Posted by on December 30, 2018

The subject of peace often emerges at this time of year, as politicians and pundits review the twelve months that have passed, and as preachers and perfectionists point to the holy baby as a sign of hope and change. Ours of course is a world where peace is imperfect and often in short supply. Proxy wars in Syria and Yemen continue to endanger the lives of millions of civilians. Highly militarised borders remain (for example) between India and Pakistan, and across the Korean peninsula. The presidency of the United States, traditionally a major force for stability in the world, is currently in thrall to volatile ego-centricity, and, domestically, the atmosphere at Westminster is febrile. There are times when peace appears to be a pipedream away.

In this context, listen again to the song of the angels above the Bethlehem hillsides. According to the carol they proclaim

“All glory be to God on high
and on the earth be peace;
good-will henceforth from heaven to men
begin and never cease.”

If only it were that easy. Indeed, the message of the angels has itself sadly become a battleground between competing translations of the New Testament and between the theologies of different churches.

The root of the problem is a major faultline in the manuscript tradition for Luke 2.14. Some ancient texts put the word ‘goodwill’ into the nominative case, eudokia. This gives rise to the translation, ‘peace on earth, goodwill to people’. Against this option, another set of manuscripts record the word for ‘goodwill’ in the genitive case, eudokias. If you accept that this is what Luke intended, 2.14 becomes ‘peace on earth to people of goodwill’. If it is the nominative, then the two phrases form a couplet: peace and goodwill being God’s gift to all. If the genitive is correct, goodwill becomes a human condition of God’s peace on earth.[1]

There’s an important message here – so important that someone at an early stage decided to make a deft tweak to the text of Luke in order to bring the evangelist in line with their own thinking. But which option is correct – and why?

Option (a) ‘peace on earth, goodwill to people’, sounds nice and inclusive – God is sending a baby with an offer for everyone. Jesus comes to bring peace to all, to the furthest corners of the Roman Empire and beyond. That is a cosy, comprehensive and positive message. It is also a message which resonates with what Luke says elsewhere, about how Jesus challenges the sham pax Romana and how the baby born into poverty can transform the prospects of the poor and downtrodden in particular. ‘Peace on earth, goodwill to all’ is redolent of gospel welcome and gospel justice.

But let’s play devil’s advocate and consider the case for the alternative, option (b). It could be argued that ‘peace on earth to people of goodwill’ makes more sense. After all, humans are such an argumentative bunch – unless there is some goodwill between us, there is precious little hope that we will ever have peace. If only the baby could teach us how to get along better, then the chances of harmony between those of differing opinions would surely improve?

So which is it going to be: nominative or genitive, option (a) or option (b)? When New Testament scholars are faced with a division in the manuscript tradition like this, they might first look at which position carries the weight of evidence; if it is clear that one wording has the backing of the most venerable manuscripts, then it might be safely assumed that it this the original. Sadly, in the case of today’s disagreement, the manuscript witness divides pretty evenly on either side. There are some really early texts which go for option (a) and others which support option (b). Bother.

At this point, New Testament scholars might bring into play a second device and look for the meaning which is less palatable, the harder reading, the lectio difficilior. If one reading is clearly trickier than the other then, odds on, this is the original. If you were an ancient scribe copying a text of the gospels you might soften a hard reading – but there would be no motivation to go the other way. Sadly, in the case of this disagreement, you can make a case both ways. Option (a) is more liberal – ‘peace on earth goodwill to all’, yet option (b) seems common sense ‘peace on earth to people of goodwill’. You could argue that a scribe might tweak things one way or the other.

Finally, to make things yet more complicated this friendly disagreement about manuscripts turned ugly at the time of the Reformation when verses like Luke 2.14 became weaponised in disagreements between Catholics and Protestants. The Catholic side favoured option (b) ‘peace on earth to people of goodwill’ because this fits with their idea that God rewards good works. As a result, the Prots got firmly behind the alternative, option (a), because they could not condone a verse which might suggest God rewards human effort.

So which is it going to be: nominative or genitive, option (a) or option (b)? Well, like all good Christmas games, we have a get-out-of jail free card. Modern readers – both Catholic and Protestant – tend to argue that the goodwill of which the angels speak is not a quality of humans but of God. This leads to a third translation, option (c):

‘glory in the highest to God

and on earth peace among people whom he favours’.

That is the gist of what you heard in the gospel on Christmas morning. This translation is supported by the structure of the underlying Greek poetry and takes the sting out of the ding-dong between Catholics and Protestants. If the goodwill is God’s and not ours then we might have the basis for hope and an explanation as to why people left to their own devices never quite get it together.  

My brothers and sisters, friends and lovers of peace, it is our duty as followers of Jesus to long for peace, to pray for peace, to work for peace. But we do this in the light of the message of the angels that peace is a quality that comes ultimately from above.

So let’s get practical. My limited experience of life tells me that conflict is inevitable – even in churches. In a world of finite resources and infinite wants, sooner or later, on a larger or smaller scale, we will disagree. Conflict is a consequence of how the world is made. We should not pursue it, but there are times when we cannot avoid it, times when we need to stand up for what we believe to be right, as individuals, communities, churches, and countries.

Conflict is inevitable but there are many means by which it can be conducted. Of these, war is always the least desirable. There may, I believe, be some tragic times when war becomes necessary, but there are many measures that should be taken before we ever get to this position.

Conflict is inevitable but it always reaches some form of resolution. One conclusion is to find common ground – a compromise or convincing argument that commands majority or even universal support. A second form of reconciliation is to hold diversity in tension: to accept that we will not achieve unanimity, and agree to disagree while occupying a shared space. The first outcome is preferable but the second outcome is sometimes the best that can be achieved.

(For what it is worth, it is this second sort of reconciliation – agreeing to disagree – that the people of Britain are going to have to accept – and that our elected leaders are going to have to deliver – on that most knotty of issue of our relations with Europe. It is all going to come to a head in the next few weeks, which means it should most certainly be a matter for our prayers.)

I do not have all the answers. But I know Someone who does. And maybe – with all its ambiguities – that is what the angels need us to grasp as we head into 2019:

‘glory in the highest to God

and peace on earth to people whom he favours’.

[1] Cf. Angela Tilby, Church Times,2017.12; also Christopher Evans and Fitzmyer on Luke chapter 2.

Posted in: Kenneth Padley, Sermons