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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The word authority derives from the Latin word auctoritas meaning invention, advice, opinion, influence or commands which originate from an auctor indicating that authority originates from a master, leader or author. Essentially authority is imposed by superiors upon inferiors either by force of arms (structural authority) or by force of argument (sapiential authority). Usually authority has components of both compulsion and persuasion. For this reason, as used in Roman law authority is differentiated potestas (legal or military power) and imperium (persuasive political rank or standing).


Legitimate Authority

In government, authority is often used interchangeably with the term "power". However, their meanings differ: while "power" is defined as "the ability to influence somebody to do something that he/she could not have done", "authority" refers to a claim of legitimacy, the justification and right to exercise that power. For example, whilst a mob has the power to punish a criminal, for example by lynching, people who believe in the rule of law consider that only a court of law has the authority to order punishment.

Since the emergence of the social sciences, authority has been a subject of research in a variety of empirical settings: the family (parental authority), small groups (informal authority of leadership), intermediate organizations, such as schools, churches, armies, industries and bureaucracies (organizational and bureaucratic authorities) and society-wide or inclusive organizations, ranging from the most primitive tribal society to the modern nation-state and intermediate organization (political authority).

The definition of authority in contemporary social science is a matter of debate. According to Michaels, in the Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, authority is the capacity, innate or acquired for exercising ascendancy over a group. Other scientists, however, argue that authority is not a capacity but a relationship. It is sanctioned power, institutionalized power.

In political philosophy, the jurisdiction of political authority, the location of sovereignty, the balancing of freedom and authority (cf. Cristi 2005), and the requirements of political obligations have been core questions from Plato and Aristotle to the present. In many democractic societies, there is an ongoing discussion regarding the legitimate extent of governmental authority in general. In the United States, for instance, there is a widespread belief that the political system as it was instituted by the Founding Fathers should accord the populace as much freedom as reasonable, and that government should limit its authority accordingly.

Weber on Authority

Max Weber, in his sociological work, identified and distinguished three types of legitimate domination (Herrschaft in German, which generally means 'domination' or 'rule'), that have sometimes been rendered in English translation as types of authority, because domination isn't seen as a political concept in the first place. Weber defined domination (authority) as the chance of commands being obeyed by a specifiable group of people. Legitimate authority is that which is recognized as legitimate and justified by both the ruler and the ruled.

Weber divided legitimate authority into three types:

  • The first type discussed by Weber is Rational-legal authority. It is that form of authority which depends for its legitimacy on formal rules and established laws of the state, which are usually written down and are often very complex. The power of the rational legal authority is mentioned in the constitution. Modern societies depend on legal-rational authority. Government officials are the best example of this form of authority, which is prevalent all over the world.
  • The second type of authority is Traditional authority, which derives from long-established customs, habits and social structures. When power passes from one generation to another, then it is known as traditional authority. The right of hereditary monarchs to rule furnishes an obvious example. The Tudor dynasty in England and the ruling families of Mewar, in Rajasthan (India) are some examples of traditional authority.
  • The third form of authority is Charismatic authority. Here, the charisma of the individual or the leader plays an important role. Charismatic authority is that authority which is derived from "the gift of grace" or when the leader claims that his authority is derived from a "higher power" (e.g. God or natural law or rights) or "inspiration", that is superior to both the validity of traditional and rational-legal authority and followers accept this and are willing to follow this higher or inspired authority, in the place of the authority that they have hitherto been following. Some of the most prominent examples of charismatic authority can be politicians or leaders, who come from a movie or entertainment background. These people become successful, because they use their grace and charm to get more votes during elections. Examples in this regard can be NT Rama Rao, a matinee idol, who went on to become one of the most powerful Chief Ministers of Andhra Pradesh.

History has witnessed several social movements or revolutions, against a system of traditional or legal-rational authority, which are usually started by Charismatic authorities. What distinguishes authority, from coercion, force and power on the one hand and leadership, persuasion and influence on the other hand, is legitimacy. Superiors feel that they have a right to issue commands; subordinates perceive an obligation to obey. Social scientists agree that authority is but one of several resources available, to incumbents in formal positions. For example, a Head of State is dependent upon a similar nesting of authority. His legitimacy must be acknowledged, not just by citizens, but by those who control other valued resources: his immediate staff, his cabinet, military leaders and in the long run, the administration and political apparatus of the entire society.

Authority and the State

Every state has a number of institutions which exercise authority based on longstanding practices. Apart from this, every state sets up agencies which are competent in dealing with one particular matter. All this is set up within its charter. One example would be a port authority like the Port of London. They are usually created by special legislation and are run by a board of directors. Several agencies and institutions are created along the same lines and they exercise authority in certain matters. They are usually required to be self-supporting through property taxes or other forms of collection or fees for services.

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Bible wiki

Up to date as of January 23, 2010

From BibleWiki

The power or right of deciding the Law, in dubious cases, or of interpreting, modifying, or amplifying, and occasionally of abrogating it, as vested in the Rabbis as its teachers and expounders.

In Biblical times the Law was chiefly in charge of the priests and the Levites; and the high court of justice at Jerusalem, which formed the highest tribunal to decide grave and difficult questions, was also composed of priests and Levites (Deut. xvii. 9, 18; xxxi. 9; xxxiii. 10; Jer. xviii. 18; Mal. ii. 7; II Chron. xix. 8, 11; xxxi. 4). In the last two pre-Christian centuries and throughout the Talmudical times the Scribes ("Soferim"), also called "The Wise" ("Ḥakamim"), who claimed to have received the true interpretation of the Law as "the tradition of the Elders or Fathers" in direct line from Moses, the Prophets, and the men of the Great Synagogue (Abot i. 1; Josephus, "Ant." xiii. 10, § 6; 16, § 2; x. 4, § 1; "Contra Ap." i. 8; Matt. xv. 2), included people from all classes. They formed the courts of justice in every town as well as the high court of justice, the Sanhedrin, in Jerusalem, and to them was applied the law, Deut. xvii. 8-11, "Thou shalt come . . . unto the judge that shall be in those days, . . . and thou shalt do according to the sentence which they . . . shall show thee; . . . thou shalt not decline from the sentence which they shall show thee, to the right hand, nor to the left." This is explained thus: Whosoever the judge of those days may be, if he be recognized as competent and blameless, whether he be a Jephthah, a Jerubbaal, or a Samuel, he is, by virtue of his position as chief of the court of justice, invested with the same authority as Moses (Sifre, Deut. 153; R. H. 25ab). Even when they decide that left should be right, or right left, when they are mistaken or misled in their judgment, they must be obeyed (R. H. 25a). Heaven itself yields to the authority of the earthly court of justice as to the fixing of the calendar and the festival days (Yer. R. H. i. 57b; compare also Mak. 22b).

Powers of the Rabbis

The power of the Rabbis is a threefold one: (1) to amplify the Law either by prohibitory statutes for the prevention of transgressions ("gezerot") or by mandatory statutes for the improvement of the moral or religious life of the people ("taḳḳanot"), and by the introduction of new rites and customs ("minhagim"); (2) to expound the Law according to certain rules of hermeneutics, and thereby evolve new statutes as implied in the letter of the Law; and, finally, (3) to impart additional instruction based upon tradition. But the Rabbis were also empowered on critical occasions to abrogate or modify the Law (see Abrogation of Laws and Accommodation of the Law). In many instances where greater transgressions were to be prevented, or for the sake of the glory of God, or the honor of man, certain Mosaic laws were abrogated or temporarily dispensed with by the Rabbis (Mishnah Ber. ix. 5, 54a, 63a; Yoma 69a; compare also Yeb. 90b).

In matrimonial matters the principle adopted is that, since marriages are, as a rule, contracted in accordance with the rabbinical statutes, the Rabbis have the right to annul any marriage which is not in conformity with their ruling (Yeb. 90b). In money matters the Rabbis claimed the same right of confiscation in cases when their ruling was disregarded as was exercised by Ezra (see Ezra x. 8; Giṭ. 36b).

As to the validity of the decisions of the Rabbis, the following rules are to be considered:

"No rabbinical court [bet din] can impose laws or institute forms of practise which the majority of people can not without great hardship accept and observe" ('Ab. Zarah 36a, B. B. 60b).

Dissenting Rabbis

"No rabbinical court can abrogate laws and institutions made by any other court, unless it is superior in both wisdom and number" ('Eduyyot i. 5). If, however, such a prohibitory law has been accepted by the entire Jewish people, no rabbinical court, even though superior to the one that introduced it, has the power of abrogating it ('Ab. Zarah 36b; Maimonides, "Yad," Mamrim, ii. 4). In case two rabbis, or two rabbinical courts, differ in their opinions, the rule is that in questions concerning Mosaic laws the more rigid decision should prevail; in questions concerning rabbinical laws the more lenient decision should be followed ('Ab. Zarah 7a). "After one of rabbinical authority has declared a thing to be unclean, no one else has the power to declare it clean; after one rabbinical authority has forbidden a thing, no other can permit it" (Baraita in Nid. 20b; Ber. 63b). If a teacher dissents from the decision of the highest court, he may state his dissent and teach accordingly; but he is not allowed to oppose the authority of the court in practise, in which case he falls under the category of a "zaḳen mamre" (a rebellious elder) (Deut. xvii. 12; 'Eduyyot v. 6; B. M. 59b; Yer. 'Ab. Zarah ii. 42d; Ber. 63a).

Authority of President or Patriarch

As a matter of course, the Rabbinical Authority and legislative power rested with the entire body of the court of justice or rabbinical academy, and not with the president or patriarch only. Still, the more eminent the latter in knowledge and wisdom, the better he succeeded in making his opinion or propositions prevail in the deliberation; and so the newmeasure or institution was ascribed to him, or to him and his bet din (R. H. ii. 5-9, iv. 1-4; Yeb. 77a, and elsewhere). At any rate, the Nasi, or patriarch, announced the decision, proclaimed the New Moon, and represented on all official occasions the whole rabbinical body as its highest authority. The power of investing others with Rabbinical Authority was therefore presumably his exclusive privilege. It is known that from the beginning of the third century before the common era, rabbinical authorization by the patriarch consisted in the bestowal of authority and power ("reshut") to teach, to judge, and to grant permission regarding "the forbidden first-born among animals" ("yore yore, yadin yadin, yattir bekorot," Sanh. 5a). But it is obvious that this is no longer the original form of rabbinical authorization. Far more significant and expressive of the idea of Rabbinical Authority are the words used by Jesus when ordaining Peter as chief apostle, or his disciples as his successors, and undoubtedly taken from pharisaic usage: "I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt. xvi. 19, xviii. 18). This corresponds exactly with what Josephus, or rather his source, tells of the Pharisees in the time of Queen Alexandra: "They were the real administrators of the public affairs; they removed and readmitted whom they pleased; they bound and loosed [things] at their pleasure" ("B. J." i. 5, § 2). The terms "bind" and "loose" ("asar we-hittir"), employed by the Rabbis in their legal terminology, point indeed to a sort of supernatural power claimed by the Pharisees for their prohibitory or permissory decrees, probably because they could place both men and things under the ban, or "ḥerem." See Binding and Loosing.

But there are other expressions which were presumably used in the old formula of rabbinical ordination. "Elijah," says Johanan ben Zakkai ('Eduy. viii. 7), "does not come to declare as clean or unclean and to separate or bring nigh." This was indeed a very important function at the time when the Levitical laws of purity and the questions of family or purity of blood ruled the entire social life of the Jews. Here the authority of the Pharisees made and unmade men and homes; and it is to this that Josephus (l.c.) possibly refers in saying, "They removed and readmitted whom they pleased."

When with the Bar Kokba war the solemn act of ordination ceased, Rabbinical Authority changed its character also, inasmuch as the continuity of tradition was no longer its basis and safeguard. Hence the greater learning became the chief source of authority. Thus, for instance, Rab's authority was decisive in ritualistic questions and Samuel's in legal matters. From Abaye and Raba onward the latterday authorities were regarded as of greater weight than the earlier ones, because they could weigh all sides better. In the Middle Ages this attitude changed, from lack of self-confidence, and the respect for the former generation, which amounted to blind adoration, grew greatly (see Aḥaronim). In fact, the great lack of a central body representing Rabbinical Authority was felt more and more, and the attempts of Jacob Berab to reintroduce the ordination, or Semikah, failed. See Semikah.

Thus Rabbinical Authority was transferred from the personality of the teachers to the codes of law, until finally the Shulḥan 'Aruk became its embodiment, while Jewish synods in various countries provided for temporary emergencies. Singularly enough, the abolition of the power of excommunication, under the influence of modern times and through the interference of the worldly government, marks the beginning of the decline of Rabbinical Authority in occidental Judaism; while the derogation of the Shulḥan 'Aruk in the modern life of the Jew practically hastened the process, and led to the convocation of rabbinical conferences, synods and like measures. See Synod; Conferences, Rabbinical; Reform Judaism; Halakah; Ordination; Codification of Law; Karaites.

Bibliography: Hamburger, R. B. T. ii., s.v. Ordination, Rabbinismus, Synedrion, and Binden und Lösen.

This entry includes text from the Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906.

Simple English

Authority is the ability of a person or an organization to conduct a certain lifestyle for another person or a group. Authority is known as one of the basis of society and stands against cooperation. Adopting lifestyle patterns as a result of authority is called obedience and authority as a concept includes most leadership cases.

Although authority is usually described as a human description there's also reference for authorities which are not human such as godly authorities and traditional authorities.

Authority exists by virtue of a certain social power. This power might be materialistic (such as a threat to harm someone) or fictitious (such as belief in a certain person's power). The power exists because of the possible use of sanction : An action who harms a person who's not obeying the authority or threatening it in order to conduct a social power.

Authority may exists in a direct way by virtue of an actual power (such as a threat of imprisonment), which is called "forcing", or by legitimization that the subject gives to the authority (such as recognition of aristocratic authority). In most cases both types exist.

Only a few authorities are based on physical power, most of them are based on an organizational authority system. In this way, the authoritys ability to act depends on her existence.

For example: the authority of a state leader takes part when there's some sort of a police that punishes individuals that do not obey him. The policeman are subordinated to the leader and his rules because theire also under the police threat. If all citizens of the state choose to denay the leader and his rules, the authority will be lost, but the very fact that the authority semi-exists allowes it to be full.


Obedience, as said, is the sign that means authority is being enforced. While obedience is the law, disobedience and crime are violation and resistance to the authority.

Theoretically, violation of the authority drags with it a sanction that's given by the authority owner. The severity of the sanction and the threat it presents are based on the particular social situation, on the balance of power, on the local norms and so on.


Many people criticize people in authority, and some even criticize the existence of authority. Anarchism is a philosophy that opposes all forms of authority.

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