Just over a week ago I did an eight-lecture on-line course on the Gospel of Matthew, not connected with the blog but with BECO (Bart Ehrman Courses Online); you can find out more about that here: The Genius of Matthew. Someone who came to the course asked me an intriguing question: if it’s true that Matthew used Mark for a number of his stories, actually copying his account word for word in many places, wouldn’t he be guilty of plagiarism?
Ah – right! That’s certainly something we would be thinking about today! Did people in the ancient world think about plagiarism? There weren’t copyright laws or, in fact, any laws about the theft of intellectual property. So was plagiarism even a THING?
As it turns out, this is a topic that, I venture to say (with good reason), the vast majority of New Testament scholars don’t know about. My (good) reason for saying so is that you can hear many such-a-scholar say oh-so-wrong things about it, either based on what they assume or what they have heard. My view is that if we want to know the views of ancient people, we should read what ancient authors say. Seems obvious, huh?
In any event, I had to deal with this question in my book Forgery and Counterforgery (Oxford University Press, 2013) and thought it might be useful to extract a portion of my discussion here to throw some light on the issue.
Before getting to the issue of whether Matthew could be considered a plagiarist (by ancient people/standards), we need to think about what they (ancients in the Greek and Roman worlds) thought about plagiarism in general. Here’s what I say in my book.