Why were certain books excluded from the New Testament? “The stunning truth is that we have hardly any evidence of the process of how the canon was made. By and large, we don’t even have evidence for the character of the debate,” explains Westar Fellow Hal Taussig, who presented A New New Testament November 23rd, 2014, at the San Diego Convention Center as part of the Westar Institute Fall 2014 national meeting. “The most we have is an individual scholar [in the second through fifth centuries] saying, ‘I like this book; I don’t like that one.’”
Why did those in power decide to “close” the canon, or collection, of texts that now appear in modern Bibles? Was the decision experienced as oppressive, as foisting certain groups of people like the Valentinians out of the fold? Or did the people who made these decisions actually seek to protect a certain amount of diversity, such as by keeping the Synoptic Gospels Mark, Matthew, and Luke alongside the Gospel of John, or Paul’s Corinthian correspondence alongside the pseudo-Pauline Pastoral Letters 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus? It’s difficult to know.
Even today there is no one ultimate collection of “Christian” books. It’s even possible that the New Testament didn’t truly narrow the playing field—and biblical literalism didn’t truly have a leg to stand on—until the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. After all, even the best scribe can’t hand-copy verbatim every time. Notes with corrections appear in the margins at the very least, and the entire discipline of textual criticism in biblical studies involves grouping manuscripts into families based on inherited variations in the texts.
Incidentally, should it be of interest to you, scholars of Islam are also fascinated by the question of accuracy but (1) tend to focus on the life of Mohammed rather than the text of the Qur’an, and (2) as a result, must work largely with oral traditions. This is called isnad, the chain of transmission that accompanies stories and sayings of the prophet Mohammed. The classification system is complex and accounts for issues such as broken or unreliable transmission, and closeness to the source. Reader beware: as with the study of early Christianity, the study of Muslim isnad is riddled with theologically motivated logic, so seek out a reputable scholar.
Back to the subject at hand. Hal Taussig is the editor a twenty-first-century Bible called A New New Testament (ANNT) that combines traditional and newly discovered texts. The new texts were selected by a council of nineteen religious leaders and scholars. Many of the new texts came from a remarkable collection found in 1945 in upper Egypt, popularly known as the Nag Hammadi library. This discovery revolutionized studies of early Christian history but has not achieved the same level of public recognition as the equally outstanding discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. One audience member at Taussig’s presentation asked, “How much of the squirreling away of Nag Hammadi texts is political, and what can we do to bring these texts into public view?”
“What I would call Christian fear and scholarly timidity is political,” Taussig responded. “By and large, churches haven’t needed to act against these discoveries because scholars have already done that so well. The public has both creative and commercial force to put behind these new materials. Let’s get to know the texts as a public. Let’s allow sophisticated, complicated discussions to take place around them.” On this blog we’ve been reading Karen King’s book What Is Gnosticism? and discussing some of the political and ideological issues related to the study of the Nag Hammadi texts, so I won’t get into those issues here. The gist of it is the creep of theological ideas into historical research. Many researchers who perhaps embrace Christian beliefs personally or at least are heavily steeped in Christian traditions have continued to give the canonical texts first place in any story of Christian origins. Anything that didn’t make it into the Bible is automatically treated as secondary, suspect, or impure.
Maybe the best thing to do to honor Taussig’s presentation, then, is to share a sampling of these texts here. Of the many Nag Hammadi texts Taussig introduced, let’s look at one: The Thunder, Perfect Mind. Here’s a translation of the full text, but I also quote it below.
The Thunder, Perfect Mind is an extended poem known as an aretalogy—the divine being who self-reveals, who talks about himself or herself. This was a popular form in the ancient world. Here is an example of an aretalogy of the goddess Isis dated to the second to first centuries BCE. It opens with the writer explaining his/her reason for daring to write in the name of the god, then launches into aretalogical language:
Taking heart, I proceed to what remains, knowing that this encomium is written not only by the hand of a man, but also by the mind of a god. And first I shall come to your family, making as the beginning of my praises the earliest beginnings of your family. They say that Ge (Earth) was the mother of all: you were born a daughter to her first. You took Sarapis to live with you, and, when you had made your marriage together, the world, provided with eyes, was lit up by means of your faces, Helios (Sun) and Selene (Moon). So you are two but have many designations among men. For you are the only ones whom everyday life knows as gods. (Trans. G. H. R. Horsely)
This sort of language probably sounds familiar because it also occurs in both Hebrew Bible and New Testament texts like the Gospel of John. What makes Thunder, Perfect Mind unique over against traditional early Christian texts is the presence of a predominantly feminine voice. For a sense of the conversations this can open up, try comparing verses from Thunder and John.
The Thunder, Perfect Mind (1:1, 5–7; 2:1–2)
I was sent out from power
I came to those pondering me
And I was found among those seeking me…
I am the first and the last
I am she who is honored and she who is mocked
I am the whore and the holy woman
I am he the mother and the daughter
I am the limbs of my mother
I am the sterile woman and she has many children
I am she whose wedding is extravagant and I didn’t have a husband
… I am the silence never found
And the idea infinitely recalled
I am the voice with countless sounds
And the thousand guises of the word
I am the speaking of my name…
The Gospel of John (1:4–5, 11–13)
That which came into being in the Word was life
and the life was the light of humanity
and the light shines in the darkness
and the darkness never overpowered it.
… He came to his own—yet his own did not receive him.
But to all who did receive him he gave power to become children of God—
to those who trust his name,
not through blood nor through will of the flesh, nor through the desires of men
but through birth from God…
As the Christianity Seminar also urged people to do, we need to read these new texts alongside traditional texts to begin to visualize what kinds of conversations were happening in Christianity before it became the religion of the Roman Empire. Separating them into arbitrary groups doesn’t help. Thunder and John, especially when read in full, share several themes, including the following at minimum:
- A being, sent out from power/God, comes to those who seek and are open to receiving
- This being takes the form of Word—the name of God or a personification of God
- This being, though divine, shares the full gamut of human experience, both honor and mockery/humiliation
- The speaker uses paradox to convey a sense of vastness within this single divine being and at the same time encourages the human seekers to share in that feeling (or even recreate it)
“Besides the Gospel of John’s Jesus and Thunder, no other ancient (or modern) divine voice presents itself as simultaneously both so glorious and so humiliated,” writes Taussig in ANNT (180). Virginia Burrus, the Bishop W. Earl Ledden Professor of Religion at Syracuse University, sees this kind of writing not as a sign of a “personal crisis” in which Jews became alienated with their tradition—one reigning explanation for the existence of “gnostic” texts—so much as a response to the powerful Roman empire:
[Hans] Jonas’ (suspiciously orientalizing) syncretism and alienation are pointing toward what might be reframed as hybridity and ambivalent resistance to empire/colonization, characteristics which arguably mark all products of early Roman (and earlier) Hellenism, yet differently and to different degrees.” (personal communication quoted in King, What Is Gnosticism? 189)
My own response to this text is startled acknowledgment that the writer knew Paul’s letters. When I was working with the editors of the Acts Seminar Report, I learned that in order for an historian to claim that one author is alluding to another, by definition enough of the original has to be carried into the new work to give itself away. That happens in Thunder. “Why then do you hate me, you Greeks? Because I am a barbarian among barbarians?” (Thunder 3:3) alludes to 1 Corinthians 9:20 and Romans 1:14–15. In some ways the whole poem is a meditation on Paul’s statements like this. “Advance toward childhood; Do not hate it because it is small and insignificant” (Thunder 4:5).
The malleability of the speaker, speaking for the divine, also suggests s/he is emulating Paul, with one crucial difference that I find fascinating: Paul doesn’t mention sayings of Jesus much, but the writer of Thunder draws on both Paul’s letters and Jesus’ empire of God sayings. “Do not stare at me in the shit pile, leaving me discarded; you will find me in the kingdoms … In my weakness do not strip me bare; Do not be afraid of my power” (Thunder 2:13, 17). The poetry that resulted is beautiful, but its very difference is a strong reminder that in the study of history we need to leave room for creativity and spontaneity, too.
What texts have you read outside the standard New Testament ones, and what did you discover? Don’t leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below[divider style=”hr-dotted”] Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.