by Philip L. Tite
This post initially appeared on the author’s blog.
This week the 2016 Republican National Convention (RNC) in Cleveland OH made headlines with a controversial, and somewhat amusing, speech by Melania Trump in support of her husband’s nomination as the Republican presidential candidate. Immediately following this speech, commentators quickly noted the very clear parallels between this 2016 speech with a similar speech delivered by Michelle Obama in 2008. There have been several synoptic comparisons of these two speeches in both video and text formats (click on the link above for a video comparison). One of those images that hit my Facebook feed sparked some satirical comments by several scholars, including, perhaps most notably, biblical scholars well familiar with research on the Synoptic Problem (i.e., accounting for the literary relationship between the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke from the New Testament). One colleague, in presenting this image, commented that this case of plagiarism illustrates why studying the Synoptic Problem is helpful. Others have made similar comments, including an occasional tongue-in-cheek nod to the hypothetical gospel source Q (from the German Quelle for “source”; i.e., the shared material between Matthew and Luke not in Mark, assuming Markan priority).
My own reaction was a bit more convoluted, better illustrating the complexity of gospel studies and, in reverse, the painfully speculative nature of such an hypothesis. Still, what I offer is a satirical, playful analysis of the relationship between Melania Trump and Michelle Obama’s (respective?) speeches. Enjoy!
The analogy with Synoptic Gospels studies can be extended much further than has been recognized. Indeed, Melania Trump’s plagiarism is the product of a long, complicated set of textual influences, redactional activities, and underlying hypothetical sources. Let’s look at an extract (floating around social media) from these two sources in a synopsis:
In comparing these two speeches, note the following elements:
(1) word-for-word quotes (thus a direct literary relationship),
(2) material that is similar but a bit different, and
(3) unique material for each speech
Obviously, this is not a case of simple cut-and-paste plagiarism. This case is far superior to any plagiarism that any of my students have tried to get by me. Indeed, I’m impressed with the challenge offered by Melania or her speech writers. Yes, there is a clear literary relationship indicating direct dependence. Even the general structure of both speeches indicates a direct relationship. But more is going on. Drawing upon my immense analytical talent and modest training under the tutelage of the greatest minds in biblical scholarship (at least that’s what they told me), I would hypothesize, therefore, [btw, notice the complexity of this insane sentence, thus demonstrating my acumen] that we may be dealing with an underlying source (let’s call it Q for argument sake), no longer extant, [notice how the sentence just continues on] but obviously comprised of a simple set of sayings (logia) arranged into a basic structure—a structure that we will find in both the Melania’s and Michelle’s speeches (for convenience let’s call them, respectfully, MT [= Melania Trump’s speech] and MO [= Michelle Obama’s speech]).
Alas, this underlying source does not account for elements 2 and 3. Thus, we need to explore our compositional history further, as there is clearly “unique traditions” for both MT and MO. Thus, we must hypothesize that we have two set of underlying unique sets of source materials, which we could label MTS (= MT Source Material) and MOS (= MO Source Material). So far we have a clear and clean compositional relationship, but we need to consider redactional activity occurring in MT’s use of the Q material. Notice, for example, in the paralleled text given above that we see an editorial transformation of material so as to render the material more ideologically acceptable to the “right” (assuming MO better preserves Q than MT, otherwise the redactional shifts are to the “left”). For instance, the shift from “height” to “strength” could reflect a policy shift from class conflict/inequality toward a call for solidarity through a strong national defense. Similarly, the editorial change from “and all children” to “to follow” likely reflects a rejection of socialist policies—such as dedicating public funds toward education and child care—toward a value of maintaining hierarchical unity so as to reinforce the establish power structures of the elite in American society (e.g., in giving tax breaks to the 1% and their corporate empires).
So it seems that MT may have had access not only to Q, but also an earlier version of MO, let’s call that text Proto-MO. Such an underlying compositional layer for MO would be necessary in explaining the compositional relationship between MT and MO if we look closely at the minor disagreements. The principle of simplicity (so vital for tracing the direction of redactional tendencies in biblical studies) seems to indicate that an earlier version of MO is preserved in MT, a version that was embellished and supplanted by MO, even though MO is chronologically older than MT in final form. Note the following parallel:
MT: “pass them on to the next generation”
MO: “we need to pass those lessons on to the many generations to follow”
In this instance, MT’s saying is less developed and MO adds “to follow”. There is no ideological reason for “to follow” to be edited out by MT. Consequently, we likely have a Proto-MO that would have had the simpler version of the saying, later expanded to the more convoluted saying.
Finally, given that MO has circulated widely prior to the production of MT, it is also possible that MT went through a final revision in light of the extant MO—suggested by the external witness of some level of influence by speech writers on the final draft—, though, unlike the rest of my proposed compositional history, this final component—designated as MT2(?)—is certainly speculative.
So what does this wonderful—and, if I may say, brilliant—compositional history of Melania Trump’s alleged plagiarism offer us? First and foremost, it should make us laugh. Satire should be amusing, even if political figures are anything but amusing. But we also learn something else. Here are my thoughts:
(1) Biblical scholarship, which I love and identify with of course, is filled with speculation, hypotheses, and wild guesses based on very well argued readings of texts. But they are also just that: smart people’s guesses. Sometimes such guesses work, sometimes they don’t. Scholarship is about plausible solutions, not definitive answers. Hypotheses are helpful, but they are always open to challenge.
(2) Despite what I just said, we can learn a lot from over a century of scholarship debating the Synoptic Problem. I have always wanted to teach the Synoptic Problem by having students compare different news accounts, to apply the same analytical methods used in biblical studies to elucidating the redactional tendencies of each instance of a news story. Redaction criticism is more than just identifying editorial activity. It is also an exploration of the tendencies or agendas that may underlie such activity. In other words, what is the “spin” in the Matthean or Lukan use of Mark (assuming Markan priority, of course)? This lesson can be applied to media accounts—including material cycling through social media—where the “facts” are not in dispute but rather the “spin” is being analyzed.
(3) The silliness of my compositional history of the plagiarism by Melania Trump, and I do think it an act of plagiarism and thus (intellectually) unethical, should raise the question: Is this worth our effort, at least beyond the entertainment value of such a news story? In this election cycle there are so many serious issues that need to be debated. Candidates need to be challenged to address serious problems facing society, such as gun violence, racism, sexism, homonegativity, international threats, socio-economic inequality, outrageous educational costs, and political corruption. A poorly delivered speech that lifts from a very well delivered speech from eight years ago, while a delight to make fun of, is really not at the heart of this election, or at least it shouldn’t be. But at least it allowed me to play with compositional histories. And who knows, maybe there really existed a Q, MTS, MOS, and Proto-MO (potentially even an MT2(?)!) underlying MT and MO.
Philip L. Tite (Ph.D. McGill University, 2005) is the editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion and (with James Crossley) of Postscripts, is a specialist in early Christian studies with strong interests in method & theory in the academic study of religion, and is an affiliate lecturer in the Comparative Religion Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. He also serves on the AAR Comparative Approaches to Religion and Violence steering committee and the editorial board of the Journal of Religion and Violence. He is the author of several books, including co-editor with Bryan Rennie of Religion, Terror and Violence: Religious Studies Perspectives (Routledge, 2008).