Saturday, August 25, 2012

Plagiarism in the Telegraph's obituary of Marvin Meyer

I commented yesterday on the error-laden obituary of Marvin Meyer in The Telegraph.  It turns out that the errors are not the worst of it.  Chunks of the piece have been plagiarized.    I am grateful to Todd Brewer in comments for drawing attention to the following points, which I here develop and illustrate with underlining of the verbatim agreement so that there can be no mistake.

Wikipedia's article on The Gnostic Gospels begins as follows:
The Gnostic Gospels are a collection of about fifty-two texts supposedly based upon the ancient wisdom teachings of several prophets and spiritual leaders including Jesus, written from the 2nd to the 4th century AD.
The Telegraph obituary copies this as follows:
The Gnostic Gospels are a collection of about 52 texts supposedly based upon the teachings of prophets and spiritual leaders, including Jesus, written from the 2nd to the 4th century AD
It is practically verbatim. If the obituary writer is dependent on Wikipedia, it's not surprising that the piece is riddled with errors.

An article in last year's New York Post, The new New Testament, by Maureen Callahan, features the following statements:
These writings, 52 in all, date from between 150-300 AD and offer profoundly differing accounts of the life and death of Jesus Christ . . . .
. . . . The Gospel of Philip ridicules the idea of a virgin birth and of Christ’s bodily resurrection from the dead and anyone who would believe either. The Apocalypse of Paul also claims that Christ’s rise from the dead was spiritual, not physical. The Gospel of Mary suggests a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene (which served as the basis for “The Da Vinci Code,” Dan Brown’s loopy 2003 bestseller). 
This passage appears to be the basis for the Telegraph's problematic paragraph I mentioned yesterday:
These writings offer profoundly differing accounts of the life and death of Jesus Christ. The Gospel of Philip, for example, ridicules the virgin birth and Christ’s bodily resurrection; The Apocalypse of Paul also claims that Christ’s rise from the dead was spiritual, not physical; The Gospel of Mary suggests a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
This is plagiarism pure and simple, and like many plagiarizing students, the author is copying from someone else because s/he does not understand the issues him/herself, carrying over the errors from the source piece.

I am grateful also to Todd Brewer in comments for noticing other elements in the article that appear to be plagiarized.  Take this paragraph from a New York Times article in 2003, The Heresy That Saved a Sceptic,
Early Christians were subject to unimaginable persecutions, and church fathers believed that for Christianity to survive, there had to be a unified belief system, Ms. Pagels said. Some time around A.D. 180, Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons denounced all gospels but Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as heretical, ''an abyss of madness and of blasphemy.''
About 50 years after Constantine's conversion early in the fourth century, the New Testament became Christianity's official text.
This is the basis for the first paragraph of the Telegraph obituary:
What we know as the New Testament – the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles, and the Book of Revelation – was actually born of thousands of texts and gospels circulated among the early Christians. Members of the new faith were subject to persecution, and the Church fathers felt that for the faith to survive, there had to be a unified belief system. Some time around AD 180, Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon denounced all gospels but Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as heretical. Later, about 50 years after Constantine’s conversion early in the fourth century, the New Testament became Christianity’s official text.
Notice Elaine Pagels's characteristic use of "Bishop Irenaeus" finding its way into the plagiarized piece, though her name itself is, of course, removed in the copied text.  The copied version has several other typical signs of plagiarized texts, abbreviation by omission of colourful (and tell-tale) detail ("an abyss of madness and of blasphemy") and the substitution of metaphors ("the new faith . . the faith") that in due course revert, by fatigue, to the original wording ("Christianity").

In comments, Todd Brewer notes that there are probably other elements in the piece that are plagiarized too.  He is right.  One major source is the article by Thomas Bartlett, The Betrayal of Judas, in The Chronicle of Higher Education from May 2008, including here:
As he translated, a startling portrait of Judas Iscariot emerged. This was not the reviled traitor who betrayed Jesus with a kiss. This was the trusted disciple, the close confidant, the friend. This was a revelation.
This is rewritten in the Telegraph obituary as follows:
As Meyer began translating the text, a startling portrait of Judas Iscariot emerged. Instead of the traitor who betrayed Jesus with a kiss, he found Jesus’s best-loved disciple and friend, a man singled out to receive mystical knowledge and a hero who helps Jesus return to the realm of the divine and fulfil his destiny as Messiah.
Bartlett's article in The Chronicle continues as follows:
When the Gospel of Judas was unveiled at a news conference in April 2006, it made headlines around the world -- with nearly all of those articles touting the new and improved Judas. "In Ancient Document, Judas, Minus the Betrayal," read the headline in The New York Times. The British paper The Guardian called it "a radical makeover for one of the worst reputations in history." A documentary that aired a few days later on National Geographic's cable channel also pushed the Judas-as-hero theme. The premiere attracted four million viewers, making it the second-highest-rated program in the channel's history, behind only a documentary on September 11. 
This paragraph is copied in The Telegraph obituary like this:
When the Gospel of Judas was unveiled at a news conference in April 2006, it made headlines around the world, The Guardian hailing the work as “a radical makeover for one of the worst reputations in history”. Meyer subsequently travelled to Egypt to film a documentary about the discovery, aired later on National Geographic’s cable channel, that attracted record audiences.
Once again, there is abbreviation.  Some is innocuous -- there is no need for a British paper to explain what The Guardian is so that note is dropped.  But the note that "Meyer subsequently travelled to Egypt" is a poor summary of the Chronicle's accurate order of events.  And "record audiences" is also a poor summary of the Chronicle's more nuanced statements on the TV ratings.

Immediately after the above paragraph in the Chronicle, is the following:
But almost immediately, other scholars began to take issue with the interpretation of Meyer and the rest of the National Geographic team. They didn't see a good Judas at all. In fact, this Judas seemed more evil than ever. 
This is taken over by the Telegraph obituary like this:
But almost immediately, other scholars began to take issue with the translation, disputing Meyer’s interpretations of key passages which converted Judas from arch villain to hero.
In the Chronicle article, Bartlett writes in detail about April DeConick's critique:
She started the next day on her own translation of the Coptic transcription, also posted on the National Geographic Web site. That's when she came across what she considered a major, almost unbelievable error. It had to do with the translation of the word "daimon," which Jesus uses to address Judas. The National Geographic team translates this as "spirit," an unusual choice and inconsistent with translations of other early Christian texts, where it is usually rendered as "demon." In this passage, however, Jesus' calling Judas a demon would completely alter the meaning. "O 13th spirit, why do you try so hard?" becomes "O 13th demon, why do you try so hard?" A gentle inquiry turns into a vicious rebuke.
The passage is is carried over more vaguely, and with substantial abbreviation, in the Telegraph piece:
In another passage Meyer’s translation has Jesus saying to Judas “O 13th spirit, why do you try so hard?” An alternative translation is “O 13th demon, why do you try so hard?” turning a gentle inquiry into an angry rebuke.
The Telegraph piece, which is focusing on Meyer, omits mention of the rest of the National Geographic team and does not give DeConick's name.

The Telegraph obituary does, however, mention James Robinson, and it spends time detailing the controversy between the two men.  As Todd Brewer points out (comments), the material here appears to be gleaned from an article in the LA Times, "Was it virtue or betrayal", by Louis Sahagun, from January 2007.  But that article does not feature the detail that Meyer sported "a silver hoop in his left ear", which I suspect is carried over from the LA Times obituary, where the same phrase occurs.

I think that it is disgraceful that The Telegraph's obituary of Marvin Meyer is a patchwork of passages plagiarized from different electronic articles and I would like to suggest that they acknowledge what they have done, issuing a full apology, and replacing the plagiarized piece with something that appropriately honours Professor Meyer's memory.


12 comments:

Jim said...

the telegraph has just lost all my respect.

Geoff Hudson said...

Did professor Meyer present an alternative form of Christianity that is just as valid as any other? If so, the Telegraph article did quite a good job on what is a very controversial subject. At least the writer of the article made some effort to get the background information. And this was not the plagiarism of one scholar by another.

Steve Walton said...

Very well observed, Mark and Todd. I'm horrified that the Telegraph has done such a poor job rather than commissioning someone who knew Prof Meyer to write. I agree they need to issue an apology and a proper obit.

Mark Goodacre said...

I think that's what most surprises me, Steve. I have read many excellent obits in the Telegraph that do honour to the person's memory. I can't get why they would commission a hack who clearly knows nothing about the subject. Most odd.

Geoff Hudson said...

Aren't all the obituaries written anonymously by the Telegraph? On reading a few, it seems they are of the same type. Someone who knows little about the person to start with, does some research, and produces an article. It's a cold harsh world, don't you think Jim?

Bartholomew said...

Looks like Mr Gumby is at work at the Telegraph; this has now just appeared on the @telegraphobit Twitter feed:

https://twitter.com/telegraphobits/status/239475127383900160

"Apologies for the erroneous tweet earlier regarding Neil Armstrong, which contained some text from a previous obituary for Sally Ride."

They'd referred to Armstrong as "the first American woman in space"

theologyarchaeology said...

Roger Pearse made the discovery that when researching a topic, there are many duplicate articles. The question then would be, who to credit for the work? Who was the original author of the words?

As for some of the examples given by Dr. Goodacre, being unrealistic about what to say doesn't help. There are only so many ways to describe limited works like the Gnostic Gospels, and with so many people using those variations it is almost impossible to say something original or not be falsely accused of plagerism.
Sometimes the same original thought does take place in different people or we could say that Darwin plagerized Wallace or vice versa.
I think people are too quick to accuse these days instead of stopping and seeing the whole story first.

Mark Goodacre said...

I am a little baffled by your comment, theologyarchaeology (please use real names). All I can say is that any student who plagiarized as extensively as this would face disciplinary proceedings at any good university, including Duke. The author of this piece has copied and pasted verbatim and has carried the source's errors over into his/her report.

Todd Brewer said...

If anyone needs another reason why plagiarism in an un-scholarly newspaper is such a big deal, check out the recent blog post by Philip Jenkins, who responds specifically to the Meyer obituary (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2012/08/all-gospels-were-not-created-equal/).

theologyarchaeology said...

I use the wordpress log in and they determine which name I use. I amnot a computer geek and would not know how to change that without ruining my log in.

My point basically is that it is easy to throw the charge around that someone plagerized.

You seem to like to point the finger very quickly instead of seeing that other reasons may have contributed to the sloppy work and not a simple desire to be lazy.

Your accusation reminds me of the accusations against the biblical writers, who are falsely accused of copying the Babylonians when the fact is the Babylonians had the reputation for copying and the Israelites did not. (source: Chavalas & Younger pg. 163 Mesopotamia and The Bible--done from memory so the title may be off as wwell as the page number. Would hate t be accused of plagerizing when making a point)

Then this is an obit. not an academic paper, I think you are over-reacting and making a mountain out of a molehill. The do not have to cite their sources nor does their work fall under the purview of acadamia.

Methinks you are making a big deal out of this because Meyer was a friend of yours and you are taking this far too seriously.


Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Todd, for pointing out Philip Jenkins's post. And thanks to Jim Davila for drawing attention to the plagiarism issue in that post's comments.

Mark Goodacre said...

It's really easy to sign your name on any post, theologyarchaeology.

If the Telegraph obituary is not plagiarized, nothing is. It's only easy to make the charge when the evidence is strong. I come back to the fact that a student who behaved in this way would be subject to disciplinary proceedings.

As it happens, I never met Marvin Meyer. He was not a friend, though I am an admirer of his scholarship.