Is the Bible Plagiarized?

It’s the predictable and inevitable reaction when you tell a Mormon that the Book of Mormon is plagiarized.  Their next argument is usually “if the Book of Mormon is plagiarized, then so is the Bible.”  It’s as if they’re all reading from the same script, but it’s really deeper than that: the Mormon thought-process is basically wired for self-destruction, so that any effort to discredit  the Book of Mormon prompts them to question the authenticity of the Bible.  If you won’t let them have their Book of Mormon, then they won’t let you have your Bible either.  Unfortunately, this many times results in ex-Mormons who are vehemently anti-religion altogether.

Of course, I can’t really blame them for asking this question.  It’s actually a very important one, which more Christians ought to know how to answer.  Every now and then I see an atheist copy+paste a spam essay on a Christian or religion message board insinuating this very thing.  It always consists of shameless ignorance on the definition of plagiarism mixed with outright deception, and yet it often goes unchallenged.

First of all, when Mormons attempt to argue plagiarism in the Bible, it’s because they don’t understand the difference between the Bible’s chronological sourcing and the Book of Mormon’s anachronistic sourcing.  Merely quoting a previously existing Scripture or sharing the same source as another isn’t in itself plagiarizing.  On the other hand, claiming your work was written 2,000 years ago while quoting texts that were unavailable at that time is definitely  plagiarism.  Quotes of earlier writings in the Bible don’t affect its credibility, but for the Book of Mormon to be true these similar passages cannot be mere quotations, they must be the author’s original idea or else the Book of Mormon is a 19th century fraud.

People often think plagiarism is just about failing to cite sources, when it’s more about taking credit for somebody else’s idea.  The Bible isn’t a term paper and shouldn’t be held to the today’s technical academic standards of citing sources.  Since footnotes were non-existent at the time, virtually every book in circulation at the time could be accused of plagiarism by those standards.  A term paper isn’t considered plagiarism just for failing to cite a reference, it becomes plagiarism when the author claims another work as their own, and this standard is all we need to use to evaluate the Bible.

pla·gia·rism/ˈplājəˌrizəm/ Noun: The practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own. 

Most of the quotes of the Jewish Scriptures in the New Testament already credit their source in the text anyway, so there’s no question there.  But what about the ones that don’t (for example, Mark 4:12)?  To suggest this is plagiarism, one would have to argue that Christ’s Jewish audience was either unfamiliar with their own Scriptures, or had no access to the book of Isaiah, and that the Gospel writer was trying to pass this off as Christ’s own, original composition.  Both premises are untenable and absurd.  Even if some members of the audience didn’t know where the material came from, that wouldn’t change the author’s intent.  On more than one occasion, I’ve actually had atheists tell me “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32) or that Jesus should have told his followers to practice what they preach (Matt. 23:3), completely ignorant that they were quoting Jesus.  Even that author’s ignorance isn’t plagiarism, therefore, because although the author is unaware of the source, these are common expressions and it’s implicit in our culture that his audience would know it’s not his own original anecdote.

The next allegation of Biblical plagiarism is usually to insinuate that Christianity stole concepts from Egyptian or Greco-Roman mystery religions.  That would probably require a separate entry to cover in detail, but it falls outside the scope of this article, anyway, since it doesn’t really fit the definition of plagiarism.  Without any direct quotes, such similarities can be coincidental, or they can even be deliberate polemic.

But what about the non-Jewish sources quoted in the New Testament?  The biggest mistake uneducated Christians make to this charge is to deny it outright.  Their failure to read Scripture as literature rejects any notion of pagan influence if the Bible is to be believed as the divinely inspired Word of God.  But the truth is there are actually several quotes from pagan authors in the Bible, however, this isn’t really the damaging threat to the faith that skeptics allege.  The usual suspects that get copy+pasted all over the internet are:

‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’  Acts 17:28

Here the Apostle Paul addresses a Greek audience in Athens and quotes Epiminedes’ Cretica (another line also quoted in Titus 1:12) and Aratus’ Phaenomena, correctly attributing the authorship to Greek poets.  The skeptic may have an issue with quoting pagans in Christian Scripture, but this definitely is not plagiarism.  Their real implication is that if Acts is inspired, then Cretica and Phaenomena must be too.  This presumption overlooks that many non-Christians are quoted in the New Testament, from the Pharisees to Pilate and even Gamaliel the Elder, with their words inadvertently expressing unintended theological truths.  No words in Scripture are considered inspired on the basis of the religious identity of the speaker; many times they are inspired despite this.

Another such quotes can be found in 1 Corinthians 15:33, with Paul quoting Menander’s comedy Thais:

Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.”

Here there’s no source cited, but the burden of proof would be on the critic to prove that Paul’s audience was unaware that this was not his own original idea, and that he was trying to pass it off as that.  The context suggests the quotation marks present in today’s translations, but non-existent at the time it was written.

The last item that gets copy+pasted is actually the most troubling, but also the most deceptive.  Unfortunately, I haven’t seen it addressed by anyone before.  The allegation is that Paul’s phrase below in bold:

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,”  Philippians 2:12

is supposedly exactly the same as the Buddha’s last words.  If true, this could be potentially damaging to Christianity, since this context suggests no quotation, and would be presenting this as Paul’s own work.  There wasn’t much material available online to research, but my first hint that this was a manufactured controversy was the fact that not even Buddhist websites made this claim.  The second clue was that these skeptics never cited their source for the Buddha’s words.  I’ve learned the more unverifiable one makes their claims, the less likely they are to be true.

Trying to trace a particular quote within Buddhist scriptures can present a near-impossible challenge.  Fortunately, the Buddha’s last words was a useful lead, otherwise it may have been hopeless.  The entire Buddhist catalogue is colossally huge compared with the Christian canon, and no branch of Buddhism shares the exact same canon as another.  Transferred from oral Sanskrit to the abbreviated Pali language in the 1st century BC, the body of Theravada (one of the two principle denominations of Buddhism) scriptures became known as the Pali canon.  This can be confusing because this source is still considered the Pali canon even when translated into other languages.  To further complicate the matter, the Pali canon became the basis for other canons, as in Chinese and Tibetan, but while much of the suttas and contents are the same, the differences are substantial enough that these cannot be considered translations, but rather completely separate works.  For instance, the Tibetan omits the Buddha’s last words altogether in this passage.  With such a complex language diversity in the canon, translators must usually consult multiple different languages when rendering a passage in English, which produces a wide range of readings.

Eventually, I was able to home in on the exact passage, which I located in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (The Great Passing), the 16th and longest sutta in the Digha Nikaya, one of five collections in the Sutta Pitaka, the second of the three principle categories in the Pali canon (yes, finding one verse is just a little easier than finding a needle in a haystack).

Using Wisdom Publication’s translation and versification:

“Then the Lord said to the monks, ‘Now monks, I declare to you: all conditioned things are of a nature to decay–strive on untiringly.’  These were the Tathagata’s [Buddha’s] last words.”  Digha Nikaya 16.6.7

Here we see that “strive on untiringly”, or even the alternative “accomplish earnestly” have no similarity to Paul’s “work out your salvation”, neither idiomatically nor thematically.  Giving the skeptic the benefit of the doubt, I did find a turn-of-the century English translation (Rhys David, 1890-1910) with these words, but this would be influenced by the Pauline wording, and not visa versa.  This is clearly an attempt at deception, since the skeptic who presents this argument always omits their source, an irony considering that’s a mistep usually made by those committing plagiarism, not by those accusing others of it.  It always amuses me when skeptics ridicule Christians for their beliefs, yet their reasons for not believing Christianity are verifiably false.

Understanding what is and what is not plagiarism is a prerequisite to being able to accuse others of plagiarism.  These accusations should never be taken lightly.  Proven plagiarism like in the Book of Mormon is reason alone to reject it, just as claims proven false should bring into question the integrity of the accuser.  The literary litmus test is the undoing of false scripture, whereas the Bible passes the test.  The study of source material in the Bible is not a taboo subject that Christians should avoid, instead it should be understood in the way that it affirms the Bible’s authenticity, as both literature and the Word of God.

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Filed under Atheism, Buddhism, Mormonism

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