Nancy Pelosi has a favorite Bible verse: “To minister to the needs of God’s creation is an act of worship. To ignore those needs is to dishonor the God who made us.” Only, it doesn’t appear in the Bible.
She quoted it in a speech for presidents of Christian colleges last week and evidently has used it many times before. This isn’t the first time that Pelosi has received some pushback, with news outlets checking with biblical scholars to find the source of the quotation.
It seems that Pelosi has registered the critique, this time introducing the quotation by saying: “I can’t find it in the Bible, but I quote it all the time. I keep reading and reading the Bible—I know it’s there someplace.” But the people who know these things insist that it’s not there someplace.
The good news for Pelosi is that she’s in good company when it comes to misquoting the Bible. None other than Jesus Christ misquoted scripture.
There are numerous examples of misquotations of scripture from the Hebrew Bible in the Christian scriptures. For example, in a dramatic scene in the Gospel of John, Jesus cries out in the temple in Jerusalem, “If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37–38, RSV). This quotation occurs during the Jewish Festival of Booths, which involved rituals of water libations, making the statement particularly apt for its setting. The problem is that no verse from the Hebrew Bible or its ancient Greek translation, the Septuagint, is a clear match for the quotation.
It could be that John has Jesus quote a Psalm about God’s miraculous provision of water from a rock: “And he brought out water from a rock, and brought down waters like rivers” (Ps 77:16). Or he could be quoting from a prophet who predicted rivers of water flowing from the temple at the end of days: “And on that day, living water shall come out of Jerusalem” (Zechariah 14:8).
Other prophetic possibilities are Isaiah 43:20 or Ezekiel 47:1. Or he could be quoting from a Septuagint text not in the Hebrew Bible, the wisdom book Sirach: “As for me, I was like a canal from a river, like a water channel into a garden” (Sirach 24:30).
But none of these verses of what would have been scripture for Jesus is quite right, just as Pelosi’s scripture is not there someplace.
Another New Testament author, the letter-writing Paul, does it, too. In 1 Corinthians 14:21, for example, he writes, “In the law it is written, ‘By men of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.’” In this case, we have a better idea for the source of the quotation “in the law”: Isaiah 28:11–12.
But the problem is that he doesn’t get the words right. The Hebrew version says: “Nay, but by men of strange lips and with an alien tongue the Lord will speak to this people, to whom he has said, ‘This is rest; give rest to the weary; and this is repose’; yet they would not hear.” Maybe Paul, since he wrote in Greek, used the Greek Septuagint rather than the Hebrew. But the Greek seems even further away: “Because of contempt of lips, through a different tongue, they will speak to this people, ‘This is the rest for those who hunger, and this is the destruction.’ Yet they would not listen.”
Why do Paul and Jesus misquote the Bible? What “scripture” are they reciting? One possible answer is that they wrote in a time when the text of the Hebrew Bible and its translations were in flux. The wording of the Hebrew Bible was not standardized until the work of the Masoretes, a school of scribes, between the 7th and 10th centuries CE. One need only compare the manuscripts of biblical texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran to the standard text of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Masoretic Text, to see the variations of biblical texts in the first century. There is a legend that 72 translators produced the Greek Septuagint in Egypt in the third century BCE, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t multiple Greek versions floating around during John and Paul’s time in the first century CE.
Another possibility is that John and Paul may have been working from memory rather than a printed text in front of them. Ancient Mediterranean culture was a much more oral culture than we experience today. Books or scrolls were expensive luxuries, and people memorized scripture and prayers much more than we do.
Yet another possibility is that John and Paul did not shy away from shaping their quotations of scripture to fit their rhetorical situations. Paul was responding to a cosmopolitan Greek audience in Corinth about their activities of praying and prophesying in the church. God speaking “by the lips of foreigners” fits into this context. Similarly, John may have adapted several eschatological and wisdom traditions to fit Jesus’s Festival of Booths setting at a moment when tension was growing in the Gospel narrative.
Biblical scholars have questioned Pelosi’s quotation and said that to their knowledge it doesn’t exist. Some have suggested that it’s closest to Proverbs 14:31: “He who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is kind to the needy honors him.” There’s very little difference between her departure from this Proverbs verse and Paul’s quotation of Isaiah: the gist is there, but some parts are rearranged and some terms are added or substituted for others (God’s creation rather than the needy, the idea of worship).
Perhaps we shouldn’t let Pelosi slide on this. She probably shouldn’t continue to claim that her favorite Bible verse is from the Bible. After all, she doesn’t live in an oral culture but in a digital one, where texts can be easily confirmed and speeches can be readily fact-checked. But if Pelosi were to simply say that she was “paraphrasing” the Bible, would the objections be as vehement? And more importantly, would she be missing the spirit of it?