Everyone has heard the Bible verse, “Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, and good will towards men.” We see it on holiday cards and we hear it in Christmas carols every year. For many, this verse represents the Christmas spirit.
In fact, this King James Version translation is inaccurate. Luke 2:14, which reads, ‘Δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας’ means, “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth towards men of good will” because εὐδοκίας is in the genitive. Rather than a benediction in praise of kindness and generosity, the original Greek (written as early as 60 AD) promoted the idea of kindness towards good men only. The mistranslation of this single word changes the entire message from one of exclusivity to one of inclusivity.
Because Luke 2:14 has been mistranslated the same way for so many centuries, the phrase “good will towards men” has become a permanent part of the Christmas story. Some articles lament mistranslations like these in the Bible, but I find it an interesting reflection of tradition rather than a tragedy. It’s one of those phrases from the King James Version that has become ingrained in the English language, too, right along with the phrases “the skin of your teeth,” “how the mighty have fallen,” and “woe is me”. The narrative of Jesus’s birth would not be the same without it.
Translations (and mistranslations) shape our beliefs, hopes, and fears, but the action of translation is also constant. Translation of the Christmas story does not end with the King James Version translation; the story is translated and re-translated by everyone who reads it or hears it, reinterpreted across barriers of time, geography, and language. One could say that Christmas is a holiday of translation– a bearing across, a carrying over–and by passing down tradition, reinterpreting it, and reworking it, people become translators.