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This late 15th century Flemish miniature shows the Annunciation to the shepherds.

The Annunciation to the shepherds is an episode in the Nativity of Jesus described in Luke 2, in which angels tell a group of shepherds about the birth of Jesus. It is a common subject of Christian art and of Christmas carols.


Biblical narrative

According to verses 8 to 20 of the second chapter of Luke, shepherds were living out in the countryside near Bethlehem, when they were terrified by the appearance of an angel. The angel explains that he has a message of good news for all people, namely that "Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."[1]

After this, a great many more angels appear, praising God with the words "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."[2] Deciding to do as the angel had said, the shepherds travel to Bethlehem, and find Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus lying in the manger, just as they had been told. The Adoration of the shepherds follows.

Translational issues

The King James Version of the Bible translates the hymn of the angels differently from modern versions, using the words "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."[3] Most Christmas carols reflect this older translation, with It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, for example, using the words "Peace on the earth, good will to men, / From Heaven’s all gracious King."

The disparity reflects a dispute about the Greek text of the New Testament involving a single letter.[4] The Greek text accepted by most modern scholars today[5][6] uses the words epi gēs eirēnē en anthrōpois eudokias (ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας),[7] literally "on earth peace to men of good will," with the last word being in the genitive case.[6] Most ancient manuscripts of the Greek New Testament have this reading. The original version of the ancient Codex Sinaiticus (denoted {\aleph}^* by scholars[7][8]) has this reading,[5] but it has been altered by erasure of the last letter[4][9] to epi gēs eirēnē en anthrōpois eudokia (ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκία), literally "on earth (first subject: peace) to men (second subject: good will)," with two subjects in the nominative case.[6] Expressed in correct English, this gives the familiar "Peace on earth, good will to men" of many ancient Christmas carols.

This 1663 painting by Abraham Hondius has a matching painting of the Adoration of the shepherds.

Even though some other ancient Greek manuscripts (and many medieval ones) agree with the edited Codex Sinaiticus, most modern scholars and Bible translators accept the reading of the majority of ancient manuscripts,[5] translating as "on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests"[2] (NIV) or "on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased"[10] (ESV).

The Douay-Rheims Bible, translated from the Latin Vulgate, derives from the same Greek text as the original Codex Sinaiticus, but renders it "on earth peace to men of good will."[11] In the New American Bible, this is updated to "on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests."[12]

Theological interpretation

It is generally considered significant that this message was given to shepherds, who were located on the lower rungs of the social ladder in first-century Palestine.[13] Contrasting with the more powerful characters mentioned in the Nativity, such as the Emperor Augustus, they seem to reflect Mary's words in the Magnificat: "He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble."[14]

Depiction in art

This fresco by Taddeo Gaddi in the Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence was painted between 1332 and 1338.[15]

Initially depicted only as part of a broader Nativity scene, the Annunciation to the shepherds became an independent topic for art in the 9th century.[16] The landscape varies, as does the number of shepherds shown.[16] The Annunciation to the shepherds became less common as an independent subject in the late Middle Ages,[16] but depictions continued in later centuries. Famous depictions by Abraham Hondius and Rembrandt exist.

In Renaissance art, drawing on classical stories of Orpheus, the shepherds are sometimes depicted with musical instruments.[17]

As in some other works, the 1485 Adoration of the shepherds scene by Domenico Ghirlandaio includes the Annunciation to the shepherds peripherally, in the upper left corner, even though it represents an episode occurring prior to the main scene. Similarly, in the Nativity at Night of Geertgen tot Sint Jans, the Annunciation to the shepherds is seen on a hillside through an opening in the stable wall.

Christmas carols

Many Christmas carols mention the Annunciation to the shepherds, with the Gloria in Excelsis Deo being the most ancient. Phillips Brooks' O Little Town of Bethlehem (1867) has the lines "O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth, / And praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth!" The originally German carol Silent Night has "Shepherds quake at the sight; / Glories stream from heaven afar, / Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!"

The episode plays a much greater role in Charles Wesley's Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (1739), which begins:

Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

Nahum Tate's well-known carol While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks (1700) is entirely devoted to describing the Annunciation to the shepherds, and the episode is also significant in The First Nowell, Angels from the Realms of Glory, the originally French carol Angels We Have Heard on High, and several others.

The carol I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow during the American Civil War, reflects on the phrase "Peace on earth, good will to men" in a pacifist sense, as does It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.

See also


  1. ^ Luke 2:11–12, NIV (BibleGateway).
  2. ^ a b Luke 2:14, NIV (BibleGateway).
  3. ^ Luke 2:14, KJV (BibleGateway).
  4. ^ a b Aland, Kurt; Barbara Aland (1995). The text of the New Testament: an introduction to the critical editions and to the theory and practice of modern textual criticism. Eerdmans. pp. 288–289. ISBN 0802840981. 
  5. ^ a b c Marshall, I. Howard, The Gospel of Luke: A commentary on the Greek text, Eerdmans, 1978, ISBN 0802835120, p. 111.
  6. ^ a b c Green, Joel B., The Gospel of Luke, Eerdmans, 1997, ISBN 0802823157, p. 129.
  7. ^ a b Aland, Kurt; Matthew Black, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger, and Allen Wikgren (1983). The Greek New Testament, 3rd edition. Stuttgart: United Bible Societies. pp. xv, xxvii, and 207. ISBN 3438051133. 
  8. ^ Aland and Aland, p. 233.
  9. ^ The erasure is visible in the online Codex Sinaiticus at the top left of the relevant page, at the end of the sixth line of the first column. See also here for a manuscript comparison tool.
  10. ^ Luke 2:14, ESV (BibleGateway).
  11. ^ Douay-Rheims Bible online (Luke 2), from the Latin "in terra pax in hominibus bonae voluntatis."
  12. ^ New American Bible online (Luke 2).
  13. ^ Green, p. 130.
  14. ^ Luke 1:52, NIV (BibleGateway).
  15. ^ Paoletti, John T. and Gary M. Radke, Art in Renaissance Italy, 3rd edition, Laurence King Publishing, 2005, ISBN 1856694399, p. 91.
  16. ^ a b c Ross, Leslie, Medieval Art: A topical dictionary, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996, ISBN 0313293295, pp. 16–17.
  17. ^ Earls, Irene, Renaissance Art: A topical dictionary, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1987, ISBN 0313246580, p. 18.
Annunciation to the Shepherds
Life of Jesus: The Nativity
Preceded by
Birth of Jesus: The Nativity
  New Testament 
Followed by
Adoration of the Shepherds


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