Checking Our Facts

May 12th, 2011
Image © Fallenangel |

Last week millions of people responded to the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death by reaching for their laptops or phones. Facebook walls and Twitter feeds were inundated by reactions to a news story so big that it made people forget about the royal wedding.

While many celebrated the killing of the man who orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks, others who were uncomfortable with the idea of rejoicing in anyone’s death responded with this quote: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” —Martin Luther King, Jr”

For some people, the sentiment was a little too timely to have been spoken by someone who had died more than forty years ago. Internet sleuths soon revealed that the quote didn’t originate with MLK but with Facebook user Jessica Covey. Covey had written the following as her Facebook status:

I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. "Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that." MLK Jr.

She posted her thoughts on Bin Laden’s death then added a quote from one of King’s sermons. As Covey’s friends (and their friends, and so on) copied and re-posted the status, the two statements became a single quotation, credited to King. On Twitter, with its 140-character limit, many users passed along only the first sentence, still giving King the credit. Within hours, a fake quotation was one of the most popular things on the Internet.

This story is extraordinary because everything happened so fast. Jessica Covey wrote the sentence “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy” on May 2. By May 3, that sentence had been misattributed to a beloved historical figure, read and passed along by millions of people, and exposed as something that the beloved historical figure never said.

But misattributed quotations and incorrect information being passed off as fact are nothing new. Many of us have been guilty of crediting a pithy statement to the wrong person or of spreading falsehoods that we have long assumed to be true. Often, when we do, no harm is done. (Does it matter whether Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy”? Is the sentence any less poignant coming from a previously unknown Facebook user?) Still, for the sake of credibility and giving credit where credit is due, we should make an effort to get our facts straight.

With that in mind, here are some misconceptions and misattributions that I encounter frequently in my work:

  • We have no evidence that Francis of Assisi ever said, “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words. It’s a great quote, but according to this Christianity Today article by Mark Galli, “no biography written within the first 200 years of his death contains the saying.” Galli makes the case that such a saying would be odd coming from Francis, who “was known as much for his preaching as for his lifestyle.”
  • God did not change Saul’s name to “Paul” when Saul became a Christian. Many biblical heroes go through name changes after an encounter with God or a turning point in their lives. Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah; Jacob becomes Israel; Simon becomes Peter. But Saul doesn’t become Paul. When we first meet this persecutor-turned-minister-to-the-Gentiles in Acts 8, he is called Saul. Later, when he is sailing across the Mediterranean in Acts 13, he is called Paul. In between, he has a blinding experience of Christ on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus. But the apparent name change has nothing to do with this incident.In Acts 13:9, after Saul had traveled to Cyprus, Luke writes, “Saul, also known as Paul.” From that point on Luke uses “Paul” almost exclusively. Why? Because the Apostle was known as Saul in the Aramaic-speaking Jewish world and Paul in the Greek-speaking Roman world. “Saul,” the name of the first king of Israel, was a Jewish name. “Paul” was a Greco-Roman rendering of the Apostle’s family name. When we first meet Saul, he is a Pharisee working in Jerusalem. Hence the Jewish name. Not long after his conversion, Paul becomes a minister to Gentiles in Asia Minor and Greece. Thus the Greek name.
  • Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute. This myth has been around for centuries and has found its way onto Broadway and the silver screen. But it isn’t biblical. Luke introduces us to Mary in 8:2, describing her as a woman “from whom seven demons had been thrown out.” Immediately before Mary’s introduction, in Luke 7, a “sinful” woman “from the city” anoints Jesus. (A sinful woman from the city is not necessarily a prostitute, but that doesn’t stop people from jumping to conclusions.) In a similar anointing story from John 12:1-8, a woman named Mary does the anointing. Although the Mary in John is Mary of Bethany, not Mary Magdalene, Pope Gregory in the sixth century said that all three Scriptures referred to the same woman. And Mary Magdalene became known a prostitute, despite a complete lack of supporting evidence. The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s removed the prostitute label. Apparently, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Martin Scorsese didn’t get the memo.
  • John Wesley never said, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” This three-fold summary of how Christians should approach doctrine was the motto of The United Methodist Church’s 1996 General Conference and has long been an unofficial slogan for many within the UMC (particularly those who have to deal with controversial social issues). But Wesley never said or wrote these words. John Wesley also never spoke or wrote “Wesley’s Rule.” Many of Wesley’s spiritual descendants recite his rule as a benediction: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.” According to church history professor Richard P. Heitzenrater in a 2003 Circuit Rider article, “It sounds very Wesleyan, but it’s not to be found in Wesley.” Does it matter whether these sayings came from the founder of Methodism? Not really. Wesley’s Rule would be just as wise and relevant had it originated with an anonymous nineteenth century layperson. So there’s no reason to credit Wesley with things he never said.
  • Gehenna was not a garbage dump. I was guilty of passing along this falsehood as recently as last month. Gehenna literally means “valley of Hinnom” and refers to the valley of the son of Hinnom, an actual place outside of Jerusalem. Jews during the Second Temple period, including Jesus, used the word gehenna to talk about hell. Many modern books and commentaries say that Gehenna was a smoldering garbage dump. It seems appropriate. What’s more hellish than the heat and stench of burning waste? But no ancient sources say anything about Gehenna being a dump, smoldering or otherwise. The idea that Gehenna was the site where people in Jerusalem burned their garbage likely came from medieval Rabbi David Kimhi’s commentary on Psalm 27:13 (a verse that, oddly enough, doesn’t mention the valley of Hinnom or garbage or fire). Scripture certainly never refers to Gehenna as a valley of burning garbage, but it gives us another reason to associate this valley with hell. From Jeremiah 19:2-5:
"[G]o out to the valley of the son of Hinnom at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you. You shall say: Hear the word of the Lord, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt-offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind."

Sacrificing children as burnt offerings to idols? That should be hell enough for anyone.

These are the mistakes that I encounter most often. I harbor no ill will toward anyone who makes these errors. I know that I’ve been guilty of putting words in the mouth of John Wesley or Francis of Assisi, or suggesting that God gave Saul a new name after his blinding encounter of Christ. Still, it’s good to check our facts.

What misattributions and misconceptions have you come across?

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