Attribute it to them Anyway

“Sometimes you will come across something on the internet falsely attributed to a famous person. Attribute it to them anyway.” – Mother Teresa

Actually, the above is just my own sarcastic reworking of the phraseology that is characteristic of this purported quote from Mother Teresa:

Someone who came across it, and who has learned to be skeptical of attributions of quotes on Facebook, asked me to help check whether Mother Theresa actually said it. A quick Google search on the last phrase led me to a page devoted entirely to spurious and paraphrased words attributed to Mother Teresa.

Click through to take a look at it. Then ask yourself whether the case of the historical figure of Jesus is any different.

Famous people always have things they never said attributed to them, and things they actually said paraphrased, expanded, and altered.

This shouldn't surprise anyone. And yet many conservatives still try to claim that we have Jesus' precise words with no additions or changes. And when mythicists claim that Jesus didn't exist, they point to uncertainty about many sayings attributed to him as though it supported their claim.

Some people have a desire to live in a world where everything is black and white, rather than the real world, with its shades of grey and pink ratings (to use the color coding system of the Jesus Seminar).


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  • Michael Wilson

    I would like to point out that fake quotes tend to follow the perceived thought lines of the person ‘quoted”. No one puts up a picture of Mother Teresa with the quote, “when guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns” or “the road to success is paved with excess”. The fake quotes generaly tell you how the person is percieved.

    • Excellent point! That is precisely why Dale Allison has emphasized looking at the gist of a person in our earliest sources, without worrying in the first instance about sifting the authentic from inauthentic. We could get a pretty good rough impression of Mother Teresa – or of Jesus – even if we had only the earliest spurious quotations. Would it be precisely accurate? No. Would it be the opposite of what they were like? Hardly.

      • Andrew Dowling

        I generally agree, but if we’re talking about a major religious figure central to that religion, as the theology develops, those theological developments tend to get attributed to that religious figure through the oral tradition over time; see Jesus at the end of Matthew telling his disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit . . .not only is this pre-trinitarian formula a potential (I’d say likely) later interpolation into Matthew (the earliest quotes of the Commission among the Patristics lack it) but it’s clear Jesus never baptized anyone or told his disciples to baptize anyone while He was alive.

        But here you have developments after Jesus’s death (trinitarian thought) combined with an evolution of pre-Jesus ritual (John’s baptism of repentance, and it seems like a number of early Christians had been Baptist disciples) . .all attributed to Jesus (regardless of it being the post-Resurrection Jesus or not, these teachings are described as private directives to the disciples).

        Ditto with the strident apocalypticism in the Synoptics . . it’s post-Resurrection anticipation (Jesus’s rising of the dead has started the parousia and the general Resurrection will soon be here, amplified by the Fall of Jerusalem) combined with pre-Jesus JBap apocalyptic exhortations. And again, these are described as internal conversations with the Disciples, a tell tale sign it was not a part of Jesus’s public ministry.

        So overall, I concur the general impression portrayed is accurate, but there are passages deemed highly significant that I think can be shown to be probable later development.

        • Well, as I think you know, I find Dale Allison’s arguments about the apocalyptic gist of Jesus persuasive. The imminent end is there in Paul, the earliest Gospels with a decrease as time goes on. Jesus was mentored by John the Baptist, and if anything, I would say that Jesus may have been more apocalyptic that John the Baptist. The latter seems to have been expecting one of his followers to rise up and act; Jesus seems to have focused more on a divine action that would set things right, rather than having embraced the role of doing it himself, apparently to John’s disappointment.

      • There are dramatic exceptions to this. As when Lady Hope quoted Charles Darwin as having a deathbed conversion and saying “How I wish I had not expressed my theory of evolution as I have done.” and that he would like to gather an assembly and “would like to speak to them of Christ Jesus and his salvation”.

        This false attribution was published in a newspaper, and, as we would say today, “went viral”.

        Both Darwin’s son and daughter denied the claim, and noted that Lady Hope was never even present with them at this deathbed.

      • Or how about this bit of political punditry that conservatives still falsely attribute to Abraham Lincoln:

        “You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot help little men by tearing down big men. You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer. You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. You cannot establish sound security on borrowed money. You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred….”

      • Or Rush Limbaugh falsely attributing to James Madison:

        “We have staked the future upon our capacity to sustain ourselves according the Ten Commandments of God.”

      • the_Siliconopolitan

        Would it be the opposite of what they were like? Hardly.


        Are you completely unaware of Aroup Chatterjee’s book? Do most people’s idea of ‘mother’ Teresa include her love of pain and hatred of birth control? Would most people accept “I am not here to eradicate poverty, but to make souls for the Lord.” as a Teresan saying, if I were to attribute it to her?

        • Andrew Dowling

          Who would’ve ever though Mother Teresa was pro birth control?
          Teresa isn’t a good comparison anyway because the main source of her popular conception are popular media stories, not oral sharing of her teachings. Frankly I don’t know of any lay person who would have any idea what Teresa’s personal theology was; it’s not a focus of anyone’s general interest beyond a small minority.

        • I’m not sure how that relates to Allison’s point, which is about the overall impression about a person in our very earliest sources. We don’t need to look to Mother Teresa to see debates and attempts to coopt, reinterpret, and do all sorts of creative things with a historical figure. We see it in the New Testament itself, to say nothing of when we get further along. That’s the whole reason for the discussion, is it not? Figuring out what is authentic and early. Allison’s point is that humans remember gist better than detail, and if the gist of the earliest sources cannot be relied upon as in the corrct ballpark, individual sayings are that much less likely to have been remembered accurately.

    • D Rizdek

      And sometimes the perception is accurate.

  • friendly reader

    Reminds me of one of my personal favorite blogs: Fake Buddha Quotes.
    The creator of that blog isn’t trying to determine whether the actual
    historical Buddha said any of these (it’s even harder to do that with
    the Buddha than with Jesus) but rather whether it’s actually a quote
    from the Buddhist canon. Although in that case, there’s a heavy handful of Orientalism involved on top of the famous people aspect. So long as something “sounds Eastern” it gets attributed to the Buddha (Laozi/Lao Tse comes in a close second, I’ve found).

  • That particular quote is by Kent Keith from 1968.

  • D Rizdek

    Well, maybe that explains some of the odd things “Jesus” is said to have said.

    For example,

    What Jesus really said was, “You know, following me is going to require a lot of time, and you might even hate the time you have to spend away from your own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, and yes, sometimes you’ll even hate your life because of deprivations. But really, the bottom line is that following me is tough and if you don’t really want to, I think you cannot be my disciple. That’s ok, because, I can only deal with about 12 at a time, so go, be with your family, find a suitable, creative, productive LEGAL line of work, do your best and I’ll see you in heaven.”
    But NO ONE wants to quote all that, so:

    “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.”

    And Mark 7, The Pharisees complained that the disciples were eating without washing their hands or the food from the market. And they thought it important to eat clean food even if they didn’t understand exactly why.

    What Jesus really said was, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about your understanding; as it is written:

    ‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
    They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are merely human rules.’

    Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Here is what he meant. You hold on to human traditions but you really don’t understand why. Let me explain. These are more than traditions. You wash your hands and your food to reduce the spread of disease. There are bacteria and parasites that cause serious maladies. They can get into your digestive tract and, at a minimum can give you diarrhea or they can even get into other tissues and cause all manner of maladies and even deformities. Generally, nothing outside a person can defile them except maybe sharp things, stinging and biting insects, and venomous snakes, definitely don’t be handling them, But if some things go into a person, they can make them really sick…what you call defiled.

    My disciples were too busy doing my work to remember, but I’ll find a way to talk to them about setting aside time to wash their hands and their food. Thanks for pointing that out.”

    But the folks who eventually wrote down the quotes knew diseases were caused by demons and curses and they couldn’t spell maladies, so here is what we get.

    “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

    ‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
    7 They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are merely human rules.’

    8. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions. You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!”

    And then when talking about health care, Jesus said,

    “Even healthy people should see their doctor at least once a year to learn the latest in preventative medicine. But if you are sick, go see the doctor as soon as possible. I’ve been talking to the doctors in the area and because I’m God, I have explained a lot about disease prevention and how to best treat various illnesses. Just before I go, I’ll actually rid the earth of two major diseases completely. In fact, I’ll even erase all memories and historical records of these diseases so it’ll be as if they never occurred. I have also come to minister to the righteous and give them guidance in how to maintain as good a life as possible but also to those who have succumbed to vices and developed bad habits so I can, if they wish it, rid them of these human weaknesses so the world will be a better place.”

    But that was too long, and, you know, quotes have to be pithy and somewhat controversial, so here is what was written down:

    “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

  • R Vogel

    WOW! I didn’t immediately see where you were going there. I will definitely be make use of this.

  • arcseconds

    “There is no point in making a witty comment on the internet, for in the space of a few months it will be attributed to me.”

    — Oscar Wilde.

    • the_Siliconopolitan

      Ironically, that’s a Dorothy Parker quote.