Saturday, July 23, 2011

Quote mining

Quote mining or the fallacy of quoting out of context, occurs when an author selectively quotes a passage, in such a way that he distorts its original meaning to create an authority favourable to his argument.

Quote mining might result in a number of fallacies: straw man arguments, because they can misrepresent an argument the author is opposed to; appeals to authority, because they give the false impression that a secondary source agrees with the author when he may not; or fallacies of accent, since the incorrect emphasis of parts of the passage change its meaning from the intended one.


Back in 2001, on the Bible Versions Discussion Board, Brent Riggs, aka "Mitex," posted the following quotation from C. I. Scofield, the editor of the famed reference Bible:

After mature reflection it was determined to use the Authorized Version. None of the many Revisions [RV, ASV, Darby, Webster, Young's, etc.] have commended themselves to the people at large. The Revised Version, which has now been before the public for twenty-seven years, give no indication of becoming in any general sense the people's Bible of the English speaking world. C.I. Scofield, The Holy Bible, The 1917 Scofield Reference Edition, Preface.

(Source, emphasis in original)

At the time of writing, I was home for Christmas, and my grandfather's 1917 edition of the Scofield Bible was in my parents' library. Turning to the preface, I read:

After mature reflection it was determined to use the Authorized Version. None of the many Revisions have commended themselves to the people at large. The Revised Version, which has now been before the public for twenty-seven years, gives no indication of becoming in any general sense the people's Bible of the English-speaking world. The discovery of the Sinaitic MS. and the labours in the field of textual criticism of such scholars as Griesbach, Lachmann, Tischendorf, Tregelles, Winer, Alford, and Westcott and Hort, have cleared the Greek textus receptus of minor inaccuracies, while confirming in a remarkable degree the general accuracy of the Authorized Version of the text. Such emendations of the text as scholarship demands have been placed in the margins of this edition, which therefore combines the dignity, the high religious value, the tender associations of the past, the literary beauty and remarkable general accuracy of the Authorized Version, with the results of the best textual scholarship.1

A little context makes a whole lot of difference. Mitex selectively quoted Scofield's introduction in such a way that he suggests Scofield was an advocate of the KJV; he stops short of quoting the next sentence, in which Scofield commends the practice of textual criticism, including the work of favourite KJV-only bogeymen Westcott and Hort! In context, Scofield is saying merely that the KJV is his best choice because of its overwhelming popularity, which newer versions of the time had never matched. Unless Mitex was quoting secondary sources without checking his facts, he couldn't have missed the significance of these words, and must have realized that Scofield is not saying is not what he was suggesting.

Here is a print example, from Sam Gipp's Gipp's Understandable History of the Bible, in a section titled "Westcott's Mariolatry":

Another Roman Catholic doctrine is the adoration of Mary. Here also Dr. Westcott did not let the Roman Catholic Church down, as he reveals in a letter to his fiancee Sarah Louisa Whittard.

"After leaving the monastry, we shaped our course to a little oratory which we discovered on the summit of a neighboring hill . . . Fortunately we found the door open. It is very small, with one kneeling-place, and behind a screen was a 'Pieta' the size of life (i.e., a Virgin and dead Christ) . . . Had I been alone, I could have knelt there for hours."2

Westcott's own words, as presented by Gipp, certainly seem to suggest that Westcott was a devotee of the Virgin Mary. But is that really the case? Here is the entire letter as published in Westcott's Life and Letters. I have put Gipp's citation in boldface, and italicized a certain portion of it myself:


2nd Sunday after Epiphany, 1847.

My dearest Mary - As I fancy that we shall go out to-morrow, I will begin my note now without a longer preface. Yesterday we had a splendid walk to the monastery, going the same road as you went in summer; but now all the trees and hedges are covered with a delicate white frost, and the craggy rocks seemed gigantic in the mist, and all the country looked more lovely and wild and un-British than I have ever before seen it. We went into the chapel, but I cannot say that I was so much pleased with it as before, and the reason was that I did not hear the solemn chant of those unearthly voices which seem clearly to speak of watchings and fastings, and habits of endurance and self-control which would be invaluable if society could reap their fruits; as it was, the excessive finery and meanness of the ornaments seemed ill to suit the spiritual worship which we are told should mark the true church. After this we went round the cloisters and into the Refectory, but I felt less than ever to admire their selfish life. After leaving the monastery we shaped our course to a little oratory which we discovered on the summit of a neighbouring hill, and by a little scrambling we reached it. Fortunately, we found the door open. It is very small , with one kneeling-place; and behind a screen was a "Piéta" the size of life. The sculpture was painted, and such a group in such a place and at such a time was deeply impressive. I could not help thinking on the fallen grandeur of the Romish Church, or her zeal even in error, on her earnestness and self-devotion, which we might, with nobler views and a purer end, strive to imitate. Had I been alone I could have knelt there for hours. On leaving, we followed a path across beautiful rocks fringed by firs loaded with hoar-frost, and, passing by many a little deepening glen, came to the road, above which stood a large crucifix. I wish it had been a cross. I wish earnestly we had not suffered superstition to have brought that infamy on the emblem of our religion which persecution never could affix to it. But I am afraid the wish is vain.

I thought I had spoken to you of the fearful distress in Ireland (and in parts of Scotland too). I am sure you will feel as I do. I have very little money to spare, but if there is any collection I wish you would give five shillings for me, and I will pay you when I return; and let us not only think of the temporal wants of our unfortunate sister isle, but also of her spiritual degradation, which is, I am sure, closely connected with its present miseries. . . .3

Again, seeing Westcott's words in their original context makes all the difference. Whereas Gipp would have us believe that Westcott was secretly loyal to the Roman church and a devotee of the Virgin Mary, Westcott is actually strongly criticl of the "spiritual degradation" in the "Romish church," calling its traditions "superstition." Gipp suggests that Westcott knelt in front of the Piéta out of devotion to Mary, but Westcott himself says that he was driven to prayer by contemplating the errors of the Romanists. He further discusses the current "distress in Ireland" (the potato famine then under way) and links it to the "spiritual degredation" of the Irish Catholics. Are these the sentiments of a devoted Roman Catholic?

This raises a question: why has Gipp tried to make Westcott say practically the opposite of what he obviously meant? Unless Gipp was himself working from a secondary source that misquoted the letter, he cannot claim ignorance: he couldn't have read the letter without seeing the parts he omitted. Unfortunately, it looks like Gipp is being deliberately dishonest in an attempt to discredit Bishop Westcott, and thus also discredit modern Bible versions based on Westcott and Hort's Greek text.


Research is your friend. Go to the source, find a fuller quotation of the same material, and provide enough context to represent the original's point accurately.


1 C. I. Scofield, ed., The Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford UP, 1917) i-ii (emphasis added).

2 Samuel C. Gipp, Gipp's Understandable History of the Bible (Miamitown, OH: DayStar, 1987), (accessed July 21, 2011).

3Arthur Westcott, ed., Life and Letters of Brooke Foss Westcott, vol. 1 (New York: Macmillan, 1903) 80-81.

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