Theologian Peter O’Brien has written some of the best-reviewed New Testament commentaries, in some of the most prestigious series in print today. His commentaries have been referred to as magisterial and are frequently ranked as best in their subject area. They are praised for their superior Greek exegesis, conservative theology, and for their overall helpfulness to pastors and teachers of the Bible.
O’Brien wrote Colossians–Philemon in the Word Biblical Commentary (WBC) series, Philippians in the New International Greek Testament Commentary (NIGTC) series, and Hebrews in The Pillar New Testament Commentary (PNTC) series. Yet Dr. O’Brien’s publishing partners, which include some of the largest and most influential in the industry like Eederman’s, InterVarsity Press, and Zondervan, no longer sell his books and commentaries.
Commentary volumes go out print 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. Other times, volumes go out of print because it may no longer be cost effective to continue to publish it, especially if it is older and in the public domain, and the text can be found in full online. However, these are not the reasons O’Brien’s commentaries are no longer published.
Who is Theologian Peter O’Brien?
Peter O’Brien is an Anglican priest, theologian, and New Testament scholar from Australia. His theology can be described as Reformed and evangelical. 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.
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. Contributing essayists included several notable scholars and commentary authors including D.A. Carson, Andreas Köstenberger, Richard Longenecker, I. Howard Marshall, and Moisés Silva.
Plagiarism Accusations in O’Brien’s Commentaries
In the summer of 2016, O’Brien was accused of plagiarism.
Given the serious nature of the charge, combined with the long and effective ministry career of O’Brien, it would be wise to read the following account with discretion. Proverbs 18:17 explains 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. Eerdmans, the publisher of this series, 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.1
Later in the summer, another publisher made a similar decision.
Inter-Varsity Press Halts Publication of O’Brien’s Books
Inter-Varsity Press (IVP), which published two books written by Dr. O’Brien in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series, decided that they too would cease production on his texts:
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, Inter-Varsity Press is withdrawing both NSBT volumes from sale and shredding our remaining stock.2
In the Fall of 2016, a third publisher followed suit.
Zondervan Discovers Questionable Passages
In November of 2016, Zondervan discontinued publishing Dr. O’Brien’s commentary on Colossians-Philemon in the Word Biblical Commentary series. Their statement reads:
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.3
The Context of the Plagiarism 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] [C]ommentary on the same book.” The complaint was passed to Eerdmans, who then launched its investigation in July.4
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 plagiarism allegations.
The Future of O’Brien’s Commentaries and the Pillar and Word Series’
While O’Brien states he did not intentionally do anything wrong, and multiple publishers have expressed that sentiment as well, he did acknowledge certain unconventional process and citation practices. This makes it unlikely that any major Christian publisher will ever again partner with him.
As for the commentaries themselves, all the new stock the publishers possessed were destroyed. Used volumes can still be found, yet prices are likely to remain high due—even into the hundreds of dollars as of this writing—due to limited supply.
Should pastors and teachers continue to use Dr. O’Brien’s commentaries?
The following thoughts are my own. I offer them simply as a fellow pilgrim. They are not intended to be the “final word” on the subject.
I have wrestled with that question since I first learned of the accusations. Admittedly, I have a commentary of 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 sit and collect dust as I stew over this story.
In my view, the Christian publishers made the right decision. Simultaneously, I believe O’Brien, his publishers, and his colleague (Bray), when they state that the mistakes were not intentional. Still, there is great danger if the commentary user credits O’Brien in a sermon, lecture, paper, or book, for material found in a publication that bears his name, that is not his own original research, but another’s.
In the end, it is a challenging matter for all involved: O’Brien, the authors whose work he should have more precisely 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)