Monday, March 11, 2013

Time For a NewER Testament?

Hal Taussig, A New New Testament: A Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts

The Christian canon known as the New Testament has surely worn out its newness over two millennia. Whether through rote familiarity, changing social mores, or academic obscurantism, the Christian Scriptures have become overgrown with eons of baggage. Reverend Hal Taussig thinks he has the solution: we need to reopen the Christian canon. Yes, that’s right. Reverend Taussig wants to rewrite the Bible.

Taussig keeps the existing twenty-seven New Testament books, removing nothing, though he does resequence the books to support newer scholarship. He supplements the existing Christian canon with ten “new” books, mostly from the Nag Hammadi library, rediscovered in Egypt in 1942. Most of Taussig’s “new” books run under ten pages, meaning he adds only brief new content.

Christians will enjoy plenty about these rediscovered books. The Odes of Solomon, early Christian worship songs, are mellifluous, and may inspire new hymns. The Gospel of Mary and “The Thunder: Perfect Mind” open the door to overlooked feminine aspects of Christian thought. His inclusion of First- and Second-Century prayers gives readers insights into early Christian traditions of community and shared experience.

I don’t object that Taussig makes these books available in lucid English translations. I object that Taussig wants to add “new” books to the Bible, just because he and his hand-selected “council” of nineteen theologians likes them. He focuses on perceived profundity, overlooking questions I would consider important. Where did these books come from? Do they accord with existing Scripture? Will they solve problems, or create new ones?

If nothing else, we have the problem of attestation. Approximately 5,000 Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Armenian copies of the canonical Gospels exist from the first two centuries CE. Compare that to only two intact copies of Thucydides’ History. At a time when books had to be hand-copied, this is a remarkable collection. The canonical New Testament is, by any measure, the best-attested book of Antiquity.

Taussig writes in his introduction: “There is no reason... to think that the Gospel of Thomas... was read any less in the first and second centuries than the Gospel of John.” But there is a reason: because only one intact copy of Thomas exists, and that recovered after being lost for 1,500 years. Early Christian transcriptionists voted with their effort, and they clearly didn’t consider Thomas as worthy as John of distribution.

Not that Thomas isn’t artful, profound, and maybe even inspired. But it’s also short, disorganized, and frequently opaque. It consists entirely of sayings, with no mention of Christ’s ministry, final week, death, or resurrection—which the Church Fathers agreed were mandatory components of “true” gospels. Thomas is magnificent and deserves reading. But early Christians surely omitted it from the canon for a reason.

Some of Taussig’s selections are even shakier. The Gospel of Mary, which Taussig asserts received the most unanimous support for inclusion, is missing so much material that the translation in this edition barely cracks two pages. “The Thunder: Perfect Mind” never mentions Christ, and may precede His birth. The Secret Revelation of John is a Neoplatonic manifesto disguised as a Christian vision.

Much of Taussig’s “new” content is hardly new anyway. Elaine Pagels advocated as early as 1979 that the Nag Hammadi library should be used to amplify the canon. Try to ignore the fact that the Egyptian youth who uncovered the collection handled it so poorly that his mother used several leaves as kindling.

Taussig’s lengthy, Dan Brown-ish afterword, which explains how he crafted his New New Testament, reads like a parody. He thinks a Methodist pastor from Philly has the right to call an ecumenical council. He makes ahistorical claims about the canon process, omitting that Origen and the Muratorian Fragment suggest the current canon existed as early as the year 200. He privileges flimsy, moddish scholarship over centuries of church history.

Perhaps Taussig isn’t kidding. Perhaps he thinks he knows better than 1,700 years of Christians, including Athanasius, Eusebius, and the Councils of Nicaea and Carthage. Perhaps he really believes that Twenty-First Century Americans are more attuned to God’s will than the Church Fathers. And that scares me, because that such “I know best” absolutism has fired such religious monomaniacs as Jim Jones and David Koresh.

John Dominic Crossan, in his foreword, suggests these added pseudepigrapha can help us understand the process of canon, and why some books are not included. I couldn’t agree more. Many of Taussig’s suggested books are insightful, educational, and even beautiful. But does that mean they belong in the Bible? That does not follow.

No comments:

Post a Comment