The Impact of Jesus of Nazareth: 2017 Conference

Over the break details have come through of a conference planned for 28–29 September 2017, hosted by the Sydney College of Divinity and the Catholic Institute of Sydney.



The Call for Papers is deliberately open, with the possibility of a published volume as an outcome of the conference. I am toying with a paper proposal that considers the methodological shifts in historical Jesus studies in recent years. Details of the conference theme and CfP are below.


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.

Public Lecture: Denys Turner on Atheism

Denys Turner was Head of the Department of Theology at the University of Bristol when I started undergraduate studies in 1986 and he tried, in vain I fear, to teach me philosophy and some theology. I still remember with much fondness his arrival in an introduction to philosophy class armed with only a dog-eared copy of the Penguin Classics edition of Descartes’ Meditations or Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ and teaching without notes in a manner that I now recognise as charmingly distracted. I then vaguely remember jokes about Pseudo-Denys, and a story about a Roman emperor who used to have slaves executed on the lawn because he received aesthetic satisfaction from the combination of red blood and green grass (I think we were studying Hobbes, Leviathan). His class in Christian Mysticism was legendary (although I never took it) and am I dreaming about rumours that in one of the classes he encouraged the students to levitate?

Later, in 1999 when he was Head of Department at Birmingham he (along with Mark Goodacre) signed me up to teach some NT courses while David Parker was on research leave. It was my first University teaching role, post doctorate, and I am grateful to them both for the opportunity.

All of which is an introit to the news that Denys will be in Melbourne next week and will be giving a public lecture on the new atheism and its alternatives. It will be a good event. Poster and details below.

IRCI4434- Turner Lecture Flyer _A4_Flyer_V2

Research Leave Curiosity: Wright, Whiteley and German Philippians Scholarship

I am slowly easing myself into a sustained period of research leave that will run from July–December 2016. The main task, other than a couple of essays due for edited volumes and an SBL paper, is to complete work on a manuscript provisionally entitled Philippians and Friendship: The Relational and Rhetorical Dynamics of a Pauline Letter.

My hope is to post more information about the research as it progresses over the coming weeks. But colleagues in New Testament Studies may be interested in a scholarly curiosity thrown up by my getting my Philippians books (of which there are many) into come kind of order.

When I started doctoral studies with N. T. Wright at Oxford in 1990, Tom had recently been asked to take on responsibility for preparing a new International Critical Commentary on Philippians (still to be completed!). He inherited the project following the death of Dennis Whiteley, author of what is still a quite useful if outdated study of Paul’s theology and known as a rather eccentric Don at Jesus College. My research was on the nature of the ‘opposition’ in Philippians 3 and, in an act of generosity Tom handed over to me three or four German books from Whiteley’s own library. As the research went on I actually returned most of them back to Tom (having procured my own copies of Gnilka and Schenck). But I discovered again today that one volume stayed in my collection: Berthold Mengel’s elegantly titled Studien zum Philipperbrief: Untersuchungen zum situativen Kontext unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Frage nach der Ganzheitlichkeit oder Einheitlichkeit eines paulinischen Briefes (WUNT 2/8; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siecbeck], 1982). You will see that such is the brilliance of Mengel’s title that I have pinched the last three words for my own.

Below you will see two pictures of the volume in question (click on them to go through to larger images), and you will note two extraordinary things. First, Whiteley not only paid for the book but then paid to have the binding broken, blank leaves of paper inserted in between each leaf of the original. and the binding reset. Secondly (and explaining the first oddity), Whiteley was evidently working through the volume page by page, hand writing English translations of the German at relevant points. The same was true of the other commentaries I have mentioned. For those who are thinking that the handwriting may be Tom Wright’s I can assure you that it isn’t!

Not only is it fascinating to know that Whiteley didn’t know that ‘jedoch’ means ‘however’ or ‘yet’, it also beggars belief that he actually thought that this was a viable way of engaging in research in the German scholarship. I wish my German was better than it is, but if I tried to work in this way over the next 6 months, I might just get through the German commentaries up to Philippians 1:5.

University of Divinity Research Day:

Next Wednesday will see the annual University of Divinity Research Day, hosted here at Pilgrim Theological College /Centre for Theology and Ministry.

The full programme can be seen here, but readers of this blog might be especially interested in the papers being offered in biblical studies, long a strength of the University’s research profile. The following papers may be of interest:

Mark Brett, ‘Roger Williams, Freedom of Religion and Biblical Hermeneutics’ (plenary)

Brendan Byrne, ‘“And so both are preserved” (Matt 9:17c): A Fresh Look at Matthew’s New Wine and New Wineskins’

Grant Buchanan, ‘Blessing, Promise and Spirit in Galatians 3:14: In Dialogue with Difference’

Rosemary Canavan, ‘Investigating the Contribution of Colour to the Rhetography of the Mockery Scenes of the Passion Narratives’

Keith Dyer, ‘Basileia: Kingdom or Empire?’

David Starling, ‘‘A Pathway into the Holy Scripture’: The Psalter as liturgical hermeneutic’

Merry Blair, ‘Was the ‘Order of Melchizedek’ ecumenical? Reading Hebrews 7 as Hebrew poetics’

Kris Sonek, ‘Reading Gen 15:1 with Ancient and Modern Interpreters: Questions of Terminology and Chronology Revisited’

Anne Elvey, ‘Feminist Ecologies in Biblical Interpretation: Elaine Wainwright and the Development of a Multidimensional Hermeneutics’


Dorothy Lee, ‘John, Ethics and Creation’

Chris Monaghan, ‘Whose voice prevails? Jesus’ last words and Lukan Christology’

Oh-Young Kwon, ‘1 Corinthians 8.4-6: An Intercultural Reading from the Political Context of North Korea Today’

Stephen Curkpatrick, ‘Less is more: An phonic responses to parables’




Francis Watson in Melbourne

Colleagues at the Australian Catholic University have been working hard this year to bring a range of New Testament scholars to Melbourne. Ruben Zimmermann was here earlier in the year, and John Barclay will be heading over in August. Next week Francis Watson will be in town, and as well as some seminars to the Centre for Biblical and Early Christian Studies (next Thursday’s on the Epistula Apostolorum) he will be giving a public lecture on Wednesday 8th June. Details below.