A New New Testament?

Tuesday, 30 Apr 2013


A Buddhist monk, a rabbi, a nun, and a Protestant professor walk into a bar…

If it weren’t so sad, it might be a good set-up for a joke. But a recent Huffington Post article heralds a New New Testament that now includes heretofore lost pieces of Scripture. As the book’s subtitle has it: “A Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts.”

The author, Hal Taussig, is a United Methodist pastor and visiting professor at Union Seminary in New York. He has written several scholarly works along similar lines as well as more popular books such as A New Spiritual Home: Progressive Christianity at the Grass Roots; Reimagining Life Together in America: A New Gospel of Community (with Catherine Nerney, SSJ); Reimagining Christian Origins (with Elizabeth Castelli); Wisdom’s Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration (with Susan Cole and Marian Ronan). This book is the fruit of a meeting convened by Mr. Taussig at Union with a modest group of like-minded scholars and spiritual leaders of different communities. The event culminated in votes for the inclusion of what came to be ten new additions to the New Testament.

Remains of the Jesus Seminar?

My immediate reaction is that it displays the dearth of imagination. Various liberals, it’s the usual cast of characters from the ruins of the “Jesus Seminar.” Given their bios, Buddhist spirituality seems to be the tie that binds. Which makes sense of why they prefer Gnostic gospels to the real ones. And why the Christian church didn’t take long to recognize that they weren’t an authentic part of the New Testament. And remember the reports of the Jesus Seminar participants casting votes for the verses they thought belonged to the proper New Testament? Same methodology with this one.

There was a time when liberals were on the cutting edge of scholarship. Though often weaving entire systems out of thin air, they at least had creativity in their favor. Frankly, it’s astonishing that scholars of any standing in the guild would offer these texts to the public as if they had been freshly discovered in a Vatican vault. Surely they’re familiar with Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian and other ancient Christian writers who refuted these Gnostic writings. It’s also astonishing that those who are so dogmatically committed to late dates for the canonical texts (despite the scholarly trend in recent years) offer dates for the pseudo-gospels that most specialists would consider not implausibly but impossibly early. Evidently, the projected audience for this book is the reader waiting eagerly for a sequel to The DaVinci Code. If evangelical scholars tried this sort of methodology they’d be drummed out of the Society of Biblical Literature.

The key thing in all of this is to see that those who do not like the Bible we actually have are driven by theological motives to spin old heresy as “the other Christianity.” After all, liberalism is the “other Christianity,” which Christianity has consistently rejected as not Christianity. Conspiracy theories abound. A male-dominated clergy (never mind the deeply misogynist remarks in various Gnostic gospels) obsessed with a “blood cult” (Christ’s vicarious death for sinners) marginalized the voices of the ecclesiastically underprivileged (heretics).

There’s a long history here. Various Gnostic revivals erupted in the Middle Ages, claiming to be the true Invisible Church (over against the false visible one). Then radical Pietists like Gottfried Arnold re-wrote church history with the orthodox as villains and the Gnostics as the true Invisible Church. This approach was picked up by the Tübingen School of higher criticism and became part of the mother’s milk for generations of liberal ministers. Those who don’t like Christianity need their own Bible. That’s fine. There are lots of religions that have their own normative texts. However, they don’t pretend to slip in missing gospels to a canon that they don’t really like in the first place.

Which Canon, Which Community?

Only in America do scholars imagine that they can invent a new kind of Christianity by casting votes. Talk about a conspiracy of elites ignoring the voices of millions of believers from every continent and language! Contrast this with the reception of the biblical canon—early and geographically widespread—by the whole church.

It’s a simple point, but I think it goes to the heart of this whole genre of “Re-Imagining Christianity” as if early Christianity were an extended Oprah show. The point is this: certain canons give rise to certain communities. Representing the wider church (long before the rise of the Roman papacy), church councils met not to select texts for inclusion in the canon but to discern which texts were already canonical. As church historians like Eusebius recount, the church’s act was discernment and submission, not creativity and decision. There’s a reason you’ve heard of the 27 New Testament books we have.

The Christian Church, despite all of its divisions, received these as their normative scriptures from the beginning. They were in use as sacred Scripture in churches stretching from the shores of the Atlantic to the far reaches of Asia. Clement of Rome quotes from 10 of the 27 books in 95 AD; Polycarp, 16 of them in 120 AD, and so on. They are appealed to as the final court of appeal. The Church only felt obliged to settle the issue when Gnostics tried to add their own scriptures, radically different in worldview, doctrine, practice, and historical connection to the apostolic communities. The first orthodox canon that we know about is the Muratorian Fragment, which may date as early as 170 AD.

Various Gnostic sects arose as parasitical on Christianity—drawing from biblical imagery and terms, but entirely subverting the biblical message. By any standard of critical scholarship—the language used, historical references, etc.—these are much later than the earlier texts that became normative the new covenant community soon after they were written. The claim of A New New Testament that the ancient church was playfully enjoying a symphony of texts beyond these is nothing more than the projection of contemporary heirs of the ancient heretics.

By the way, it’s worth mentioning that this argument only works if, with the ancient church, we believe that the Word is the mother and the church is the offspring. The Word spoken by the apostles created the church; then whatever the Holy Spirit wished to have committed to writing as the new covenant constitution became the basis for preaching, teaching, worship and discipline. If the church created rather than recognized the canonical Word as the voice of its Great Shepherd, then two problems arise. First, we must discount the way in which the earliest Christian writers appealed to Scripture, imposing the anachronism of a later (medieval) development. Second, we have little to say when writers like Hal Taussig, Elaine Pagels, Karen King, John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman, and others claim that the only reason we have these 27 books is the arbitrary will of a circle of leaders claiming the mantle of the apostles.

In the next post, my friend Michael Kruger, who has read the book in advance of its release, will offer a specialist’s interpretation. His doctoral dissertation at the University of Edinburgh (under Larry Hurtado) was on non-canonical literature of the early Christian period. Since then, he has written helpful studies bearing on this topic. With Andreas Kostenberger, he is the author of The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity. His own recent book, Canon Revisited, is the new gold standard on the subject. Michael Kruger teaches New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), where he is also President.


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