Textual Scholarship and the Making of the New Testament is based upon the Lyell Lectures which David C. Parker gave in Oxford during 2011.  His title calls attention to the interlinked processes of physically producing and transmitting manuscripts of the New Testament, which he argues strongly have been given insufficient weight in general views of the Bible.  The ways in which the documents, papyri, and books were “made” need to be given much greater emphasis when we think about how we “made” a New Testament out of them.

parker textual NT

Parker declares that we need “to examine the texts and the works of the New Testament with the scribes and manuscripts always in our minds” and offers a dictum to aid this focus: “That every written work is a process and not an object” (20, 21).  His eventual conclusions lean towards a material, rather than an ideal conception, describing the NT as “a set of works containing many forms of text and no single definitive form, which may be described solely by the examination of the manuscripts in which those forms of text are found” (147)

This argument is made through chapters which deal with the general issues surrounding textual criticism, the identity and nature of manuscripts, the relationships between manuscripts (with a discussion of the joint project between Birmingham and Münster which Parker is involved in), the intricacies of editing the New Testament and considerations of what the “New Testament of the future” might resemble. These chapters cover a variety of modes as well as topics: he moves from discussing the conditions of scribal production to the protocols of putting together an edition, and from scraps of papyrus with spells on them to the evolution of critical editions.

A great virtue of his writing is this easy shift from historical detail to conceptual issues, keeping both in view and demonstrating them to be interrelated.  An excellent example is the second chapter, “What Is a New Testament Manuscript”, which complicates an apparently obvious rhetorical question by reference to amulets, lectionaries, catenas, until the overall category of “manuscript” is shown to be almost completely imaginary (though nonetheless necessary).  He also displays the pleasure in irony and paradox which might be a prerequisite to enjoying the world of textual scholarship, and which certainly keep his reader involved.  For example, his statement that the most authentic critical edition of a text must by definition be the latest, since it did not exist until that edition rolled off the presses or was uploaded to a website.  Parker suavely points out that it is only by producing an edition to which there are absolutely no witnesses older than yesterday that the very earliest wording of the text may perhaps be recovered.

The book begins with some reflections on Fredson Bowers and his Bibliography and Textual Criticism, which launch the discussions outlined above.  However, Parker Curiously decides not to engage with the flowering of textual criticism and textual theory which took place after Bowers and developed its arguments with him in mind, whether by adoption or opposition.  I was rather surprised not to see the names of Stanley Fish, Randal McLeod and Peter Schillingsburg mentioned, even if Jacques Derrida or Roland Barthes’ work was not tempting.  The taxonomies and orientations to text which they have proposed and critiqued in the decades since Bowers provide a rich context for the sort of thinking Parker wants to encourage.

His dictum that “every written work is a process and not an object” would find a comfortable place amongst such company, rather than having to be argued as a bold assertion.  My own work involves bringing Shakespeare Studies and Biblical Criticism together, so it may be that I am underestimating the gap between the fields, but Parker’s use of Bowers (and specifically a line about Shakespeare in which he suggested the words “Gospel” or “epistle” could be substituted for “play”) made the subsequent direction of the discussion rather unexpected.

Textual Scholarship and the Making of the New Testament is a perceptive and enjoyable book.  It works well both as a sketch of the author’s critical concerns and a very readable overview of certain areas of textual scholarship.

Textual Scholarship and the Making of the New Testament, by David Parker (OUP, 2012, pbk. 2014). £12.99 978-0198709732  I am grateful to Oxford University Press for providing a copy for review.