“Good Will Toward Men”, Lectio Difficilior, and the Inspiration of Scripture


What more natural way do we have to celebrate a holiday season than to dig into text criticism and the doctrine of inspiration? Don’t demur – I know deep down that’s exactly what you had in mind to celebrate Christmas.

And since it’s Christmas, what better place to dig into text criticism and the doctrine of inspiration than Luke 2:14:

δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας / εὐδοκία

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men of favor / and on earth, peace; with regard to men, favor.

You will notice that I have printed two Greek words, one with an ending sigma and one without. As you can probably see from the resulting translation alternatives, that one little letter has a pretty hefty impact on the meaning of the verse. What I want to do in this post is, very briefly, explain these two alternative readings, talk about problems we face when making a decision between two readings, and suggest that maybe our doctrine of inspiration doesn’t have to require a choice between them.

“Good Will Toward Men” … Or Not

The KJV translation of the second half of this verse (“peace on earth, good will toward men”) is embedded in our culture, and for good reason: it’s a beautiful idea spoken elegantly. It is remarkable how naturally it lends itself to settings in music: Georg Friedrich Händel uses the whole verse in a chorus from his oratorio The Messiah. Charles Wesley embedded part of it in the first verse of his carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, which is actually entirely an expansion and theological reflection on the angelic announcement in Luke 2:10-14. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used this verse is a very slightly modified form (“toward” became “to”) in his poem “Christmas Bells”, which has been set to song several times, usually under the title “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

Interestingly, whereas Wesley’s replacement of the words “good will toward men” with other things (not the least of which is “mercy mild”) reflected his understanding of the whole angelic annunciation as talking about God’s good will toward humanity, Longfellow’s understanding of “good will to men” in “Christmas Bells” seems (at least to me) to reflect an understanding of those words which has more in common with the contemporary secular use of the phrase – Christmas is a time for humanity to have good will towards one another.

But scholars and theologians are agreed (I cannot find an exception) that this is not what en anthropois eudokia, either with or without the final sigma, meant. The word eudokia is made up of two parts: the prefix eu– means “well” or “good”, while the –dokia part is related to many different words that have to do with opinions or perceptions. To have eudokia towards someone was to be favorably disposed towards them, to think well of someone, even to want good things for them. In the right context, it can mean humanity’s good will towards humanity.

But it is generally thought that the context in Luke 2:14 doesn’t really lend itself to a humanistic interpretation. The point of the angelic annunciation and, indeed, of the whole Gospel is not that with the coming of Jesus we are now, at last, going to see humanity treating each other well. Far from it – at least for now. This eudokia is God’s good will, or favor, towards humanity. This is why the KJV (and the NKJV after it) translate en anthropois as “towards men” rather than “among men.” The Greek preposition en (as well as the dative case of anthropois) is not typically directional, but it can indicate an indirect object or the idea of “with respect/reference to”, and at times both of these meanings might render well into English as “towards”.

The KJV translation reflects a reading of the Greek text that is now largely fallen from favor for text critical reasons. The majority of modern translations reflect a slightly different form for the last word of the verse: eudokias rather than eudokia. Why does this one little “s” (or sigma in Greek) matter? Because it changes the case of the word from nominative to genitive. In other words, it changes the word from functioning as the subject of its own clause (and in parallel with “peace”) to functioning possessively, modifying the word anthropois (= humanity or men). So instead of “on earth, peace; towards men, favor”, we now have “on earth, peace among men of favor”.

What in the world does “men of favor” mean? Well, that’s worth talking about (the meaning is not totally transparent), but I think most scholars think that it means “men on whom rests the favor of God.” There is an implied “God’s” in front of the word. In other words, the birth of the Messiah is a time of celebration specifically for those who have been waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, the faithful, the favored of God. The time for waiting is no more. Now at last we have the one who will rescue Israel. To me, the genitive eudokias narrows the audience of the announcement, unless it is saying that all humanity are the “men of God’s favor” (and I don’t think it is saying that). The reading eudokia, on the other hand, does apply God’s favor to all humanity, but it does so specifically in light of Jesus: in Jesus, God is showing favor to all humanity.

Both of these readings are suggestive and interesting. I must confess that I rather like the reading eudokia, particularly in light of emphases in all four Gospels (Luke, not the least) that in Jesus the blessings of God are breaking forth from Israel and spilling over onto the Gentiles.

Unsolvable Text-Critical Problems

But text critics seem pretty certain that the genitive is the more original reading. Why is it that? How do we know that eudokias is the more likely reading rather than eudokia? There are two reasons, and neither is fully compelling (to me). The first reason is this: both readings are well attested, but what we consider the earliest witnesses to the text have the genitive eudokias.

I’m no expert in New Testament text criticism, but here’s my understanding of the situation. Based on the information in the Nestle-Aland critical apparatus, the choice of eudokias seems to rest most especially on the witness of Codex Alexandrinus and the fact that we can apparently see that Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus have been corrected from eudokias to eudokia. Otherwise, the data is not absolutely clear. Several texts of the Alexandrian text type (which, very generally speaking, is considered the oldest and most reliable text type) attest eudokia, not eudokias. Among ancient translations, Syriac and Bohairic (one kind of Coptic) witnesses attest eudokia, whereas Latin and Sahidic (another kind of Coptic) attest eudokias. Among the Church Fathers, Cyril of Jerusalem and a Latin translation of one of Irenaeus’ writings (both late 4th century) point to eudokias, whereas Eusebius and Epiphanius (late 4th and early 5th centuries, respectively) point to eudokia. Origen (3rd century) cites both readings at different points (meaning whichever of the two readings is original, the other originated very, very early). Honestly, to me, I’m not convinced that we can conclude that eudokias is the older reading. One way or another, this is not an open-and-shut case.

The other text critical reason eudokias is preferred by New Testament scholars is a criterion which in Latin is lectio difficilior praeferenda – the more difficult reading is preferred. The sense behind this rule of thumb is this: it is more likely that a scribe would correct a reading that is grammatically difficult to one that is easier than vice versa. While this rule makes sense in theory, in practice it faces a lot of problems.

First is the fact that we have readings in the Old Testament and the New Testament where a grammatically difficult reading is actually the product of a scribal error. Emanual Tov (Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, pg. 303) offers as an example Jeremiah 23:33. The Masoretic Hebrew text of this verse reads, “If this people ask you, or the prophet, or a priest, saying ‘What is the burden of the LORD?’, you will say ‘ʾet-mâ-maśśāʾ [‘the “what” problem’ or ‘What problem?’ – we don’t know what to do with the word ʾet] and I will cast you off’ says the LORD.” On the other hand, the Greek and Latin of this verse have “YOU are the burden”, which implies the Hebrew ʾattem hammaśśāʾ – exactly the same letters in Hebrew, but the spacing (and, therefore, the vowels) are different. Here is an example where the more difficult reading is not to be preferred simply because it is more difficult. Its very difficulty points to it being a corruption.

In the case of Luke 2:14, I honestly don’t see that eudokias is all that difficult of a reading. In a case like this, lectio difficilior is a very dangerous criterion, because a reading may not be objectively more difficult so much as subjectively less familiar. Because eudokia became the dominant reading, for English speakers “good will toward men” entered into our cultural memory through the King James Version, and anything that differs from that will be automatically “more difficult”, so to speak. The fact is that lectio difficilior should be invoked only when one reading is clearly more difficult, not marginally so, and it should be invoked only in the company of other, more objective arguments.

This leaves us with a situation where the genitive eudokias is, at present, favored among scholars because its attestation may be slightly better. It is found in Codex Alexandrinus, and the original readings of Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. But the attestation of both readings among the Church Fathers reveals a difficult reality: both readings are very early, and we may not, in the end, be able to decide conclusively which of the two readings is most original. Even more troubling is the fact that this kind of unsolvable problem is not at all rare or unique. Textual criticism and translation of the Bible is full of problems just like this.

Revisiting Inspiration

So where does that leave us? The doctrine of inspiration popular among Evangelicals is that the Bible is inerrant in its original form. By implication, this means that the only inspired form of the Bible is the original one. That puts a lot of pressure on the text critic. His work now becomes some of the most important work in the universe, and the price of failure is cosmic in scope – if you make a wrong guess, you’ve just preferred an erroneous “human” reading to the one true “divine” one.

Okay, so I’m being a little dramatic, but the fact is that the Evangelic doctrine of Scripture puts all its chips on the unknowable murkiness of the distant past. God inspired the Bible in its original form and only in its original form. If we’ve lost the original reading (what do we do with the missing first part of 1 Samuel 13:1), then in essence we’ve lost the inspired Word of God. Or in the case of Luke 2:14, we cannot know for certain what the Word of God is.

Now, I would be willing to bet that most of us don’t actually think these things. Humans, in general, are not great at following their own ideas through to their logical conclusions. We might confess the popular Evangelical doctrine of inerrancy, but we aren’t going to hold the doctrine’s feet to the fire when it proves insufficient to deal with the totality of observable reality. So I am not suggesting anyone give up inerrancy. That’s a decision you have to make.

What I am saying is that maybe we ought to consider that God knew all about scribal errors or well meaning corrections and the inherent ambiguities of human communication when he started partnering with humanity on this whole Bible project. Maybe, in fact, these weren’t things that he meant to overcome but rather to utilize in the production of biblical revelation. I have found it helpful in the past to playfully accept both alternate translations of a verse when two translations presented themselves as equally plausible. Often, productive theological conversations were possible down both avenues. The meaningfulness of the Bible actually opened up when I allowed God to speak through the ambiguity of human language.

Maybe the inspired version of Luke 2:14 isn’t either eudokia or eudokias. Maybe it’s both. Maybe it’s also the third variant reading that doesn’t include the preposition en. Maybe that’s what it means for the Gospel of Luke to be inspired: divine meaning is nascent in the text, and it takes interpretative conversations, including discussions about variant readings, to bring that meaning out the way God intended. Maybe textual variants aren’t something we need to work around. Maybe they are something we are supposed to work with.

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