I have been working through an extended review of the new book by Hal Taussig called A New New Testament (Houghton Mifflin, 2013) which adds 10 “new” apocryphal books to the existing 27 books of the New Testament. In my prior post, I examined the promotional language on the inside cover flap. In this post, I will focus on the introduction to the book (xxxiii-xxvii) where Taussig offers his apologetic for this ambitious project.
1. Taussig opens his defense with the following statement:
This New New Testament is not simply the produce of one author. The ten added books have been chosen by a council of wise and nationally known spiritual leaders (xxiii).
One gets the sense that Taussig is well aware that creating a new scriptural canon will seem a bit audacious to the reader. But his attempt to alleviate this concern is stunning. Does he really think 19 hand-picked “spiritual leaders” are in a position to do such a thing? Really? Moreover, Taussig is even bold enough to call this a “council.” No doubt, the use of this term is an intentional effort invoke memories of prior church councils that discussed the canon (e.g., Hippo and Carthage).
The problem, of course, is that this “council” is nothing like those in the early church. For one, it is not a council called by the church. Indeed, it even includes members who are not even Christians (it includes two rabbis). In addition, where are the representatives from the evangelical and Roman Catholic communities? These do not make up an insignificant part of global Christianity today. Taussig calls his council “eclectic” (xxiii), but it is nothing of the kind. It should be called a “council of liberal, progressive folks unhappy with the current make-up of the canon.”
2. When Taussig addresses the question about the origins of these books, and their respective dates, a bit of terminological sleight of hand becomes immediately evident. Despite the fact that all of these books are second century or later (see here for more on this topic), he repeatedly refers to them as books from “the first centuries” of Christianity (xxiii) or “from the beginnings of Christianity.” At first glance, such phrasing makes it sound like these books are from the “first century” (singular) or from the “beginning” (singular), when in fact they are not.
The necessity for such elusive language is obvious. If he just came out and told the reader that all these “new” books are later productions, not written by apostles, then the reader would see little need to add these books to the canon.
3. Taussig then states,
There is no reason, then, to think that the Gospel of Thomas, which is not in the traditional New Testament, was ready any less in the first and second centuries than the Gospel of John (xxvi).
But, this statement is loaded with problems. First, Taussig implies that the Gospel of Thomas was read in the first century. But, this is simply not the case. Thomas was not a first century gospel. Second, the popularity of a book is not a determiner of canonical status. The Shepherd of Hermas was widely popular in early Christianity, certainly more than some canonical books, but it never had any real chance of making it into the canon, and was expressly rejected by the Muratorian fragment. Third, and most importantly, it is patently false to say that Thomas was as popular as John’s gospel. Since I have already dealt with this issue elsewhere, I point you to my article here.
4. In an effort to portray apocryphal and canonical books as equal to one another, Taussig states:
The New Testament did not exist for at least the first three hundred, if not five hundred, years after Jesus (xxvi).
But, again, this is substantially misleading. It depends entirely upon what one means by the term “New Testament.” If one insists that we cannot use the term until there is a final consensus, even on the peripheral books, then we don’t have a canon until the fourth century. But, left out of such usage is the fact that there was a “core” canon of New Testament books in place even during the second century. When one considers just Irenaeus and the Muratorian fragment, it is clear that the four gospels, Paul’s letters, and a handful of other books were widely received as “Scripture.” For more on this point, see here.
5. In order to defend the inclusion of new books into the canon, Taussig is forced to argue that there is no qualitative distinction between canonical books and apocryphal books. He states,
The common assumption holds that the books that became the New Testament must have been in some way more true, more divinely inspired, or more historically accurate than the ones that weren’t. One goal of A New New Testament is to rethink that misconception. The Gospel of Truth contains poetry about Jesus that is as beautiful as anything found in the traditional New Testament (xxvii).
There are a number of problems with this statement, but I will focus on just one. If it is true that there is nothing qualitatively distinctive about the books we include in the New Testament, then the whole concept of a New Testament evaporates. The whole idea of a “canon” is that some books are in, and some books are out, and that there is a reason for such distinctions. But, Taussig is basically arguing there are no differences between books. But, if there are no differences, then why bother having a canon at all?
For that matter, why limit the “new” books to the canon to just the ten in this volume? Why not add Martin Luther King’s, “Letter from Birmingham Jail”? Is it not just as inspiring, if not more so, than some of Paul’s letters? Indeed, why doesn’t Taussig even add his own writings to the canon? On what grounds could he exclude them?
All of this highlights the absurdity of this entire volume. The title proposes to create a “New New Testament” when that is not at all what is happening. Instead, this volume is designed to do away with the concept of a New Testament altogether. A canon is not being constructed. A canon is being deconstructed. The canon, we are being told, is whatever we want it to be.