The Most Famous Thing Nobody Ever Said

I was listening to a discussion of Voltaire the other day, and his most famous quote was mentioned:

I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.
- Voltaire

… and of course, the fact that he never actually said this was also mentioned. This particular line has not been found in any of Voltaire’s works (although with 200 volumes of writings and correspondence, it’s possible we’ve just missed it.)

Right now the assumption is that these words were made up by one of his biographers, EB Hall. Her summation of Voltaire’s attitude was mistaken for an actual quote.

It got me thinking about the number people who are famous for saying something they never said. Probably the best example is this one:

Here I stand. I can do no other.
- Martin Luther

Again, it was a summation created by his biographer. Georg Rörer collected and published Luther’s works, and he threw in these two lines to sum up the ending to a letter. Diarmaid MacCulloch has suggested that, “This can stand as the motto of all Protestants – ultimately, perhaps, of all Western civilization.” But Luther never said it.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the notorious bank robber Willie Sutton. Supposedly, when asked by a reporter why he robbed banks, Sutton replied:

Because that’s where the money is.
- Willie Sutton

Fortunately, Sutton reformed and so lived long enough to set the record straight. Not only did he never say it, but it’s not accurate either. He robbed banks for the thrill, not the money.

This kind of thing was part of the reason that I was never really happy with some of the arguments from the Jesus Seminar. The idea that certain catchy phrases would be remembered and passed down, and thus certain sayings could be traced back to Jesus, doesn’t hold water. We’re good at remembering sayings, bad at remembering who said them.

  • ctcss

    To me, it’s not necessarily the fact that a quote is an exact transcript, it’s the clarity of the concept being expressed. The quote often just summarizes the concept. Matthew and Luke both contain versions of the sermon on the mount. I believe that Matthew’s account is the more familiar one, but we really can’t say that either is an exact transcript of what was said to have been conveyed on that occasion. But to me, both help to fill in the picture of the concepts being discussed. The concepts are what I want to understand and to apply.

    • kessy_athena

      Perhaps we just need to use different language in how we describe these
      sorts of sayings? “As Voltaire argued…” instead of “As Voltaire
      said…”? Although technically speaking, what Voltaire actually said
      was in French, so any English translation is by necessity a paraphrase. Besides, it’s not always easy to determine exactly what was said – how many different versions of the Gettysburg Address are floating around?

      I agree with ctcss that the essence is more important then the exact transcript in this context. Although things like the Sutton case are pretty problematic, since the quote completely misrepresents Sutton’s mindset.

    • Pofarmer

      I think that the position would be stronger if there were, say, an actual transcript of a sermon from an actual Jesus of the Sermon. Otherwise, it’s too easy to envision it being made up in later years out of whole cloth.

      • ctcss

        While a transcript might, on the surface, appear to be helpful, I don’t think it would make a huge difference, at least to me. Either one accepts that the main ideas and actions in the gospels attributed to Jesus truly captured (in large part) the essence of what his ministry was all about, or one is left chasing the historical Jesus forever and never getting anywhere because one cannot find enough “solid” evidence that might cause one to change one’s path in life and decide to follow Jesus.

        The narratives point out that he often spoke figuratively, seemingly trying to prod his disciples towards thinking more deeply about the spiritual instead of merely focusing on the mundane social or political or economic references that he used in his teaching. (Luckily for us, whoever wrote the gospels also added the insights that the disciples seemed to have gained.) And the vast majority of the regular people he preached to didn’t really seem quite ready to hear what he was trying to convey, so he spoke to them in memorable parables. Only his disciples and the few outsiders who stuck around to ask questions, and to listen (which includes anyone reading the gospel accounts later on) seem to have gained more insight into what he was trying to teach. Furthermore, he seemed to understand the need to learn by doing, thus he sent his disciples out to put his teachings into practice, and pointed out to his religious contemporaries the need to “go and do likewise” after they themselves had discerned the needed lessons from his stories and sayings.

        The point I am trying to make here is that the gospels, as they exist, seem to have more than enough consistent information (IMO) that I feel that one can utilize them to gain understanding by reading them carefully (not in snippets but in large swaths), and also gain by trying to actually follow him as he asked his disciples to. (Not at all a trivial task, I’m afraid.)

        That said, are there confusing or mysterious statements in the mix? Yes. Are they truly deal killers? Not from where I stand. And where I stand, BTW, doesn’t include any threats about hell or eternal punishment, since that was not what I was taught. Thus, I want to learn more about what Jesus taught because it interests me, not because I am fearful of punishment. I am also not worried about initially getting things wrong. Learning is always an ongoing process and one is always going to be missing (or misunderstanding) some information that will probably be understood better as one continues to learn. (I certainly don’t want to find myself like the servant given one talent to manage, and then simply burying it because I don’t think I can do much with that one small item.)

        From what I can discern, there is more than enough useful information in the gospels (not to mention the rest of the Bible) that seems to be understandable enough, that I personally think I am justified in trying to live it. For my part (and only for my part, no one else’s) I can’t see waiting around until a transcript or something else turns up. (And no, I am nowhere near where I really should be in trying to follow Jesus, despite claiming that I want to.) Basically, I am not worried about the gospels not being stenographic transcripts. Even if they were, there is no guarantee that I would grasp their meaning without delving into them and trying to live them. As I said, none of this is a trivial undertaking.

        As a believer, this particular take on the usefulness or accuracy of the gospels makes sense to me, even if it isn’t enough for someone else. Furthermore, I have had some people in my life who have set a good example of doing their best to follow the Christ. So even if I think I don’t grasp everything, I have those friends who are leading by example. What they do helps encourage me to go further and to learn more. To someone such as yourself who has expressed significant doubts in the past, I can easily understand the sincere desire to wait around for something more helpful to show up. But, as noted, none of this is easy, and all of us could use help when we feel stuck.

        Here’s hoping you find what you need for whatever path you are trying to follow,.

        • Pofarmer

          So, you’re not concerned if it’s true or not. You just like the message.

          • ctcss

            No, I very much care about whether or not the message is true. The point I am making is that at this stage of the game (way past the time of Jesus’ ministry and his personal presence) the requirement to make the effort to follow him is still in place, just as it was for his disciples who continued their efforts at following him when he was no longer personally there for them.

            They had difficulty trying to understand him even when he was with them. And despite their own failures and fears and embarrassments and discouragements, they still decided to continue making that effort. Why? Because they (despite their mistakes and missteps) were convinced of the truth (the value) of what they had witnessed. And many times the only way to understand something is to make an ongoing effort to put it into practice. (Learning to ride a horse is largely going to come through experience actually astride the animal.) And although many on this board think God may not (or does not) exist, those of us who think that He does are willing to depend on (what they believe to be) Him to help open the way in their own understanding and practice. The disciples certainly had to rely on God’s guidance after Jesus was no longer physically there.

            In other words, the message in the gospels (even at the time it was being spoken and acted out in real life) was simply a call to action to whomever it reached. And yes, that often meant that the person who decided to follow even back then “liked the message” enough that they felt compelled to want to learn more, even when they didn’t fully understand it.

            As I said, I am not afraid of making mistakes or misunderstanding things as I make my own efforts. I am bound to make them. (I most definitely have made them!) The people in the Bible made lots of them. But still, they persisted because they truly wanted to learn, and I (and hopefully others) have benefited from the efforts made to preserve what they learned. And to me, at least, I can best honor (and benefit from) that effort by making my own efforts at climbing onto that horse and persisting until I get there.

            Does that help explain my standpoint?

            • Pofarmer

              It reads that you like the Christian viewpoint, so that’s what you are going to try out, regardless of any of the core supernatural tenets are true.

            • ctcss

              I’m not sure if I am understanding your point. Since I claim to be a Christian, I would certainly hope that I would like the Christian viewpoint (at least the particular one I am attached to), otherwise, why should I bother trying to follow it? And having chosen to follow the Christian viewpoint, I would hope that I would want to exhaustively explore it (at least as I understand it to be) to see what I can find and verify of its stated concepts and functionality before deciding to discard it as worthless in order to try out some other viewpoint.

              How would you suggest exploring some subject area that you have an interest in? I would think a hands-on approach would be rather helpful in that regard. Would it make sense to take up a hobby simply by relying on other people’s opinions of it, or should you try exploring it yourself to see how it satisfies you? Would you take someone else’s view of a potential spouse as being good enough for you to marry them, or would you rather find out something about your potential spouse by spending time with them to see how they strike you?

              And as for supernatural claims, by signing on to the concept of God (who is generally understood to be completely non-material) I am obviously not focusing on matter as a chief concern with regard to the material detection of God (obviously not relevant) or with regard to my conceptual relationship with God, since such a relationship (being eternal) would exist whether or not I seem to have a material existence. (This is somewhat similar (though not identical) to marrying someone when they are 20, in good health, and good looking, and still loving them when they are 95, wrinkled, and possibly infirm. The loving relationship is based on valuing the qualities they embody, not their material components. One can even regard them with love after they are physically gone. As I said, materiality is not the focus here.)

              Basically, while I have no problems considering God to exist (and am willing to examine that issue as part of my efforts to explore my religion and determine its truth claims), I don’t regard the God question as splitting along the lines of natural/supernatural. Rather, I would split it along the material/non-material line. I consider God to be completely natural, just not material/physical. If God were material, He would be limited and constrained by matter. Basically, matter would hold the upper hand. It would outrank God and would demote Him to, at best, being a god. And I have no interest in focusing my efforts on following something limited.

              I’m curious, how would you approach a vast, complex, and life-altering subject area like religion (and God) where a great deal depends on how one applies themselves to the task of exploring it, grappling with its concepts, and trying to live it? It really isn’t something that lends itself to everyday methods of evaluation since its focus is on the spiritual, not the material.

              As I have been trying to say, none of this is a trivial undertaking. From my understanding of it, I would say that it could take years (perhaps even decades) of committed and focused effort in order to give any particular religion a fair trial. In some ways, it is very like marriage, where one doesn’t really know how things will fare until circumstances put both parties to the test, especially where the test goes on for years. One may date different people in order to gain some sense regarding a likely candidate, but only in the committed state of marriage does one encounter the real test. That really can’t be accomplished beforehand.

            • Pito Rosario

              Hi, I’m new here,

              I just wanted to point out that it always strikes me as funny when Christians speak as though no one but Jesus ever taught anything morally/ethically sublime, stressed practice over mere understanding, and display a kind of religious and cultural myopia such as I see exhibited above.

              What makes the previous poster think that Socrates, Buddha or Confucius’ disciples didn’t see their teacher’s precepts as life-changing and utterly profound?

              It’s as though everyone in the world went around eating each other before Jesus arrived on the scene.

            • ctcss

              Who said anything about other people not teaching good things or moral things or even profound things? I was simply pointing out that I, as a Christian, hadn’t fully explored my religion as much as I would need to in order to intelligently decide to discard it before looking elsewhere for a path to follow. I like the concepts in Christianity, otherwise why would I bother following it? But I certainly wasn’t trying to put down other people’s faiths, or lack of faith. Every one is free to make their own call on the path they wish to explore.

              Do you really have a problem with a person having such a viewpoint?

            • Pito Rosario

              Not at all. One thing my comment does have implications for is Jesus’ divinity, however. Would an omnipotent, omniscient deity really have nothing to teach except the same lessons others were imparting at the time? By the way, this also does not bode well for emotive impact/power on the Savior’s part. Why were people feeling attracted to other sages’ movements worldwide rather than his, not feeling impelled by some mysterious force to set out for Galilee/Judea from Greece, China, Nepal, etc.?

  • Sam

    Well, I learned a lot today.
    I pretty much agree that we can’t trust anything to be authentic to Jesus just because it’s memorable. Look at the story of him saving ‘the woman taken in adultary’. Great story, one of the things people most remember from Jesus’ ministry…it’s even become a saying ‘let’s not be the first to cast a stone’…and yet he probably never did it, since it isn’t in the earliest versions and was most likely added by in by a scribe.

  • Norm Donnan

    So true.And it also must be remembered that something’s passed off as science like evolution should also not be trusted.

    • trj

      An ironic statement, coming from someone who believes in creation “science”.

  • Greg G.

    Robert M. Price, a member of the Jesus Seminar, agrees with you. He points out that the phrases that get quoted because they’re useful are more likely to be made up because they would be useful.


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