Thursday, October 13, 2011

That Dalai Lama Quotation, and the Historical Sceptic

Seen this on Facebook recently? It's been doing the rounds
"The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, answered, ‘Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.’"
It's a great quotation but according to the Damien Zone, it is a hoax,
"This quote, printed over a photograph of the Dalai Lama, is floating around on Facebook. It is inspiring millions of simple-minded Facebookers — but there’s a problem. HE NEVER SAID IT! There is no record of the Dalai Lama ever saying this and on his website there is no mention of it. Devout followers of the Dalai Lama say it is not true, but we live in the day where all one needs to do is put something up on Facebook and it becomes the law of the land — at least where idiots are concerned."
I am no expert on the Dalai Lama but the case presented by the Damien Zone sounds plausible, and certainly a good deal more plausible than the simple pasting of a quotation next to the picture of the Dalai Lama.

Now of course if the Dalai Lama did not say that, how might the analogy help us with historical Jesus research?  Or any research into great figures of the past?  Misattributions of quotations to Winston Churchill are famous and even in our own area, there is a great misattribution of a saying to Schweitzer (about looking into the well) that was actually said by George Tyrrell.

I must admit that the ease with which misattribution like this can happen within someone's lifetime, as well as not long after their death, reminds us of just how perilous it is to build a picture of the historical Jesus that crudely assumes historicity for sayings material, screening the Gospel sayings and parsing them down to the nth degree to find nuances in what he said.

Imagine the historical Dalai Lama scholar in two thousand years with this multiply attested saying that emerges during the great man's own life time.  What if the dissenting voices like the Damien Zone's get lost but the apparent witnesses to the saying remain?  Every now and then a helpful analogy comes along to remind us how precarious the task of historical Jesus research can be.

25 comments:

Stephen C. Carlson said...

In sociology, it's known as the Matthew effect.

TonyTheProf said...

I can see why people thought the Schweitzer quote was authentic. What he did say was very close:

"It was not only each epoch that found its reflection in Jesus; each
individual created Him in accordance with his own character. There is
no historical task which so reveals a man's true self as the writing of a
Life of Jesus."

James said...

What's the methodological lesson as to the sayings attributed to Jesus? There are three candidates.
First, Sanders': reject them all and attend instead to narrative events. A great loss.
Second, pick and choose by applying the best criteria one can contrive. The example of the Dalia Lama's saying suggests this method sustains excessive credulity.
Finally, there's Allison's way. If the saying is a part of a theme, a repeated motif (sorry rich guys, last shall be first, be forgiving, I set my face towards Jerusalem), then it's probably as well tested as may be hoped, and should be credited. Which implies that any particular saying, even the loveliest, still falls to Sanderian skepticism.

Tom Verenna said...

What about the misattribution of a quote to Lycurgus? Or Hercules?

Damien said...

I was pleased to learn that there is a name for what I have described twice in my blog this week.

Thank you to Stephen Carlson for his comment which revealed to me the existance of the Matthew Effect. Thanks also to NTBlogzone for giving my story a few more legs.

As silly as my blog can be, I often go on after serious issues - and this was one. It's usually when somebody or something annoys me enough that I will take the time to look deeper.

Damien
DDM@TheDamienZone.com

smijer said...

It occurs to me that if the spurious quote is eventually adopted by DL supporters as authentic, and Damien's deconstruction is preserved in the future, it will likely not be recognizable. Something like "The enemies did not acknowledge his words."

smijer said...

Meant to say "enemies of the Dalai Lama". We see passages that refer to the enemies of Jesus in the NT and fathers... My guess is that this included people in any way critical of the movement.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Stephen! Comments at http://ntweblog.blogspot.com/2011/10/matthew-effect.html

Mark Goodacre said...

I agree, Tony. These things stick because they are so plausible.

Mark Goodacre said...

James -- I have some sympathy with the way that you describe things. It should perhaps be added that Sanders does not reject all the sayings, though. In fact, he spends a lot of time on sayings like the divorce sayings in the Synoptics and Paul.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Damien. I really enjoyed your post. I mentioned it in class this morning too.

Mark Goodacre said...

Good thoughts, Smijer.

robert r. cargill said...

a similar thing happened to a MLK quote that went around back in may: http://robertcargill.com/2011/05/02/fake-martin-luther-king-jr-quote-demonstrates-how-we-got-the-apocrypha/

still one of my top 5 most visited blog posts. people LOVE a good quote when it is attributed to someone they want to admire.

and THAT is how you got the sayings of the biblical jesus.

thanx!

Mark Goodacre said...

Excellent! Thanks, Bob. Your post from as recently as May also illustrates something troubling about blogging -- our horribly short memories. Now I look at that (fine) post again, I think, "Ah yes! I remember reading that!" But it did not occur to me while writing this post. Mind you, it's also one of the great things about blogs that the stronger, more interesting posts like that will generate more comments and links and so guarantee longevity.

Richard Fellows said...

We seem to be missing an important point here. If we were to reconstruct the thought of the Dalai Lama from this quotation, we would not be doing too badly. Similarly the MLK quote does reflect his thought well, even if not all the words were his. These two mis-attributed quotations went viral only because they reflected the distinctive legacies of MLK and the Dalai Lama. Indeed, I suspect you would need to live with these two individuals for days or weeks before you heard words that summed up their distinctive thought better than these mis-quotations.

Also, let's not extrapolate too much from a few cases of mis-quotation. What about all the accurately attributed quotations that are out there?

James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for sharing this Mark! I posted a reflection on this and your follow up post, linking to them both.

Mandy said...

I'm a big fan of the Dalai Lama and something about this quote just strike me as OFF. Thanks for clearing up my gut feeling that it's a hoax.

beowulf2k8 said...

"The Dalai Lama, when asked..."

There've been lots of Dalai Lamas...it will be hard to prove none of them ever said it. Just like there are lots of Pauls and it will be hard to prove none of them ever wrote some interpolation in Romans.

Unknown said...

Stephen C. Carlson, could you clarify why you are calling this the Matthew effect? A google search says that has more to do with "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer."

Mark Goodacre said...

Have a look at my related post at http://ntweblog.blogspot.com/2011/10/matthew-effect.html

Kunga Dorjee said...

being a follower of H.H. The Dalai Lama, i have always heard him saying the same thing in every major Speeches. He has always taught us not to run after money like a fool, he has always told us to fear death and be wise and compassionate.
i have always heard him saying those lines, but in Tibetan.
Now its the art of those writers to present his speeches to whatever PHEW or Beau.

Robert M. Soran said...

James J. Blanchard created the original, later "adapted" statement in a short story never published.
http://centerforgloballeadership.wordpress.com/2012/06/30/an-interview-with-god-i-stand-corrected/

Mark Goodacre said...

Many thanks, Robert. That's fascinating. I should update this post with a link to your post.

w balderson said...

There is a phrase that is about in the outlaw bike community " everyone dies only a few live" much more simplified version of the above quote.

ROO BOOKAROO said...

It is certainly revealing to witness how a fake quotation can be so easily invented and attributed to a well-known personality such as the Dalai Lama in our age of powerful means of archiving and distributing documents, and checking on authenticity of attributions.

Which of course, inspires us to believe that such inventions and attributions of sayings must have been infinitely easier to fabricate in Antiquity when archiving was rudimentary, the distribution of original documents ridiculously limited, and means of fact checking by any curious scholar non-existant.

This example tends to support the hypothesis of many historians that the quotations ascribed to Jesus in the four Gospels (and the many non-canonical gospels too) could easily have been spurious attributions to a speaker named Jesus who may never have pronounced the words, but is used as an anchor for assembling a suite of pithy sayings that are striking and interesting.

And once such doubts have been launched (David Strauss), a natural expansion of such skepticism may have spontaneously led to the radical thesis that the speaker named Jesus may too have been a literary invention to provide a support for a collection of interesting sayings assembled by writers (Bruno Bauer, Edwin Johnson), as Albert Schweitzer shows in Ch. XI of his "Quest" (1906/13).

In exactly the same manner that all the sayings collected in Proverbs have been attributed to the figure of Wisdom (Sophia), who reappears in many books of the Hebrew Testament as the anchor for similar wisdom sayings.