Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 15, 2011

Most people you meet who are nice are genuinely nice.  But every once in a while you meet someone who’s described as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  In other words, they seem nice and charming but looks can be deceiving …. the person is actually very dangerous.

On July 6, 2009 the Bismark Tribune newspaper ran a Letter to the Editor sent in by Ralph Muecke Gladstone.  His opening comments were:

As you should know by now, the U.S. House passed HR 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009.  Better known as the cap and trade bill.  This disastrous and dangerous bill is truly a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  It supposedly addresses the problem of man-made global warming, which is one of the biggest hoaxes ever conceived.

In Chapter 17 entitled, “The Deadly Peril of Jane Clayton” in Edgar Rice Burrough’s book “Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar” published in 1918, the following passage is found:

Shouldering his way through the crowd he approached the doorway, and had almost reached it when one of the Arabs laid a hand upon his shoulder, crying: “Who is this?” at the same time snatching back the hood from the ape-man’s face.

Tarzan of the Apes in all his savage life had never been accustomed to pause in argument with an antagonist. The primitive instinct of self-preservation acknowledges many arts and wiles; but argument is not one of them, nor did he now waste precious time in an attempt to convince the raiders that he was not a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Instead he had his unmasker by the throat ere the man’s words had scarce quitted his lips, and hurling him from side to side brushed away those who would have swarmed upon him.

Center Church in New Haven, Connecticut was founded in 1639 by English Puritans led by Reverend John Davenport, leading the church from April 25, 1638 when it was founded, up until 1668.  Their church was seen as a culture-shaping force as their communities were known as “Bible Commonwealths.”  Records show that revivalist James Davenport, grandson of the founding paster of the Church, accused the Church’s fourth pastor, Reverend Joseph Noyes (pastor from 1716 through to 1758) of being:

… a hypocrite, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a devil incarnate …

Italian poet, Giovanni Maria Verdizotti (1525 – 1600) published his book of fables entitled “Cento favole maroli” in 1570.  One of the stories included was one about a wolf dressed as a shepherd who, upon trying to call the sheep to him, wakes the real shepherd and his dogs who, of course, catch the wolf as he tries to run away now that he has been discovered as being fake as well as dangerous.

The proverb appears in the book “Hecatomythium” by Italian professor, writer and librarian, Laurentius Abstemius (1431 – 1503) and published in 1495.  It should be noted that Laurentius Abstemius was also known by the name of Lorenzo Bevilaqua.  This book is a collection of 100 fables written in Latin, many of which were translated from Greek.  The story of a wolf in sheep’s clothing published in this book is the version that credits Aesop as the author.  The story about the wolf begins with:

A wolf, dressed in a sheep’s skin, blended himself in with the flock of sheep and every day killed one of the sheep.

A second book by Abstemius contained an additional 97 fables and was entitled, “Hecatomythium Secundum” published in 1499. 

Some attribute the saying to Aesop’s “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” fable however there is no record of this fable attributed to Aesop as being written by Aesop prior to the 12th century, casting doubt as to whether it is, indeed, a true Aesop’s fable.  There is, however, a similar story attributed to Greek rhetorician Nikephoros Basilakis in his work “Progymnasmata.”

However, in the end, the spirit of the expression in its original form is found in the Bible in Matthew 7, verses 14 and 15.

Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

It was such a well-used and referenced comment that a Latin proverb came into vogue after Jesus’ time, pelle sub agnina latitat mens saepe lupina (under a sheep’s skin often hides a wolfish mind).

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