I have written regularly about avoiding bogus quotes on the internet, but there’s a related challenge: discovering the actual origins of phrases and quotes you’re researching. Especially when you’re dealing with material in the English language before the 1960s, you are likely to encounter intriguing-sounding quotes that may have much older sources. The most likely source is the Bible. In contemporary America, our Bible literacy has plummeted, even among many regular churchgoers. For those who don’t attend church or grow up in devout homes, the ignorance of the Bible can be near-total.
I was reminded of this problem recently when I read a scholarly article (identifying it is unnecessary to make my point) where the epigraph referred to Catholic converts potentially “reverting to the vomit.” The author discussed the quote at length, but she seemed unaware that this was referring to Proverbs 26:11. Instead of being a neologism that told us something interesting about the rhetoric and culture of early modern Catholicism, that phrase was widely known to Christians and Jews for millennia. Seemingly no one involved in the publication of this article picked up on the source of the reference.
This omission speaks to a lost world of biblical literacy that is not easy to recapture. Exacerbating the situation is that we no longer even have a standard English translation of the Bible, a role that the King James Version played from at least the mid-1600s to the mid-1900s.
Scholars must be more inquisitive about the source of quotes than the author above was, or else they can end up in embarrassing situations where a key quote is read out of context. The problem is, how do you know when to look into the origins of a quote? Obviously you can’t do it for every phrase, or you’d get bogged down in your research. Sometimes your source will flag the source (“as St. Paul said . . .”) but sometimes you just have to cultivate curiosity about where an interesting-sounding phrase came from.
To give just one example, in research for the biography I am writing on Thomas Jefferson, I came across a reference to him using the phrase “God of battles.” I wondered—does the King James use that phrase? It doesn’t, although “Lord of hosts” and similar phrases are not far off. Finding out if a quote like that is in the Bible is as simple as using Bible Gateway or another online version to search for it, but make sure you use the version they were using at the time.
To keep looking, you can employ databases such as Early English Books or Eighteenth Century Collections Online, but these require access to a research library. The most obvious free database to use is Google Books. Searching on “God of battles” in Google Books gives you many results, so you want to date limit it to before the date of your source (in this case, 1777).
That search still gives a fair number of hits, so you want to organize results by date. On the first page of the results you begin to get your answer—”God of battles” appears both in Shakespeare, and in English translations of Homer and Virgil. Jefferson probably wasn’t quoting one of these directly, but the phrase was well-known enough to be used—albeit somewhat infrequently—by writers in English for a century and more before Jefferson. Somehow he had come across this evocative title for God and probably internalized it. But it wasn’t original to him.
This lost world of biblical literacy (and classical Christian learning) was shared even by relatively skeptical Founding Fathers such as Jefferson and Franklin. We should remember that when we enter their rhetorical world, they are drawing on a bank of sources that are effectively lost to many of us, even to scholars of their time.
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