Pelosi and Proverbs

Pelosi and Proverbs February 16, 2019

You have presumably heard that Nancy Pelosi has a favorite Bible verse:

“To minister to the needs of God’s creation is an act of worship. To ignore those needs is to dishonor the God who made us.”

And you are probably aware that that isn’t actually in the Bible. I resisted the temptation to write “You have heard it said…but I say unto you” since I don’t disagree with the sentiment. The question is whether it is in the Bible (and for some, the question is whether it matters either way).

But let’t proceed cautiously: maybe it kind of is in the Bible. Sort of. I am grateful to Stephen Deloney for pointing out an interesting possibility. The Good News Translation renders Proverbs 14:31 as follows:

“If you oppress poor people, you insult the God who made them; but kindness shown to the poor is an act of worship.”

Sarahbeth Caplin also noted this possibility, quoting a couple of sources that make a similar point:

“The Pelosi passage is not in the Bible,” Will Kynes, an associate professor of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Whitworth University, told me by email. The closest analog he could find was Proverbs 14:31, which switches the order of the two main ideas and focuses specifically on the poor: “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him.” Greg MaGee, an associate professor of biblical studies at Taylor University, independently suggested the same verse as the closest approximation of the sentiment in Pelosi’s version.

Could that be the source of the “Bible verse” Pelosi is so fond of quoting? Is it close enough that it counts as being “in the Bible”? How close does a paraphrase need to be in order to be “what the Bible says”? That’s what makes this question of broader interest than simply the question of whether Nancy Pelosi has been getting the Bible right or wrong. In general, most of us wouldn’t quote the Good News Translation (to say nothing of The Message) and say that that is “what the Bible says.” But as one article recently pointed out, paraphrasing biblical texts while “quoting” them is an ancient practice, something that Jesus, Paul, and other New Testament figures do.

In the meantime, I think everyone should probably feel free to keep quoting the words. But perhaps from now on we should simply attribute them to Nancy Pelosi rather than the Bible – unless she can remember precisely where she heard this paraphrase or statement and wants the attribution to go to them instead?

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  • Rev. Dr. Shannon Rogers, DDiv.

    One will never truly “know what the Bible says” until they
    stop reading it word for word, and insisting everyone else does the same. We
    need to understand, there is a “Central Meaning of Life” we are to acquire from
    all Sacred Text, including the Bible. It matters not that we quote the
    Scriptures, all that matters are we learn the lessons and live the lessons we learn.
    We teach others to do the same by the example we set for them to see. If one
    can paraphrase the lessons, they have gleaned from their Bible Studies, that
    would indicate they have found the meaning and are able to apply it to their life.
    Jesus would say that those who only quote the Scriptures are no more then the Pharisees
    and Scribes of his day. Today it is often said, even the atheist can quote the Scriptures,
    the difference is then between those who knows the words, and those who got the
    meanings enough to actually live them. Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s proverb is something
    we might want to apply to our own lives, perhaps then the world would be a
    better place. And besides, she is absolutely correct in here statement.

    • Ocelot Aardvark


  • modemjunkie

    We should note that Speaker Pelosi has apparently been using the phrase since 2002, IIRC, and has found no need to clarify even though people have been challenging it for a long time. It does capture the essence of the examples you give.

    • “It does capture the essence” of Proverbs 14:31. And of course that profound lament on behalf of the poor is the cry of every single one of the Prophets and Christ.

  • I am shocked by the willingness of a “Hebrew scholar” to try to cast Speaker Pelosi under his own slander. Did Will Kynes actually state “The Pelosi passage is not in the Bible.” He drags Whitworth University down with his mean-spirited and outrageous error.

    The Pelosi quote is as “direct” and correct a translation from ancient languages to modern as any true scholar can ever expect. Book of Proverbs is available to us from Ancient Hebrew-Aramaic-Greek and Septuagint versions. I accuse him of artfully crafting a deliberate lie to arouse the base of a false hot mess-iah.

    • Would you care to discuss the specific language used in the Hebrew as well as the earliest translations, to explain how you think it appropriate to arrive at a rendering like this?

      • “I do care”. And that is an example of three words that have three hundred meanings available to translators.

        In the first place, we all know that the Septuagint was used as a source for going on two millenia; we now have over a thousand “translations” drawn from this translated source.

        Secondly, it was produced by un-named Alexandrians in an Ancient Greek language. These People were polemically and culturally looking at words differently than Hebrew and Aramaic tribes.

        Thirdly, this “wisdom literature” of Proverbs is found throughout the Middle East region and can be dated back to Sumerian tablets.

        Fourthly, you ask about specific language in the Hebrew. Perhaps you are trying to be kind and civil — while liars and posers assault our citadels from the inside. Does Will Kynes speak Ancient Hebrew?

        Fifthly, it is rarely possible and almost never necessary to translate word-for-word between languages that are cladistically and grammatically in such different families. If Speaker Pelosi begins with a clause which is found following in some other iteration, that is NOT to say that the meaning taken as a whole is “not found”. It is right there, in “translation”.

        The naked declaration that Will Kynes spewed into the volatile stew of uneducated fanaticism is simply fuel. Millions have been carefully cultivated to get ugly at the sound of her name. Now they will claim that she misquotes the Scriptures.

        I cannot stand by and watch that continue to happen. I ask that the naked declaration be withdrawn and the correction made. Please distance yourself from an unsupported statement that infers that the Speaker of Our House has misquoted Scripture.

        • You made an assertion about the meaning of the text in the original language and in ancient translations. I merely asked that you provide the evidence and arguments that lead to your conclusion. How can you view that as at all inappropriate? And why is the suggestion that what Pelosi has offered is a loose paraphrase rather than a translation offensive to you if you do not know the relevant languages that would provide the only possoble basis for determining the matter one way or the other?

      • Ocelot Aardvark

        Rather let’s discuss meaning, context and essence of both Proverbs 14:31 and Speaker Pelosi’s quote. Both are exactly the same.

    • Ocelot Aardvark


    • Tony K

      Your comments are entertaining.

  • I deeply value the insights and courage of our blogger, James McGrath. These are difficult times, made more difficult. I like the way Speaker Pelosi put it — restoring morality to the actions of our leaders, and our worship to its Biblical basis.

  • Ocelot Aardvark

    The meaning and context of Proverbs 14:31 and Speaker Pelosi’s quote are exactly the same. Thank you for pointing that out.

  • Gary

    Simple proof that quoting scripture, or paraphrasing it, accomplishes nothing.
    Proverbs 14:1 “The wise woman builds her house, but the foolish tears it down with her own hands”.

    Pelosi might actually use her position to push through immigration reform, which everyone agrees is broken, instead of acting so self righteous in doing nothing but voting “no” on everything.

  • ReaderV

    Nancy Pelosi lives this message. That’s obvious and I hope she continues to champion this version of a exllecent Bible passage. She’s got it right.