Check Your Sources!

It is frustrating when one stumbles upon a good quote, only to discovering a dubious attribution. Nijay Gupta writes about his recent discovery—an apocryphal G. K. Chesterton quote. Gupta discovered the innocent ruse because, in his own words, “I try to be a respectable scholar.” Indeed, you would think that checking your sources would be a fundamental tenant in the life of all scholars.

You would be wrong.

In an article published in the most recent issue of the Bulletin for Biblical Research, “The Ethics of Inclusion: The גר and the אזרח in the Passover to Yhwh” (23.2 [2013]: 155-66), I conclude with a quote often attributed to Hermann Cohen, a 19th-century Jewish philosopher:

The alien was to be protected, not because he was a member of one’s family, clan, religious community, or people; but because he was a human being. In the alien, therefore, man discovered the idea of humanity.

Having seen this quote in numerous studies, including one Anchor Bible commentary, you would think the source of the quote would be easy to locate. Again, you would be wrong. I spent the better part of the day tracking this quote down at the library using both digital and print media. Eventually I was force to resort to two interlibrary loan requests before I confirmed to my own satisfaction its apocryphal origins. Trying to be a respectable scholar, I included this footnote:

To my knowledge, the first attribution of this quotation to Hermann Cohen was made by J. H. Hertz in The Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text, English Translation, and Commentary (London: Soncino, 1937) 313. The quotation does not appear in the original publication of the Exodus commentary; Exodus (Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text, English Translation, and Commentary; London: Oxford University Press, 1930) 259. Hertz generally references Cohen’s “Juedische Schriften” and “Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums” as works he consulted in preparation of the commentary. The quotation captures well Cohen’s sentiments from the latter work in the chapter entitled “The Discovery of Man as Fellowman,” though it does not contain the quotation itself; Religion of Reason Out of Sources of Judaism (trans. S. Kaplan; 2nd ed.; American Academy of Religion Text and Translation Series 7; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995) 113–43, particularly pp. 125–28. Unfortunately, Hertz is not more specific about the provenance of the quotation, and I am unable to verify its authenticity.

The moral of the story is simple. Check your sources!

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