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Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Glory to God in the highest!

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The angels sing to shepherds to tell them of the Messiah’s birth. Luke 2.14records the multitude of heaven’s army in Greek as:

Angels and shepherds from Cambodia

Angels and shepherds from Cambodia

δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ
καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη
ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας.

There has been a little trickle from Jim West’s blog via clayboy about how best to translate the song. Most of the problem is focused on the very last letter, the sigma, which is missing from the Majority Text. You can see the difference if you compare the NRSV translation (with final sigma) to the KJV (without):

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours.

Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace,
good will toward men.

Apart from the NRSV’s attempt at gender neutrality, the main difference is that the lack of final sigma forces the hymn into three phrases: glory, peace, good will. With the sigma, ‘favoured’ ‘men’ (of ‘good will’) get ‘peace’; without it, ‘men’ get ‘favour’/’good will’. The sigma changes the case of the word εὐδοκία (eudokia) from the nominative to the genitive case, making it belong to ‘men’ rather than being done to them. The trend of scholarship is that the ‘best witnesses’ have that final sigma, and there’s little more than can be said on that issue, except that a poet would tell you the three-line version sounds better.

I find it more interesting to look at a couple of correspondences in the Greek that don’t come through in most translations. The first word, δόξα (doxa), is the root of the last word, εὐδοκίας (eudokias), but if the latter is translated as ‘favoured’ or ‘of good will’ it no longer bears a reference to the ‘glory’ of the former. This top-and-tailing is characteristic of inclusio, a poetic structure used extensively in the Psalms, in which the focus/point comes in the middle of the text and is surrounded by a number of layers of paired, balanced phrases before and after. So, I would like to see a translation that connects the two. Although ‘glory’ is the standard translation of δόξα, that English word cannot be modified to cover εὐδοκία, so I would suggest the coupling of ‘praise’ with ‘well-praised’ or ‘praiseworthy’.

The other couplet that should be given some balance is that between the phrases ἐν ὑψίστοις (en hypsistois) and ἐν ἀνθρώποις (en anthrōpois). The obvious connection is the sound balance (en 2syls.-ois), which comes from their identical grammatical construction (prep. + dative plural). There’s a strong theological dualism between them: we have ‘heights’ and ‘humanity’. It would help in translation if we could use the same preposition in English to reflect the link, and I think ‘among’ is the best choice (‘to’ and ‘towards’, in that they suggest motion, should be avoided). So, I’m tending a bit more towards this translation:

Praise to God among the heights,
and on earth peace among praiseworthy humanity.

I have wondered whether the translation of θεῷ (theō), ‘to God’, being anarthrous, could be translated adjectivally as it probably should be in Acts 7.20 and II Corinthians 10.4. As a syriacist, I’m always interested to see how the Syriac biblical tradition has translated this:

.ܬܫܒܘܚܬܐ ܠܐܠܗܐ ܒܡܪܘ̈ܡܐ
ܘܥܠ ܐܪܥܐ ܫܠܡܐ܂
ܘܣܒܪܐ ܛܒܐ ܠܒܢܝ ܐ̱ܢܫ̈ܐ܀

Teshbuhta l-Alaha ba-mraume,
w-‘al ar‘a shlama
w-sabra taba la-bnai-nasha.

Glory to God in the heights,
and on earth peace
and good will to humanity.

This reinforces the Majority Text reading, traditional translations, and goes against my understanding of what the Greek might be suggesting. Within Luke’s gospel, this short hymn has a near parallel when Jesus enters Jerusalem in Luke 19.38. It repeats the phrase δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις (doxa en hypsistois) and the word εἰρήνη (eirēnē), but the manuscript tradition is a little confused over it.

Peace and good will!

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

One thought on “Glory to God in the highest!

  1. Pingback: Christmas present « Ad Fontes

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