On Writing Commentaries (and Problems Thereof)

OK, admittedly this piece will be of interest to just a handful of people. But that’s OK, there are a few of us theology buffs and commentary lovers out there. And it is not a piece I can really comment on very much (no pun intended), since I am not privy to all the details.

o'brien pBut a sad happening has occurred in the world of evangelical commentaries, and it is making a small stir in certain circles. It has to do with three key New Testament commentaries being pulled and pulped due to some sort of plagiarism problems.

It involves an 81-year-old NT scholar who has written a number of important works, and happens to have been a major figure at an Australian theological college. I refer to Peter T. O’Brien of Moore Theological College in Sydney. It seems some recent allegations of impropriety have been investigated and the publishers have decided to scrap the three commentaries in question.

The three commentaries of his now being severely dealt with are these:

The Epistle to the Philippians (NIGTC), 1991. 600pp.
The Letter to the Ephesians (PNTC), 1999. 540pp.
The Letter to the Hebrews (PNTC), 2010. 600pp.

A few days ago the publisher issued this brief statement:

At the beginning of July 2016, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. received allegations against one of its New Testament commentaries and immediately undertook a careful investigation. Eerdmans is now withdrawing that book and two others by the same author.
Eerdmans editors compared the text of The Letter to the Hebrews (Pillar New Testament Commentary, 2010) with various secondary sources and submitted findings to external experts for verification. Summing up the findings, Editor-in-chief James Ernest said, “Our own editors and our outside consultants agreed that what we found on the pages of this commentary runs afoul of commonly accepted standards with regard to the utilization and documentation of secondary sources. We agreed that the book could not be retained in print.”
Examination of the same author’s Letter to the Ephesians (PNTC, 1999) and Epistle to the Philippians (New International Greek Testament Commentary, 1991) found them less pervasively flawed but still untenable.
The author, Peter T. O’Brien, was presented with the findings and provided the following response: “In the New Testament commentaries that I have written, although I have never deliberately misused the work of others, nevertheless I now see that my work processes at times have been faulty and have generated clear-cut, but unintentional, plagiarism. For this I apologize without reservation.”
President and publisher Anita Eerdmans summed up the company’s stance as follows: “Eerdmans is steadfastly committed to the highest ethical standards in academic and business practice, and we apologize to all who are negatively affected by this situation. Our Bible commentary series, among the best of their kind, are authored and edited by the field’s top scholars. The strong measures we are taking in this case are meant to underscore our firm belief that our commentary program is, and must remain, solid.”
Eerdmans is taking the following steps:
-Ceasing sales and pulp stock of all three volumes, placing them out of print.
-Offering credit to individuals and trade partners who have purchased the above three volumes.
For detailed instructions on how to pursue this option, please write to commentarycredit@eerdmans.com.
-Discussing best practices for quality control with press editors, series editors, and authors.

This is all I really know about the matter, and I have no new info and special insights to offer here. All I can say is I have all three of the commentaries under question, part of my 600 commentaries (a full tenth of my library). I have used all three commentaries to great advantage over the years, and it all seems so tragic.

Indeed, back in 2010 I wrote a piece listing my favourite commentaries on each of the 27 NT books, and all three of O’Brien’s works were featured there. Until I hear further about what exactly has caused all this commotion, I likely would still feature these three in any future commentary list I do: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/07/13/recommended-new-testament-commentaries/

Needless to say, I certainly will not be pulping my copies of these three works. I assume most others will not do so either. They have so much of value to offer, and until we hear further information, I am not even aware of which bits are the problematic ones.

Of course a good, thorough critical commentary can easily take many years to write, sometimes even decades. O’Brien could easily have averaged 5-7 years on each one, so here we may have 15-21 years of work which is now being pulled from the shelves, never to be reprinted again.

And years of prior work, reading and research would have gone into the writing of these commentaries as well. So in a sense, a lifetime of work is now being overthrown in a matter of days. It is very sad indeed, and one must keep O’Brien in prayer. I have never met him, except through his writings, but he must be going through the wringer right now.

A few hours ago a colleague of his, Gerald Bray wrote this on a social media site:

Following on my post yesterday about Peter O’Brien and his commentaries, I can now add that the complaint against them originated from a foreign language source. I do not know the details, but am guessing that it came from translators (who have to pay attention to every word and phrase) who picked up similarities to other works that alarmed them. They reported their findings to the publishers who investigated the matter and decided to withdraw the commentaries from publication, though without mentioning plagiarism in so many words.

Professor D. A. Carson has told me personally that he has a high regard for Peter O’Brien and is as distressed as anyone about what has happened. However, the decision to withdraw the books has been agreed on all sides and there is no more to be said about that. For our part, we must refrain from making unjustified assumptions about Peter O’Brien. If he is at fault in any way he has paid a high price for his mistake(s), and that should be more than enough. We must remember that his commentaries have benefited many people for several years and that they will go on doing so, even if they are no longer available for purchase.

Plagiarism is a difficult subject, especially when it comes to an overworked field like New Testament studies. How can you say anything original that is not also wrong or eccentric (or both)? It is very likely that this incident will lead to other investigations, and nobody can say what the result will be. Meanwhile let us hold Peter up in our prayers and give thanks to God for his ministry over so many years. The fruit of that will remain long after this unpleasant episode is forgotten.

Carson is of course the editor of the PNTC series, so he too would be feeling the pressure right now. As Bray mentioned, the issue of plagiarism is a difficult one – and a serious one. I have dealt with it to some extent with some of my own students over the years when I taught at several Bible colleges.

Again, we are not given many details here, but it seems to have been a rather serious offence if no effort is being made to redo the works and correct the mistakes or errors. Thus great care must be taken here, even though it can be easy for even the best of scholars to not always get it right.

I have written before about how often I have found pastors and church leaders engaging in clear plagiarism in their sermons and works. Sure, these are not strict academic affairs, but still, truth and integrity are important, even in these areas. See here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2014/04/08/on-christian-plagiarism/

Back when I was a student at Trinity in Chicago I recalled a leading evangelical Lutheran, John Warwick Montgomery joking about how offering a quote or two without credit is called plagiarism, but offering many unattributed quotes is called writing a theological paper!

It was a humorous way of looking at an all too real problem. As mentioned, I know little about all this, and some of my readers would have a lot more to say on all this, as they may well have studied under O’Brien in Sydney, whereas I only know him through his writings. So again, prayer is in order.

It would be nice if some other alternative were available in this messy situation, but it looks like that may not be on offer. So keep O’Brien, Carson and others who are involved in your prayers, as we seek to learn from all this, and grow from this.


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5 Replies to “On Writing Commentaries (and Problems Thereof)”

  1. Such a shame. Enlarging on propositions, forming opinion, writing commentaries and exegesis is all developed from previous studies unless one starts with a blank mind and the raw biblical texts. Most commentaries contain old ideas with some new angle or inspiration and very few radical observations; that’s how the commentariat knowledge develops. So, it’s always open to charges of plagiarism when such is not intended.

  2. Amen brothers and sisters, I had the wonderful experience of attending Peter O’Briens evening lectures at Moore College, many years ago now, and think no less of him, and admire the way he handled this matter. Our narrow and difficult path takes us in the only direction of lasting value, and along the way we are sometimes gently humbled (as I know too well), but not crushed. Keep up the good work brother O’Brien, and brother Bill.

  3. OK, plagiarism does exist, and can be picked up by Plagiarism Detection (PD) software. But there are still weaknesses in most PD programs. You will occasionally get false positives, and other instances of plagiarism can be missed. Some lecturers prefer to go by gut instinct: for example, an experienced lecturer will often be able to detect differences in writing styles that suggest certain content is plagiarized. One lecturer, in using PD software, was astonished to find that thirty to fifty percent of his student papers contained significant amounts of plagiarized material.

    The other problem is that these days there is such a massive amount of written material at our disposal, in one form or another, so that it is virtually impossible NOT to plagiarize unintentionally to some extent. So who has the final say? When marking students’ papers, I would have been very reluctant to use the word ‘plagiarized’ unless there was no room for doubt. I would have preferred to use less judgmental words! Of course, when a book goes to print, I can understand the need for it to be more thoroughly scrutinized. But I still feel very disturbed about this latest decision. O’Brien IS to be admired in that he accepted the decision so graciously. Also I object to the term ‘allegations of impropriety’ in this particular context.

    And now I may well have committed plagiarism unintentionally! After all, there are only so many words in the English language to convey my sympathies to Peter O’Brien.

  4. When “all my own work” is actually “partly someone else’s work”, ethics of property rights and true or false witness are involved. Authors of Old Testament books were not averse to referring to other source documents for the events/history they wrote about… the advent of “copy-and-paste” word processing does present its own risks when it comes to compiling notes for a book draft… I can easily imagine how technology might facilitate unintentional plagiarism.

  5. I can supply a bit more information from reading around this topic. Complaints did not come from the unattributed authors, but were picked up as a side-effect of an investigation into a South Korean theologian who wrote 26 commentaries in 7 years, and was investigated for plagiarism. He pointed out some instances in the work of other writers to justify his own practices, and so the allegations against O’Brien came about. His works are actually heavily referenced, and he acknowledges the work of those same authors elsewhere in the same writings, so the plagiarism was obviously not intentional. However, no publisher can afford to ignore allegations of plagiarism these days. Also, they make the works unquotable by fellow academics.

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