What is there in this phrase?
Since it's Biblical, it's hardly surprising that there's dispute about it.
The Gospel of Luke is the only one that has shepherds being awed by glad tidings. Like the others, it was written in Greek. It's a bit of a surprise that the Greek word the author used — εὐδοκίας (eudokia) — was an esoteric word, appearing in Bible texts but rarely elsewhere.1 It's likely to have been brought over from a Hebrew word that appears frequently in the Torah, רצון (rason), meaning God's will, favor, or pleasure.2 Good will thus seems to be excellent English for the word.3
Although the King James Bible gives it thus, it's also rendered as good pleasure and similar phrases indicating God's pleasure. Still, the translations all convey well being.
So what's the dispute about?
The issue that has been argued over the centuries, and is still debated, is whether God is promising good will among people or making a wondrous announcement to people who please him, those, presumably, who will become Christians now that Christ is born. The King James version reads 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.' Should this be — as the Douay-Rheims Bible has it — 'Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will'?4 Most now say yes and I'm not going to disagree.5
There's a subsidiary dispute over whether God is addressing all people, including women, or just men. The word in the gospel is ανθρωποις (anthropos), which, in the singular, is literally man-faced, and thus means a man, or a human being. One writer suggests that internal analysis of the text indicates that the gospel author intended the latter.6 This makes sense since the author of Luke is more focused on women than the authors of the other gospels. As a wikipedia article points out, this gospel has more characters who are women, features a female prophet (2:36), and details the experience of pregnancy.
As I said in yesterday's blog post, the Gospel of Luke brings out the inclusiveness in the teachings of Jesus particularly with respect to outcasts and fringe members of society. It shows empathy with people who are poor and with oppressed minorities as well as with women. It's in keeping with this characteristic attitude that this gospel, alone of the four, says that the angels and assembled hosts gave the good news of Jesus' birth to a group of shepherds. A modern commentator explains: "To modern romantics the shepherds described by Luke take on the gentleness of their flocks, and in recent centuries they have triumphed over the magi as a better Christmas symbol for the common man. But such interests are foreign to Luke's purpose. In fact, far from being regarded as either gentle, or noble, in Jesus' time shepherds were often considered as dishonest, outside the Law."7 I try to imagine what it must have been like for the first people to read or hear this text and comprehend that these renegade types are pleasing to God, are among God's chosen people, and are being invited to become the world's first Christian believers.
Here are some images of ancient texts containing all or part of Luke's gospel. A set of web pages by Timothy W. Seid at the Earlham School of Religion shows how scholars cope with the difficulties of ancient manuscripts such as these. (See Interpreting Ancient Manuscripts and its contents page.) In many cases the pages are damaged and even the most complete and legible lack word spacing and punctuation. There are a lot of scribal errors of transcription. Where one text differs from another, there's often no easy way to determine which is the best.
1 At least according to a highly-sourced Bible study text from Prairie View Christian Church: Euodokia [i.e., Eudokia] in pdf
2 "Hans Bietenhard commenting on the usage of eudokia in the LXX, writes, 'The noun eudokia occurs 25 times (only in Pss., Cant., 1 Chr., Sir.). In 8 places it is a translation of Hebrew rason (56 times in MT), good-pleasure, grace, the will of God (40 times in MT). Eudokia can denote the will or pleasure of man (cf. Ps. 141 &140]:5; Sir. 8:14; 9:12), but also the divine good-pleasure, God’s grace and blessing (Ps. 5:13; 51:19 &50:21]; 89 &88]:17; Ps. Sol. 8:22). Sir., in particular, displays the tendency to use eudokia to render Hebrew rason, in order to describe God’s good pleasure, His gracious will, activity and election (e.g., Sir. 1:27; 11:17; 15:15 et al.). Eudokia denotes the divine purpose or determination in, e.g., Sir. 33:13; 36:13; 39:18)' (The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology volume 2, page 818)." source: Euodokia [i.e., Eudokia] in pdf; and see The Gospel of Luke: a commentary on the Greek text by I. Howard Marshall (reprint by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1978)
3 εὐδοκία is also given as satisfaction, i.e. (subjectively) delight, or (objectively) kindness, wish, purpose -- desire, good pleasure (will), seem good. Other synonyms include kindness, kindly intent, benevolence, delight. -- source: Euodokia [i.e., Eudokia] in pdf.
4 The Biblos web site gives comparative translations from many sources. See also a post by Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden on their Making Light blog. They give many other renderings of the text in Luke, including Anglo-Saxon and the Middle English and Early Modern translations. A commenter adds one in Esperanto. Here is Lowland Scots: 'Glore tae God i the heicht o heiven, an peace on the yird tae men he delytes in!'
5 There has been quite a bit of blogging on this subject this Christmas season. See for example: Round-up of posts on Luke 2:14:
- Jim West
- Doug Chaplin
- Kurk Gayle
- David Ker
- John Hobbins
- T. C. Robinson
- Suzanne McCarthy
- Chris Wiles
- Joel L. Watts
- Gareth Hughes
6 The writer is J.K. Gayle in Getting Luke 2:14 as Glorious Wordplay.
7 The Annunciation to the Shepherds (Luke 2:8-14) in Birth of the Messiah by Raymond E. Brown (Anchor Bible, 1999) See also Karen Armstrong's article, The season has meaning for all, celebrators and skeptics alike.