Theologian Peter O’Brien’s commentaries are no longer in print because of plagiarism accusations
In recent years, theologian Peter O’Brien has written some of the best-reviewed New Testament commentaries, in some of the most prestigious series in publication today. He has written volumes on Colossians–Philemon (Word Biblical Commentary), Philippians (New International Greek Testament Commentary), and Hebrews (The Pillar New Testament Commentary series). Yet Dr. O’Brien’s publishers, including Eederman’s, InterVarsity Press, and Zondervan, no longer sell his books.
This has driven up the cost of these volumes on websites that sell used books. Some are listed for over $200 as of this writing.
Bible commentaries can go out print, which increases the price of used volumes due to limited supply, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes a new or revised edition of a particular volume has been published, or soon will be, so the first volume is discontinued. This has occurred in popular series such as the Word Biblical Commentary (WBC) series and the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NICOT) and New Testament (NICNT) series. Yet other times, volumes go out of print because it may no longer be cost effective to continue to produce it, especially if it is older and the text can be found in full online.
However, these are not the reasons Dr. O’Brien’s commentaries are no longer published.
Who is Peter O’Brien?
Peter O’Brien is an Anglican priest, theologian, and New Testament scholar from Australia. After studying at Moore Theological College and the University of Manchester, he taught at Union Biblical Seminary in Yavatmal, India. After his time at UBS, he returned to his alma mater, Moore Theological College, eventually becoming its Vice Principal. He has written numerous books. In the year 2000, a collection of essays was published in his honor called, A Gospel for the Nations: Perspectives on Paul’s Mission: Essays Presented to Peter Thomas O’Brien on his Sixty-Fifth Birthday. Contributors included several notable scholars including D.A. Carson, Andreas Köstenberger, Richard Longenecker, I. Howard Marshall, and Moisés Silva.
Accusations of plagiarism
In the summer of 2016, Dr. O’Brien was accused of plagiarism. Given the serious nature of the charge combined with the long and effective ministry career of Dr. O’Brien, it would be wise to read the following narrative with discretion. Proverbs 18:17 reminders readers that there are two sides to every story: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (ESV).
In the summer of 2016, Dr. O’Brien was accused of plagiarizing sections of The Letter to the Hebrews in The Pillar New Testament Commentary series. Eerdman’s, the publisher of this volume, investigated the accusation and then released this statement:
August 15, 2016
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. The credit offer expired May 31, 2017.
● Discussing best practices for quality control with press editors, series editors, and authors.
Later in the summer, another publisher made a similar decision.
InterVarsity Press (IVP), which produced two books by Dr. O’Brien in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series, decided that they too would cease production on his texts:
Dr. O’Brien’s two volumes in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series published by InterVarsity Press (USA). It is with sadness that we report that both God Has Spoken in His Son (2016) and Salvation to the Ends of the Earth (2001, co-authored with Andreas Kostenberger) were discovered to have the same problems regarding the use and proper documentation of secondary sources.
The originating publisher and investigator, Inter-Varsity Press (UK), has clearly stated that “the chapters in Salvation to the Ends of the Earth that were reviewed and found to have issues were those written by Peter O’Brien. The chapters by co-author Andreas Kostenberger are not under question.”
We do not believe Dr. O’Brien intended to misuse secondary sources. And yet his research and writing practices have rendered clear instances of plagiarism. In the interest of maintaining high standards in writing, publishing, and business, InterVarsity Press is withdrawing both NSBT volumes from sale and shredding our remaining stock.
In the Fall of 2016, a third publisher followed suit.
In November of 2016, Zondervan discontinued publishing Dr. O’Brien’s commentary on Colossians-Philemon in the Word Biblical Commentary series:
November 4, 2016
In the summer of 2016 Zondervan Academic became aware of emerging concerns that one of its authors, Dr. Peter T. O’Brien, may not have followed commonly accepted standards for the use and documentation of secondary resources in Bible commentaries he had written. Consequently, we began a careful review of Dr. O’Brien’s commentary on Colossians and Philemon, volume 44 in the Word Biblical Commentary (WBC).
It is with sadness and regret that we have concluded this volume does not follow commonly accepted standards for the use and documentation of secondary resources. Dr. O’Brien is revered by his colleagues in the academy and by his former students. His commentaries, including volume 44 in the WBC, have been used with great benefit by the thousands who have purchased them. While we have no reason to believe that Dr. O’Brien intentionally misused secondary resources, our commitment to high publishing standards leaves us no choice but to put volume 44 of the WBC out of print in both its print and digital formats and to destroy the remaining inventory.
The Context for the Accusations
Also in the summer of 2016, Dr. Gerald Bray of Oak Hill Theological College, provided some context for the accusations, as quoted by the The Anglican Link,
the plagiarism charges arose in connection with the work of a South Korean scholar who had published 22 commentaries in seven years, “which naturally aroused suspicion. He was challenged and has been taken to court over alleged plagiarism, which is apparently rampant in these commentaries. In his defence, the accused pulled Peter O’Brien’s commentary on Hebrews off the shelf and tried to prove that much of it had been lifted without proper acknowledgment from William Lane’s Word [Biblical] commentary on the same book.” The complaint was passed to Eerdmans, who then launched its investigation in July.
Dr. Gray then makes three clarifications:
 nobody ever complained about Peter O’Brien directly. He was caught in the crossfire between two Koreans who were (and still are) arguing about something else. Secondly, the identical sentences that I have seen are either statements of fact or quotations from the Bible. This does not mean that they were not copied, but whether it can really be called “plagiarism” is at least open to question. Thirdly, Peter O’Brien has been the victim of something that has nothing to do with him. That does not mean that he is without fault, of course, but those who would criticise him ought to bear that in mind.
To date this is the most thorough account of the context surrounding the allegations.
The future for Peter O’Brien’s publications, the commentary series, and a few ministry reflections
While Dr. O’Brien states he did nothing intentionally wrong, and multiple publishers have expressed that sentiment as well, he did acknowledge certain unconventional citation practices. This makes it unlikely that any major Christian publisher would ever again partner with him.
As for the commentaries themselves, all the new stock the publishers had were destroyed. It is likely that over time, the publishers will partner with other authors to replace these volumes. Used volumes can still be found, yet prices are likely to remain high due to limited supply.
So should teachers and pastors continue to use Dr. O’Brien’s commentaries?
I have wrestled with this question since I first learned of the situation. I will not attempt to answer it for all people. Admittedly, I have a commentary of Dr. O’Brien’s on my shelf, and as of this writing, I do not intend on getting rid of it. Yet I am unsure if, or when, I will ever again use it. At the moment, I am content to just let it unceremoniously sit and collect dust.
I understand the decisions of the Christian publishers and the standards they must maintain. Simultaneously, I choose to believe Dr. O’Brien, and multiple publishers, when they say that the mistakes were not intentional. Still, there is great danger in crediting Dr. O’Brien in a presentation, like a sermon or lecture, or in a paper, for material found in commentaries that bear his name that is not his own original research, but is another author’s.
In the end, it is a challenging matter for all involved: Dr. O’Brien, the authors whose work he should have cited, the publishers, and the readers.
May God bring good from this difficult situation.
Eerdman’s statement on Peter O’Brien (accessed May 17, 2018)
IVP’s statement on Peter O’Brien via Frontline Media (accessed May 17, 2018)
Zondervan’s statement on Peter O’Brien (accessed May 17, 2018)
Anglican Link article on Peter O’Brien (accessed May 17, 2018)