Melania Trump, Michelle Obama, and the Synoptic Problem

Melania Trump, Michelle Obama, and the Synoptic Problem July 19, 2016

Everyone is talking at the moment about the plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech by Melania Trump. Here is the evidence, in case you haven’t seen it:

One of the ironies, of course, is that many of the people who applauded the words coming out of Melania Trump’s mouth would have booed the same words coming out of Michelle Obama’s.

But as a religion professor, for me the biggest irony is that a great many Republicans claim that the Bible is important to them. And you can’t study the Bible in any serious fashion without learning about the Synoptic Problem, the issue of what the relationship is between the extensively-overlapping Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And so if you have studied the Bible even in just one course at university, you should know that plagiarism is easy to spot, and you will be caught by the professor who teaches New Testament, even if other professors may not have spotted your academic dishonesty.

Of course, we will soon see Michelle Obama and James Corden offering one or more cover versions of songs soon:

And while I mention that case in jest, the truth is that plagiarism blurs into hommage and poorly-cited verbal quotation and paraphrase, in ways that do not excuse Melania Trump’s speechwriters, but are important to understanding the Gospels, as well as in deciding just how harshly to penalize the specific issues we find in a given student assignment.

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  • arcseconds

    It’s a cultural norm, though, no?

    I mean, we have a high expectation of originality in such matters. But not all matters: if she had sung a song instead, we would not expect this song to be original, and in fact we might prefer a familiar one (the national anthem? the flower duet from Lakmé? Bohemian Rhapsody?).

    And of course we happily pass around non-original jokes and recipes all the time.

    It’s not hard to imagine a society not far from our own, where it’s just expected that speeches would lift heavily from other speeches. To such a society, the problem might be that Michelle Obama had a speech that was too new, and maybe Melania would be criticised for perpetuating this by only lifting from one speech, and that a novel one.

    And we have an American example where extensive lifting was (and maybe still is) considered quite acceptable: black Baptist sermons, This is the reply made to people who complain that Martin Luther King Jr. copied bits of his sermons: that the norms of the culture he was working in allowed for this. And I’m inclined to accept it.

    (I think there’s a fair bit of borrowing that goes on no matter who’s doing the sermon.)

    • Your point about cultural norms is very thought-provoking. But the same could be said about all theft, no? In a culture in which treating property as one’s own possession was frowned upon, the fact that no one took your belongings might make people suspect transgressive behavior.

      As for sermons, they are like other speeches inasmuch as it is no easier and no more difficult to say “as such and such once said.” In general, it is acceptable to echo songs and sayings without attribution – but precisely in those instances when there is great familiarity with the words already, and so an echo is sufficient. It would sound odd to always preface “I once was lost but now am found” with “as John Newton said in his famous hymn Amazing Grace.

    • John MacDonald

      In the distant past, historical writers invented speeches to be put on the lips of historical personages because there was no way to recollect the original speech, and the important point was to convey the general sense of what the person would probably have wanted to have said. Makes you wonder about things like, for instance, how reliable Matthew was relating the gist of the Sermon on the Mount half a century after the fact?

  • jonahgibson

    The problem here is, of course, that no homage was intended. Michelle Obama, a lovely person in every regard, is roundly and regularly vilified by the right. I see truly ugly things said about her all the time that have me scratching my head. How can one well-meaning individual inspire so much hate? Now Melania Trump, also a lovely person it seems, is being pilloried by the left because she wrote her own speech with the help of a former ballet dancer who happened to have majored in English. I don’t think the problem is so much what Mrs. Trump or Mrs. Obama have done, or even what they stand for, but rather the swift jump to judgment made by their detractors.

  • ravitchn

    Don’t bring the New Testament into this discussion. The Gospels are entirely unreliable for information about the real Jesus, an apocalyptic prophet of the imminent coming of the Kingdom, which did not come. The Jesus of the Churches was invented by Paul out of esoteric Jewish mysticism; it is not the real Jesus.

    • Patriot

      You don’t know squat about the Bible.