Were Matthew and Luke plagiarists?  They copied word-for-word passages from Mark, without any indication that they were using someone else’s work.  Today that will get you fired (or, say, removed from the presidency of an Ivy League school).  But what about in the ancient world?

Here I continue here with my discussion of plagiarism in the antiquity, citing some sources that talk about the phenomenon only to condemn it, before considering whether Matthew and Luke can be considered culpable.

You may be surprised by my answer.

First, I give some more ancient  writings, starting with where I left off, with Vitruvius (a famous Roman architect; not a famous volcano)

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Elsewhere Vitruvius himself delivers a stringent judgment on those who engaged in the practice of plagiarism: “While, then, these men [viz. Those who left a written record of past events and philosophies] deserve our gratitude, on the other hand we must censure those who plunder their works and appropriate them to themselves” (Book 7, Preface 3).   This attitude coincides with other ancient discourse about the practice, as in Polybius’s  off-the-cuff comment on authors who discuss “genealogies, myths, the planting of colonies, the foundations of cities and their ties of kinship”; Polybius laments the fact that since so much has already been written about such things, a modern writer who discusses them either rehashes what others have said, or worse, “represents the work of others as being his own,” a procedure that he calls “a most disgraceful proceeding” (ὃ πάντων ἐστὶν αἴσχιστον). [1]

Were Matthew and Luke plagiarists?  They copied word-for-word passages from Mark, without any indication that they were using someone else’s work.  Today that will get you fired (or, say, removed from the presidency of an Ivy League school).  But what about in the ancient world?

Equally harsh is Pliny the Elder, who in his Natural History discusses his own practices of citation in contrast to those who are “of a perverted mind and a bad disposition” and steal the work of others to pass off as their own (Natural History, Preface 20-23):

For I consider it to be courteous and to indicate an ingenuous modesty, to acknowledge the sources whence we have derived assistance, and not to act as most of those have done whom I have examined. For I must inform you, that in comparing various authors with each other, I have discovered, that some of the most grave and of the latest writers have transcribed, word for word, from former works, without making any acknowledgement; …  For it is indeed the mark of a perverted mind and a bad disposition, to prefer being caught in a theft to returning what we have borrowed (obnoxii profecto animi et infelicis ingenii est deprehendi in furto malle quam mutuum redder).[2]

It is a genuine question concerning how relevant the ancient discourse on plagiarism is to the “unacknowledged borrowings” found throughout the early Christian literature.   Assuming the two-source hypothesis, Matthew and Luke both acquired considerable amounts of their material, often verbatim, from Mark and Q, without acknowledgment.  But if plagiarism is defined as taking over the work of another and claiming it as one’s own, possibly the charge does not apply in these cases, as all the writings in question are anonymous.  That is to say, the later Synoptic authors are not claiming anything as their own, as they do not even name themselves.  The same would apply to the extensive and often verbatim reproduction of the Protevangelium Jakobi in such later texts as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, in that the later author does not claim the earlier work as his own, since he is, in fact, writing pseudonymously.

A comparable situation obtains in the wholesale incorporation of the Didascalia Apostolorum, the Didache, and the Apostolic Traditions in the fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions.  But here the situation is somewhat more complex.  Two of these earlier works are anonymous, making it difficult to give credit where credit was due.  The Didascalia, on the other hand, was inherited as a forgery – it falsely claims to be written by the apostles – and is itself embedded in another work that is also a forgery, also allegedly written by the apostles.  Why would a forger need to credit an earlier work that he allegedly (but in fact did not) write himself?[3]  Or consider the case of 2 Peter and Jude.  There is little doubt that the former borrowed a good deal of the latter in its polemic against nefarious but unidentifiable opponents.  But the source of the argument is a forgery, as is the text that uses the source.  Can a forger commit plagiarism?  In one sense he obviously has borrowed the work of another without acknowledgment, or as the ancient sources would put it, he has “stolen” his work.  But in another sense he has not claimed that work as his own, since he does not give his own name so as to take credit for what his stolen material says.  In all these instances we are dealing with complex literary relations that do not neatly line up in taxonomies of fraudulence, either ancient or modern.

 

[1] Histories, 9.2.1; quotation from the translation of W. R. Paton from Polybius: the Histories. LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University,1922-27).

[2] Translation of H. Rackham, Pliny: Natural History. LCL (Cambridge MA: Harvard University, 1938).

[3] See pp. xxx.

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2024-02-09T12:55:44-05:00February 13th, 2024|Forgery in Antiquity, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|

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24 Comments

  1. TomTerrific February 13, 2024 at 9:05 am

    Thanks for answering my question.

  2. Stephen February 13, 2024 at 10:28 am

    As far as you know, Prof Ehrman, are there any comparable cases in ancient pagan literature where later writers use an existing text in the way Matthew and Luke use Mark? Namely, quoting vast swaths of the text, modifying and rearranging and adding new material to it?

    Thanks

    • BDEhrman February 14, 2024 at 6:30 pm

      Apparently it happened in some forms of technical writing (like manuals to repair your dishwasher kind of thing). Elsewhere, not really.

  3. Douglas February 13, 2024 at 10:52 am

    An ethical author will not represent “found” text as his own, whether the author is known or not. When dealing with forgers, however, it’s different. Whatever story they tell themselves about the good they are doing, the ethics of authorship are not relevant to them. They are “stealing” someone else’s words. One should at least say,”someone has written…”

  4. stevenpounders February 13, 2024 at 12:46 pm

    I know that in strict definitions, plagiarism involves claiming another’s words as your own. However, if someone were to take my words and republish them without crediting them to me, especially if they alter the original context and intent of my words – I would still consider myself “robbed” of intellectual property, even if the theft was “anonymous”. I can’t imagine anyone feeling otherwise. You spend a lot of time in your book “Forged” arguing that, not only were plagiarism and forgery known to ancient writers, they were considered wrong – evils to be stopped and even punished.

    Whether or not an anonymous theft of intellectual property fits the specific taxonomy of plagiarism, wouldn’t the ancients still have considered such an act wrong?

    • BDEhrman February 14, 2024 at 6:31 pm

      It’s not really someone’s intellectual property if it’s anonymous — there’s no “someone.” So I don’t know the answer. So far as I know, it never comes up in ancient discourse.

  5. t4RotA_Rogue9 February 13, 2024 at 1:23 pm

    Mr. Erhman, thank you for your thoughtful insights on the biblical topics. Since the story of the betrayal of Judas is in the book of Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John, is it possible that it is a late addition to the narrative? such as the virgin conception and virgin birth(1 apology 33 by Justin Martyr in the 2nd CE) and the perpetual virginity of Mary (Protoevangelium of James also in the 2nd CE). Since Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:5 he mentions Cephas/Peter and the 12, no mention of Judas being replaced in this, which if this was written 15-25 years before the tradition began in mark, it would make sense that he didn’t write about it. What are your thoughts on this being a late addition to the story, is it a silly theory or is there data to support this? Thank you!

    • BDEhrman February 14, 2024 at 6:35 pm

      It don’t think it’s a silly theory and has to be taken seriously. The difficulty is that several sources that were not using each other refer to the event (Mark, John, M — Matthew’s special source, Acts.) So it was definitely originally in these *books* and since they independently have information about it, at least it’s a very old tradition. My guess is that Paul simply had never heard that story, just as he doesn’t seem to have heard most of the stories in the Gospels.

  6. MarkWiz February 13, 2024 at 2:55 pm

    My feeling is that the question of plagiarism is irrelevant in the Gospels. It’s not that it is unimportant to know where the content comes from as far as we can ascertain. Rather, it is the nature of the writing, the audience for whom it was intended, and the times themselves that affect the question so much. If Mark and Q were the earliest accounts of what people were saying about Jesus, the accounts themselves have no verifiable attribution, kind of a record of anonymous rumors. But Mark and Q are also anonymous accounts by nature. So are Luke and John as far as authorship goes. So you have anonymous writing based on anonymous writing base on anonymous oral tradition. Mark at least was writing expecting the end of the world was on hand; why be bothered about sources? There were souls to save! Luke and John may tone down the immediacy of the end, but their purpose in saving souls (not recording history) was the same. I’m thinking the question of attribution and original authorship wasn’t high on the priority list.

    • tuxzilla February 16, 2024 at 4:55 pm

      It’s a good point. Ostensibly the authors of Matthew and Luke weren’t thinking in terms of copying or plagerism, they were using the best sources they had, both written and oral to create what they probably viewed as the truest account of the good news. If they weren’t citing the anonymous oral traditions (of course they didn’t), why would they think to cite the anonymous written traditions? I tend to agree with E.P. Sanders, who wrote that the authors of what became the new testament engaged in logical necessity. Mark didn’t include information about how Jesus fulfilled the Jewish scripture, but he WAS the fulfillment, therefore the Jewish scriptures MUST have predicted him and since Mark forgot to mention that, Matthew (from his perspective) corrected the story. It’s not plagerized, it’s corrected.

    • cstu February 17, 2024 at 4:51 pm

      Bart has a good post here about why the gospels were written anonymously.

      https://ehrmanblog.org/why-are-the-gospels-anonymous/

  7. Tomwrohland February 13, 2024 at 3:09 pm

    Are there any phrases or sayings we can attribute with confidence to the historical Jesus? Perhaps let Caesar have what is Caesar’s or turn the other cheek? I would also like your thoughts on if the historical Jesus is likely to have said a certain excerpt from the Gospel of Thomas “When you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female… then you will enter the kingdom.”

    • BDEhrman February 16, 2024 at 6:39 pm

      Oh yes, a large number I’d say. I give an account of them in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. I don’t think sayings like the one you mention from Thomas can go back to Jesus. We find nothing like them in his historical context, but they do start appearing about a century later.

  8. high_Q February 13, 2024 at 7:21 pm

    Did any Church Father comment about gospels using another gospel as source, and if so, did they try to explain away the unacknowledged borrowings?

    • BDEhrman February 16, 2024 at 6:44 pm

      Augustine has a treatise on it; so far as I know, no one thought there was any foul play involved.

  9. Silver February 14, 2024 at 10:36 am

    You have written in this thread “A prominent publication of the Jesus Seminar tells us: “The concept of plagiarism was unknown in the ancient world.” “
    In light of what you have decisively shown in your posts (that ancient writers roundly condemned the practice of ‘stealing’ the work of others), have you ever seen an acknowledgment by the Seminar’s authors that their statement was wrong?

    • BDEhrman February 16, 2024 at 6:48 pm

      Nope. And I’ve seen it repeated by other NT scholars….

  10. holdsworthwa February 14, 2024 at 12:51 pm

    Dr. Ehrman, could you please do a podcast on Joseph of Arimathea? And a podcast on the legends surrounding the Holy Grail?

    • BDEhrman February 16, 2024 at 6:49 pm

      Joseph’s a good idea. I’m afraid the Grail legends are beyond my period. But I could do a Monty Python read possibly….

      • turbopro February 17, 2024 at 2:38 pm

        Please do the Monty Python read. Thanks.

  11. Silver February 15, 2024 at 11:49 am

    I understand that early Christians were sometimes accused of being cannibals (perhaps because of John 6:52-59).
    Is there any evidence that some in the early church took John 6 literally and really did drink blood?

    • BDEhrman February 16, 2024 at 7:05 pm

      I don’t believe so.

  12. cstu February 17, 2024 at 4:49 pm

    “But if plagiarism is defined as taking over the work of another and claiming it as one’s own, possibly the charge does not apply in these cases, as all the writings in question are anonymous. That is to say, the later Synoptic authors are not claiming anything as their own, as they do not even name themselves.”

    I tend to agree, although when Matthew and Luke were first written wouldn’t the author have presented it to their church as something they wrote? Knowledge of the authorship is lost to us today, but at the time I imagine church members would have wanted to know who wrote them.

  13. Serene February 24, 2024 at 11:14 am

    I am a paid writer without attribution (anonymous) who other writers in my org can rewrite as necessary to reach different communities — and they also don’t have attribution. The org is the author.

    And the materials sometimes aren’t stamped with any attribution at all if: it’s in-house, or its clear we created them (casual workshops with community) and the materials are not intended for taking outside/wider distribution (handouts, slide deck).

    So the way that the authors of the Gospels rewrite each other seems 100% normal to me? My team leader graduated from an Ivy that produces famous writers, and the time where we cite attribution is when including materials produced *by others.*

    So, different audiences want different relatable voices and rhetorical devices —

    • The author of gMatthew intends to sway the Jewish diaspora

    •The author(s) of gLuke intends to sway Theophilus (imo) the High Priest. Their strength is they are familiar with the customs of cross-culture, so like federal governance.

    The symbols and epithets that gLuke introduces Theophilus to seem to be an Aramean founder revival movement of higher rank than Abraham.

    I’ve been sifting through nomadic Aramean inscriptions like krill 🙂

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