The Powers That Be

W Brewer brewerwa at GMAIL.COM
Wed Apr 17 13:50:52 UTC 2013

Maybe checking out some earlier sources for Romans 13:1 could shed light on
the mood in 'powers that be'. The NT Gk looks like it has a nominative
plural feminine present active indicative participle (ai ousai ‘the [sc.
powers] being/existing’). (Could be wrong, the only NT Gk I ever had to
deal with was the Kyrie Eleison.) Vulgate has third person plural present
indicative active (quae sunt ‘[sc. powers] which are’). If KJV were
influenced by these indicative moods, then the BE in POWERS THAT BE should
be indicative as well.

Greek New Testament--  pasa psyche: exousiais uperechousais upotassestho: /
ou gar estin exousia ei me: upo theou / AI de OUSAI upo theou tetagmenai

Latin Vulgate--  omnis anima potestatibus sublimioribus subdita sit / non
est enim potestas nisi a Deo / QUAE autem SUNT a Deo ordinatae sunt
King James--  Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there
is no power but of God: the powers THAT BE are ordained of God.

On Wed, Apr 17, 2013 at 8:00 PM, Dave Wilton <dave at> wrote:

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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Dave Wilton <dave at WILTON.NET>
> Subject:      Re: The Powers That Be
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> The OED's first citation is from Tyndale's 1526 translation of Romans 13:1.
> The KJV also uses it, and the appearance in these two bibles is enough to
> explain the phrase's popularity and durability. Tyndale's full clause in
> the
> verse is "The powers that be are ordeyned off God." There is an older 1384
> Wycliffite Bible that reads: "thingis that ben," rather than "powers." The
> NSRV gives a more modern translation as "those authorities that exist have
> been instituted by God."
> There's a lot of variability in the ME "to be" and in the subjunctive, so
> it's a little hard to pin down the grammatical construction, but I'd say
> it's subjunctive. The uncertainty is in the identity of the earthly
> authorities: whatever authorities that be, they are ordained by God. (The
> Wycliffite "ben" could be either indicative or subjunctive.)
> Older collocations may be found, but I'm pretty certain that its use as a
> set phrase comes from the biblical translations.
> -----Original Message-----
> From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf
> Of
> Benjamin Torbert
> Sent: Tuesday, April 16, 2013 11:09 PM
> Subject: The Powers That Be
> Someone is asking me about this phrase, and I teach HOtEL, but I ain't no
> bona fide historical linguist.
> Have we antedated the phrase to ME (which was one of the hypotheses on
> facbook)?
> My feeling was that it's not really subjunctive, but rather durative.  It's
> not that we're not sure whether these powers be.
> Also, archaic forms are more likely to be preserved in archaic, set
> phrases.
> Please advise,
> BT
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