Restoring Books Excluded from the New Testament

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.

A New New Testament

Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

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 FarrinCassandra 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.

9 replies
  1. Gene Stecher says:

    If one wishes to hear the voice of Lady Wisdom, I suggest listening to 30 tracks of Aretha Franklin while running around doing Christmas shopping. That cleared the cobwebs out for me this morning. Or one could also read the JS identified sayings of Jesus. He seems to have projected a benevolent male onto the universe who spoke with Lady Wisdom’s voice: talk about bisexuality. If I wanted to take an unfair look at NNT, and apparently I do, it’s mostly about those who are ticked off that 2nd-3rd century predominantly female perspectives didn’t get included with predominantly 1st-2nd century male perspectives. I favor taking the books voted upon and putting them in a separate volume entitled A Really New Testament. And by the way, those who voted on these texts were obviously not your average intelligent pew sitting church goer, but mostly a very small number of scholarly intellectual types, you know, the kind, according to Taussig that picked the first NT. Apparently, they are the only ones who know how to pick truly inspirational literature. But, this I have to say, Thunder Perfect Mind is a truly great poem, and I’d love to hear Aretha Franklin sing it with R E S P E C T.

    Reply
    • Cassandra says:

      Gene, let me know when you convince Aretha to sing it, and I will totally buy that! There is something very much R-E-S-P-E-C-T about it.

      On another note, sorry for my silence in the comments lately. I have *almost* recovered from the Fall Meeting. One more report, on Raheel Raza’s presentation about the Qur’an, to go!

      I hadn’t really considered that the gendered perspectives we have belong to that later generation. If there were earlier ones, we don’t have them. I wonder if it was some kind of shift more broadly in the Roman Empire that led to that, or whether it had something to do with the Egyptian cultural context of Nag Hammadi. I read around that a bit as I was writing this post. I’d be interested in knowing if anybody here has read much about the Isis cult, which for all I know may have influenced Thunder, too.

      Reply
  2. Gene Stecher says:

    For all future printings of NNT I nominate Aretha Franklin’s1968 soul hit “Natural woman”, understood in the Anthems for Jesus genre, as the introductory composition to the rest of the writings. For those who object to the “kiss” visual, think of it as “kiss of grace.” Feminine/masculine orientation can be flipped by substituting “man” for “woman.” The word “natural” is open to many interpretations including either expectation of resurrection (1st/2nd century) or the return of the soul/inner light to its divine origins (2nd/3rd centuries).

    NATURAL WOMAN

    Looking out on the morning rain
    I used to feel so uninspired
    And when I knew I had to face another day
    Lord, it made me feel so tired
    Before the day I met you, life was so unkind
    But you’re the key to my peace of mind

    ‘Cause you make me feel, you make me feel
    You make me feel like a natural woman

    When my soul was in the lost-and-found
    You came along to claim it
    I didn’t know just what was wrong with me
    Till your kiss helped me name it
    Now I’m no longer doubtful of what I’m living for
    And if I make you happy I don’t need to do more

    ‘Cause you make me feel, you make me feel
    You make me feel like a natural woman

    Oh, baby, what you’ve done to me?
    You make me feel so good inside
    And I just want to be close to you
    You make me feel so alive

    You make me feel, you make me feel
    You make me feel like a natural woman

    You make me feel, you make me feel
    You make me feel like a natural woman

    Gene

    Reply
  3. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Then I wonder how much of our view of the ancient world is distorted by what we read in the Bible. For instance, had I been reading Musonius Rufus or those of his school (like Dio C. and Epictetus), instead of learning that women should keep their mouths shut and their heads covered, like the Pastorals and in 1 Corinthians, I might have learned, “When someone asked him if women too should study philosophy, he began to discourse on the theme that they should, in somewhat the following manner. Women as well as men, he said, have received from the gods the gift of reason, which we use in our dealings with one another and by which we judge whether a thing is good or bad, right or wrong. Likewise the female has the same senses as the male; namely sight, hearing, smell, and the others. Also both have the same parts of the body, and one has nothing more than the other. Moreover, not men alone, but women too, have a natural inclination toward virtue and the capacity for acquiring it, and it is the nature of women no less than men to be pleased by good and just acts and to reject the opposite of these. If this is true, by what reasoning would it ever be appropriate for men to search out and consider how they may
    lead good lives, which is exactly the study of philosophy, but inappropriate for women? Could it be that it is fitting for men to be good, but not for women? Let us examine in detail the qualities which are suitable for a woman who would lead a good life, for it will appear that each one of them would accrue to her
    most readily from the study of philosophy.”

    Perhaps the editors of the Bible just weren’t quite as smart as others in the Greco-Roman world.

    Reply
  4. Gene Stecher says:

    Gaius Musonius Rufus, a FIRST CENTURY Roman stoic philosopher, most active during the period c. 40-80 C.E. A great educational heads-up, Dennis, absolutely suggesting the importance of secular supplements to the biblical literature. Looks like Rufus’ treatise on woman studying philosophy belongs in the NNT.

    Gene

    Reply
  5. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    You can find that, Gene, downloadable at http://archive.org by searching the name. I think it is “fragments.” Cora Lutz translated it. Here is something about training of sons AND daughters. I found it, because it related to an essay I am writing about the lists of bad behaviors in the Paulines. “Gluttony, drunkenness, and other related vices, which are vices of excess and bring disgrace upon
    those guilty of them, show that self-control is most necessary for
    every human being, male and female alike; for the only way of escape from wantonness is through self-control; there is no other perhaps someone may say that courage is a virtue appropriate to men only. That is not so. For a woman too of the right sort must have courage and be wholly free of cowardice, so that she will neither be swayed by hardships nor by fear; otherwise, how will she be said to have self-control, if by threat or force she can be constrained to yield to shame? Nay more, it is necessary for women to be able to repel attack, unless indeed they are willing to appear more cowardly than hens and other female birds which tight with creatures much larger than themselves to defend their young. How then should women not need courage? That women have some prowess in arms the race of the Amazons demonstrated when they defeated many tribes in war. If, therefore something of this courage is lacking in other women, it is “due to lack of use and practice rather than because they were not endowed with it. If then men and women are born with the same virtues, the same type of training and education must, of necessity, befit both men and women.”

    Reply
    • Cassandra says:

      “How then should women not need courage? That women have some prowess in arms the race of the Amazons demonstrated when they defeated many tribes in war. If, therefore something of this courage is lacking in other women, it is “due to lack of use and practice rather than because they were not endowed with it. If then men and women are born with the same virtues, the same type of training and education must, of necessity, befit both men and women.””

      How cool is that! I have never read this before, either. It could easily have supported the arguments of Mary Wollstonecraft back in the 18th century: “If then women are not a swarm of ephemeron triflers, why should they be kept in ignorance under the specious name of innocence? Men complain, and with reason, of the follies and caprices of our sex, when they do not keenly satirize our headstrong passions and grovelling vices. Behold, I should answer, the natural effect of ignorance! The mind will ever be unstable that has only prejudices to rest on, and the current will run with destructive fury when there are no barriers to break its force. Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man; and should they be beautiful, every thing else is needless, for, at least, twenty years of their lives.”

      Reply
  6. Gene Stecher says:

    I was a philosophy major in college 55 years ago, and I don’t remember reading any of this stuff. It truly is 1st century wonderful. I wonder if this kind of thinking had anything to do with why Vespasian exiled Rufus.

    Reply
  7. Gene Stecher says:

    I was a philosophy major in college 55 years ago, and I don’t remember reading any of this stuff. It truly is 1st century wonderful. I wonder if this kind of thinking had anything to do with why Vespasian exiled Rufus.

    Reply

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