Friday, October 04, 2013

Jimmy Carter, Jesus and "the Matthew effect"

I have discussed the Matthew effect here before whereby a a piece of research, an idea, a quotation, a story gets associated with a more famous, more prominent person.  There's a famous example of it in our field, the misattribution of a saying to Schweitzer (about looking into the well and seeing our own reflection) that was actually said by George Tyrrell.

There was another example of it circulating on the internet not long ago, where a saying was misattributed to the Dalai Lama.  Today I saw another great example of the Matthew effect in a quotation attributed to Jimmy Carter (right).  The quotation is actually extracted from an interview with John Fugelsang.  Here is the quotation in context:
Who would Jesus vote for in this election? 
I don’t know. I don’t think he would vote for either of the two major party candidates. I think Jesus would be third party all the way, if he did vote. I bring up the fact that Jesus never lived in a democracy quite a bit, because when you hear people say, “Jesus said to help the poor, but he didn’t say the government should do it!” I always respond, “Yes, but Jesus didn’t have democracy.” If you want your tax dollars to help people over here instead of blowing them up over there, then vote that way. And if you don’t want your tax dollars to help the poor, to help the sick, to avoid violence, to take better care of those in prison, to help the needy, fine. Don’t vote that way. But don’t ever say you want a government based on Christian values, because you don’t.
I actually prefer the original quotation from Fugelsang in which one may hear an allusion to Matt. 25.31-46 (Sheep and the Goats).  Also, the term "government" makes better sense here than "country".  In order for the briefer, pseudo-Carter version to work, ". . . But don't ever say" has to be adjusted to "then stop saying", but otherwise the saying is clearly the same.

There's a nice analogy here for Christian origins scholarship in another way too.  It is sometimes said that simpler, briefer, terser sayings are likely to be more primitive than longer sayings, and this works as a common criterion in historical Jesus research, especially as it is practised by the Jesus Seminar and John Dominic Crossan.  However here, as also in early Christianity, the briefer, terser version can be later than and dependent on the earlier, more detailed version (see further Thomas and the Gospels, 145-50).

16 comments:

Ken Olson said...

You're distinguishing between the Carter of history and the Carter of faith.

.............. said...

Is the Matthew Effect similar to the O'Reilly Factor?

jamesdowden said...

The "Carter" version may be shorter and terser, but it also has the feature that it fits better into an internet meme without making the font size too small. Brevity and terseness become much greater virtues in this case than in the one of a first-century evangelist who has 18-20,000 words to play with.

Jeff Cate said...

Interesting example of the Matthew effect, Mark.

Another fascinating example of it I've seen quite often is how a quote regarding the environment is often attributed to Martin Luther. It's all over the internet and even in print (by professors). The quote is usually worded, "If the world was to end tomorrow, I would plant a tree today" or "If he [Luther] knew Jesus was coming again tomorrow..." or "If he were to die tomorrow...."

But the best I can tell, the quote originated from Stephen Girard, the wealthy early-19th century French-born banker who lived in Philadelphia. At least in the American Daily Advertiser (Feb 1, 1832), he made the following statement, "When Death comes for me he will find me busy, unless I am asleep in bed. If I thought I was going to die to-morrow I should plant a tree, nevertheless, to-day...."

And what's interesting is that not only is this quote not from Martin Luther, it's not really about the environment either. It' about industry and hard work. But on the internet and in print, it's attributed to Martin Luther about the environment.

Well, maybe I should go plant a tree anyway. :-)

Stephen Goranson said...

The tree comments may be influenced by a saying attributed (in Avot d'Rebbi Natan) to Yochanan ben Zakkai: "If you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone tells you, 'Come quickly, the Messiah is here,' first finish planting the tree and then go greet the Messiah."

Geoff Hudson said...

It is strange how the simple, basic sayings and ideas get trampled upon.

Steve Martin said...

I think that the quote about "planting a tree", so often attributed to Luther, is about trust (faith).

God can handle the big issues in the universe. I will do the things that I have been called to do. Be a "good" steward of His gifts.

Patrick said...

We do have biblical warrant for our role in "helping the poor".

It's based on 3 ideas.

1) Yahweh commanded individual Jews to help the poor, not His theocratic state.

2) Jesus simply repeated these ideas.
As God, He chooses leaders anyway and always has according to Daniel 4.

Certainly God chose ANE Israel's leaders. As God, Jesus certainly does vote.

3) Caesar is not Christ's agent beyond crime control, the NT in fact is somewhat a hostile dialectic between Christ and Caesar.

This is why Carter's views are flawed, IMO. Helping the poor is OUR role, not Caesar's. Caesar is often the enemy of Christ.

J said...

Jimmy Carter never said that.

Mark Goodacre said...

That was the point of my post, J!

Douglas Asbury said...

In terms of the Carter attribution of the Fugelsang quote, the quote is consistent with Carter's expressed attitudes and ideas, so it is easy to believe he said that. Regardless, no matter who said it, the statement stands on its own merits, or it doesn't. Those who like it will agree, even not knowing who said it; those who don't like it will reject the thought, regardless of the perceived authority of the speaker.

treehugger said...

I actually read that quote in a blog post Fugelsang wrote for the website current.com. The site is now defunct, so the original post is gone, but it shows up here, as the May 31, 2013 entry: http://timstriangletribune.wordpress.com/tag/john-fugelsang/

The quote is in the last paragraph, and the entire post is well worth a read.

V Anderson said...

Thank you for explaining this phenomenon, now rampant on the internet, of misattributing quotations.

It's always existed, but the pace of the misattributions is mind boggling.

I appreciate your thoughtful post. Thank you for giving us Goodacre's full quote.

Human beings have always had 30 second attention spans. Not helpful for our souls.

Again thank you for your research and writing.

V Anderson said...

Correction to my post to correct typo *Fugelsang's* quote.

Shayne O said...


"Forgive them father, for I have sinned" - Kurt Cobain

sacdtodvda said...

I think it was Abraham Lincoln who first observed that many quotations on the internet were often attributed to the wrong celebrity.