By Art Farstad*
*This article first appeared in December 1991 in Grace in Focus.
At Christmastide, even the most convinced Protestant should be allowed a little Latin–for example, gloria in excelsis Deo! After all, didn’t the great Reformers, Luther and Calvin, write chiefly in Latin? And wasn’t Calvin’s Latin style a great deal more elegant than even the pope’s? Yes to both questions! Hence our title: “Peace on Earth” from the Latin Vulgate.
Children (and adults!) who collect stamps don’t do it because it’s educational, but it is all the same. For example, stamp collectors learn what countries use what languages if they’re at all observant. (Or, as an old Tennessee matron used to put it, “Anyone with one eye and half sense.”)
As a boy I had stamps from a place called “Helvetia,” which in those days I mispronounced hel-VEE-sha. No one ever told me of such a country in any class I’d ever sat through. Well, Helvetia (hel-VET-ee-ah) turned out to be–would you believe it?–Switzerland! It’s the Latin name for the abode of the Helvetii, ancient tribes who lived there. Because some Swiss people speak German, some French, and some Italian (not to mention their own local dialect, Romansh), the inscriptions on the stamps are often in the (supposedly) “dead” language, Latin!
One Latin text on a Swiss stamp puzzled me:
“IN TERRA PAX HOMINIBUS BONAE VOLUNTATIS.”
Scott’s Stamp Catalogue was kind enough to translate it for us Latin-less lads: “Peace on earth to men of goodwill.”
“Hey, that’s wrong!” this evangelical Sunday school scholar said, “It should be ‘Goodwill to men’!” (Luke 2:14).
Well, live and learn. While the Latin Vulgate is an accurate translation of some Greek manuscripts, the King James accurately translates a much larger number of Greek manuscripts that read “goodwill to men” (humans, not just males!).
Amazingly, this precious Christmas text differs here in the two traditions by only one letter (a sigma or “s”)! The Catholic version was from a text reading eudokias (“of goodwill”) and the Protestant version from eudokia (“goodwill” as a nominative).
Leaving aside textual criticism (the exacting art and science of reconstructing the original where there are minor variations in the manuscripts), which text fits the gracious Christmas Evangel better, the traditional KJV/NKJV or the Vulgate?
I don’t think there are any people “of goodwill” by God’s standards until they’re born again. If the minority of manuscripts is right, there’s going to be a small portion of humanity (in fact, zero!) receiving peace–either that first Noel or today!1
The gracious offer of saving peace with God, I believe, is to all people, not just to those with whom God is well pleased. (The NIV uses the same type of manuscripts as the Vulgate, but paraphrases: “men on whom his favor rests.”)2
This has been a pretty technical gospel word study for Christmas, but it shows how even one letter can make a big difference in your message. In spite of modern abandonment of it in most versions, I’m convinced that the old, traditional Protestant reading–found in the vast majority of manuscripts–best reflects God’s grace:
Peace on earth,
Goodwill to men!
Dear reader, even if we sometimes may feel a lack of goodwill toward God, that Christmas gospel of goodwill toward men is offered freely to you–and to me!3
Art Farstad earned a Master of Theology in Old Testament and a Doctor of Theology in New Testament from Dallas Theological Seminary, where he also taught Greek for five years. He was an editor of the New King James Version, the New Scofield Study Bible, and the Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society.
1 Editor’s note: Art understands Luke 2:14 to be talking about Jesus’ coming kingdom. Only then will there be peace on earth and goodwill to men. This note appears at Luke 2:14 in the Hodges-Farstad Majority Text Interlinear: “Here in Luke it [irēnē, peace] may be even broader, implying the peace associated with the Messianic kingdom of the Christ” (p. 205).
2 Editor’s note: Most commentators follow the NIV translation of the CT, rejecting the MT reading and modifying the CT reading to fit their theology. It is quite a stretch to translate eudokias (CT reading) as on whom his favor rests.
3 Art went to be with the Lord on September 1, 1998, at sixty-three. A wagon train of good works went with him (Rev 14:13).