This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A New New Testament?

            A guy named Hal Taussig has taken the books of the New Testament, added 10 more early Christian writings chosen by an invited “council,” rearranged them all thematically, added introductions and prefaces, and had the whole collection published as a book called A New New Testament.  He bills it as a way to bring to light some otherwise little-known writings that help us understand that the early Christian movement was much broader in scope than the traditional New Testament would have us believe.
            Of course, there have always been early Christian texts that the church accepted, cherished, learned from, and disseminated, that were nevertheless not included in the New Testament.  Non-inclusion did not necessarily mean rejection.  It did mean that these texts were secondary and not as authoritative as the canonized texts.  For instance, the Infancy Gospel of James was the source for a lot of traditional background material about Jesus’ birth and family.  A letter called1 Clement and a book called The Shepherd were even included in some early collections of New Testament writings.  But, for good reasons, the people did not find them to meet the lofty criteria for final inclusion in the New Testament itself.
            The purpose of the New Testament is to provide as direct a witness as possible to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Therefore, it includes texts that most credibly do this.  Books written later may be valuable, even indispensable.  But if they don’t witness to the event of Jesus Christ, they are not included in the New Testament.  Its purpose is not to give a historical reflection on Christ over the ages, as worthwhile as that is.  It is to give us as immediate a view as we can get of Jesus Christ, by recording testimonies of those who knew him, or knew people who knew him. 
            This may not be strictly true of all of the books included in the New Testament.  Some appear to be a generation or two removed from Jesus’ ministry.  But all are from the first century, or at the latest, the first decades of the second.  They were all likely completed between the years 50 and around 110. 
            There are dominant scholarly views as to the dating of these writings.  Marcus Borg has recently written a book, Evolution of the Word, in which he comments on the writings of the New Testament in chronological order, stretching from 50 to 120.  I find his dating of New Testament books to be somewhat on the later side, but it is still in the range accepted by most scholars.  We may find hypotheses about the dating of the New Testament in various introductions, like those on Wikipedia, in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, or in good study Bibles.  (Conservative ones tend to like early dates; in more academic editions, like The Oxford Annotated Bible, the dates tend to be later.)
            The general consensus is that the earliest of all Christian documents are seven of Paul’s letters; almost no one doubts this.  Most scholars believe that some letters attributed to Paul are likely to have been written by others much later.  But even the later books are still older than almost any non-canonical texts from any part of the Christian movement. 
            No responsible scholar disputes that the four canonical gospels are the earliest such documents available to us.  Some argue that Thomas, or portions of it, are as old.  And there is an ongoing argument about the order in which they were written, and their sources.  But the priority of the four is not in question. 
            So far I haven’t found anyone (not even Borg) claiming, for instance, as Taussig does, that Luke was written after 140.  At best, Taussig is being disingenuous and misleading about dating in an attempt to get his new books onto the same chronological playing field with the New Testament.  He pretends that scholars are all over the map, postulating that some New Testament books “could have been” written well into the 2nd century.  Sure, you can find a professor somewhere who will say anything you want.  But that is not mainstream scholarship.           
            Of the writings added to the New Testament in Taussig’s book, all ten of them derive from the 2nd, or even the early 3rd, century.  This dating is according to the introductions to these writings in the seminal collection, The Nag Hammadi Library, which is where Taussig got them.  So, in order to include these books in anything close to the same time-frame with the canonicals, one has to argue for the latest possible dates for the books of the New Testament, and the earliest probable dates for the ten.  Can this be done without a bias towards a particular outcome?  And even then, the canonicals are still mostly earlier, sometimes by decades. 
            In short, what Taussig and his compatriots have done is take a 1st century collection and added to it a bunch of books from the 2nd century.  Presenting them mixed and rearranged thematically together in one volume certainly makes it seem like they all come from the same time period.  But they do not.  If these ten writings were included in Borg’s book, all would have to be tacked on the end.
            So it becomes clear that these books were not originally included in the New Testament because the people of the time didn’t find them to be a credible witness to Jesus’ life.  They were not old enough.  I suspect that the canon was effectively closed simply because no more books were emerging from the first century.
            My guess is that documents were received, accepted, and considered authoritative on their merits by local communities.  Books were expensive, rare, and took a lot of time and energy to copy.  If a community obtained a book a decision would have to be made whether it was worth making copies to keep and pass around.  Our current New Testament is the collection of books the people decided were worth retaining, reproducing, and sharing. 
            This would have been an organic, decentralized, and populist process.  Some books were copied extensively and started showing up everywhere.  Other books were not finding wide use.  They were probably kept on the shelf, and eventually boxed up and put in storage… like the collection discovered near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945.
            It is not an uncommon procedure in some circles to pretend that, by the 4th century, the church had all these books to choose from, and some venal and oppressive church hierarchy chose only a few that suited their agenda and imposed them on the people, brutally suppressing the rest.  I suppose framing it that way satisfies some modern fantasies, but it is not true.  And the thing that gets me is that these scholars know this, yet for whatever reasons – probably having to do with book marketing and a hatred of fundamentalism – they continue to go on NPR and the Discovery Channel, and willfully leave the wrong impression with an unsuspecting general public.
            We see from the current canon that the church was not afraid of wide theological diversity.  The books of the New Testament are remarkably broad in their perspectives on the event to which they witness.  Any text for which a good case could be made that it came from the first century, would certainly have been too valuable not to be preserved, copied, shared, and included in the canon.       
            The question about A New New Testament is: Why?  Taussig has taken it upon himself to decide that “the spiritual thirsts of our day need more nourishment,” as he says in his Preface.  Leaving aside the hubris and presumption of that statement (and his whole project), the New Testament was not compiled to quench the spiritual thirst of anyone’s day.  It was just to tell us about the revelation of God’s love in Jesus Christ.    
            He also worries about “churches’ strangleholds on what they deem to be unarguable truth about a certain kind of Jesus.”  Thus, Taussig first betrays his disgust with “churches.”  As suggested earlier, the New Testament was formed by the church, that is, by people of faith gathered for worship and teaching.  The New Testament was shaped by the community to which it belongs.           
            Taussig’s apparent mistrust of faith communities is further revealed in his use of the rather negative term “stranglehold” to describe the way churches keep their images of Jesus.  I guess he is referring to stereotypical conservative and evangelical churches who might maintain images of Jesus he doesn’t like.  I get that.  I too am disgusted by the false depiction of Jesus as an armed, white, middle-class American.  However, I find it more fruitful to point out how such images of Jesus contradict the Jesus we see in the four gospels we already have.
            In short, I fully intend to maintain my own “stranglehold” on what I deem to be “unarguable truth” about Jesus.  For the Jesus presented in the canonical gospels is all about liberation, forgiveness, inclusion, welcoming, equality, healing, non-violence, economic justice, and walking lightly on the earth.  In short, he embodies the shalom and agape of God.  He proclaims God’s Kingdom over-against the empires of his day, and establishes alternative communities based on blessing and sharing.  We do not have to dig up some obscure and tattered “new” papyrus from the desert someplace to find this Jesus.  He is right there in the New Testament.
            My concern is that adding this later, eccentric material to the New Testament only serves to dilute its inherent and essential anti-imperialism.  Frankly, some of the books added by Taussig’s council show a bias towards a Gnostic, anti-creation, spiritual escapism that deflates the pointed political character of the New Testament, which has an anti-imperialist apocalypticism at its core.
            For instance, Taussig includes The Secret Revelation of John, (more commonly called The Apocryphon of John) a late 2nd century text full of metaphysical and, well, bizarre, mythology.  Contrast this exercise in esoteric symbolism with the canonical book of Revelation, a highly symbolic, yet thoroughly political, description of the collapse of Imperial Rome as an indication of the fate of all empires, culminating in Christ’s reign of peace.
            Then there is a book called The Gospel of Truth, written in the second half of the 2nd century.  This is another highly mythologized take on Jesus, in which he comes into the world with true knowledge, but gets crucified by a personified feminine figure called Error.  Once again, it is a depoliticized version of the gospel.
            So, while the much-maligned orthodox were following the Jesus of the New Testament in building communities of peace and serving needy people, and often being harassed (or worse) by Roman authorities for it, there were also these other people claiming to be Christians who had a depoliticized, collaborationist, gnostic (that is, focused on the personal acquisition of spiritual knowledge) application of the faith that would not have bothered Rome at all.  I imagine that if the Roman government was paying attention, they might even be inclined to support and encourage this harmless, irrelevant, distracting version of this increasingly bothersome Jesus movement. 
            Hence, I fail to understand the value of adding these books to our New Testament.  They come from a different historical era, and they contradict, or at least disregard, the most important counter-cultural strands of the New Testament.  In an era dominated by our own version of imperialism in the form of globalized capitalism, how are we helped by watering-down the New Testament with documents that preach a non-political, otherworldly message?
            Maybe the reason why these writings did not make the cut in the first place is that they had little to say to ordinary people living under the domination of Empire, but appealed instead to a wealthy, privileged class who were content to feed on Empire’s spoils, and who thought of themselves as a spiritual elite.
            All of these writings and more have been available in many formats for decades.  You can get several different editions on Amazon today.  (Search “Gnostic gospels.”  Some of these books have an even more sensationalistic titles than A New New Testament.  They’re all about “secret,” “lost,” “forbidden,” “hidden,” and so forth.)  These books do shed some light on the development of Christianity in the 2nd through the 4th centuries.  They show different roads not traveled, and it helps to be aware of them.  Christianity certainly did not always take the right path historically, especially after the 4th century.  We have not been very faithful to Jesus.  But the Jesus we have failed is the Jesus we see in the New Testament.
            And that’s the point.  In our time, following Jesus, in the sense of living according to his example of non-violence, justice, healing, inclusion, forgiveness, peace, and love, is really important.  Attempting to mix in elements of other far less political and more spiritually escapist versions of Jesus doesn’t help us fight today’s empire.  Just the opposite.  It distracts from discipleship and its cost.

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