Monday, October 31, 2011

They didn't say it.

Sometimes I get to thinking that nobody ever really said anything. I’ve learned that every time I quote someone I better check really hard about whether they actually said it or not, because so many of these things we are sure someone said, weren’t. Or, someone said it before they did. Or, if it is in an ancient text, you might find out it was added much later.   

For example, one of my favorite scenes from The New Testament is the one where Jesus says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” I like it because of the whole stoning thing, which, is horrific, but historically interesting, because of the idea expressed that we who have our own sins should not to judge others so quick (or, arguably, at all), because Jesus does not condemn the adulterer himself, but, most of all, because it is the only example in the Bible where Jesus shows he can write.

It’s not just one of my favorite scenes, but it is one of the most famous in the Bible period. In fact, I bet everyone I know has either said or heard someone say in a discussion, Let he who is without sin . . . .

But, just in case you are one of the seven people in the world who is saying, what are you talking about?:

Jesus was teaching in the temple on the Mount of Olives when some scribes and Pharisees brought to him an adulterer, and they intended to stone her according to the law of Moses. They are testing Jesus, to see what he would say, so they could accuse him themselves. But, he just writes in the dirt with his finger, ignoring them. But when they persisted he rose and gave the he who is without sin line. He sat down again and continued to write. And, he got to them, so that they left one at a time. When Jesus was alone with the woman, he looked up and asked where her accusers were and if no one had condemned her. She said no. He replied that he would not either and that she should go and sin no more.

Despite the universal familiarity of this story in the Western world, it probably shouldn’t even be in the Bible, according to many scholars. That is, it wasn’t in the earliest versions they can find. Now, forget about whether you believe that the entire Bible is fiction or not, because I’m not discussing that here, just whether what you thought was in it really wasn’t. This Biblical scene, known in Latin as the Pericope Adulterae, or Adulterer Passage, has been in almost every standard English Bible since the 1500s. It was even in the very first Greek text published by the famous humanist, Erasmus, in 1516, compiled from a few incomplete texts made as early as the 12th century, and continuing in new editions for the next 300 years. It is the King James Version (1611), my personal favorite, despite many errors. It is in most modern versions and the Catholic Church considers the Latin vulgate from the 4th century A.D., authoritative, and that included it.

As best as can be figured out, it was placed at some point in Hebrew texts made two or three hundred years after John was first written (best guesses, at the end of the 1st century or beginning of the 2nd century A.D., although some say earlier). Eventually it was put into a Latin version. Yet some of the early church fathers, like Origen, make no mention of it either.  More, it turns out when they compare the various versions of this story in John, there are many different ones, some very different from the standard version. It was in some later Latin texts, but not in what is known as the Syriac Edition (likely made in the 2nd century A.D. and very popular then). The earliest it can be traced back to is from the 4th century A.D.  It is certain that church fathers in that time period like Jerome and Augustine included it. It is thought that some scribe or another decided that he had a good answer to the taunt of some Jews earlier in John that Jesus couldn’t write and plopped it in. Whether it was actually from an unknown tradition can only be speculated.

This isn’t a new theory either. It has been quite well known since at least the early 1800s. Of course, nothing is ever simple in Biblical exegesis (what normal people call interpretation). There are some scholars who claim that it was written by the original author (John, or someone using that name) despite it being absent from the earliest manuscripts. Some scholars believe that passage is much more similar to the other three gospels than it is to John, but a few disagree.

So, while most Bibles continue to keep it in John where it is expected, since the late 1800s some print it after John but before Acts, almost as its own book, and others in footnotes, the margin or as an appendix. Few translators seem to want to leave it out completely. After all, it is a great story.

And this seems to be the reason that apocryphal stories get circulated and deemed authentic. They make for good stories or sayings. The Kings James Version of the Bible has included this gem since its being published in 1611. And though it was known it was a mistake, they have never fixed it, though many other mistakes in it have been corrected: "Strain at a gnat and swallow a camel" should really be, "Strain out a gnat and swallow a camel." This isn't even disputed. But, the first version, even if incorrect, is so evocative, it was just left as it was.
But, let's get out of the Bible. I have used the Mark Twain saying about the weather in San Francisco on many occasions. You know, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Turns out, he never said or wrote it as far as is known. In Roughing It, he actually said it was very temperate there. Where did it come from? Who knows?

He’s also known for “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” But, actually, he was quoting Benjamin Disraeli (who probably didn’t say it first either).

I like to picture Harry Truman saying “The buck stops here.” But, apparently not. According to Fred R. Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotation, it comes from a newspaper article with a picture of an officer at a desk bearing the sign 3 years before Truman supposedly said it first.    

I got a few others from Shapiro. How many times have I heard some politician or pundit quote Senator Everett Dirksen saying “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it begins to add up to real money.” But, there’s no record of him saying it. Apparently it came from a 1938 New York Times article.  

Also, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” is often attributed to the famous economist Milton Friedman in 1975. But, it can not only be found in my favorite Robert Heinlein novel (and the funniest SF novel I’ve ever read), The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, published in 1966, but can be traced back to a 1942 newspaper article.

I once read a book on the important German protestant Martin Luther because I loved his facing down the Catholic authorities over a theological dispute, when it could have cost him his life, and saying (in German), “Here I stand. I could do no other.” Maybe he said it, but, if he had, nobody who was there seemed to know it, and it appeared in publication decades later for the first time.

I thought that Benjamin Franklin said, “Nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes,” but he was a little boy when it was coined in a book in 1716.  Franklin didn’t say a lot of things he supposedly said. One of them is his most famous, and is much misattributed lately,  – “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” He wrote it in 1775, but he put it in quotes. Someone else said or wrote it first. Franklin, who was an expert plagiarist, at least showed us that much.

When they were leaving Constitution Hall after the signing of the Declaration, a woman waiting outside asked Franklin what kind of government they gave them. He answered - “A republic, if you can keep it.”  Except, of course, no one knows if he really said that at all. There's no good evidence of it.

When I was growing up as a typical war loving little boy, I learned that Blackjack Pershing arrived in France in World War I to say, “Lafayette. We are here,” at the tomb  of the French nobleman who fought for us in our Revolution (well, my ancestors were digging up roots in Russia or something, but you know what I mean). Except, it was really his aide, Col. Charles E. Stanton.

Richard Henry Lee is given credit for his eulogy of Washington that included the words “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen,” but it was written by John Marshall, the first great Supreme Court Chief Justice (excepting those who think he ruined the country).

Alexander Hamilton’s famous written words are few, though he was incredibly verbose, orally and graphically, a "word machine," as his most recent major biographer called him. This one is beautiful:

“The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”

But the most memorable words are so obviously lifted from his mentor, Hugh Knox - “Our duty is written, as it were, with sunbeams” – that it belongs in this list.

There are so many Thomas Jefferson misattributions, it isn’t funny. Conservatives, in particular, seem to love to misquote him these days:

“When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.”

“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
“Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”
Government big enough to supply everything you need is big enough to take everything you have. . . The course of history shows that as a government grows, liberty decreases” (actually Pres. Gerry Ford in 1975).
“The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.” 
“The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.”
These are just examples. There are many more.

I personally love this passionate and painful speech by the Indian Nez Pierce tribe chief, known as Joseph, which moves me enough that I will quote it in full here, and not for the first time:

 I am tired of fighting.
Our chiefs are killed.
Looking Glass is dead.
Toohulhulsote is dead.
The old men are all dead.
It is the young men who say no and yes.
He who led the young men is dead.
It is cold and we have no blankets.
The little children are freezing to death.
My people, some of them,
Have run away to the hills
And have no blankets, no food.
No one know where they are-
Perhaps they are freezing to death.
I want to have time to look for my children
And see how many of them I can find.
Maybe I shall find them among the dead.
Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired.
My heart is sad and sick.
From where the sun now stands
I will fight no more forever.

It is the last line that is really famous, but the whole speech makes me want to cry. But, apparently, it was written later by a journalist and the chief never uttered it.

Shakespeare may even have more attributions than Jefferson, Franklin and Twain, the American champs,  but my favorite is “Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive,” actually written by Sir Walter Scott.

I've been making this list since 2008 and every little while add another one. I'm not stopping, but enough for today. Happy Halloween.


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  3. I have heard that this blog post has been attributed to David Eisenberg but it was actually written by either Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin.


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .