One of our most viewed posts covered three of your favorite evangelical commentaries, which were discovered to have plagiarized and were taken out of print. Regretfully, more commentaries have recently been added to that list. I hesitate to post about them, but I feel that students and pastors should be aware of these issues so they can use these commentaries wisely if they own them, or be warned that they should not buy them.

Köstenberger’s Commentaries

Andreas Köstenberger recently approached Baker Academic because he had realized he had plagiarized his mentor, D. A. Carson, sufficiently enough to warrant pulling his commentary on John (BECNT) out of print. Baker’s announcement says that Köstenberger has “has apologized to his mentor Dr. Carson, and has made restitution to Dr. Carson and his publisher.” They allowing him to revise his commentary to fix these problems and Baker will publish the new edition.

Just after this announcement came one from Zondervan, which says that K also approached them about the problem. They are taking his ZIBBC volume (which includes Clint Arnold’s work on Acts) out of print and will contract the replacement volume out to someone else. They will destroy the remaining inventory and the e-book is off the market.

How Does This Happen?

When this happened to Peter O’Brien last year, I speculated on how this might happen. I postulated that perhaps O’Brien as an early masters or PhD student took notes without properly attributing them, and then re-used those notes decades later. I have many notes files with notes in them from lectures or resources that I may not have attributed properly during my MDiv program, and if I ever use those notes I have to be careful to make sure I’m not plagiarizing anyone.

My suspicions on O’Brien’s case can’t be verified, but it looks like this is almost exactly what happened with Köstenberger. Steve Runge posted in a Facebook thread that the source of the problem was the research notes taken by an assistant 20 years ago.

I just got off the phone with Andreas. The source of the problem was the notes a research assistant took on Carson’s Pillar commentary almost 20 years ago. This was the source of the subsequent attribution problems since the same notes were used for subsequent projects. This explains why one of Carson’s commentaries is attributed consistently and other is not. So far as I know, the problem is restricted to that one source.

Lessons to Learn

In my post on O’Brien’s commentaries, I gave three lessons we can take away. I repeat the same lessons, but applied to Köstenberger’s case.

  1. I said before that O’Brien’s commentaries are still useful (if the example above is typical of the problem), but not citable in academic works. You can still read them for content, for help with Greek, for positions, and for relevant primary sources. But you cannot rely on his work as one to be cited now as your sole source of authority for a point. By contrast, there’s really no reason to use these two commentaries by Köstenberger anymore. His BECNT volume will be revised, so you should use that one. His ZIBBC commentary is a more popular work and therefore is easily replaceable with other works.
  2. This is a sober reminder to address your research procedures and citation practices. Make sure that you cite an idea if it’s not original, and cite it immediately. Try to summarize arguments rather than quote authors. Use your own words to express ideas, and cite any sources from which those ideas came. Then, your own voice will come out better in your writing anyway.
  3. Be careful of idolizing the living, for they still have time to crush your hopes. That’s a bit hyperbolic, but many of us have held O’Brien and Köstenberger in high esteem as commentators and theologians worthy of imitation. We are reminded that our true heroes should be those whose worthy lives are solidified in history, Jesus being the first of them all.

Are Publishers at Fault?

One last question is whether publishers are at fault here. The world of commentaries is unique. They are perhaps the most profitable product for publishers (maybe aside from textbooks) and thus are always in demand. Publishers are always contracting out new commentaries, even though they’re not really needed. With 500 commentaries on John in the history of the church, why do we need another one? Commentaries are getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger. (The recent EEC volume on Philippians is 1,000 pages.) But are they really helping us understand the text better, or only the history of scholarship on the text?

In any case, publishers have deadlines. And when you have five years to write 800 pages, that might seem manageable, but you also have the pressure of reading everything ever written on each passage. I’ve helped G. K. Beale research passages in Colossians, and I would scan for him about 40 commentaries on various passages for him to read through. He would then follow up with every article cited in the commentaries on those passages. While he would read everything, he did all his own exegesis first and then only integrated whatever was necessary to establish or correct his own exegesis, preventing his commentary from growing into a monster. Nevertheless, the amount of research he had to wade through was simply ridiculous.

I think that we are nearing a point in Christian academia where plagiarism is still a necessary concept, and probably taking books out of print for citation issues is responsible, but we also need grace and understanding. Baker has shown grace by allowing Köstenberger to revise his own commentary. I applaud them for this, and I wish O’Brien had the same opportunity (although maybe he wouldn’t have wanted to do it this late in his career, it would be a lot of work).

We should also understand that we might need to re-think the entire genre of commentary. Rather than seeing how large our volumes can become, we should make it a point of honor to be more concise than any other (read some E. Ellis and be amazed). We should understand that it’s impossible to trace every source of our language and ideas. We should focus more on the language of the text and less on the minutia of every debate about every particle in the Greek. Publishers should only contract commentaries that will make a legitimate contribution to scholarship, and not simply contract them for cash flow. The world doesn’t need more books, it needs more blockbusters.

Until these changes can happen, let’s not be quick to cast a stone at others. I still respect O’Brien and Köstenberger and appreciate their own contributions to scholarship, especially as leaders of Evangelical scholars. I look forward to the revised edition of the BECNT and applaud Baker for agreeing to publish it.