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15.6.12

Paul vs. The Powers That Be

Languages are slippery things.  Especially when you are translating one to another, and even more so when you are being paid to do it by someone with an agenda.

Language is never limited to simple 'word = word' kinds of formulas.  There are layers of connotations and subtexts, cultural contexts, and individual experience that flavor every part of a language.  Some examples?

In German, there is the word gemuetlichheit (the ue can also be written with an umlaut).  If you look the word up in most dictionaries, it will tell you that the English equivalent is 'cozy'.  This is such a pale translation.  Gemuetlichheit is an emotion for which there is no English word.  It is a feeling of well-being that one has when the environment includes good food, drink, friends, music, and a warmth and camaraderie that is only found in such a setting.  In English, it would take a whole group of words to convey the same content as that single word in German.

How about another?  In Indonesian, there is the word selamat.  Most dictionaries will tell you it means 'good', as in "good morning".  However, the word means much more than that.  Selamat can mean good, happy, fortunate, well, congratulations, and about a half-dozen other English words.  There is no direct, word-for-word translation for selamat.

This is true of every one of the 15 languages that I am proficient in.  Each of them have concepts expressed with single words that do not have equivalents in other languages.  Furthermore, every word you can think of has a vast context that includes every encounter you have had with the word, all your experiences that you self-describe with the word, the etymological origin and cultural baggage of the word.  On top of all that, words evolve over time, growing slang usages and additional cultural baggage.  After all, how would an American English native translate the slang meanings of 'hip' or 'cool'?  What Russian or Mandarin word would your choose to separate 'joint' and 'low temperature' from 'cutting edge' and 'very nice'?

With that said, what about texts written in other languages that are translated into yours?  Add to that a span of hundreds and even thousands of years.  How much is lost when a Babylonian clay tablet is translated into modern Spanish or Turkish?  Worse yet, how much is lost if the original text is ancient Greek, which was then translated into Latin, and from there into English?  Worse yet, suppose the Latin were first translated into older forms of English, and then updated several times over the centuries.

To this already big pile of confusion the fact that punctuation is a relatively modern convention.  Ancient Greek and Latin did not use punctuation.  Instead, they had a complex body of affixes, which combined with syntax and context, told the reader when one thought ended and another began, or indicated a direct quote, or talk the reader that this word was the subject and this other word was the object or a thought.

You have to imagine that huge piles of meaning have been lost, right?  And to complicate matters, we can assume that the translators, or the people paying them, had agendas that 'flavored' the translations, skewing the results in one way or another.  It doesn't take long before the compounding effect takes us far afield from the original intent and meaning of the primary text.

With all of this in mind, I come (at long last) to my point.  I want to examine a brief passage of ancient text that is often mistranslated, often on purpose, and has profound implications for contemporary thinkers.

The passage comes from something called 'Paul's Letter to the Romans'.  We'll bypass the whole 'was Paul a real person' argument and stipulate for the sake of moving along.  The text can be found in any copy, any version of the New Testament, which is a highly controlled and misused set of documents that have profoundly influenced the modern world.

How profoundly?  Well, I'm willing to bet most folks use the term 'powers that be', but few take the time to investigate the origin of the term.  In fact, it comes from the King James translation of the New Testament.  Specifically, it comes from the aforementioned Letter to the Romans, with the common delineation of Chapter 13.

Credible scholarship tells us that Paul's letters were written in ancient Greek (the Gospels probably in Aramaic).  That means we can search the internet for the original text in the original language.  So we click over to Dogpile, type in "original greek text of romans 13", and select what looks to be a fairly authoritative source that even gives tenses, voices, moods, and cases to help us understand what we are seeing.

Searching Romans 13:1, we get:
Πᾶσα ψυχὴ ἐξουσίαις ὑπερεχούσαις ὑποτασσέσθω. οὐ γὰρ ἔστιν ἐξουσία εἰ μὴ ὑπὸ θεοῦ, αἱ δὲ οὖσαι ὑπὸ θεοῦ τεταγμέναι εἰσίν:

Now I know what you are thinking: Hey!  This is all Greek to me!  I know, but I want to make sure that you can't come back and say I cheated.  I'm putting all the info right here.

Now, before we go on, let's take a look at how this passage has been translated.  For this, we click over to biblegateway.com (can you say gateway drugs?) and look up Romans 13:1 in the NIV translation:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

Keep in mind that the 'authorities that exist' is the part we all know as 'the powers that be.'  The word ἐξουσία actually means 'to be at liberty' or 'free', as in what you might tell a house guest when you want them to relax and feel at home.  Already, we've completely shot the standard translation out of the water.


In the 4th century, Jerome was commissioned by Constantine to translate the Greek text into the Latin Vulgate.  In every other instance that I've aware of, Jerome properly translates ἐξουσία as liber, or free.  Yet, in this one instance, he changes it to 'authorities', or the more familiar 'powers that be'.  Why?


Because the line actually reads: let everyone be at liberty and only follow those who are of God and righteous.


In other words, we are told NOT to follow blindly, but that only those who rule in righteousness and godliness are worthy of leadership.  The text goes on to tell us that revolt against evil rulers is a virtue.


Obviously, not something kings and emperors want people thinking.


If it is true that this one little line in the Bible has been maliciously manipulated to conform to the agenda of the PTB, then what other lies fester at the core of our culture and society?  What other 'little' changes have been made, not just to this book, but to all others?  How many other falsehoods have been foisted upon us to make us docile slaves, rather than empowered unique creations with moral duties and obligations to fight evil in all its forms?


We human beings have been played for fools for millennia.  It is morally incumbent on us to take back our power and to clean up our mess.  We owe that to our future, both as individuals and as a species.  It's time to flog the money changers in the temple.


The way to begin is to remove the blinders that were installed on our eyes from earliest childhood.  It is time for us to become adults and take responsibility for our lack of understanding, and our lack of action because of it.  Ignorance can be cured, idiocy can not.  We are left with two clear choices: cure our ignorance, or admit we are idiots.  Frankly, I choose the former.


There is a fictional character that has provided inspiration to me since those long-ago days in high school:  Chief Broom in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."  The first step is to see the fog that clouds our minds, the second step is to clear it away and take back our true power.


It is our birthright.