Why is it “The Powers that Be” and “Not the Powers that Are?”

Thanks to all who responded to the “powers that be” mystery. I think we solved it.

Here are some insights that came in:

1)Wikipedia says “powers” is a “plural tantum” like “scissors” and “pants”. Fine, but why should a plural tantum take the subjunctive “be”.

2)Some respondents point out that “be” is the subjunctive, but why is “the powers that be” a subjunctive idea? They just are, aren’t they? They’re not in a counterfactual situation, or the object of an exhortation.

3)Some have referenced the archaic nature of the quote tracing it back to the translation of the Bible under the auspices of King James in the 17 c. in Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans –“For there is no power but from God; the powers that be are ordained by God”. That’s good to know but it is obviously not true from the quote that the translators working for King James did not use the indicative “are”. They use it in the very quote.
Here is a guess: “The Powers that Be” means “Whatever powers there may be”. That is why the King James translator translated Paul’s phrase into the subjunctive.

Paul, or whoever wrote the letter, was writing at a time when the relationship between the nascent Christian Church and the Roman Empire was highly controversial. Some Christians (possibly Jesus Christ) advocated open rebellion against the corrupt order which had, after all, executed Jesus. Paul did not — he advocated religious withdrawal, building up of the soul and the community, and waiting for the second coming. He certainly saw the problems with the Roman Empire but he did not advocate revolution.

So when Paul uses the phrase “the powers that be are ordained by God” he is avoiding saying that the particular powers that are were ordained by God. That would have called for the indicative and would have made him seem like an apologist for the Roman Empire. He was making a general point about political quietism — whatever powers there may happen to be in charge, they are ordained by God.

So using “the powers that be” language let’s you thread a needle between religious-based political rebellion and religious approval of the status quo. You acknowledge that they are powers, and that they happen to be powers, and that this happenstance is ordained by God, but you do not actually acknowledge their legitimacy in their own terms.

Can anybody who knows Paul in Greek confirm or deny?

And a Happy Easter to all my orthodox readers!


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