In Their Own Words: David C. Parker

David C. Parker [aka D.C. Parker] is the Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham. For today’s “In Their Own Words” we will look into Parker’s Textual Scholarship and the Making of the New Testament published by Oxford University Press in 2014. The reason for this series is simply to show that modern evangelical textual criticism is not some orthodox bastion set for the defense of Scripture. In fact, it seems the desired affect is quite the opposite.

Around 2009 and between my time at Westminster and Calvin, I spent a year and a half at Capital Bible Seminary in Washington D.C. During one of the classes the professor had mentioned that we are continually finding new manuscripts which means that the search for the original words of God is an ongoing process. After class I asked the professor if he knew when that ongoing process would come to an end. With a kind of nonchalance he replied, “For the foreseeable future.” Five years later Parker published Textual Scholarship, and it is to Parker’s words that we now turn as they touch the theme of process.

“We will attempt to examine the texts and the works of the New Testament with the scribes and the manuscripts always in our minds. In order to achieve this, I propose the following dictum, That every written work is a process and not an object.”

Parker, Textual Scholarship, 20-21.

Here of course the Bible is not excluded from “every written work” as if it were unique in human history. Rather, every written work, including the Bible, is a process and not an object. Thusly construed a standard sacred text is impossible. As a kind of Zeno’s paradox the textual arrow is forever flying never able to reach the target.

Parker continues in this vein,

“Moreover, our research, of whatever kind it may be, whether it is as exegete, bibliographer, or palaeographer is itself a part of that process. We do not stand above it. In its text and in its format, the work will continue to change, just as it has done throughout its history hitherto.”

Parker, Textual Scholarship, 21.

And what form did this change take in history hitherto? Parker would have his reader believe that such a changing form has been with the New Testament since the first copies. He writes,

“With regard to the Gospels, for example, I have suggested that in the earliest period of their transmission the individuals and communities who read them and passed them on considered themselves free to adapt the wording, the letter, to bring out the meaning, the spirit.”

Parker, Textual Scholarship, 24.

From the very earliest of New Testament transmission the copyists have been “adapting” the words even of the original in order to better bring out the meaning of the text. “And why not?”, Parker asks. Didn’t the original writers of the originals do the same? According to Parker,

“The evangelists themselves, who evidently felt comfortable about adapting the tradition quite substantially, cannot but have reckoned with their own work being similarly treated in due course.”

Parker, Textual Scholarship, 24.

That is, if Paul felt free to or was comfortable with adapting the OT or the LXX so as to “bring out the meaning” why would he not expect the same to happen to his work? What is more, why not do it now? Indeed, Parker would advocate that we do as much. As a result he is almost compelled to assert that,

“the modern concept of a single authoritative ‘original’ text was a hopeless anachronism, foisting on early Christianity something that can only exist as a result of modern concepts of textual production.”

Parker, Textual Scholarship, 24.

For Parker it is certain that a standard sacred translation of the Bible is impossible, but so is a standard sacred Greek NT because a standard sacred original is a “hopeless anachronism.” And why? Because all texts are a process and not an object as was noted above. Parker then concludes,

“If early Christians were prepared to change the text in order to bring out what they believed to be its true meaning, what are doing if we try to exchange that pluriformity for a single critical text? Should we not be embracing the multiformity of the text?”

Parker, Textual Scholarship, 25.

This of course is the conclusion of most evangelicals in 2022 regarding the version issue. We are often asked in so many words, Why should we exchange the pluriformity [i.e. variety of forms] of versions for a single sacred version? While Parker as an evangelical is bold enough to take the same argument regarding plurformity and apply it toward the Greek copies of the New Testament.

In order to do embrace said pluriformity Parker proposes that “the philologist’s task is to recover the form of text from which the surviving copies are descended.” [25] We currently call this “form of the text” the initial text which is famously said to have multiple referents. Parker, understanding that “initial text” has multiple referents, makes it clear that

“The New Testament philologist’s task is not to recover an original authorial text…because philology is not able to make a pronouncement as to whether or not there was such an authorial text. The best it can do with regard to the New Testament is to use the evidence derived from our study of the extant tradition to present a model of the problems with the concept of the author.”

Parker, Textual Scholarship, 26-27.

On this point we agree with Parker. The philologist is incapable of determining if there was indeed an original authorial text, so the best they can do is present a model. If only the rest of our interlocutors were as honest, then perhaps they would be open to a robust exegetical and theological grounding for a standard sacred text.

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