Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Misquoting Jesus (yet again)

Tonight it was Bob McDonnell, in the Republican rebuttal to the State of the Union, who mangled Jesus' words, claiming that "the Scriptures say 'To whom much is given, much will be required.'"

The Scriptures don't say that, actually. In the KJV, the quote is ""For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required" (Luke 12:48). In the NIV, it's "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded." 

But it's a thoroughly bipartisan mistake: I noticed it first in 1997, when JFK Jr. rewrote the same quote in an appallingly written "editor's letter" in George magazine: His version was "To whom much is given, much is expected, right?" (I did an item on it for my Globe column, but it's now behind a paywall -- not worth linking.) 

In January 2007, after George Bush repeated the ungrammatical version in his SOTU, Mark Liberman took up the subject, and his two terrific posts at Language Log, here and here,  cover pretty much everything you might want to know. (The mangled quote was popular with generations of Kennedys, Mark reported, but he found an example in print as far back as 1848.)

Trimming and streamlining familiar quotations is standard procedure, of course. We collectively rewrite maxims, Bible verses, Shakespeare, and famous quotations all the time: "Gild the lily," "pride goeth before a fall," "blood, sweat, and tears." But usually the grammar remains intact. Not so in this case; apparently the ins and outs of the pronouns and prepositions are just too taxing for modern minds. 

4 comments:

Jed Waverly said...

The one that always stirs my coffee is "Money is the root of all evil." I Timothy 6:4-11 (paraphrased) says that "the LOVE of money is the root of all evil." I suspect it is easier to place the blame on money/riches than it is to blame one's self.

Kristen said...

I know a pastor who likes to say people will argue about what's in the Bible but they don't read it.

Still, I don't want to hold people too closely to account when they're paraphrasing off the cuff; I can't remember everything chapter and verse, either. But paraphrasing only works if you don't bungle the meaning in the process.

@ Jed: I agree.

dan said...

could one say that Jesus is a quote magnet, in the coinage of Fred Shapiro at Yale?

MelissaJane said...

Poor old Jesus. I imagine that after 2000+ years of being misquoted, he's used to it by now.