Misattributed Sayings and the Historical Jesus

Misattributed Sayings and the Historical Jesus September 23, 2015

I’ve blogged in the past about sayings which were attributed to various figures – Mother Teresa and Reinhold Niebuhr – while others have addressed Albert Einstein and Josh Groban.

One thought that struck me is that we tend to have saying gravitate from less famous people to more famous ones, and new sayings fabricated and attributed to famous individuals. I found myself wondering whether we ever have sayings misattributed to non-historical figures. And if not, does that have any bearing on the historicity of Jesus?

The Ink Paper Pen blog has some other examples of sayings which were originally anonymous or by someone who is not famous, and were subsequently attributed to famous people. And Chris Porter has been trying to track down the source of a quote attributed to John Calvin.


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  • arcseconds

    “There’s no point in making a witty remark on the internet. Because in fullness of time it will be attributed to me.”
    — Oscar Wilde.

  • Thanks for the plug James. Quote has been found… still trying to figure out how the translation came to read that way though.

  • Internet memes and urban legends demonstrate how easily and how quickly false stories and sayings can be invented and attributed to people. The argument that the oral traditions of Jesus that predate the gospels are completely trustworthy, constituting “eye-witness” testimony, is full of baloney.

    • Andrew Dowling

      The wide majority of conservatives don’t even get that far since they contend the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses (or at least 2.5 of them, with Mark being Peter’s “memoirs”).

  • ncovington89

    Robert M. Price, in his work “The Christ myth Theory and its problems” has a chapter on the rapid attribution of sayings to a fictive Jesus. Price looks at the rapid false attribution of thousands of sayings to Mohammed in the Hadith and concludes the same could be true with Jesus. You should more books from myth theorists. Like Tony the Tiger says, “Theeeey’re Great!”
    Of course, it might be objected that Mohammed wasn’t mythical (then again, Robert Spencer thinks otherwise). Even so, this is still a proof-of-concept. If lots of false sayings can be attributed to a religious figurehead (in this case Mohammed) then it could happen in the case of another religious figurehead (Jesus). Especially when we take into account the context of early Christianity, where sayings might originate through dreams, visions, revelations, etc.

    • John MacDonald

      I was a bit surprised that Ehrman commented on Price’s essay “New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash” in his book “Did Jesus Exist?”, but didn’t comment on Price’s “Rapid Attribution” essay.

      • ncovington89

        I reckon Ehrman deemed it irrelevant. And it certainly is irrelevant for the purposes of Ehrman’s book, Price establishes only that it’s feasible that lots of sayings could be attributed to a fictional Jesus.

        • John MacDonald

          It would have helped Ehrman present what the Mythicist argument is.

    • Showing that something applies to one historical figure as well as another is not proof-of-concept of anything pertaining to mythicism.

      • ncovington89

        Sure it is. For the muslims who had not known the historical muhammed, he would have been like a mascot, a mere concept in their minds (regardless of whether this concept sprang out of a historical reality or not). Jesus definitely was a religious mascot of course, and for many early Christians he would have been only a concept (regardless of whether such a concept had roots in a historical reality or not). Lots of false sayings certainly can be attributed to one if they were attributed to the other. Do you see what I mean?

        • Andrew Dowling

          That argument is like “for most President Washington was a mascot, since they never actually saw or heard him. Various sayings and stories were attributed to him that we know are likely false. Therefore, he was maybe mythological.”

          • ncovington89

            That’s silly. False attributions don’t mean the person to whom they are attributed didn’t exist, and I never said it did. What I said was that it was possible for a mythic figure to obtain a lot of false attributions just like a historical figure can. The historical existence of the person in question has to be decided on other grounds.

  • Stephen Goranson

    Another false attribution: M. Twain wrote that B. Disraeli said: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” But the saying is not only absent in Disraeli’s writings; it isn’t attested anywhere during his lifetime. And it apparently (based on early testimony, e.g. Robert Giffen 1892) was a variation on another recent (1885) saying about three types of unreliable court witnesses, also attested only after Disraeli’s death (1881). Charles Wentworth Dilke (jr.) may be the originator (cited in several 1891 newspapers).
    A good site for selected attribution studies:

  • Stephen Goranson

    Another good resource for selected English attributions and antedatings is the American Dialect Society list, searchable at
    Archives at