Hunting the wild misquotation again: the perils for the author of not verifying your quotations

A week or so ago I saw on Twitter a quotation attributed to John Chrysostom, which read as follows:

Chrysostom liked to gloat that the apostles had gagged the tongues of the philosophers and stitched shut the mouths of the rhetoricians.

The author of the tweet was a certain Catherine Nixey, who is an arts journalist for the Times of London.  She has a book out claiming that the Christians deliberately destroyed almost all ancient literature, or some illiterate nonsense like that.

The tweet appeared in a thread which began here like this:

Patrick Walsh‏ @Walsh_e_Patrick Sep 7
Did Christians erase classical wisdom? Stunning advance copies of THE DARKENING AGE by Catherine Nixey just in – publication 21st September

I’m not sure who Patrick Walsh is, but he seems to post announcements of book launches.  Anyway this one met with criticism, and @catherinenixey joined in in response.  She then posted our tweet above.  (The link to her tweet is here; but there is now no purpose in clicking that link, as we shall see.)  I happened to see it; and responded.  Screen grabs are below!

As I always do, I wondered whether John Chrysostom did say this, and if so, in what context.  So I needed a source.  As I went along, I replied to Nixey, starting here:

Her response was to brush my results aside and demand I follow her so that she could talk to me by direct message.  She did this a couple of times.

And then… suddenly she deleted her account.  This I discovered when I logged in, intending to write to her.

Then I messaged George Morley, who seems to be her publisher, asking why her account had vanished.  I saw no reply.  So I can only infer that her publisher got windy about how things were going, and told her to stop tweeting fast.

Rather than peering at those screen grabs, let me lay out what I saw.

A google search quickly revealed her source.  This proved to be Dirk Rohmann’s Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity, De Gruyter (2016), Google Books preview page 207 (actually p.202 in the printed book):

Name-checking Pythagorean philosophy, John [Chrysostom] justifies the obliteration of ancient philosophies by the beginning of the Gospel of John, implying that the word (lógos) of God is absolute and unchallenged: “Has not all that with good cause perished and been utterly obliterated? – Indeed with good cause and according to the Word!”⁹ In his Demonstration against the Jews and Pagans John demonstrates Jesus’ divinity as a corollary of the success of Christianisation and the subsequent dissolution of the ancient traditions.¹⁰ This, he suggests, is because the apostles were given power over the demons. In John’s metaphorical words, the apostles have “gagged the tongues of the philosophers and stitched shut the mouths of the rhetoricians.”¹¹ This passage echoes a similar statement in an unpublished manuscript (attributed to John) which asserts that “the senate decrees have been overthrown, the philosophers and orators have been put to shame, and the Areopagus has been wiped out.”¹² This statement could be right because it is attested that in the last quarter of the fourth century large private mansions were constructed on the Areopagus hill, traditionally a place that housed archives.¹³

So there is not much question about where Nixey got her idea of Chrysostom gloating over the destruction of pagan literature.  Footnote 11 supplies the reference:

11. Chrys. Jud. et gent. 5.3 (PG 48:820): φιλοσόφων ἐπιστομίζειν γλῶσσαν, ῤητόρων ἀποῤῥάπτειν στόματα.

This is Chrysostom, Against the Jews and Pagans, a little known work.  Certainly these words say what Nixey said – they gagged the tongues of the philosophers, they stitched shut the mouths of the rhetoricians.

But that quote gives no context.  What we need is an English translation.  I learned from the bibliography at Fourth Century that one does exist, in Fathers of the Church 73, Chrysostom Apologist, p.210-11.  So here is, not just six words, but the whole of chapter 5.  It is not long.

Chapter 5
The Mission of the Apostles Foretold

(1) After these events, he would send forth his apostles, as Isaiah had foretold. “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, of those who bring glad tidings of good things,”‘ he said. Look what part of the body he praised. He lauded their feet, which took them everywhere they went. Furthermore, David showed the manner and source of their strength and success when he said: “The Lord shall give the word to them who preach the good tidings with great power.”

(2) It would not be by wielding weapons, nor by expenditure of money, nor by strength of body, nor by abundance of armies, nor by any other such means that the apostles would conquer the world. They would gain victory by a mere word, since that word had great power and was proved by signs and wonders. For they preached Christ crucified, they wrought miracles and. in this way, they conquered the world. It was on this account that David said: “The Lord shall give the word to them who preach the good tidings with great power,”‘ because this was his way of speaking of the miracles and wonders they worked.

(3) And it was the result of an ineffable power that the fisherman, the publican, and the tent maker, at their mere commands, raised the dead to life, drove out demons, drove off death, stopped the tongues of philosophers, stitched shut the mouths of rhetoricians, overcame kings and rulers, and were victorious over barbarians, pagans, and every nation.

(4) Indeed, David described the situation well in that way. For it was by that word which God gave them that they accomplished all those things they did. And it was with God’s great power that they brought the dead back to life, changed sinners into just men, restored sight to the blind, and drove out disease from the body and evil from the soul. And where did they get that power? That it came from the Holy Spirit is made quite clear from these words: “And they were filled with the Spirit,”’ and both men and women prophesied.

(5) Tongues seen in the form of fire settled on each one of them, as Joel had long before predicted when he said: “I shall pour out a portion of my spirit on all flesh, and your sons will prophesy and your daughters will see visions, and your young men will dream dreams before the coming of the great and illustrious day of the Lord.” [By “the great and illustrious day” he meant both the day of the Spirit and the day which would come at the consummation of the world.] This same prophet predicted salvation through faith—for he did not remain silent on this—when he said: “And it will be that whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved

Surely this is just a preacher, going through the events of Acts?  Nothing more.  How is this innocent retelling of the Acts, of the doings of Peter, Paul, and friends, a call for book-burning, fire and sword?  What sort of person would read this like that?

Anyway I posted the screen grab, and asked Catherine Nixey whether she felt that her “quote”, verbally accurate though it was, was a fair representation of what Chrysostom wrote.

Her response was to delete her account.  And that makes me feel rather guilty.  I hope that I did not do her harm.

One final thought.  In view of the attempt to erase the discussion, probably by the publisher, here is a screen grab demonstrating that the @catherinenixey account did indeed exist.  It’s not much; but I am unaccustomed to this kind of thing, so I did not capture her comments.

Does anyone know how to see deleted tweets?


18 thoughts on “Hunting the wild misquotation again: the perils for the author of not verifying your quotations

  1. That passage – “stopped the tongues of philosophers, stitched shut the mouths of rhetoricians, overcame kings and rulers” – reminds me of Isaiah 52:15, though there do not seem to be any detailed Septuagint verbal echoes, but it seems like an elaboration of the imagery (I can even imagine – though this may merely reflect my poverty of reading – that he might have had Marcus Aurelius in mind, among others, though Acts 25-26 seem apt for something in the background, too).

  2. Just to get the record straight: probably Contra Iudaeos … is not authentic, but a later concoction from various sources. The metaphor that humble people (fishermen) were capable of surpassing the (so-called) “external science” (i.e. pagan) with all their schooling is so frequent in patristic texts, that the passage in question is almost irrelevant.

  3. @SeverJVoicu: Thank you. It seemed terribly familiar to me too. I wasn’t aware that the Contra Iudaeos et Gentes was probably yet another pseudo-Chrysostom text, so that is interesting to know.

  4. Obviously, I can not reply on someone else’s behalf. I personally saw this blog post earlier but did not comment as I can’t see how this relates to my own work. Nevertheless, Nixey does nowhere say that Chrysostom’s quotation is “a call for book-burning, fire and sword” (your word in the above blog). Instead she writes “Chrysostom liked to gloat that…”.
    In footnote 10 (quotation from my book in the above), I have already provided a reference for the overall aim of John Chrysostom’s Demonstration against the Jews and Pagans:
    “[Jesus Christ] succeeded in winning over these men [pagans] to drag down their ancestral laws, to tear out their ancient customs, long and deeply rooted as they were, and to plant in their place other ways [Christianity], which led them from the easy-going life to His own program of austerity. And He succeed in doing this when the whole world was waging war against him” etc (chapter 1.8, translation according to Harkins, my additions in brackets).
    This describes the overall contents of this treatise: demonstrating the divinity of Christ because Christianity replaced the pagan world. Within this context, Chapter 5 (quoted in the above) is about demonstrating that the success of the apostles, for example, against the pagan philosophers and rhetoricians, was correctly foretold in the Old Testament (Isaiah and others).
    Book-burning is mentioned in John’s other treatise, Discourse on Babylas, against the Jews and the Pagans. A reference to this is obviously in my book (mentioned above, p. 40-45), but I have since published a more detailed analysis of these two interrelated texts (the Demonstration and the Discourse on Babylas, ): Das Martyrion des Babylas und die polemischen Schriften des Johannes Chrysostomos, Vigiliae Christianae 72 (2018), pp. 206-224, esp. p. 223 – and see p. 209 on the question of whether or not the Demonstration is an authentic work by John Chrysostom

  5. I don’t think that there is any doubt that the triumphant “Christianity” of the end of the fourth century took a very aggressive approach towards the newly illegal paganism. There is also little doubt that writing about the “atrocities” of a group unpopular with the authorities in order to demonise, marginalise, and incite hostility to them is a rather hateful business, whenever it is undertaken, whoever undertakes it.

  6. I do need to read your paper btw, if I ever get free of all the legal rubbish associated with death and settling an estate.

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