The Shocking News of Peter O’Brien and Plagiarism: August is the Cruellest Month

urlCommentaries for some time have become (rarely otherwise) little more than compendia of other people’s knowledge. With so many commentaries being produced in endless series, and with there being very little to distinguish most of them, there are only so many new things to be said and only so many new ways to say them in any commentary. In fact, I believe that the acceptable convention of commentary writing today is essentially to repeat what others have said before you, even if you massage their words in various ways. Therefore, I find it hard to fathom that there is so much self-righteous indignation over Peter O’Brien’s supposed plagiarism in several commentaries. I think that O’Brien, if he did plagiarize (and I wish to question this), may well have simply been following the convention of current commentary writing—an inevitability that has become an accepted norm. From my experience of reading commentaries, I suspect that many commentary writers would not like anyone looking too closely at how they have written theirs, simply because the use of other commentators is exactly what writing a commentary (unfortunately) has become.

I find it interesting that the notion of plagiarism has developed into what it has become. If the New Testament authors cite or closely paraphrase Old Testament writers but without attribution, we consider this a meaningful citation or allusion and engage in all sorts of exegetical gymnastics (and write endless books) to ascertain their meanings and motives—but we do not accuse them of plagiarism. Why? Because that is the convention of the ancient writers (as I believe the convention is for contemporary commentary writers). This is also true of more recent authors. If Shakespeare uses Holinshed’s Chronicles or earlier versions of the story of Hamlet, we don’t call Shakespeare a plagiarist, we instead call him the most brilliant writer of the English language who ever lived. If a contemporary author invokes an earlier author, such as Shakespeare or any number of others, we may spend hours determining the nature of the invocation or its purpose—but again we don’t call it plagiarism, we call it literary allusion and commend the learnedness of the author (as in the allusion to T.S. Eliot above).

A more important question for me is why it is that we have got to this position in commentary writing where the use of others’ material is not the exception but the accepted and virtually required norm. There are at least four reasons, it seems to me. The first is that publishers are—sad as this is to say—heavily dependent upon the sale of commentaries. They have given up on monographs and other important work and have found a way to keep the cash flowing by publishing not just individual commentaries but commentaries in series. They figure that if they can convince you to buy one you will be convinced to buy others, perhaps even the entire series. The steady demand for more and more new commentaries and series puts publishers at the forefront of the problem.

The second reason is that there are really only two types of commentaries on the market. The first is the supposed grammatical or historical-critical exegetical commentary. The vast majority of commentaries claim to be these—even though of course there is very little and often virtually no new exegesis provided in such commentaries and very little to distinguish one series from the other. The second type is the practical or applied commentary—whose existence itself ought to be questioned. In other words, there are simply too few types of commentary and so there is inevitable use and re-use of the same material and only so many new ways to say it. Publishers are simply too afraid to try something new for fear that it won’t sell as well as their established series. I know, because they have told me so.

T51JiWf+1VPL._UY250_he third reason is that, unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer scholars really competent to comment upon the text but ever-increasing demands to write new commentaries to fulfill the demands of publishers. There are plenty of scholars willing to unload their theologies and other agendas on each and every biblical text, but few that I have found who are equipped to wrestle in new and distinct ways with its very language. As a result, it is not only easier but has become the norm to use the previous work of others.

The fourth and final reason is that we have perverted the scholarly processes so that readers and book buyers, including scholars but also students and even lay people, have come to believe that the pinnacle of scholarship is the commentary. What began as a helpful guide to offer insight into the intricate workings of the text so that serious scholarship could then be done as a result has come to be viewed as the final word in scholarship itself, a compendium of the accumulated knowledge of the ages and especially of other commentators.

So, before you send your O’Brien commentaries back to Eerdmans for a refund (I am keeping mine and will be using them as I always have), I suggest that you contemplate the fact that you may end up wanting to send all of your commentaries back to their respective publishers, or at least let them know that you are tired of what commentary writing has become. I know that I am.

— Stanley E. Porter

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18 thoughts on “The Shocking News of Peter O’Brien and Plagiarism: August is the Cruellest Month

  1. In Jesus’ day, they called what was written in the commentaries the “traditions of the elders.” Jesus railed against these traditions because in the minds of the rabbinic leadership the commentary became more important than the Word of God itself. To understand what the our Lord, the Master Communicator, is saying in the Scriptures we are told to become like little children. To understand the commentaries, we must earn PhD’s in theology, church history, linguistics, social anthropology and literary criticism. And then, spend a life time reading the newest, the latest and the most profound authors who carefully wordcraft their commentaries so that it doesn’t sound like anything anyone else has written for the last 2000 years. I have deep regard for Bible scholarship, but the article’s author is spot on with his criticism of the commentary industry.

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  2. Great post. We must be cautious in judging this. It is easy to unconsciously write or say something that has already been written. Almost every has already been written, especially, as you mention, in Christian literature. It is not difficult to overlap with others’ thoughs without any intention of plagiarize their works. Thanks for sharing

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  3. Stan,
    Amen! The sameness of commentaries has been a reality for quite awhile. Certainly, on occasion, a commentator ventures against the grain, even then he includes all the standard alternatives.

    I, for one, stopped relying on them along ago. I would much rather read an article or book that takes into account what others have said and then gives the reasons why the author believes the text takes us elsewhere, whether this is historically, lexical, or linquistically based.

    Tim

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  4. I guess my question is still this. When does it become the scholar’s responsibility to make sure they make every effort not to plagiarize? I mean I don’t get that Stan is blaming all of this on the hazards of commentary writing (at least, I hope not). But (1) O’Brien is not some babe in the woods, and he is well aware of what constitutes plagiarism. (2) The ethical issues surrounding plagiarism are serious, and are not diminished by the state of commentary writing. (3) There are entire sentences and paragraphs lifted verbatim in his Hebrews commentary from people like Craig Koester, William Lane, Harold Attridge, FF Bruce and numerous others. I would argue that this is not at all akin to the NT authors citing OT passages without attribution (they did, after all, expect people to know where the citations were coming from since it was their authoritative text). Rather, this is a scholar who is passing off the words of others as his own. It’s academic theft, plain and simple, regardless of whether it was the result of haphazard research practices or not. (4) While I agree with Stan that commentary writing is in a problematic state, you don’t see other scholars having their commentaries pulled like this, because other scholars *aren’t* engaging in the kind of practices O’Brien was engaged in. This is only highlighted by the fact that Eerdmans has taken the extraordinary steps they have taken. They believe this to be such an egregious breach of academic ethics that they are willing to sacrifice revenues on two fronts: by pulling commentaries that actually sell and refusing to reprint them for further sales, and by issuing credits to patrons who have bought those commentaries. In fact, I think we should applaud Eerdmans for putting integrity before profits.

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  5. All that said, I do think Stan is on to something really important here concerning the sad state of commentary writing. Instead of advancing scholarship, it seems we’ve returned to the age of scholasticism.

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  6. Is there some place where I can get more information on the plagiarism itself? I agree with Phil that authors should avoid plagiarism, yet I agree with Stan that it is hard to plow new ground. Knowing the nature of the actual plagiarism itself (in my case, in his Philippians commentary) would help me decide where on the spectrum I judge his behavior to be.
    Additionally, my **main** concern is with the truthfulness of the content of the commentary I am using. I am reading the commentary to help me understand the Scriptures better. I want to support academic integrity, but since I already have the book, my chief concern is whether I can still trust what I am reading (and it appears I can, but I want to confirm this).

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  7. Pingback: Plagiarism Hunters | hipandthigh

  8. Stan’s point is *not* that it’s hard to plow new ground. The issue is that conventions of commentary writing these days is to simply rehash the same old stuff–unfortunately. Commentators, and really biblical scholars, *should* and *can* plow new ground, but don’t, and that probably contributes, even a little if not a lot, to plagiarism… That’s Stan’s lament.

    — Dave

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  9. Dave,

    Do you really think that there is much new ground out there that hasn’t been covered? I mean, coming from a conservative viewpoint, we’re dealing with a fixed canon that has been discussed for 1900 years. How would a commentary writer do it differently than, say, O’Brien did it in his Philippians commentary? In my opinion, he deals faithfully with the combined voice of biblical scholarship that has gone before him, then (mostly) takes his stand, giving his understanding of the passages.
    My point is this: research in other disciplines (computer hardware and software, biology, medicine, etc.) can and should be breaking new ground all the time. Invention in those areas is a good thing as we seek to explore and discover more about God’s created universe. Biblical studies, on the other hand, seems to me to be exactly opposite to this. While I in no way wish to support the idea that we know all we need to know or can know about God, I find the idea of “new ground” unsettling. Maybe that’s just the regulative principle coming out in me, but at some point, aren’t we to be about the task of defending the faith once for all delivered to the saints?
    Could you give me an example of “new ground plowing” so I could understand your point better? Without that, I don’t think I’m giving your idea a fair shake, as a lot of novelty in the church seems to be for its own sake, which bothers me. What unplowed fields do you see out there?

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  10. Michael,

    I appreciate your comment. My answer is yes, by the nature of what “new ground” means. Sure, I understand that biblical studies works with a finite corpus, and if a specialist in OT or NT, even a smaller corpus. But that doesn’t really mean there is no room for new ground. Believe it or not, you still have Shakespearean scholars who continue to bring fresh, new perspectives on ONE author, a finite corpus of material. We, as a human race, have certainly not mastered all of the Bible (500 years ago, things were so much different!), so that we have all the answers to all of the questions.

    One example of this is Stan Porter’s Romans commentary. He first wrote it by consulting the Greek New Testament–that’s it. Nothing else except the Greek NT and his pen (or computer). Then references were added later on, but as you see, it’s a commentary like no other, especially in its use of linguistic and grammatical rigor. The three of us bloggers here are attempting to tread new ground in a sense by using tools to understand the Greek language better, to test and see if previous interpretations are legitimate, and to maybe question some long-held beliefs that may or may not be true. Sure, major doctrines are there, such as the Trinity. But perhaps there are some passages that we’ve neglected that support, or maybe does not support, the doctrine of the Trinity. And there are still so many questions, or old questions that need to be asked again, like did speak Jesus Greek or Aramaic or both, or what (this is Hughson’s dissertation)? If you say who cares, I’d question your interest in Jesus, because if I loved and cared for someone I’d want to know everything–and I mean everything–about them.

    For myself, I’m working on a discourse analysis of Galatians. I don’t believe register analysis (a type of discourse analysis) has ever been used to analyze a book of the Bible. New ground doesn’t have to be something crazy–even in science, doctoral theses don’t have to be outrageously *new.* But something different, something that isn’t just a rehash. Maybe asking a new question, or asking an old question but using a new method for answering that question. Stan’s been advocating that for years now, and I’m with him on that.

    And in the end, I think being that interested in Scripture–without having the presumption that I know it all–really honors God and His Word. I think by doing that, I’m really treating God’s Word as if I’m actually fascinated by it, and admitting I cannot comprehend ALL of it.

    Thanks for asking that question.

    — Dave

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  15. I must confess that Eerdman’s response of pulping these commentaries is appalling to me. Why not produce an addendum with all of the missing citations? It is ludicrous to throw away what are in my opinion the some of the best commentaries on these New Testament letters.
    As far as the question of producing commentaries just to produce commentaries, I find Peter T. O’Brien’s commentaries to rise significantly above the rest of the pack. He has a wonderful way of getting to the heart of a passage. So… while it may be true in general that we need to staunch the flow of new commentaries, could we at least encourage the exceptionally good writers (like O’Brien) to continue?

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