How to Spot a Falsely Attributed Quotation

I was looking for a Mother’s Day gift and I stumbled across a quotation on the website of a local massage therapist:

You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending. —C.S. Lewis

I’m a huge Lewis fan, and I immediately said to myself, C.S. Lewis never said that. I just knew.

First a techie lesson on how I confirmed my suspicion, then a few biblical and theological reflections on what it means to know a writer’s voice.

Searching for Lewis

I happen to have the C.S. Lewis collection in Logos along with lots of his books; I’ve also made a “collection” within Logos including all the Lewis titles I own. I searched for this sentence in that collection, using quotation marks so I would get the exact words. Nothing:

Then I searched without quotation marks; I got search hits for many of the words, but I didn’t find the quote:

I also searched for individual portions of the quote with and without quotation marks. Nothing, nothing, nothing:

The internet found nothing either. Apparently, however, Lewis has joined Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, and Abraham Lincoln as a popular source for misattributed quotes. (That’s an honor, I think, a sign of his stature as a prose stylist and epigrammatist.) One site features basically the same sentiments with different words and attributes them to Lewis, but Quote Investigator attributes the quotation to multiple possible authors—C. S. Lewis not included. It’s often easy enough to prove that a given writer said something; it’s generally hard to prove absolutely that he did not. But all of these signs point to no, Lewis didn’t say these words.

Lewis’ voice

But, really, I didn’t need much confirmation of something I already knew. I have spent countless hours reading and rereading Lewis: I know his voice, I know his theology. Lewis wasn’t prone to pablum in either department. I find it difficult to believe that many of his quotes, even lifted out of context, would appeal to the crowd interested in spreading bromide-laced self-help memes.

Isn’t this interesting: a guy who died 17 years before I was born has left patterns of ink on paper (turned later to pixels on screen) that have formed a definite image of their author in my mind, so definite that I had an immediate, emotional reaction to a misattributed quote. I know C.S. Lewis far better than I know my own grandfathers.

Knowing a person through writing

I can’t help wondering, Do I know the God of the Bible this well? I hope so. I hope that after the hours I’ve spent studying Scripture in my lifetime, I could see a saying like “Everything you need to accomplish your goals is already in you —God” on a massage therapist’s website and conclude immediately, God would never say that!

Knowing God’s voice

Let’s try you out: what’s your gut reaction to these real-life internet memes?

Someone who’s spent countless hours reading and reading God will know his voice, and know his selfology. That someone will have to say after reading these memes, God never said that!

God did say the middle one in a definite sense, of course. He just didn’t say it to any random person who happens upon the meme. He said it in a specific place to a specific people: at the edge of the Red Sea to a bunch of terrified ex-slaves. If they had shared this meme on Facebook, some of Pharaoh’s soldiers might have liked and shared it—and that would have been weird. The promise was not to us, even if it is for us in a more general way . Making it a meme is inviting, almost demanding, a misreading. And I’m saying you can know this—or at least sense it—before you can prove it, by knowing the “voice” of God in Scripture.

Knowing Paul’s voice

I also think you can come to know the voices of individual authors. I think it is admissible evidence in the did-Paul-write-Hebrews debate for someone to say, “It just doesn’t sound like Paul”—or, conversely, “Yes huh!” Me personally, I’m on the “Nuh-unh” side. The author of Hebrews just doesn’t seem to me to have the same cast of mind as Paul, although there are clear similarities. Paul is more passionate and personal, even in letters which appear to have been aimed at a general audience, like Ephesians. I also think that leaning on his apostleship is part of his voice, something he doesn’t do in Hebrews.

Knowing Jesus’ voice vs. Aslan’s

Final example. Ironically enough, though I hear much of Jesus in Aslan, I’ve always felt that Lewis’ fictional “supposal”—what would Christ be like if there were a world where animals could talk?—doesn’t quite capture Jesus’ voice. I love Narnia, don’t get me wrong. But I’ve always felt that Aslan was a little bit too tame, and in two respects:

1) At the end of each story you feel some satisfaction that you understand what Aslan does, even if in the middle of The Horse and His Boy his comings and goings are mysterious. I don’t think you always get that aha! moment with Jesus. He truly isn’t a tame Lion of Judah. My hope is pointed toward that eschatological aha! day when I will know as I am known.

2) Likewise, I can understand what Aslan says. I’m never left scratching my head thinking, “What did he mean by that?” or “Did he really just say that?” With Jesus, however, it’s “Give to whoever asks of you,” and it’s “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And I’m left thinking, “Wait, what? How could he possibly have meant that?!” Those aren’t just profoundly countercultural commands; they’re profoundly counter-human. And these are among his simpler sayings. As many have said, it’s not what I don’t understand in the Bible that bothers me; it’s what I do understand and find it hard to obey.

Conclusion

Theologians such as N.T. Wright and Kevin Vanhoozer have used the “drama” metaphor to shed light on the Christian life. We’re in the second-to-last act of a play for which the other acts are already written. Our job is to play our parts, extempore, in such a way as to show continuity with the other acts. We can’t do that if we don’t know them intimately.

The strength of the evangelical tradition is that, ideally, everybody in it is supposed to be gaining more and more familiarity with the voice of God—and of Jesus, and of Paul—through regular study of Scripture. If this kind of intuitive familiarity can be achieved with C.S. Lewis, it can be achieved with the God in whose image we are made. He’s made himself known; he wants to be known. That’s the point of the Bible.


Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a writer for Faithlife. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.

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Comments

  1. Mark,

    Thank you, this article is excellent and so needed. You application beyond a favourite author to the Author of Scripture was inspired.

    One thing I’m struggling to get my head around though: It strikes me that nearly all New Testament promises are given to a specific people in a specific time and place. For example, many (most? Nearly all?) the promises in John 13-16 are given by Jesus to the disciples. Romans 8:28; 1 Corinthians 15:58; 1 Peter 5:6-7, and many more were written in letters sent to specific Christians living in a specific time and place. Yet, many (most? nearly all?) would have no problem using 1 Corinthians 15:58 to encourage their volunteer team at church.

    So my question is this: in what way are these New Testament promises different to Exodus 14:14 that they allow us to make use of them out of context in a way that we can’t with Exodus 14:14?

    Love to hear your thoughts on this. Thanks again Mark.

    • That’s an excellent question. And my answer, fwiw, is that you are going to appeal back to some kind of interpretive framework to answer that question for you, so you might as well do so self-consciously—testing that framework all the time to see if it needs refinement or even overturning and replacement. A postponement-of-the-kingdom dispensationalist needs to ask himself continually if his view works with the Sermon on the Mount; but for now, at least, he needs to start with the assumption that it does. Someone with a covenant-theological framework needs to ask herself whether her understanding of the relationship between the church and Israel fits the passage she’s studying—after first trying to make it fit on purpose. I’m drawing this from a great essay by Moisés Silva that has been influential for me.

      My general sense is that the church has been right to see NT epistles as written pretty well directly to us, with minimal to no translation needed. Conversely, I feel nervous about the slippery slope we step on when we say that Paul’s words about X controversial subject were directed very narrowly at the Corinthians or Ephesians. Where does that stop? Where is the hermeneutical control?

      But I’d be unwise to say that such controls will work smoothly in all cases. See “Kiss, Holy” and “Headcoverings.” I think the Protestant tradition that has nurtured me has been pretty successful in helping me read the Bible “straight.” And I can say that reading straight is the heart-level desire Reformation Protestantism has helped form in me. I guess I’d also say that, on the face of it, some passages have more of the ring of general principle (1 Pet 5:6–7, like you mentioned), as if the NT writers were aware that their texts would be used in a community going on into the future.

      I’m willing to place my reading ultimately in God’s hands, asking him for grace to read rightly and for wisdom to know the difference between words that are written to me and words that are written for me. I hope this helps. I always assume clear thinking goes with clear writing, so I bet you have some good additional thoughts on this topic, too.

      • Thank you for your reply, Mark. There is a lot to think about here, especially after reading your linked post re: Silva. Your comments around the general-ness of the New Testament and what that might say about the author’s intentions in writing really got me thinking too.

        Certainly, if it were the case that Ephesians was written as a circular that Paul intended to be read by a collection on churches in Asia Minor (as some claim), then this would provide at least one explicit example of a general audience NT epistle. In addition, Colossians 4:16 seems to imply that Paul intended his letters to be read more widely than the simple among the primary recipients. Peter, also, appears to be familiar with Paul’s letters (2 Peter 3:15-16). Finally, by the time 1 Clement arrives on the scene, the author appears to be [very?] aware of what Paul wrote in his letters to the Corinthians (if not others as well). Seems to me that these factors stack up in favour of theory on NT general audience-ness.

        What do you think?

  2. Gregorio Billikopf says:

    I like Liam’s question, as I believe we can “liken all scriptures unto us.” But that is not why I am writing, Mark. I wanted to thank you. I was thrilled by your article. Indeed, we must recognize the Word, and the writer’s voices within. And look for confirmation when we come across matters that just do not seem to match. Thanks!

  3. Tom Hanson says:

    I would add one technical aspect about having “complete works” of an author like Lewis, who is still quite contemporary. Most professional authors have two (or more) noticeable voices, one for publication and another for letters. If you have “the complete works” of a favorite author who is still alive you will have his published works. But, using Lewis’s case as an example, you would not have his letters. Most authors die before somebody decides to publish them, which means seeking out recipients, and that takes a lot of time and effort. Lord Byron’s letters were collected in two large volumes in the 19th century. Leslie Marchand edited his own scholarly edition of Byron’s letters into more than 10 volumes in the last half of the twentieth century. That sort of thing usually happens when the recipients die and their heirs find the letters they saved.
    Lewis’s letters were published posthumously in 3 volumes. I think that happened in the 1990’s. (The 1st volume took him up through WW I. I moved to Thailand and haven’t read the rest yet, hoping for an e-book.) There is no rest for people who resent false quotations.

    • Brilliant. I love that last line.

      I’ve dipped into Lewis’ letters. Yeah, he’s perhaps a bit more chatty in them than in his other writing. But I *think* I have incorporated his letter-writing voice into the overall picture I have of Lewis’ voice.

      Thanks for reading. Great comment.

    • Gregorio Billikopf says:

      “There is no rest for people who resent false quotations.” Nice!

  4. Barbara Wadel says:

    Thank you Mark, very well written. I do not only agree, but have taken some knowledge and understanding from it. So many “sayings” and a lot of them from the person saying them not our well known writers or the Word of God. There are many contributed to Benjamin Franklin, and many of our leaders that weren’t theirs at all. We truly do need to know the voice of our Lord the most.

  5. Sometimes finding quotes within the Logos system can be tricky, because of the translation of a foreign author that is used by the primary author. Just yesterday I was reading Michael Horton, A Pilgrim Theology, where he quotes Bonhoeffer. I own the Bonhoeffer collection, and when I click the footnote link it takes me to a Bonhoeffer source. Unfortunately, Horton must be using an entirely different Bonhoeffer source than the Logos edition, and the resource doesn’t seem to be anything like the quote.

    Searching for parts of the quote turns up nothing in the Bonhoeffer resource. I haven’t done the internet version yet.

    • Yeah, I’ve run into the same problem. There’s not much we can do there if the user doesn’t have (or we don’t carry) the same translation. I find this happens with the fathers—of course, it can happen with any translated text.