I have a German Christmas song of the 16th century, which is bilingual, German–Latin. The lyrics go as follows (I translated the German parts into English):

O how beautiful the group of angels is singing, praising God for today and forever and sing:
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
They are rejoicing that Jesus Christ has become human in favour of us. That's why they are singing:
Et in terra pax hominibus bona voluntas
So let's be happy too and sing with the angels:
Gloria in excelsis Deo

Clearly, this is an adaptation or even translation of Luke 2:13:

et subito facta est cum angelo multitudo militiae caelestis laudantium Deum et dicentium gloria in altissimis Deo et in terra pax in hominibus bonae voluntatis

My problem in the Christmas carol is the apparently nominative case of "bona voluntas". To my understanding

Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis

can be translated as

And peace on earth by the humans which are of good will

where by the humans is the translation of the ablative "hominibus" and which are of good will corresponds to the genitive "bonae voluntatis"

But I cannot find a proper translation of

et in terra pax hominibus bona voluntas

Is there a meaningful translation, or is this just wrong or bad Latin in the source?

  • As a long-time fan of ancient music, I would love to take a look at the score! – giobrach Dec 30 '17 at 21:06
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    For Germans the thing is quite easy: it was Luther's preferred translation, partly because it sounds so good in German: "Und Frieden auf Erden, und den Menschen ein Wohlgefallen" - and as we have heard above the King James Bible took the same approach with "and on earth peace, good will toward men". – RobertP Dec 2 '20 at 15:52
  • This is incorporated in the English carol "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear". en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It_Came_Upon_the_Midnight_Clear "Peace on the earth, goodwill to men, From heaven's all-gracious King." – Paul Johnson Dec 3 '20 at 15:48

The Latin version with bonae voluntatis comes from the Vulgate. There are at least two versions of the original Greek in ancient manuscripts, and one reads "ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκία" where both εἰρήνη - peace - and εὐδοκία - goodwill - are in the nominative. Other Greek manuscripts often used in more modern English translations have the genitive εὐδοκίας - in the New Revised Standard Version the main translation is "On earth peace among those whom he [God] favours" with "on earth peace, good will among people" given in a note as the translation of the "εὐδοκία" text of alternative ancient authorities. The King James version of the Bible follows the "εὐδοκία" text and has "and on earth peace, good will toward men". ("Hominibus" is dative and can be translated "to/for humanity". The Greek means "among humans.") So "bona voluntas" is a good Latin translation of one of the two main variants found in manuscripts of the Greek - perhaps with a comma before "hominibus". I would guess that the version with "et in terra pax hominibus bona voluntas" derives from a revision by renaissance scholars who consulted some original Greek manuscripts. The version with "bona voluntas" must have been in quite wide circulation - according to Albert Schweitzer it was used by Johann Sebastian Bach in a setting of additional texts associated with one version of his Magnificat.

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    ευδοκιας (genitive) is the reading in most of the oldest Greek manuscripts and in most of the old translations (including the Vulgate's bonae voluntatis). ευδοκια (nominative) is the minority reading. – fdb Aug 6 '17 at 23:52
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    Hmm... I'll admit I didn't check my Greek NT's as I should have. I will (slightly) pull back, but what I see from the apparatus criticus of one of them is that the wording εὐδοκίας is supported by the original texts of Codex (or "Codices"? - I'm unsure of what the proper English usage is here) Sinaïticus, Alexandrinus, Vaticanus, Bezae,Washingtoniensis, &c.) That's pretty impressive, all right. But the εὐδοκία reading is supported by correctors to both Sinaïticus and Vaticanus, and also by K, L, P, Δ, &c. (continuation in following comment) – varro Aug 7 '17 at 1:04
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    (continuation) That's enough to make it at least doubtful of what the correct reading is, and to support the thesis that "bona voluntas" might be regarded as a legitimate reading. – varro Aug 7 '17 at 1:05
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    Ah, I oversaw that possibility, because my mind was stuck at the genitive! Just a sidenote to J.S. Bach: In the b-minor-Mass he uses the (canonic) mass text: "bonae voluntatis", while in the Christmas Oratorio he has "und den Menschen ein Wohlgefallen" which translates into English as 'and pleasure to humans" and seems a direct translation of "bona voluntas" since "wohl-" literally means 'bona' and "-gefallen" ('pleasure') might be a rather free translation of "voluntas". – jonathan.scholbach Aug 7 '17 at 6:31
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    I have amended my answer to reflect information in the exchanges in the preceding comments. Just goes to show it is dangerous for someone who is not a biblical scholar to venture into remarks on the text of Greek manuscripts! Thanks for all the input. – user1861 Aug 7 '17 at 13:41

Let us first start with Luke. In pax hominibus bonae voluntatis the word hominibus is not ablative but dative. The two forms look alike here, but context reveals the intended case. It means "to the people". Therefore I would offer this translation:

Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis
And on Earth peace to people of good will

It seems that the song simply uses a messed-up version of this quote. I can see a way to read it meaningfully, but I wonder what (if anything) was intended. I might read as a double wish:

Et in terra pax, hominibus bona voluntas
And on Earth peace, to people good will

This wishes two things: peace for Earth and good will to people.

I am tempted to treat this as a mistake, but on the other hand bona voluntas is inflected correctly — both are in nominative, as opposed to both being in genitive in the original. Since there is a way to read it as a grammatical and meaningful (and fitting!) Latin sentence, I would do so instead of declaring it a mistake. After all, we are all wished to have a good will!

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    The whole quote is an obvious reference to Luke AND the liturgical chant derived from it (Gloria en excelsis Deo). Both have been uninterruptedly phrased as bonae voluntatis. The use here of bona voluntas is most likely a musical concession but can have a number of different (even complementary) explanations as the ones you cite. Coming from a German author, I also doubt the mistake as the most likely hypothesis. – Rafael Aug 6 '17 at 21:26
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    @Rafael Good point, I did not mean to have the article "the" in the first line. Edited. The biggest thing that makes me think this might not be a mistake is correct inflection. If someone not fluent in Latin makes such changes, I expect inflection to become inconsistent. I assume the reason was rhythmic/metric restrictions, making the author want to drop a syllable. – Joonas Ilmavirta Aug 6 '17 at 21:34
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    Just one question to Luke: I've seen the translation of 'hominibus' as dative many times. You claim that this was clear by context. But I don't see this. Of course, dative is a possible translation. But to my eye ablativus instrumentalis suits very well into the context, too. Are there some theological (or other) arguments for dative excluding ablative? – jonathan.scholbach Aug 7 '17 at 7:15
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    @jonathan.scholbach I don't think I've ever seen an instrumental ablative used in that manner. If you consider hominibus the agent of an implicit verb ("peace [is given] on Earth by people"), then it should have the preposition ab. If there is no preposition, then it seems like the God is using humans as a tool, but I see no support for such an interpretation. All ablative readings I can come up with sound somewhat unnatural. Reading it as an ablative is not strictly ungrammatical, but the dative seems far more reasonable. – Joonas Ilmavirta Aug 7 '17 at 7:33
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    @Rafael You are certainly right that most editions of the Vulgate have "bonae voluntatis". However, the Wittemberg edition of 1529 does have "bona voluntas". So far as I know, this is the only edition which has this. The Wittemberg edition was, I understand, the most popular edition of the Vulgate among Protestants before the renaissance of Vulgate studies in the 19th century. I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that this hymn was written by or for Protestants. – Figulus Jan 19 '19 at 4:37

Is seems odd to me even to suggest that hominibus might be the ablative/instrumental case, The Gloria is hardly the greatest work of art from any point of view, but simple balance alone—gloria Deo in excelsis||pax hominibus in terra—would put God and men in the dative. Besides, pax/peace is a state, and pax hominibus(abl) would be meaningless.

The important point for me—and I must say it doesn’t keep me awake at night— is that the English (Book of Common Prayer) “…on earth peace, good will towards men” is a gross embellishment and extension of the wish intended in the Latin of the Vulgate, which would have peace only for men of good will and not for men in general—and this would seem to be a more likely wish. Only the most undiscriminating Christian, surely, would wish peace upon men of bad will; and almost certainly the English translators were taking the Christmas spirit a little beyond the reserve of the writers of the Vulgate.

  • Curiously, the interpretation of hominibus as an ablative seems to have been endorsed by the editors of the Nova Vulgata, who have made it explicit by repeating the "in". Thus, "Gloria in altissimis Deo, et super terram pax in hominibus bonae voluntatis". vatican.va/archive/bible/nova_vulgata/documents/… . – Figulus Jan 19 '19 at 5:04

Looking for a relevant rendering of this Latin phrase, starting with a significant "Et", I was wondering why no one hadn't come up with "Also" or "Too". A Latin sentence beginning with Et usually has this particular meaning. If peace is considered as a promised state in heaven, this phrase might as well be meant as a call for peace on earth. Furthermore, in this sense the first part, "Et in terra pax", could function as a theme, while the second part, "hominibus bona voluntas" could be perceived as a comment on the first part's theme. So metaphorically speaking, Good Will (in humans) could be similar to Peace (on earth).

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