P.T. O’Brien and Plagiarism

Over on Aquila Report, I just read the article on P.T. O’Brien and the plagiarism that was found in his commentaries. I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it can definitely be said that he should have been more careful with how he used his information. Now, no details were given in the report as to the person(s) he plagiarized and where in his commentaries. So, we need to be cautious about how much we can say.

On the other hand, plagiarism might just be the easiest thing to do in commentary writing. Indeed, in some ways, it seems endemic to the genre. I read my commentaries in chronological order so that I can get a sense of the history of interpretation on a particular passage. Unattributed references to ideas introduced by previous commentaries are everywhere. Honestly, I am fairly certain that I see this every week. Sometimes, they fall into the category of things that they all say, and can fairly be categorized as forming part of the common stock of knowledge. Many other times this is not true. All it seems to take is one unattributed instance of copying, and then subsequent commentators seem to think that the tidbit is fair game.

This makes me wonder whether someone has it in for P.T. O’Brien and just pointed out what just about every other commentator does all the time. Take the Ephesians commentary, for instance. First of all, it was published 17 years ago (the Philippians commentary is 25 years old now!). Why hasn’t any expert in the secondary literature on Ephesians (or Philippians) caught that plagiarism until now? More importantly, why didn’t D.A. Carson, one of the most well-read and erudite New Testament scholars of the present age, catch the plagiarism when he edited the book? Why did Carson continue to recommend these commentaries so highly in his book on commentaries? The Ephesians commentary is one I’ve read all the way through, and I don’t remember having any of those moments where I thought to myself that O’Brien had plagiarized anything, and I read at least 30 commentaries on Ephesians when I was preaching through it. This is suspicious to me.

What I would rather have from Eerdmans is a chart listing the instances so that I can make up my own mind about it, because there is no way I am giving my O’Brien commentaries back to Eerdmans for a refund. They are just too good to give up. A chart would be far more helpful to scholars and pastors so that they will not perpetuate the plagiarism, but will track down the ideas back to their original source and attribute properly. With the current policy, the O’Brien commentaries will live in a sort of no-man’s land, with people not sure what to do with them. I am quite sure that there is still plenty of O’Brien left in his commentaries, and it would be a pity to waste it. Eerdmans, please let us sort out the wheat from the chaff. Do the pastoral and scholarly world a favor, and let us see the findings for ourselves. That way, we can still salvage what is good from his commentaries, and there is a lot of that.

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