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Using the bible to maintain control

September 9, 2012

After reading so much on the vocabulary of power and authority, I decided to reread Hebrews 13:18 in several translations. I am not surprised.

In the Wycliff Bible it was translated as “Obey ye youre sovereigns.” Luther translated this phrase in a way that can be represented in English as “Listen to your teachers.” In Tyndale’s translation it appears as “Obeye the that have the oversight of you,” but in the King James Bible, it has been changed to “Obey them that haue the rule ouer you.” By way of contrast, the Douay-Rheims translation has “Obey your prelates.” In this was one simple phrase was used to engage compliance with either secular or spiritual authorities.

“Oversight” was used for spiritual leadership and authority, while “rule” was reserved for monarchs. There is a clear split between the translations. In fact, all translations from Tyndale to the Bishop’s Bible had “oversight” and not “rule.” The switch to “rule” in the King James Bible stands out as peculiar. It appears to be a change of language to serve the interests of the monarch.

There are arguments for and against each of these translations. Translators choose between an array of possible alternatives when they translate. In this way, a bible can be shaped in a way that promotes the power of a particular institution. I wish it weren’t so.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Francesco permalink
    September 9, 2012 4:53 pm

    “It appears to be a change of language to serve the interests of the monarch.”

    I’m getting vertigo from this logical leap! How do you get from the observation that the Authorized Version translators chose one of two common ways of rendering the verse to concluding that the only reason one was chosen over the other was to solidify King James’ rule over his subjects?

    It may be the case that the AV was translated with an eye toward making Englishmen good subjects, but the evidence here doesn’t show it.

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 9, 2012 5:58 pm


    Thanks for your comment. From my point of view, this change appears to be part of a larger pattern in which vocabulary from earlier bibles relating to monarchs, was altered. For example, the Geneva Bible and others often used the word “tyrants” to refer to wicked kings. King James wanted the this word removed from the bible.

  3. krwordgazer permalink
    September 11, 2012 1:54 am

    It’s my understanding that this passage would be better translated along the lines of “listen to and let yourselves be persuaded by those who lead you by example.” Luther’s version, then, is closest to the Greek text. Is this correct?

  4. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 11, 2012 2:23 am

    I think “Be persuaded by those who lead” is closer to what it says. Perhaps “trust those who lead.” But it doesn’t say “by example” in this passage. However, that is in another verse, elsewhere.

  5. Don Johnson permalink
    September 11, 2012 8:28 am

    I read it as “allow oneself to be persuaded if possible” but that is a mouthful. Another alternative is to note it as obey- where the minus sign indicates it is not the normal word for obedience and is somewhat less than obey and then have a footnote explaining the details.

  6. September 13, 2012 6:20 pm

    This makes me recall the translation of Aristotle’s Rhetoric for King James II and VII, that encouraged empire building and colonizing and conquest of all sorts. The translator’s preface announces:

    “The Emulation of the Englifh Verfion to approach as near as might be to the Greek Original, and to follow the Authors Example, embolden’d this Addrefs to your Honour. For they were not the Pedantic Rudiments of Rhetoric, which Ariftotle offer’d to one that had been his Royal Pupil, … Alexander.”

    The translation, of course, pushes an agenda with its choices (and it comes some 74 years after the KJV).

    In Hebrews 13, the Greek word under consideration (i.e., ἡγέομαι /hegeomai/) appears thrice, no? The 13:17 context you mention only nuances that word slightly, right?

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