version was made, has the support of so many of the older manuscripts and ancient versions, that it is among scholars an open question whether or not the text followed in the Authorized Version should not in this place be adhered to.”

Most commentaries, however, favor the second interpretation, of which following is a representative selection. The Cambridge Greek Testament disagrees with the preceding commentators, insisting, “The adoption of the reading ‘eudokias’ by the Revised Version (‘peace among men in whom He is well pleased’) has been fiercely attacked, but has always been the accepted reading of the Western Church, and is found in a passage of Origen.”

A similar view is found in “A Students Guide to New Testament Textual Variants,” which in favoring the second view over the fourth states, “The text reading can also be translated ‘on earth peace among men of good will,’ but the sense seems to be ‘men of [God’s] good pleasure.’ This is a Semitic expression found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The difference between the two readings is only one of one letter, the Greek letter ‘sigma’ or ‘s’ at the end of the word. Where the word occurs at the end of a line, the letter ‘sigma’ is written as a little raised ‘c’ which it would be possible for a copyist to overlook. Therefore, the change from ‘among men of good pleasure’ to ‘good pleasure among men’ may have happened either accidently (when the ‘sigma’ was overlooked) or deliberately (by copyists who did not understand that in the Semitic expression ‘men of good pleasure’ the good pleasure was God’s).”

Robertson’s Word Pictures also favors the second view, “Among men in whom he is well pleased (en anthrōpois eudokias). The Textus Receptus of the Authorized Version has eudokia, but the genitive eudokias is undoubtedly correct, supported by the oldest and best uncials. (Aleph, A B D W)… There has been much objection raised to the genitive eudokias, the correct text. But it makes perfectly good sense and better sense. As a matter of fact real peace on earth exists only among those who are the subjects of God’s goodwill, who are characterized by goodwill toward God and man. [In contrast,] this word eudokia …does not occur in the ancient Greek. The word is confined to Jewish and Christian writings…”

In his “Through the Bible,” book series, J. Vernon McGee expressed his strong opinion in favor of the second interpretation: “Our Authorized Version gives the wrong impression here. The angels did not say, ‘on earth peace, good will toward men.’ What they actually said was, ‘peace to men of good will,’ or ‘peace among men with whom He is pleased.’ The angels did not make the asinine statement that many men make today which goes, ‘Let’s have peace, peace, peace.’ My friend, ‘There is no peace, saith the LORD, unto the wicked’ (Isaiah 48:22). We live in a day when we need to beat our plowshares into swords—not the other way around. We live in a wicked world. We live in a Satan-dominated world, and therefore there is no peace. There is, however, peace to men of good will. If you are one of those who has come to Christ and taken him as Savior, you can know this peace of God.”

Expository Notes by Dr. Constable adds, “The AV translation ‘good will toward men’ is not a good one, and it is misleading. The reader could infer that God will be gracious to people who show good will to others suggesting that human merit is the basis of God’s favor. The NIV translation ‘peace to men on whom his favor rests’ is better. Those on whom God bestows His favor are those who experience His peace.”

In favor of the third interpretation, the mainstream evangelical Peake’s Commentary states, “Men in whom he is well pleased, may be either the chosen people [i.e. Israel] or those who will accept Jesus as Messiah.” Also in agreement with this explanation is the Preacher’s Commentary: “However, this peace the angels speak of is not for everyone. The Greek word used here for ‘all people’ is laos, from which comes the word ‘laity’. The laity are not second-class Christians (with clergy being first-class). The laos are all the people of God. Laos was the word used to describe the Israelites, God’s special people. We who are the new Israel are the laos.” This commentary was the only one of over two dozen consulted that noticed this key point: the original Greek of this passage in the Gospel of Luke uses a word specifically referring to Israel.

Yet, rather than signifying all of Israel regardless of their Spiritual state, the MacArthur Bible Commentary makes the point that, “This is not to be taken as a universal declaration of peace toward all humanity. Rather, peace with God is a corollary of justification (see Romans 5:1).” This has a correlation with some key verses of Scripture that speak of salvation belonging to believing Israel and those who join themselves to her in faith. Galatians 3:7 tells us, “Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham.” Similarly, Galatians 3:29 is another witness: “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

Disparaging the fourth interpretation above, Reformation scholar, John Calvin’s Commentary says, “The Vulgate has good-will in the genitive case: to men of good-will. How that reading crept in, I know not: but it ought certainly to be rejected, both because it is not genuine, and because it entirely corrupts the meaning.”

It is interesting how the difference of a single letter in our ancient Biblical manuscripts has grown into a deep theological divide which may be of particular interest to British-Israel believers.