The Difference a Sigma Makes

I got a bit of a shock tonight during the Liturgy of December 24th. The Gospel reading was the nativity narrative from Luke 2:1-20. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese has been using the Revised Standard Version of the Bible for several decades now, and so do several other Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States. Usually that’s not a problem, and I myself quote the RSV (or the New RSV) in these blog posts. But there is a serious problem with how verse 14 is translated. Consider a few versions of this verse:

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

RSV: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!

NRSV: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!

Phillips New Testament: Glory to God in the highest Heaven! Peace upon earth among men of goodwill!

Most of us grew up hearing the King James Version. Countless children’s pageants told us “good will toward men.” And Linus quotes this wording in A Charlie Brown Christmas that none of us ever gets tired of watching. It’s the wording we hear in Handel’s great oratorio popular at Christmas time, The Messiah. “On earth peace, good will toward men” is the wonderful message that God pours out his goodness on all people of the earth, without any distinctions.

But the RSV wording communicates something different. Here, peace seems to be limited to only those human beings with whom God is pleased. And the NRSV is even more radical. Here we have a God who plays favorites, literally! “… on earth peace among those whom he favors!” A far cry from the old King James Version which tells us that God’s peace and good will are for all people. The new versions of the Bible limit God’s good will to only some people. But note how the Phillips translation avoids the impression we get from the RSV and NRSV.

How to explain these different translations of a single verse? It’s all because of a single letter, the Greek letter sigma, ς. The Orthodox Church has always used the Byzantine text, also known as the Majority Text. This is the Greek text of the New Testament that is found in the majority of ancient manuscripts.

Here is verse 14 in the Majority (Byzantine) Test: Δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ, καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη· ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκία.

But in a small number of ancient manuscripts we read: Δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας.

Do you see the difference? It’s that sigma at the end of the sentence. A few ancient manuscripts have it, but the majority of manuscripts don’t have it. Why do modern scholars and Bible translations give preference to the version that has the sigma?

Modern translations of the Bible have a bias toward manuscripts that disagree with the wording or grammar of the Majority Text. There are complex reasons for this, but perhaps it’s a matter of scholarly arrogance and the thrill of going against established tradition. Scholars have criteria that they use to prefer one manuscript over another. For example, scholars generally prefer manuscripts that have the shorter text, with the belief that manuscripts with longer text may have embellished the original shorter text. But here it is the opposite; they don’t prefer the shorter εὐδοκία, without the ς. So in essence, it comes down to prejudice and arbitrary preference. After all, they are smarter and know more than the King James translators knew 400 years ago, or the Church Fathers knew more than a thousand years ago!

Usually the differences don’t result in important theological problems. But I feel verse 14 here in chapter 2 of Luke creates an important theological problem. Does God show good will for all people, or for only a select few? Some Protestant theologians and denominations prefer the limited good will; but the Church historically has preferred the unlimited good will. After all, Jesus spoke very clearly on this matter. Without any ambiguity, he said that God sends rain and sunshine equally to good and bad people alike, without any preference for one over the other. And it’s because of God’s unlimited goodness, that Jesus then teaches us to forgive and even love our enemies. God is like that; so we must act likewise:

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjustFor if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? (Matthew 5:44-46)

The highlighted words agree with the message we get from Luke 2:14 without the sigma! But it seems that modern translations of the Bible want to limit God’s benefits, as if God does not have enough good will to pour out on all of his creation. I’m not talking about universal salvation; that’s a different matter. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” John 3:16 tells us. God loves the world, the whole world, all humans, good and evil. He sends his Son to the world so that those who believe in him will receive eternal life. If God’s good will is limited, then God’s love is not for the world but only for some.

So I prefer Luke 2:14 without the sigma! And that’s the reading the Orthodox Church has also preferred. It’s the Greek text posted in the Archdiocese website! But when it comes to the English text, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has shown a careless, even indifferent attitude by simply adopting the RSV wording. Does anyone care? Is there no PhD person in New York or at Brookline to notice such cavalier treatment of the Gospel reading at one of the most significant holy days of the year?

I’m not a traditionalist. I have a total aversion to the forms of Orthodox fundamentalism that are spreading today and are doing great harm to Orthodox people and families in this country. I feel at home with biblical scholarship and modern translations of the Bible. But the instance of Luke 2:14 creates a unique problem because of its familiarity and its frequent use in the church’s hymnography. Consider the opening of the Great Doxology that we sing (or read) at the end of every Matins:

Δόξα σοι τῷ δείξαντι τὸ φῶς, Δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις Θεῷ, καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη, ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκία.

Glory to you who have shown us the light. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to people.

The Church has clearly opted for the reading without the sigma. I opt for it also, not necessarily because I prefer the traditional Majority Text of the New Testament, but also because our theology lines up more easily with the reading that has εὐδοκία, without the sigma. The Phillips translation adopts the minority version (with the sigma), but translates it in a way that avoids limiting God’s good will. It’s a compromise solution, but I prefer the traditional translation we all grew up with. One letter, one sigma, makes a big difference, don’t you agree?

2 Replies to “The Difference a Sigma Makes”

  1. I appreciate how you made a spontaneous observation, saw the significance of it and developed it so we could understand. It is drawn from life, seen through the prism of tradition and faith. Thank you

  2. Oops! I noticed 10 days too late that I made a significant typographical error. I left out the word “not” in the paragraph after the quote from Matthew 5:44-46. Instead of writing, “I am not talking about universal salvation…” I had “I am talking about universal salvation…”! Wow, talk about poor proof-reading. And here I was talking about what a difference a single letter makes. Well, that little 3-letter word I accidentally left out makes all the difference between orthodoxy and heresy! I have corrected the mistake, but decided to post this comment as well.

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