A tale of two messiahs

I like to collect examples of the media attributing to their favorite literary or public figures quotes that actually come from somewhere else.

A few months ago, the New York Times wrote something about the death of Paris bookseller George Whitman:

He welcomed visitors with large-print messages on the walls. “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise,” was one, quoting Yeats. Next to a wishing well at the center of the store, a sign said: “Give what you can, take what you need. George.” By his own estimate, he lodged some 40,000 people.

The Associated Press as published by NPR.com had it as:

Shakespeare and Company was also a haven for every author or would-be writer passing through the City of Light.

For them, Whitman reserved a welcome that turned Yeats’ famous verse — “Be not inhospitable to strangers / Lest they be angels in disguise” — into deed: He took in aspiring writers as boarders in exchange for a helping hand in the store.

Unless William Butler Yeats wrote Hebrews, which I’m pretty sure he did not, this is not quite the right attribution. Hebrews 13:2 (KJV):

2Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

The Washington Post today has a good one. In a story about Steve Jobs’ successor taking a more prominent public role, we’re told:

[Apple chief executive Tim] Cook also skillfully fielded questions on bringing jobs back to the United States (Will they come back? He “hopes so.”) and said he wanted to work more with Facebook (“stay tuned”). He told the audience that Apple’s recent philanthropic work would go even further; quoting John F. Kennedy, Cook said, “ ‘To whom much is given, much is expected.’ ”

Close. Very close. But try Jesus in Luke 12:48.

Image via Yotomak.

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  • Tim

    I believe the origin of the sentiment is Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.” ;)

  • Chris

    To be fair, the NYT did issue a correction for their original obituary and have updated the story online.

    I guess the other question is (and can’t tell from the article), did Tim Cook state that the quote was from JFK, or did the reporter hear the quote and attribute it to JFK? In addition to JFK, many others have used this quote (including Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Gates Foundation, and George W. Bush).

    For grammar geeks (NOT me), there is a discussion on this mangled quote at this site.

  • http://ecben.wordpress.com Will

    In the words of Stephen Daedalus, “If we must have a Jesus, let it be a legitimate Jesus.” (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)

  • Jerry

    There’s a question of fact checking here. http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/show/90961 is one place where the quote was attributed to JFK from Uncommon Wisdom of John F. Kennedy: A Portrait in His Own Words http://quotationsbook.com/quote/44780/ is a link to a speech JFK gave where he did not indicate the source of his comment. Maybe he did not realize he was quoting the Bible and maybe he did, but given how widespread is this attribution, I would not expect a fact checker to know the original source. I also suspect the vast majority of Christians don’t know the Bible well enough to know that either. So in this case, I would not ding the NYT.

    This would apply to other such cases where someone famous quoted the Bible but without attribution.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Actually I wrote about their correction (and everyone else’s lack of correction) for a later GR post. I’ll see if I can find it.

    And I also wondered about your second question. Let’s say that Cook said the quote was from JFK. How should the reporter handle it.

    And while I’m completely unsurprised that other men have used Jesus’ words, I’m not quite sure how relevant it is that they have. It’s not like Jesus is some obscure figure whose words are hidden.

  • sari

    Jesus’ words are hidden from anyone unfamiliar with Christian Scripture, for whatever reason. It’s unrealistic to expect the irreligious and the non-Christian to be knowledgable of holy writ. Think of how many Christians lack familiarity with Hebrew Scripture, even though it’s part of their own Bible.

  • Martha

    Jerry – in President Kennedy’s time, it would still have been the norm for people to recognise Scriptural quotations without the necessity for them to be identified. Hearers and readers of a speech quoting the Beatitudes or one of the parables would be likely to know who said it first :-)

    Mollie, I can’t tell you how many quotes I’ve seen misattributed recently (and by recently, I mean within the past few months). It’s probably time for a “what are they teaching them in schools nowadays?” rant, combined with one about how all this online socialisation and blogging and such means that people aren’t reading real books and so they’re half-ignorant :-)

  • sari

    I can’t tell you how many quotes I’ve seen misattributed recently (and by recently, I mean within the past few months). It’s probably time for a “what are they teaching them in schools nowadays?” rant, combined with one about how all this online socialisation and blogging and such means that people aren’t reading real books and so they’re half-ignorant :-)

    Martha, we’re witnessing major shifts in cultural emphases and societal attitudes. In part, one can blame the Net and social media for homogenizing culture, where once upon a time geographical lines also marked the boundaries of distinct cultures. The other piece is that non-religious and barely religious people feel no need to acquaint themselves with Scripture. It’s not taught in public schools here and is simply irrelevant to them.

    Lots of people read, and read broadly. My seventeen year old is currently reading Clausewitz’s On War along with Yeats–both for pleasure. Her behavior is not unique among her peers. While quite well-versed in Hebrew Scripture, because we have made that a priority, she has no grounding in New Testament, again like most of her peers, none of whom are Jewish. In an overwhelmingly Christian country, blame should be placed on parents and clergy for failing to provide an adequate religious education, not on the Net or mainstream educators.

    One can only cite the educational establishment for failing to teach students to research quotes before making attributions.

  • Jeff


    If it’s too much to ask that the irreligious and the non-Christian be literate with regard to the sayings of the single most important person in the history of the world, then I don’t think it’s too much to ask for them to just shut up with all their b*tching and moaning with regard to Christianity — which, clearly, they *can’t* understand and *don’t* understand. People who can’t be bothered to educate themselves about important things should not expect anyone else to feel that anything they say is important enough to pay attention to.

  • Jeff

    PS: So is Batman The Father and Kennedy The Holy Ghost in the image above?

  • http://www.LargeRugs.com large rugs, big rugs

    A look back to the distant past can help us make sense of today! Here, I am taking a look back at some of the widely-held hopes about Jesus. Many of these focus on his being the Jewish Messiah. The word ‘Messiah’ means a unique king, appointed to reign in power – the old word is, ‘anointed’ for royal rule by God himself. But, present-day Jewish matters or the State of Israel today are outside my scope.

  • http://nonnobis.weebly.com Stephen Hoyle

    This discussion reminds me of something I’ve noticed in book I’ve been reading, a biography of the composer Johannes Brahms. In one point in the book, the author discusses Brahms’ famous choral work A German Requiem and makes the point that though the work uses words from the Bible, Brahms deliberately avoided referring to Jesus. According to the author, this is because Brahms was an agnostic and free-thinker. And yet, a little later he tells readers that Brahms kept his beliefs to himself. So how can he be so sure what Brahms believed? However, what is most amusing is that the author insists that A German Requiem nowhere contains an allusion to the “eponomyous founder of the Christian faith” (as he puts it). So what area the first words of the Requiem? “Blessed are they that mourn.” Sound familiar? Those are from the Sermon on the Mount, spoken by Jesus! Later in the work appear the words “Blessed are those who die in the Lord”. This is clearly a verse from Revelation, and from the context it is clear “Lord” here refers to Jesus. So I find the author’s claims rather amusing.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    As best as I can find, Shakespeare made at least 1200 references to the bible in his works. This is a matter of basic education, not religion.

  • Judy Harrow

    @ Passing By (#13)

    So, if Shakespeare makes a Biblical allusion, but does not footnote or attribute it, and somebody in our own time just quotes Shakespeare without identifying Shakespeare’s source, what’s the big deal?

  • sari

    P.B.#13, basic education has changed a wee bit over 500 years. Sources state literacy rates of 30-35% (men) and 10%(women), which suggests that Shakespeare’s work reflects the dominant culture, not the abysmal state of education for the masses at the time.

    How many here, without consulting a Bible or the Net, can identify the verses addressed by Hebrews 13:2? Here’s a hint. It’s not in the N.T.

    This whole misquote/misattribute thread reminds me of Tevye.

  • Passing By

    Inferior pedagogy and cultural ignorance are certainly a reality these days, but are they really our goal?

  • http://www.acupuncturebrooklyn.com Karen

    And of course Yeat’s allusion, “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise,” refers to Lot in Genesis 19, paraphrased but not attributed.

  • Daniel

    These attributions are pretty funny!