"The object of all good literature is to purge the soul of its petty troubles." ~ P.G. Wodehouse

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Release of "A New New Testament"

I recently received an email from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publishers about the release of a book edited by Hal Taussig called A New New Testament: A Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts. The book is the traditional or canonical New Testament with the addition of ten texts that have been found in Egypt and elsewhere over the last one hundred years. The Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary are two of these texts.

Hal Taussig is a founding member of the Jesus Seminar, and he gathered "a council of scholars and spiritual leaders" to talk about the various apocryphal New Testament texts and to vote about which ones to include in the New New Testament. I could only find the list of council members on the short video on the website. Some of this group include Karen King, Stephen Moore, and John Dominic Crossan.

The case made in the promotional material is that these ten texts are early Christian literature and some of it "has been ignored, repressed, or known only to scholars." The"council" has attempted to only include those texts written before 175CE. Now, this argument pushes a late date for some or most of the canonical New Testament, and it pushes an earlier date for some of the "new" texts. For example, the Gospel of Thomas is suggested to have been written prior to 140 and it is suggested that Thomas may be earlier than Luke. While this is technically possible, no existing document of the Gospel of Thomas is that early, and it is worth reading Simon Gathercole's recent argument that the Gospel of Thomas is dependent upon Matthew and Luke (The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas: Original Language and Influences [SNTS 151; Cambridge, 2012]).

One striking aspect of the list of ten books is that it does not include the Didache or the Epistle of Barnabas or the Shepherd of Hermas. All of these texts are clearly early and were used in early Christianity, and the latter two were actually included in some early Christian's "New Testament" (i.e.,  Codex Sinaiticus). Maybe these texts have not been ignored or repressed enough to be suggested as being included.

A number of the texts in the New New Testament have only been found in Egypt (although the video flashes an image of Qumran Cave 4 which has absolutely nothing to do with early Christian literature whether traditional or later gnostic material!). These New New Testament texts do represent some understandings of Jesus in at least the 3rd-5th centuries CE. I think that these texts are valuable for understanding various strands of Christianity in the early centuries, but whether they were ignored or repressed or even considered, they were not included in the canon of the New Testament. We do not know for sure how well known or if some of them were known outside of Egypt. We do have evidence that most of the traditional New Testament was listed in the document called the "Muratonian Canon" which dates to around 170CE (over 150 years before the Council of Nicea and the so-called formation of the canon). And it indicates that there were already discussions of what was considered worthy of being read in church at this early stage.

The concern I have is the push within the promotional material to consider the "new" texts in this New New Testament as equivalent to the canonical New Testament, as if they were accidentally or purposely left out.
Taussig states:
"This New New Testament means to assist both the general public and scholars in getting beyond the overly simplistic readings of the existing New Testament and the new early Christian documents as either orthodox or heretical. Based on my experiences teaching the new documents and the existing New Testament side by side in churches and seminaries for the past twenty years, this project embodies a new way of thinking about what belongs in the heritage of early Christianity. It invites the reader to see how this new mix illuminates spiritual seeking, ethical issues, patterns of belief, and social practice. It calls for scholars and religious leaders to listen carefully to the way the public receives and responds to this new mix, and to provide fresh and solid ideas about how to make sense of the ways the various documents belong to each other and to the contemporary world."

The invitation to the reader of the New New Testament "to see how this new mix illuminates spiritual seeking, ethical issues, patterns of belief, and social practice" suggests understanding these texts as relevant ethical teaching within the Christian church. The church leaders (not including the scholars and rabbis) on the "council" are coming from primarily mainline denominations, and some of the comments suggests an expectation that this will enliven "church" for people in attendance. The texts are of various types, but their value for ethical living and a lively faith may not live up to this hype.

Give me the "old" New Testament and the apostolic fathers.

"Beloved, I do not write to you a new command but an old command which have had from the beginning; the old command is the word which you have heard" (1 John 2:7).

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