On Commentaries and Plagiarism

The work of writing a commentary on a New Testament text includes, almost by definition, the tasks of learning from and engaging with the insights of those who have done that work before you. Commentaries cite other commentaries. Sometimes they do so explicitly, and sometimes the connecting threads between one scholar’s work and that of a predecessor operates at the level of information, insight, and implicit influence (anxious or otherwise).

When we teach students how to make use of secondary literature in their own work there are some basic guidelines that ensure that the kind of borrowing described above doesn’t fall into the category of academic misconduct or, more directly, plagiarism. State things in your own words; don’t quote word for word from someone else without quotation marks and supporting reference; check references and sources referred to; and don’t think that just because you have changed one or two words in a sentence you have escaped the problem of potential plagiarism.

In news today, Eerdmans has notified the scholarly community that it is pulping and removing from its list all copies of three New Testament commentaries written by Peter O’Brien. It seems that O’Brien’s 2010 commentary on Hebrews was found to have significant problems in its use of sources and ‘runs afoul of commonly accepted standards with regard to the utilization and documentation of secondary sources’. The company, to its credit, also investigated O’Brien’s other commentaries: on Philippians (1991) and Ephesians (1999) and found these to be ‘less pervasively flawed but still untenable’. The full statement can be found here.

I have been using on a regular basis O’Brien’s work on Philippians since it was published, and hadn’t noticed anything untoward. But this morning, I thought I would run a very quick experiment to get a sense of the nature of the problem. I chose the commentary on the opening verses of Philippians 1:1–2 and read O’Brien’s comments. I then thought to myself ‘what commentary might an evangelical New Testament scholar make good use of in the course of his research and writing?’. The answer, of course, is F. F. Bruce’s 1983/1989 commentary in the New International Biblical Commentary series. The results are interesting.

Here is O’Brien on Paul’s use of the term doulos in the letter prescript.

In the LXX the term δοῦλος often referred to someone whom God used for a special ministry or through whom he spoke, such as Moses (Ne. 10:29), Joshua (Jos. 24:29), David (Ps. 89:20 [LXX 88:21]), and Jonah (2 Ki. [4 Kgdms.) 14:25, each of whom is called ‘a servant (δοῦλος) of the Lord’…But it is more likely that the readers would have understood the Greek term in its common sense of ‘slaves’. Although Paul did regard it as a high honour indeed to be a ‘slave of Christ’, he implied by his choice of the word δοῦλοι that both he and Timothy were totally at the disposal of their Master.

Peter T. O’Brien, Commentary on Philippians (NIGNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 45.

And here is Bruce (identical words are in bold, points where rewording seems to have occurred is in italics with the exception of abbreviations which have been changed to fit house style):

…the Greek word (doulos) is used in the LXX (the Greek version of the Old Testament) of someone whom God uses for a special ministry or through whom he speaks, like Moses (Neh. 10:29), Joshua (Josh. 24:29), David (Ps. 89:20 [LXX 88:21]), and Jonah (2 Ki. [4 Kingdoms) 14:25, each of whom is calledthe servant(Gk. doulos) of the LORD‘…The readers of Paul’s letters, however, would more readily have taken him to mean that he was a ‘slave’ of Christ in the humble sense that word normally had among them. No doubt Paul did esteem it a high honour to be the servant of Christ, but he implied by his choice of the word meaning ‘slave’ that he was totally at the disposal of their Master.

F. F. Bruce, Philippians (NIBC; Peabody: Hendrickson, 1989 [1983), 26.

Now, one example does not a plagiarism case make. O’ Brien does reference Bruce in a footnote alongside several other scholars and commentators as someone who supports the reading of δοῦλος as a term connoting humility. But there would be no way of knowing from this that Bruce was the specific source of actual wording. The Philippians commentary is, apparently, less problematic in this regard than the more recent commentary on Hebrews. Furthermore, O’Brien himself has given an unreserved apology. But the kind of relationship between his work and that of others implied by the small example above is clearly problematic and, if relatively consistent, would in my view fall into the category of academic misconduct if such were discovered in an essay or PhD thesis. The remaining issue will be what ought to happen to the various copies of these works that are still available to students in university and seminary libraries. The enduring reminder to all of us is to take the utmost care and show the utmost respect in our use of the work of others.

8 thoughts on “On Commentaries and Plagiarism”

  1. It is worth mentioning that the paragraph in question does have a footnote reference to Bruce’s commentary (note 7, p. 45), among others, where the, frankly commonplace, observations made here are also found. The slip-up was not to rephrase it more. The problem should be kept in perspective, which (in my opinion) Eerdmans have failed to do.

    1. Thanks John. I have added a sentence to make this clear. The issue here, as I suspect elsewhere throughout the commentaries in question, is the unacknowledged use of someone else’s wording, rather than idea/data/arguments per se.

  2. If this is deliberate plagiarism (which I very much doubt), then is Daniel Gurtner also guilty (which I likewise doubt) when he uses the same words about doulos at the beginning of his Philippians commentary?

  3. I don’t have Gurtner’s commentary to hand so can’t comment. It would be interesting to see a synoptic comparison, though.

  4. He writes: ‘In the LXX a bond-servant (doulos) often designated someone whom God used for a special ministry or through whom he spoke, such as Moses (Neh. 5:29), Joshua (Josh. 24:29), David (Ps. 89:20 [LXX 88:21]), and Jonah (2 Kings 14:25); O’Brien, 45;”

    He likewise does reference O’Brien “But there would be no way of knowing from this that Bruce [? O’Brien] was the specific source of actual wording.”

    In this case, Bruce’s observation about doulos is so lacking in unique insight and that both O’Brien and Gurtner’s references are sufficient, perhaps even unnecessary. What were they to have done? Gone mad with a thesaurus? Changed the references? On the basis of some comments about plagiarism, and the wild results produced by anti-plagiarism software, even if a commentator wrote “Jesus is both God and man” he or she would be accused of plagiarism because he did not reference all the books that a Google search will throw up for that phrase.

    1. I actually think that Gurtner’s wording is also problematic but less so, in that his reference clearly marks O’Brien as the source (this is not the case with O’Brien’s reference to Bruce, which is actually 2nd in a list of references to a number of scholarly works). In both cases the issue is not the level of unique insight, but the borrowing of someone else’s words to express it without quotation marks. Gurtner’s change of O’Brien’s ‘referred’ to ‘designated’ indicates that he is aware of the problem, but my own advice to students is that changing one word in a sentence does not give you permission to take the sentence out of quotation marks and so make it your own. Either quote it, and mark it as such with quotation marks and clear reference, or express it in your own words without reference to the source.

      Your example of ‘Jesus is both God and man’ is (a) much shorter than the example we are discussing and (b) to be honest if a student wrote that phrase because they read it in Pannenberg which was open on their desk, a footnote might also be appropriate to indicate that this is where they got the phrase from. Like the Synoptic Problem, this is not a case of people independently arriving at the same words, but of deliberate changes being made to someone else’s words. I remain convinced that, intentional or not (intention is not relevant here in my view), the example I have cited is problematic.

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