Hal Taussig’s “A New New Testament” (and the Open English Bible)
Today’s mail brought Haul Taussig’s A New New Testament, yet another new translation that combines Christian canonical scripture with Christian apocryphal works (a notable recent entry in this category is Willis Barnstone’s Restored New Testament.
Hal Taussig is a founding member of the Jesus Seminar. He claims to have been inspired by a suggestion of Robert Funk (who was the founder of the Jesus Seminar and the executive director of the Westar Institute) that a revised canon be suggested. Funk’s suggestion involved both adding and deleting books, but Taussig only added books. Taussig explains:
So, this book is somewhat related to Funk’s initial idea. It is also substantially different. Funk not only proposed adding new documents to the New Testament but also – with ambitions perhaps not unlike those of Martin Luther – wanted to remove some books; this book keeps all of the traditional New Testament in place. Funk’s criteria for inclusion were completely based on the authority of late twentieth-century liberal biblical scholarship. he explicitly denied any church authority in establishing what the contents of his new New Testament would be and at least advertised that he was not interested in its religious use. Funk wanted the new New Testament to debunk conventional Christian authority, to be a vehicle for the truth of scholarship. Hence for him, the project would create the new New Testament, in contrast to this book, which is called A New New Testament and encourages others to actively consider and produce yet further new New Testaments. A New New Testament was formed by the decisions of a group made up of a majority of church authorities and a minority of scholars and non-Christian spiritual leaders. This relates to the central difference between the project Funk envisioned and this one in your hands: this New New Testament is primarily a collection that is meant to act as a resource for the spiritual curiosity and development of a wide public. Those of us who put A New New Testament together acknowledge that it will have scholarly value but have placed the central emphasis on the spiritual value of reading the existing New Testament alongside some of the powerful recently discovered documents.
Taussig took the canonical books of the Christian New Testament, and appointed a council to select the contents of his New New Testament:
To my surprise almost everyone I approached was not simply willing but enthusiastic about participating. Some people were not available on the necessary dates, and a very few did not like the idea at all. Of the four who did not accept my invitation for reasons other than scheduling problems, three were evangelical Christian leaders who opposed the idea of adding material to the New Testament, and one was a liberal Christian church leader who thought that any such book should include documents from all of Christian history rather than just documents from the first two centuries.
I wanted the council to include leaders from a wide range of Christian perspectives. It eventually included Presbyterians (two), Roman Catholics (three), Episcopalians (three), United Methodists (four), United Church of Christ members (two), a Lutheran, two rabbis, and one representative of yogic traditions. Eleven members are ordained clergy and two are women religious. Nine are women and ten are men. Six are people of color. Two are bishops. Two are or were the head of their national denomination, and one is the national executive for a primary office of his denomination. Six are scholars and graduate teacher of New Testament.
And then he surprises us with this:
Perhaps the greatest thrill and ensuing disappointment in this recruiting process was when both a Roman Catholic bishop and a Muslim professor agreed to be the twentieth member of the council and both had to resign for health reasons.
It would be interesting to know which Roman Catholic bishop had agreed to participate.
The final members of the council are Margaret Aymer, Geoffrey Black, Margaret Brennan, Lisa Bridge, John Dominic Crossan, Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, Susan Wolfe Hassinger, Alfred Johnson, Chebon Kernell, Karen L. King (who seems to have played a particularly strong role in this project), Celene Lillie, Stephen D. Moore, J. Paul Rajashekar, Bruce Reyes-Chow, Mark Singleton, Nancy Sylvester, Hal Taussig, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Arthur Waskow.
Taussig includes an appendix listing “67 major writings of the early Christ movement”; the committee considered 43 of these writings (although, on p. 514, there is some confusion over whether this might have been reduced to 39 – both 43 and 39 are listed), whittled down to 19, and then finally ten were selected (from most votes to least votes by the council):
- The Gospel of Mary
- The Thunder: Perfect Mind
- The Gospel of Thomas
- The Odes of Solomon
- The Prayer of Thanksgiving
- The Acts of Paul and Thecla
- The Gospel of Truth
- The Prayer of the Apostle Paul
- The Letter of Peter to Philip
- The Secret Revelation of John
Taussig adds that “three other documents were nearly added: the Treatise on the Resurrection, the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, and the Secret Revelation of James.” Taussig’s personal list was: “the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Thomas, The Thunder: Perfect Mind, the Odes of Solomon, the Gospel of Peter, the Sentences of Sextus, the Prayer of Thanksgiving, the Prayer of the Apostle Paul, the Treatise on the Resurrection, 1 Clement, and the Reality of the Rules” but only six of these twelve made it.
Taussig includes over a hundred pages of supplementary material at the back (as well as introductions to the canonical and added books. Part of Taussig’s approach can be derived from the title of one of his sections:
Giving Birth to A New New Testament and Retiring the Idea of Gnosticism
(Taussig attributes the “retiring” language of “gnosticism” [Taussig usually puts the term in quotation marks] to Karen King’s book What Is Gnosticism?) Taussig takes a strong, divisive stand that gnosticism is not necessarily heretical at all; rather he maintains that
… it is becoming clearer that the notion of “gnosticism” is so flawed that it is of little or no use in understanding either the recent discoveries [of ancient Christian literature] or Christian beginnings. Indeed, close examination of how the idea of “gnosticism” came to be shows that it is not an accurate way to characterize anything in early Christianity. Rather, according to an increasing range of scholars, it is a modern scholarly invention without sufficient basis in the documents of Christian beginnings.
John Dominic Crossan wrote the Foreword to the book; he seems to suggest that the extended canon is particularly well suited to Eastern Christianity, first referring to the “Grotto of St. Paul” Thekla-Paul-Theoklia frescoes discovered in the 1990s near Ephesus
and then to Eastern icon images of Jesus. He also enters into an extended debate against 1 Timothy 2:11-12, which he sees countered by the figure of Thecla:
The deeper problem for 1 Timothy is not just female pedagogy but ascetic celibacy. That is why it warns, in thoroughly nasty language, about those who “forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from certain kinds of foods” (4:3). What frightens 1 Timothy’s anonymous author(s) so profoundly is the challenge to Roman normalcy represented by Christian celibacy – especially by female celibates thereby out of male control and, most especially by female teenagers thereby out of parental control. Thecla is the specter that haunts 1 Timothy.
Crossan concludes that it is impossible to understand 1 Timothy (and by extension, the entire canonical New Testament) without understanding those documents excluded from the canon. I do not fully understand whether Crossan embraces the “spiritual” goals for the New New Testament articulated by Taussig; it seems to me that he may view the text rather of primary interest for contrasting with the canonical New Testament.
For further discussion of the philosophy of this book, you may be interested in the following video:
I was particularly interested in the translations that this work used. It relies on a text I was not previously aware – the Open English Bible.
The copyright page indicates the following sources for the translation:
- “Translation of the traditional New Testament (except for the Letter to the Colossians) from the Open English Bible, with permitted revisions by Hal Taussig.”
- “Translation of the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Truth, the Letter of Paul to the Colossians, the Letter of Peter to Philip, the Prayer of the Apostle Paul, and the Prayer of Thanksgiving by Celene Lillie.”
- “Translation of the Odes of Solomon by Elizabeth Ridout Miraglia.”
- “Translation of the Gospel of Thomas by Justin Lasser.”
- “Translation of The Thunder: Perfect Mind by Hal Taussig, Jared Calaway, Maia Kotrosits, Celene Lillie, and Justin Lasser.”
- “Translation of the Secret of Revelation of John … reprinted from The Secret Revelation of John by Karen L. King.”
What I have not had a chance to do yet is carefully review the translation in this book. It is clear to me that Taussig’s command of English style is not equal to the task of representing the Christian scriptures; but as you will note from the list above, Taussig had only limited involvement with the translation process proper. A quick glance at the text indicates that it is a far less ambitious translation than Barnstone’s Restored New Testament, even it reaches deeper into the Christian apocryphal writings. I hope to supplement this review with a discussion of the translation itself.
As a book, it is clear that Taussig’s work is somewhat divided between the roles of spiritual guidance and trickster. It seems at times that Taussig wishes to startle us (or maybe tweak our noses) and other times Taussig seems much more conventionally spiritually pastoral in tone. To put it in other words, I cannot quite make up my mind yet whether Taussig is really serious or not.