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Inventing My Religion

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Yesterday I offered the musings of a generalist in reaction to Hal Taussig's A New New Testament (Houghton Mifflin, 2013). As promised, today Michael Kruger digs more deeply into the book as a noted specialist in the field. President and Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), he wrote his dissertation at Edinburgh under Larry Hurtado on early Christian writings. In addition to scholarly monographs in this field, he is co-author of The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity and his new book, Canon Revisited (highly recommended). He has an extended review of Taussig's new release at his website, but for us here he focuses on the final section of A New New Testament.

The problems in this section are no less abundant than in other sections, so we will only be able touch on them briefly. We can divide our discussion into three sections: (1) historical problems, (2) methodological problems, and (3) theological /philosophical issues.

Historical Problems

There are many historical/factual statements throughout this section that are highly questionable. Let me just mention three.

1. On p.484, Taussig claims that we have fragments of the Gospel of Thomas "from the first hundred years after Jesus died." In other words, prior to c.130. Curiously, he never mentions which fragment he has in mind. The only options are P.Oxy. 1, 654, and 655, but these are all third century. To suggest there is a Thomas fragment from the early second century is shockingly inaccurate.

2. On p.501, Taussig claims that Clement of Alexandria rejected the gospels of Mark and Luke and "accepted only Matthew and John." But, this simply isn't true. Clement affirmed four and only four gospels as authentic. At one point he dismisses a passage in the Gospel of the Egyptians on the grounds that "We do not have this saying in the four gospels that have been handed down to us" (Strom. 3.13). Eusebius agrees and says that Clement affirmed all four gospels (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.14.5-7).

3. On p.506, Taussig argues that there was no New Testament in "the first five hundred years of 'Christianity'" because "the technology of book production was such that combining all twenty-seven texts into one was more or less impossible." I find this statement to be incredible. The technology for large codices was in place long before the year 530 (five hundred years after Christ). Not only do we have full NT and OT codices in the 300's (e.g., codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus), but we have multi-quire codices all the way back in the second century (e.g., P66), suggesting that the technology for larger books was in place quite early.

Methodological Problems

When it comes to choosing the books for this "new" canon, it is clear that Taussig is using a particular methodology. Let me just mention one aspect of this issue.

When describing how these new books were chosen, Taussig says they were "selected in a manner similar to the way historical Christianity made many of its crucial choices: by a collective decision-making process" (512). But, this modern "council" does not function at all like the ancient ones. Taussig gives the impression that ancient councils actually chose books and decided the canon. But that is a misleading way of describing the process. The ancient councils did not just "pick" books they happened to like, but affirmed the books they believed had functioned as foundational documents for the Christian faith. In other words, these councils were declaring the way things had been, not the way they wanted them to be.

In contrast, this modern New Orleans council, is simply picking the books they prefer, not the books that have historically functioned as foundational to the Christian faith. For example, this new council included a bizarre and esoteric poem entitled The Thunder: The Perfect Mind. Was this a foundational document for early Christianity? Not at all. For one, it is not necessarily even a Christian document, never mentioning the name of Christ or any distinctively Christian doctrine. Moreover, as Taussig himself admits, "There is no mention of Thunder in any other known piece of ancient literature"(179). Is this a foundational document? Hardly.

Theological Issues

Finally, it should be noted that Taussig, in this final section, reveals a little of the theological motivation for this book. There is nothing wrong with having a theological motivation, but it is still worth pointing out.

Taussig offers a reason for adding these documents, namely that they "can make a real difference in the spiritual lives of ordinary people" (489). What kind of difference? "[The Gospel of Mary] inspired women to think of themselves as real leaders in conventionally male-dominated situations. The Gospel of Thomas proclaims the radical availability of God inside people, and The Thunder: Perfect Mind reframes what it means to be men and women" (489).

It is here that we come to the heart of this book's theological aims. In fact, Taussig even admits, "These kinds of significant meanings in the lives of real people are at heart of what the New Orleans Council...wanted for the public" (489).

Thus, this book is not about history but theology. Not about the past, but the present. It is a book designed to change our conceptions of gender and to make it more egalitarian. And it is a book designed to give us a Gnostic version of God, a God found inside of us.

In sum, Taussig has produced a new set of Scriptures to accommodate his new theology. And thus he has reversed the normal order of things. While theology usually comes from Scripture, Taussig has used his theology to create a new Scripture. It's man-made religion at its best.

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  • The level of scholarship in all of these "the Bible got it all wrong/banned books/left out gospels" studies and works is always just awful. I can't figure out how they have the courage to even try to get something published. I know its almost a certain contract, you'll get in every book club and be lauded by all the "correct people" but still.

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  • this is heavy theological reading (for a Dane) but I got through it.
    thank you for this blog. always have the Bible as fundamental. there are so many who try to make another interpretation.

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  • Great article. There is always going to be "new" stuff out there to reconfigure the truth into, "something else".

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  • [...] Inventing My Religion  White Horse Inn Blog [...]

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  • Quote: Thus, this book is not about history but theology. Not about the past, but the present. It is a book designed to change our conceptions of gender and to make it more egalitarian. And it is a book designed to give us a Gnostic version of God, a God found inside of us.

    In other words, this book is all about an agenda to affect the religious culture for the temporal purposes of the here and now. This is the age of the Church militant because the assaults against her and the gospel will continue until "that day."

    Thank you, Michael Kruger!

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  • Guest - Steven Hewitt

    "...this book is not about history but theology. Not about the past, but the present."

    While this is an excellent review (refutation) of the author's attempts at "updating" the Canon, I disagree on this point. The book's not about theology...it's about politics. It's politics seeping into the church, hijacking the church's priorities and nailing her feet to the present day. This is reprehensible, whether it's the politics of the left (here) or the right (elsehwere).

    It appears that this is more chewed-over Jesus Movement stuff.

    Rather than thinking "this is the Bible, it is true and we must bend ourselves to its truths", this guy, like many modern writers (modern going back as far as the German theologians of the 19th Century), seems to think "what do we need the Bible to tell us". Not "what does the Bible teach" but "what SHOULD the Bible teach"...sort of like men putting words in the Almighty's mouth.

    Seems to be yet another forgettable book...would that the motives behind it would go away as easily.

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