A New New Testament

Did you know that the NT now begins, not with the Gospel of Matthew, but with “The Prayer of Thanksgiving”?  What, you say, is the “The Prayer of Thanksgiving”?  Well, it is described this way:

A short and heretofore almost completely unknown prayer from the earliest eras of Christianity, it acts as a surprising and tender spiritual invocation for all the ANNT collection of traditional and unfamiliar documents. Its only copy exists and was discovered in the Nag Hammadi collection.

What Is This New New Testament?

ANNTBeginning March 2013, a new book on the NT canon has hit the shelves.  Only this is not about the NT canon, this is presented as a new NT canon. 

The book is called A New New Testament and is put together by Dr. Hal Tausig and 18 other teachers and religious leaders (both men and women) from the US.  They have  designated themselves as “The Council for A New New Testament.”  You can see a very nicely done video here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=SsDXHOzDHVI

So the NT now begins with a 4th A.D. century document from Nag Hammadi which few Christians ever did see, and no Christians have seen for about 1600 years or so.  At least, that is the idea here.

Now, for those who may not know or remember, Nag Hammadi is a spot on the Nile River in Africa where a small number of books (13 codices with 50 documents or texts) were found in 1945 dating from about the 4th century (A.D.)  They are a marvelous find of Christian documents mostly identified as Gnostic in philosophical orientation.  Christian Gnosticism was essentially run out of existence by the 4th century (except in underground movements), and had been the subject of ridicule since at least the 2nd century.  Naturally, as one might expect, there is a lot of speculation and argument over the dating of some of the documents included from the Nag Hammadi group.  For example, some like to date the Gospel of Thomas from as early as A.D. 35 or so!  Of course, this is hotly disputed.

What Does the New Canon Look Like?

Now, back to this New New Testament which is being presented as a new NT canon.  This book includes all of the current NT documents and the following additional books, although not in this order:

  1. The Gospel of Thomas
  2. The Gospel of Mary
  3. The Gospel of Truth
  4. The Odes of Solomon I
  5. The Odes of Solomon II
  6. The Odes of Solomon III
  7. The Odes of Solomon IV
  8. The Prayer of Thanksgiving.
  9. The Prayer of the Apostle Paul
  10. The Acts of Paul and Thecla
  11. The Letter of Peter to Philip
  12. The Secret Revelation of John

Several of these are from the Nag Hammadi library mentioned above.  But these documents are not just “tacked on,” as if you can read these too, if you like—these are interspersed with the other NT documents.  So, it is unmistakable that this book is intended to be a replacement for the current NT canon.  Or, at the very least, it is attempting to grab people by the shoulders and shake the time out of them (while slapping them in the face) saying something like:  “The NT is not what you think it is!”  Or “Look what has been hidden from us!”

For example, the NT now looks like this:

First Group

  1. Prayer of Thanksgiving
  2. Gospel of Thomas
  3. Gospel of Matthew
  4. Gospel of Mark
  5. Gospel of Luke
  6. Acts of Apostles

Next Group

  1. The First book of the Odes of Solomon
  2. The Thunder: Perfect Mind
  3. Gospel of John
  4. Gospel of Mary
  5. Gospel of Truth

Paul’s letters are divided by those considered  (Group 3) “authentic” letters (Romans, 1-2Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1Thessalonians, Philemon), and (Group 4) those considered “in the tradition of Paul” (all the rest).  Group 3 is headed by “The Prayer of the Apostle Paul;”  Group 4 looks like this:

  1. The Second Book of the Odes of Solomon
  2. Ephesians
  3. Acts of Paul and Thecla
  4. Colossians
  5. etc.

This continues with other documents until following the the book of Revelation is the new last book in the New New Testament, which is now “The Secret Revelation of John”  (another book from Nag Hammadi).  

You get the idea.  To see the whole thing, go to Amazon.com   and click on “Look Inside” at the table of contents. 

At the end of the book, a little less than a hundred pages is given to the background of this book, providing some of the backstory and assessments of the documents added. 

Assessment and Response

One could spend hundreds of pages responding, evaluating the documents chosen, looking at the members of “The Council,” and so forth.  But that is not what I will do.

First, for the record, I want to state that I certainly don’t accept this as a NT canon that I feel any obligation to.  (You might not care, but some people will ask me, so I’m stating it up front.)  It is not that I feel they have committed any sin in offering such a thing—–even though this is not quite the process of canonization from the start.  Originally, canon grew out of use, acceptance as authority, and later was recognized as in use by churches all over the place.  “Canon” was more the end result of usage, rather than a list pushed on the church by any council or collection of councils.   This attempt seems rather the latter, and more likely an attempt to pry (by force) the topic open on a popular level.

Second, it certainly does not contain anything new, even though that is the way it is being presented.  It is only new to anyone who is not aware of the discoveries and debates in biblical scholarship since 1945 or so. And in that respect, it could be debated for ever just what books were not included, as well as what were included.  Certainly it is “new” considering the whole ongoing history of canon discussion, but it is still a bit disingenuous to refer to these books as “new.”

Third, this is not really a “canon” of anyone at this point, except perhaps for the people who put it together, and for the many who will jump on board for the newness of it.  It will most likely get a lot of attention, if for no other reason than it is a direct challenge to the current NT canon—–but more, to the widespread notions (and on a popular level, unexamined notions) about canon.  Again, this is an attempt to force open the question.

However, having said all of that my main response is rather this way:  Instead of just rejecting and reacting against such a move (which most evangelical and conservative Christians surely will), Christians ought to—instead—take this as one more of an unending number of reasons why Christians of all stripes need to become conversant with the full range of discussion on what scripture is, what canon is, and what inspiration means.  It is not acceptable for Christians to merely bury their heads in the sand and yelp against such new books.  Nor is it acceptable for church leaders to hide such things from their members, as though they are innocent little children who have no ability to think.  “Protecting” our people from such things and not helping them to think through such issues, or even just showing them only one side of the argument, is not only cowardly, it is honestly just a dumb idea! 

Walking people through such current concerns and discussions does not mean dusting off old notes from 30 or 40 years ago and “reminding oneself” of how we know what should be in the NT and what should not be.  The landscape has changed so much from then to now that Christian readers need to start over and get up to speed on what is being said and why. 

The issues are clear:  Christians need to be actively discussing the nature of scripture, canon, and inspiration.  Not just what the so-called “rules” are for “which books should be included and which should be left out, but beyond that to the very nature of  what we call the most important book in the history of the world.  This is not just about what you yourself accept privately;  this is about what we as believers are presenting to the world! And if we continue allowing ourselves and our memberships to look like buffoons on this and related topics, we won’t have anything to present to anybody.  And we shouldn’t!

Gary D. Collier
author of Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration   (May 2012)

 

One thought on “A New New Testament

  1. Hi, Gary:

    It is now two or three years since you posted this essay on the canon, but I just now read your essay, and, since the Bible is not a “here today and gone tomorrow” document (unlike Facebook postings, etc.), I think I will comment. Someone might see my comment in two or three more years, and find it worthwhile to comment again.
    There is much that could be said, but I’ll just mention two things. In my earlier life, I was a mathematician, and I found that if one wants to study geometry, one has to settle on a set of axioms. An axiom is something that is accepted as true without proof. No logical system can exist without axioms. We must always start from somewhere. Whatever axioms we agree on will determine the nature of the geometry we study.
    This fact was discovered at the end of the nineteenth century, and the discovery ushered in the modern world. At first, the academy blackballed those who studied “non-Eucilidian geometry,” but everyone finally realized that even if you cannot survey a field with it, it is still geometry. It has logical consistency.
    When I started studying religion seriously, I came to the conclusion that the Bible is the Christian set of axioms. My loose definition of the word “Christian” is “a person who takes the Bible seriously as scripture.” The point of this definition is that I have a basis for intelligent conversation about faith with anyone who fits that definition, even if I disagree with that person. I have a much more difficult time discussing faith with someone who doesn’t take the Bible as their set of faith axioms.
    There’s a lot more to say about this axiomatic approach, but I’ll leave it there for now.
    The second topic is the “Third Testament.” I’m not advocating anything at this point, but I find it interesting to think about what the “Third Testament” would look like. Remember that the canon is that set of writings the community of faith has found useful over an extended period of time. It seems to us that this set of writings has been inspired by God. This set of writings also explains God to us and helps us understand our history.
    With these things in mind, I think the “Third Testament” must include the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. I suspect it will include M.L. King’s “I Have a Dream.” It must include some European and non-European writings. Would it include motion pictures? There is a lot to think about here. How is God speaking to us in our contemporary world in ways that will still be seen as truth in the year 2500?
    Thinking about the “Third Testament” helps me in pastoral ministry in a particular way. It helps me evaluate the so called “civil religion” of the USA. Some expressions of civil religion are attempts to deify the US, just as the ancient Roman goddess Roma was simply the Roman Empire seen as god incarnate. However, if the Declaration of Independence is God-inspired (as I believe it is), why can’t I read it in public worship on the Fourth of July? I think I can.

    Gary, thanks for the forum. — Richard Davies

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