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This Editorial was published in the Fourth R, Westar's bi-monthly Magazine. First published in 1987, The Fourth R shares the latest thinking from religion scholars and writers—in non-technical language aimed at a general audience.

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A New New Testament: Interview with Hal Taussig

From The Fourth R 26-5 Sept–Oct 2013

Hal Taussig is a veteran Westar Fellow who has maintained a long-term dual career in academia and ministry as a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York and a pastor at Chestnut Hill United Church in Philadelphia. Among his several books are Jesus before God (1999) and A New Spiritual Home (2006), both from Polebridge Press. His most recent book, A New New Testament, is a landmark contribution to the two worlds of scholarship and spirituality. Hal was interviewed by Fourth R editorial board member Gordon Raynal.

The Fourth R: The idea for this book in part flows from Robert Funk ’s 1996 call to create a new New Testament and from the brief work of the Canon Seminar in the late 1990s. Let’s begin with a basic question: Why do you think the Christian Bible needs to be changed?

Hal Taussig: Although I am a founding member of the Jesus Seminar and I did attend several of the Canon Seminar sessions of Westar in the late 1990s, I suspect that my reasons for A New New Testament differ substantially from Bob Funk’s. The agreement I have with Funk’s 1990s initiatives is that there are very important materials in many of the documents from the first two centuries that really change the ways we can understand the Jesus and Christ movements of the first two centuries. Funk’s breakthrough concept to publish a “New New Testament” brilliantly formulated how both the scholarly enterprise and the public could come to new understandings if the texts in play were expanded in a dramatic way.

My reasons for producing A New New Testament are rooted in the last twenty years of more than 150 speaking engagements around the country, teaching M.Div. and Ph.D. level students at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and continued work as a local pastor in one vibrant and growing church. In all of these settings I have heard from more than 10,000 people who have responded to my presentations of many of the recently discovered books from the first two centuries of the Jesus and Christ movements. Most of these expressions have focused on how important these documents are for people’s spiritual renewal and practice. And, as so many people spoke of the spiritual and intellectual nurture they found in these new documents—especially in their both constructive and challenging relationship to the New Testament canon, I became convinced that A New New Testament was desperately needed. (In my long collegial relationship with Robert Funk, it did not seem to me that he was interested in the spiritual renewal of the American public. My sense is that his genius was primarily historical in focus and deconstructive in its impact.)

4R: It’s interesting that you call your book “A” New New Testament, not “The” New New Testament. Why did you make that distinction?

HT: It is important to get the longer project of re-thinking Christian “scriptures” off the ground and in a practical, hands-on, manner. But this ground-breaking effort of proposing an actual revision of Christian scripture/canon does not need to be—indeed should not be—definitive. In the book I suggest that other groups should also publish new New Testaments. Our initial effort, although it was as conscientious and carefully formulated as possible, cannot be the last word. I hope that it marks a substantial step in the process of reworking the notions and contents of Christian scripture, but it must not be “The” new New Testament. (Since this interview is for The Fourth R and since Robert Funk coined the phrase “New New Testament,” I would note here that the records of those initial discussions show that Funk was undecided on whether he was talking about “A” or “The” New New Testament. He used both terms.)

In this way, our process mirrors the very long and complicated process of deciding what was to be in the traditional New Testament. Many people do not realize that the traditional New Testament took between 300 and 1400 years to be decided, depending on how you are counting.

4R: You chose to approach this project as a collaborative effort much like the Westar seminars. Tell us about the formation of “ the Council ,” the criteria for membership, and how the decisions for what to include were made.

HT: Yes, my experience of the collaborative character of the Westar seminars has been very formative for most of my (highly collaborative) work in the academy, public discussion, authorship, and pastoral work. I am deeply indebted to the collaborative structure of the Jesus Seminar and all those lessons we learned especially in its first half dozen or so years.

When Houghton Mifflin Harcourt contracted with me to do A New New Testament, they agreed to fund the selection and work of a “Council” to make the selection of which of the over seventy-five “non-canonical” works from the first 175 years of the Jesus and Christ movements should be added to the traditional New Testament. We agreed that I would recruit prominent spiritual leaders from around the United States to do this work, and the publisher agreed to support this work financially, but—for the sake of ethical standards—not to pay any of the Council members.

It is important to note that our goal was not to have a Council of scholars from the field of New Testament/early Christianity, but a group of nationally known spiritual leaders. The nineteen eventual Council members did include six such scholars (including Jesus Seminar members John Dominic Crossan , Karen King , and myself), but I only considered scholars who explicitly saw their work as theological and spiritual as well as academic. Although I intentionally left the criteria for the work of the Council vague, two factors were centrally important to me: (1) that scholarly matters not trump all others; and (2) the primary expertise of the Council members be that they had national experience in telling large numbers of the American public what they might read for their spiritual welfare.

The decisions of the Council were made within the following parameters:

- each Council member had the same amount of votes to cast and all votes were democratically decided

- the votes allowed each Council member to express both which individual documents they preferred and how much they wanted particular books, an arrangement that allowed members to weight some documents more heavily than others

- for about six months the Council studied a wide variety of documents, and the publisher agreed that they could select as many as they thought worthy to be read alongside the traditional New Testament writings (The Council eventually selected ten to be added.)

- a subset of ten Council members met in October 2012 to reduce the range of documents to be selected down to twenty, and the full Council met in February to make the final selection

4R: A New New Testament retains all the works in the current New Testament of the Western Churches. Was there any discussion about eliminating any books?

HT: There was discussion of eliminating books, and—to my mind—this suggestion has some merit. But I insisted beforehand that this would not happen, and, as chair of the Council, ruled that discussion out of order. My insistence was not at all because I thought that the traditional New Testament was perfect. My reasoning was primarily twofold. First, it is important to me that A New New Testament did not further the idea that the New Testament is flawless. In this regard, the books we added must be seen for their flaws as well. Second, I believed that eliminating any books of the traditional New Testament complicated the way the new books would be received. It was crucial to me that the main activity that this project would precipitate would be the thoughtful reading of newly added documents alongside the established ones.

4R: How do the additional works add to what is in the present New Testament canon?

HT: I really don’t know all that these new books add. I only had my own vote, and only half of the works I wanted added got enough votes.

I think any final answers to this question need to await the next decade or so of serious reading. I can say that as I listen to the public since A New New Testament has been published, several answers are emerging. Readers are noticing that there are more teachings of Jesus in this book, especially because of the addition of the Gospels of Mary and Thomas. Readers are also remarking on the increased voice of women in this collection, particularly in the additions of The Thunder: Perfect Mind, the Gospel of Mary, the Odes of Solomon, and the Acts of Paul and Thecla.

A third new insight from the public is that there are many more prayers in this collection. Here the addition of the Odes of Solomon, the Prayer of Thanksgiving, and the Prayer of the Apostle Paul seem to underline the relatively prayer-poor selection of the traditional New Testament. Finally from the initial sounding of the public, there is excitement about the contrast between the Secret Revelation of John and the traditional Revelation to John. Both books predict a divine victory over the oppressive Roman empire, but in the new Secret Revelation that victory is accomplished by the teaching of God’s love and light by Christ rather than by the cosmic destruction and military victories that are luridly depicted in the traditional Revelation to John.

4R: You chose 175 ce as the cut-off date for works considered. Why?

HT: Of course, this is a relatively arbitrary cut-off, and I could be in error about it. It was I that initially proposed this cut-off because I did not know of any substantive proposal that a book from the traditional New Testament be dated later than 175 ce. Along with other scholars, I think it probable that a book like 2 Peter could be that late. So I wanted the same standard of dating to apply to the new books to be added.

I do want to add that A New New Testament Council member, Karen King, disagreed with this cut-off date and succeeded in having the Council overrule my date of 175 ce in its initial decisions. Professor King proposed that the date be extended to 205 and the Council agreed to this date in order to add the Diary of Perpetua to the final list of twenty candidates. My response, with Council agreement, was that this meant that we would also need to consider the following post-175 works: Tertullian’s On Prayer and On Baptism and Irenaeus’ Demonstration of Apostolic Teaching. The Council subgroup then considered all these post-175 works, and forwarded only the Diary of Perpetua on to the full Council. As it turned out, the full Council voted not to add the Diary of Perpetua, and this decision allowed the initial boundary of 175 ce to stand.

4R: How do you distinguish between a canon of writing and an anthology of writings? In this electronic age with the explosion of blogging and Tweeting, is there a place for a canon any longer?

HT: These are important and still-unresolved questions. I think the publication of A New New Testament allows scholars, church people, and the public to consider these questions more explicitly than before. I look forward to being a part of this larger process.

4R: Historically the formation of a canon and the formation of creeds and confessions of faith occurred together. What do you see as some of the affirmations of faith that unite A New New Testament?

HT: I disagree that canon formation and creedal formation occurred together. This is an ecclesiastical fiction that much of scholarship has simply assumed. In the first five centuries there was little discussion at all about the value of the creeds and of a uniform canon and almost no explicit effort to harmonize creeds and lists of approved books. Scholars have been much too quick to assume that questions about the New Testament canon were answered definitively in those first 500 years.

To address your question about affirmations of faith that unite the traditional New Testament, I cannot find any. Of course, we have no record at all of what criteria was used in the sloppy and long process of (often implicitly) coming to terms on the content of the traditional New Testament. But it is not at all clear to me that the traditional New Testament agrees with itself on creedal questions. For instance, there is no real agreement concerning the divinity of Christ or the creedally featured virgin birth in the traditional New Testament.

4R: A new kind of writing in this volume are prayers. Tell us about the placement of the selected prayers and how you see them aiding meaning-making? HT: I cannot yet say how these additions will aid in twenty-first-century meaning-making. But it does seem clear that spiritual (but not necessarily church-ordained) practice is gaining in prominence in the larger American public. I suspect the fresh formulations of the prayers added to ANNT will add to the breadth and depth of this new and sustained interest in spirituality.

Where in the volume to place the new prayers was a matter of substantial interest to the Council, although it did not formally vote on this. In my role as editor and commentator, I tried to reflect the Council’s strong intention that the prayers inform the ways the public would read this whole new New Testament. So I placed the Prayer of Thanksgiving at the very beginning of ANNT as a kind of keynote. I placed the Prayer of the Apostle Paul at the beginning of the authentic letters of Paul section. And I followed a recommendation of the Council to divide the forty-one prayers in the Odes of Solomon into four sections and distribute them throughout the whole text of ANNT, so that this rich and amazing poetic imagery might inform the reading of both the traditional and newly added texts.

4R: Christianity has been and is split into an ever growing number of denominations, churches and factions within them. Do you worry about this volume setting the precedent for there being multiple Bibles?

HT: Generally I think Christian diversity is good. So I neither worry about too many denominations or too many kinds of Bibles.

4R: Will this Council gather to produce more works? If so, what additional works do you envision?

HT: The Council does not have at the moment any further plans for additional works. I myself think that we may need the better part of the next decade to try on the idea of a new New Testament to see how much it does or does not help us. However, in that process of attending to the ongoing life of this project in both the public and scholarly domain, I expect to be writing and speaking a good deal.

4R: Can you give one example of how a specific text in this collection significantly adds to our understanding of early Christianity? HT: There are many examples already ensconced in scholarship and in increasing cases in public consciousness. One of the already established examples is how the Gospel of Thomas enhances our understanding both of what Jesus taught and of how Jesus’ teachings had authority in different parts of the early Jesus movements. The significance of ANNT in these already articulated examples is that now both scholars and the public have a chance to read the newly added texts and the traditional ones together to see for themselves more quickly other ways of making sense of Christian beginnings.

But let me also give another example that is not so established in either scholarly or public consciousness. The Gospel of Truth has been shunned by overall sloppy scholarship informed by the heresy-baiting and very inexact category of “gnosticism.” Once one processes this set of scholarly mistakes, the Gospel of Truth reveals a stunningly different view of the crucifixion of Jesus, a powerful call to the ethics of solidarity, and perhaps the most sensual and joyful poetics of the first two centuries ce.

Hal Taussig  (Ph.D. The Union Institute) is Professor of Early Christianity at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and an ordained United Methodist pastor on special assignment by his bishop. For the past fifteen years, he has served as visiting Professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Taussig is the editor of the award-winning A New New Testament (2013), and author of fourteen books, including In the Beginning Was the Meal (2009), A New Spiritual Home (2006) and Jesus before God (1999).

How the Canon Was Formed

Roy W. Hoover

How did the church decide which books belong to the New Testament? When was the decision made? The answers to these questions constitute one of the most revealing yet least known aspects of early Christian history...  (Interested in reading further? Become a Westar member and get the Fourth R.)