That Glorious Song of Old
Over on the ChaliceBlog, speaking about the annunciation to the shepherds in Luke 2:14, LinguistFriend asserts:
we know beyond reasonable doubt what are the original text, meaning, and background of this passage in Luke. However, the uncomfortable thing is that the original reading of this passage is much less congenial in a UU context than is the later and corrupted reading.
He's arguing that the lost original version of the text, if it were to be discovered, would portray the herald angel extending God's good will to only a select few whom God particularly favors, and not to all mankind. However, I am not at all persuaded that this is indeed the case. Let’s look at the historical progression of the surviving translations:
“gloria in altissimis Deo et in terra pax in hominibus bonae voluntatis”
“Glorie be in the hiyeste thingis to God, and in erthe pees be to men of good wille.”
“Glory to God an hye and peace on the erth: and vnto men reioysynge.”
“Glory be vnto God an hye, & peace vpon earth, and vnto men a good wyll.”
“Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe und Frieden auf Erden und den Menschen ein Wohlgefallen.”
“Glorie to God on hye, and peace on the earth, and vnto men a good wyll.”
“Glory to God in the highest: and on earth peace to men of good will.”
“Glory be to God in the high heauens, and peace in earth, and towards men good will.”
"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
Now, my German is only passable and my Latin is horrendous, but still, I think I see a grammatical ambiguity in the Vulgate that served as the authoritative text for nearly a thousand years. As written, the Latin phrasing yields something like “Glory in the highest to God and on earth peace to mankind good will”. The ambiguity in Latin forced translators to chose among alternative meanings when restating the meaning in English. I suspect that a more grammatically precise Latin phrasing would be either “gloria in altissimis Deo et in terra pax [et] in hominibus bonae voluntatis”, or else, “gloria in altissimis Deo et in terra pax [...] hominibus bonae voluntatis”. If I haven't merely butchered it out of ignorance, those alternatives would yield either “Glory in the highest to God, and peace on earth, and good will to mankind”, or else, “Glory in the highest to God, and on earth peace to mankind of good will”. The latter, more restrictive, sense was preferred only in the earliest Wycliffe and the Catholic Douay-Rheims translations; the KJV follows all the others in adopting the former, more expansive, sense, including not only the several English Reformers but also Martin Luther himself. So we have a long and consistent witness, at least among Protestants, that the former sense, the one most widely understood today, was also widely understood to be the preferred one in the time leading up to the Reformation and thereafter.
Neither am I persuaded by the argument that the speculative reconstruction of the lost original verse in Greek is confirmed by still-older Semitic parallel usages in other contexts, and was therefore corrupted by its translation into the Vulgate and later into English. At best, this only suggests that the lost Greek phrasing may have mimicked a common Semitic figure of speech, but it certainly does not prove beyond doubt that it was in fact a direct transliteration of the Semitic phrase, nor even that a lost Semitic source that Luke may have used was the same phrase as the surviving Semitic examples from different contexts.
Let me propose an alternative hypothesis. We see many examples in the NT of an ironic rhetorical style in which a conventional Jewish nostrum is given a subtle tweak to produce a contrasting meaning. One such is Jesus’ inversion of the Golden Rule from its prescriptive Jewish form, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others," to a more affirmative, “Whatever you would want others do to you, you do even so to them”. One of the least subtle instances is when Jesus violently clears the sacrifice-vendors out of the Temple during Passover season to emphasize his view that true religion is an attitude that is written in the heart, rather than something to be achieved through correct ritual performance. I would suggest that it is at least as likely that the lost phrase is a similar ironic inversion. If the conventional Semitic aphorism had been something akin to “those men toward whom he bears good will”, then it may well be, consistent with many other NT examples in both style and theological substance, that the lost Greek phrase threw open the narrow Mosaic covenant and, through a clever pun on a Semitic convention, extended God’s favor and grace far beyond the tribes of Jacob to the entire world.
What we see in this discussion, then, is the boundary between the authority of textual criticism and the authority of religious tradition. In Christian tradition, the most widely held view of Scriptural authority is not that the text itself must be inerrant and unaltered, but that the Holy Spirit “inspired” the original authors and compilers of the writings, and likewise “inspires” the reader who approaches the text in an attitude of humility to discern the proper meaning, and the community of believers who preserve and perpetuate their understanding. From this, it is not a great leap to suppose that the HS also inspired the redactors, copyists and translators who, working within the tradition of the body of believers, faithfully conveyed the general consensus of understanding under the guidance of the HS in spite of any occasional errors and “corruptions” in the transmission.
What then does this mean to us post-Enlightenment, post-modern believers, or as the case may be, skeptics? Not necessarily that the earliest surviving MS or the most recent conjectural reconstruction is the most authentic and correct, but that in addition to textual scholarship we should examine the shared understanding and orientation of the community and tradition that produced it. When the text and communal Gestalt are in harmony, we may have confidence that the meaning is reliable.
That being the case, I find a phrase indicating unbounded grace and divine goodwill toward all to be more in keeping with the early Christians’ apprehension of Jesus as a “light unto the Gentiles” than an alternative phrase restricting God’s favor to a chosen race or elect few, in the time when Luke chose his now-lost original words. Similarly, in the days of Reformation, when devout and stalwart individual believers struggled to break free of the bonds of a corrupt, oppressive, and exclusionary Church hierarchy, I find it compelling that the proliferating Protestant translations almost uniformly prefer the expansive “goodwill toward men” or its equivalent over the more restrictive Catholic “to men of good will”.
Not to be overly sentimental or mawkish (are you reading this, PeaceBang?), but in a sense that even we jaded UUs might be able to understand, there was indeed a Holy Spirit brooding over Luke and the early Church, and the same Holy Spirit brooded over the early Protestant translators as they tried to reconcile their ambiguous Latin textual source with their newly freed understanding, and the same Holy Spirit brooded over our own Charles Chauncy and John Murray when they proclaimed the love of God for all humanity, and the same Holy Spirit broods over us when we affirm “the inherent worth and dignity of every person”, just as it brooded over Edmund H. Sears, pastor of the First Congregational Church and Society (Unitarian) of Wayland, Massachusetts, when he wrote:
It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold;
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From Heaven’s all gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.
Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever over its Babel sounds
The blessèd angels sing.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise! ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing.
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!
For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet-bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.