Peace on Earth

The biblical phrase “peace on Earth, and goodwill to all men” is probably a mistake, a mistranslation because of a single missing letter.

Govert Flinck / Public domain

So the Christian story goes, around the time of the birth of Jesus a whole bunch of angels appear to some shepherds and announce the arrival of the Messiah. It’s a pretty prominent event in Christmas carols like “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”

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, goodwill to men,
From heaven’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

And of course in “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

The phrase also caps off the classic Charlie Brown Christmas TV special and a plethora of Christmas cards. Just one problem: it’s a mistranslation.

Here’s the original Greek text: “epi gēs eirēnē en anthrōpois eudokias.” If you translate that one, it comes out as something like “on Earth peace to men of good will” – the good will part is genitive, a modifier that tells us which men get peace on Earth. But if you erase the last letter, reading “eudokia” instead of “eudokias,” the meaning shifts significantly. Without the s the last word becomes nominative. In other words, it introduces a second grammatical subject into the sentence – peace on Earth, and also good will to all men. Rather than just the good-willed men getting peace on Earth, it becomes a wish for everyone.

So, who messed up? It appears that the dropped letter translation originated in the King James Bible and spread from there. Most translations today go with the correct meaning rather than that King James error.

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