Commentaries 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.
The 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