There has been much chatter recently about the new book by Hal Taussig called A New New Testament (Houghton Mifflin, 2013). It intends to combine the traditional 27 books of the New Testament along with 10 apocryphal writings from early Christianity. As I observed in a prior post, there is nothing particularly “new” about this sort of project—it has been tried again and again since the time of Marcion.
This post is the first installment of my review of this book, with many more to come. We will focus here just on the promotional description on the inside cover flap. This is an unusual place to begin a book review, I know, but it is warranted by the imprecise and sometimes false statements contained there. And these statements serve to frame the entire book.
The inside flap begins with the following:
Over the past century, numerous lost scriptures have been discovered, authenticated, translated, debated, celebrated.
Notice that right from the beginning these apocryphal writings are described as “lost scriptures.” Thus, it is already assumed from the outset that these books are scripture, but somehow they have been left out of the canon (no doubt by those pesky, narrow orthodox folks).
The problem with this language, of course, is that the scriptural status of these books is precisely what is in dispute. If one is writing a volume about why apocryphal literature should be regarded as scriptural, it is hardly appropriate (or persuasive) to just assume your conclusion before you even begin.
Next we read the following:
Many of these documents were as important to shaping early-Christian communities and beliefs as what we have come to call the New Testament;
Again, this is misleading. Although some communities no doubt where influenced by some of these books, they were not nearly as influential as the books of the New Testament. I have argued elsewhere (see here), that apocryphal writings are not nearly as popular within early Christianity as often claimed. Thus, there is little reason to say they are “as important” as the canonical books.
The next sentence reads:
These were not the work of shunned sects or rebel apostles, not alternative histories or doctrines, but part of the vibrant conversations that sparked the rise of Christianity.
Again, this is simply not true. None of these “new” documents were written in the first century. None have any claim to be original or early. And none were written by apostles. And yes they were shunned. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, was widely and broadly condemned by early Christian leaders and never made it into any NT lists, nor is it ever found in manuscripts alongside any other New Testament writings. Thus, one could hardly say the Gospel of Thomas was one of the books that “sparked the rise of Christianity.”
Finally, we read:
Why should these books be set aside? Why should they continue to be lost to most of us? And don’t we have a great deal to gain by placing them back into contact with the twenty-seven books of the traditional New Testament—by hearing, finally, a full range of voices that formed the early chorus of Christians?
Here we finally come to the plea for inclusiveness—a plea that will no doubt ring true in many postmodern ears. These apocryphal writings are presented to us as the unfortunate victims of exclusion and oppression, and now finally in the modern day we have the opportunity to right the wrongs of the past and let these writings have their rightful place.
Notice that such language entirely skips the issue of the historical merits of these books. What matters is not so much the books themselves, but the principle that no books should be privileged over any other. This is 21st century relativism at its best.
In the end, the promotional description of the book actually reveals a lot about this project. While this book has the guise of neutral scholarship, it is, at its core, a book with a clear religious commitment. To be sure, it is not the religious commitment of historical Christianity. Instead it is the religious commitment of postmodernity. But it is a religious commitment nonetheless.
Now, there is nothing wrong with writing a book that has a religious commitment. But it should at least be acknowledged when it is done.