The Bible in the News

A wolf, King James and ewe

Leonard J. Greenspoon

In his column The Bible in the News, Leonard J. Greenspoon looks at the various ways the Biblical expression “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” is used in today’s media.

Although wolves are sometimes portrayed favorably in the Bible (especially in the visions of Isaiah in chapters 11 and 65), overall they are not among the Biblical writers’ favorite animals—especially when compared to their typical prey, sheep. A colorful combination of these two creatures appears at Matthew 7:15, where the King James Version reads “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”
From this passage comes the expression “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” which usually describes someone who hides malevolent intent under a cloak or façade of kindness. Writers in the popular press employ this imagery in a seemingly infinite variety of contexts, but not always with the precise meaning applied to false prophecy by the author of the Gospel of Matthew.

When applied to cars—which is a surprisingly popular usage—the phrase has a more positive connotation (as reported in a feature titled “Take Off Like a Bat Out of Hall” from the Sydney Morning Herald): “The BMW M3 is best described as a car that fits that old saying: a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But only if good things can be said about the wolf!”

When it comes to human beings, numerous accounts attest to the murderous or larcenous intentions of the most mild-mannered of men (and, alas, also of women). One man, described by police as “charming and disarming,” managed to combine vices in a particularly insidious way: “Cunning Malcolm Webster cloaked himself in the guise of a cultured, old-fashioned gentleman whose innocent charms could melt the heart of any woman. But under this polished surface lurked a ruthless ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ who TWICE plotted the ultimate betrayal—the murder of his wife to feed his lust for money” (The Sun of England). As someone who fancies himself (somewhat) cultured and (something of) a gentleman, I want to assure readers of this column that there is nothing even remotely wolf-like lurking within my sheep’s clothing!

And, as is the case with cars, the wolf-sheep relationship within humans is not always that clear-cut. In the entertainment world it was used to describe Forest Whitaker, who memorably portrayed an African dictator in the movie The Last King of Scotland and “was at first thought ‘too sweet and introspective’ to play Idi Amin [of Uganda].” To be thought of as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” (the title of this feature in London’s Sunday Times) in this context can hardly be an entirely negative thing. Coming full circle, we should not fail to observe that sometimes the wolf in sheep’s clothing connects with actual animals, even wolves or sheep. Thus, when Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1997, there were a number of stories with lines like this: “Scientists in Scotland have unveiled what many see as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But what they really fear is a clone in human form” (this from Scotland on Sunday). Or, to return once more to the world of religion, The Jerusalem Post reported in a 1997 story titled, “Halachic Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” (and with the Latin highlight: Caveat Emptor): “Wearing clothing made of shatnez—fabric containing both wool and linen—is prohibited by Biblical law. What many consumers may not know is that there is no civil law preventing its import or sale in Israel.”

Let’s end this article with a dedication. The dedication relates to the fact that we are in the year 2011 commemorating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the first edition of the King James Version. Among the many achievements of its editors was the coining or borrowing of a number of English phrases that became popular because of their inclusion in this Bible translation. To the translators of the King James Version, and to their predecessors and successors who have enriched their respective languages—to all of them I dedicate this column with the sincere hope that I never wolf down my food, throw anyone to the wolves, or find myself with a wolf at the door.

Based on Leonard J. Greenspoon, The Bible in the News, “A Wolf, King James and Ewe,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2011.

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