Anglican Formularies and Anglican Authority: Prolegomena (III)

(For the previous installment, click here).

When we turn to the New Testament, however, we find something very different, even disorienting, in the relationship between ‘power’ and ‘authority’.

Some of the potential for confusion comes from a certain loss in translation. Consider this text from the end of the Sermon on the Mount as translated in the Authorized (King James) Version:

And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (Matt. 7: 28-29).

Compare this with the parallel text in Luke, again from the AV:

And they were astonished at his doctrine: for his word was with power. (Luke 4:32)

Now compare the Lukan text in the AV with its translation in the Revised Standard Version:

And they were astonished at his teaching, for his word was with authority. (Luke 4:32)

Both ‘power’ and ‘authority’ in all these texts translate, in fact, the same word in Greek, exousia. One can forgive both the translators of the AV (who moved back and forth between ‘power’ and ‘authority’ for exousia) and their successors in the RSV (who chose ‘authority’ more consistently, but not exclusively—see John 1:12 RSV) for hesitating, since not only does exousia have multiple shades of meaning (as do ‘power’ and ‘authority’ in English), but the tradition of Latin translation is also, well, curious. Consider the same texts from Matthew and from Luke in the Latin translation of St. Jerome’s Vulgate of the fourth century (trust me, you do not need to know Latin to get the point):

Et factum est cum consummasset Iesus verba haec, admirabantur turbae super doctrinam eius, erat enim docens eos sicut potestatem habens, no sicut scribae eorum. (Matt. 7:28-29).

Et stupebant in doctrina eius quia in potestate erat sermo eius. (Luke 4:32)

Jerome chose to translate exousia, not with the term those of us who read Latin and have been reared on the RSV would expect, auctoritas, ‘authority’, but with potestas, ‘power’, which more than likely influenced the translators of the Authorized Version. Strangely, auctoritas—a perfectly common term in patristic Latin, as in ‘the auctoritas of the universal church’, or ‘the auctoritas of the divine scriptures’—never once appears in the entire Vulgate New Testament! (In fact, it shows up only once in the Vulgate bible at all, an obscure passage in I Chronicles.) Instead, Jerome fairly consistently uses potestas for exousia. Mind you, in this he had good precedent. In the passage quoted from the Res Gestae of the emperor Augustus above, for example, it is the potestas of Augustus that is translated into Greek with exousia, not auctoritas while the emperor’s auctoritas is termed in Greek his arche—perfectly reasonable, but quite different from what a first-year student of Latin or Greek would expect. Moreover, potestas in Latin does indeed carry some legal or quasi-legal qualities, rooted in nature, such as the famous patria potestas familiar to every beginning student of Roman history, in which the paterfamilias, the ‘father of the family’ or (better) ‘head of the household’, carried a recognized legal authority over all within his familia just one step below the Roman state, including the power to sell or execute his sons.

On the other hand, early modern Europe saw the revival of a knowledge of classical Greek in the Renaissance, the beginnings of a critical approach to the text of the New Testament by scholars such as Lorenzo Valla and particularly Erasmus, and an interest in a ‘purer’ Latin. Combine all that with the Protestant dissatisfaction with all things Roman, and you get Theodore Beza’s own Latin translation of the New Testament. Beza, Calvin’s disciple, presumably intended to supersede or improve on the Vulgate, and his translation is clearly more ‘classical’, if artificially so. Thus Beza nearly always translates exousia with auctoritas (though he occasionally uses ius, an interesting alternative as we shall see below), and the RSV would seem to agree.

  • But then what are we to do with ‘power’? In Greek, ‘power’ in the sense of something indwelling or inherent (as in, say, muscle power or raw force) is typically represented by dunamis, although other terms are available, such as kratos (‘force’) or ischus (‘strength’). Since ‘power’ and ‘authority’, can easily engage in a sort of chicken-or-egg semantic dance (compare Matt. 10: 1 and Mark 6: 7 with Luke 9:1), their respective circles of meaning certainly overlap and they sometimes operate as synonyms, whether in English, Latin, or Greek, including in the New Testament.

    But when all is said and done, a distinction remains (for the academically inclined, see the article on exousia in TDNT). Thus in the Latin Vulgate, St. Jerome chose to translate dunamis, ‘power’, with virtus. Of course virtus, by the winding road of philological transmission, comes into English as ‘virtue’, which has led to one very odd passage in the Authorized Version. The translators of the AV generally chose ‘power’ for dunamis, but in the case of the woman with the issue of blood who is healed by touching the hem of Jesus’ garment (Matt 9:20-22, Luke 8:43-48), they followed the trail begun by Jerome:

    And Jesus said, Somebody hath touched me: for I perceive that virtue is gone out from me. (Luke 8:46)

    This would appear to leave any preacher on this passage who insists on the Authorized Version in the awkward position of having to explain how Jesus lost his virtue.

  • But I digress. Just what does exousia, a term that may indeed be alternately translated as either ‘authority’ or ‘power’ mean, particularly in the New Testament, and how is it applied to Christ? And does this ‘authority’ or ‘power’ transfer to, or remain with, His Church in any way? For it is in its source and application, as much as in its translation, that ‘authority’ in the New Testament is disorienting . . .

    (to be continued)


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