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Stuart Parsons: Ancient Apologetic Exegesis

Stuart E. Parsons, Ancient Apologetic Exegesis: Introducing and Recovering Theophilus’ World (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2015), 254 pages, ISBN 9781625648099.

Theophilus of Antioch is one of the so-called Apologists of the second century, and perhaps the most undervalued among them. He is widely regarded as the first Christian actually to refer to the NT writings as inspired in a sense that might approximate what many Christians today mean by “inspiration.” (But there is a difference, in that Theophilus also supposed many non-scriptural writings to be inspired as well.) Theophilus is also known for his influence on Irenaeus, so he is somewhat of a link in a chain of development. Parsons introduces the reader to Theophilus’ exegesis, and tries to make a case for elevating Theophilus’ view of Scripture. He also seeks to uncover Theophilus’ mode of operation when quoting Scripture, arguing that he often quoted from memory rather than from immediate, direct access to a written copy.

It needs to be pointed out that Parsons’s work is marred by a couple of misapprehensions. For one thing, he relies on a psychology experiment conducted by Robert McIver and Marie Carroll to detect when a writer is quoting from memory (pp. 46-48, 50, 63). Unfortunately, he appears to misunderstand their study and what it claims to have proved, as he applies it in a way that makes little sense to the original premise. McIver and Carroll had cited a sixteen-word phrasal agreement as marking the point at which we must deduce direct access to a parallel written writing, and Parsons takes this to mean that quotations of another writing shorter than sixteen words in overall length derive from memory. The problem with this is that the sixteen-word threshold was meant to identify a string of consecutive words in a longer account that parallels another writing, rather than the overall length of a parallel account (verbatim or otherwise). Thus, Parsons does not make his case for Theophilus having quoted from memory (although there is nothing unlikely about that view).

There is no question that more people should be acquainted with Theophilus.

A second problem is that Parsons repeatedly uses the term “inspired words” as a category of Theophilus’ understanding of Scripture, but there is room to argue (and others have argued it) that Theophilus held all (or at least most) writings to have been inspired by some higher power, with Christian writings (both scriptural and nonscriptural) being those that were inspired by the Christian God. (Theophilus wrote in a day when all poetry was presumed to have been inspired. He simply extended this premise to more writings.) To refer to the words of Scripture as “inspired” as though that marked them in some categorical way as Scripture is therefore misleading. Of course, it might be possible to argue against the “all writings are inspired” thesis—my point is that Parsons first must do this if he wants to use “inspired words” in a way that approximates modern sensibilities to that term.

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Category: Fall 2017, In Depth

About the Author: John C. Poirier, Th.M. (Duke Divinity), D.H.L. (Jewish Theological Seminary), is an independent scholar who has published numerous articles on a wide range of topics. He is the author of The Invention of the Inspired Text: Philological Windows on the Theopneustia of Scripture (2021).

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