A New New Testament, Ed. Hal Taussig (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) $32.00
One of the primary questions you will need to ask yourself before picking up A New New Testament is whether you are comfortable reading religious texts at all. For many Christians, there is a strong compulsion to categorically reject “extra” texts – the Book of Mormon and the Apocrypha being the most readily known examples.
Collected here are a handful of documents that challenge, even at times subvert, conventional doctrine and what we think we know about the Christian Scriptures. Are we comfortable with Paul being a celebrity, even (arguably) a heartthrob to young girls as he is in The Acts of Paul and Thecla? Editor Hal Taussig is one of the world’s foremost scholars on worship and culture of early Christian communities and his scholarship is most evident in the introductory notes to each book (even the globally accepted standard 27 with which you are most familiar). It is there, in the notes and commentary rather than the 10 “new” texts that Evangelical thought will be most challenged. Taussig makes no apologies for his scholarship but presents a more well-defined constellation of beliefs that were being discussed after the death and supposed resurrection of the Christ.
Reading through the notes and the companion placed at the end of the book to better flesh out the historical documents, I was struck at how timely and relevant these writings are in our own time. Perhaps this can be attributed to Taussig’s lifelong bivocation as a pastor and scholar – everything included here makes sense to a mind willing to engage challenging ideas. Taussig seems to intuit this, carefully choosing his words to help facilitate imagination and creativity in the reader’s spiritual experience. Again, his knowledge of early worship practices is evident. Many of the additional texts are poems or songs collected from the early Contemporary Era, helping to better locate the reader in what those spiritual forbearers were thinking, feeling, and attracted to in their own time. Put another way, in a religious environment that celebrates “apocryphal” stories by Tim LaHaye and the unconventional ideas of Rob Bell, maybe we could learn something from the prayers, poems, and prophecies so seminal to those who came before us. Taussig does not propose at any time that these extra writings are canonical – to claim so would be anachronistic. Rather, he seeks to help you better understand what it was like to live in exciting times, and be inspired in a similar way.
Of The Odes of Solomon, a collection of what are so evidently a New Testament version of the Psalms, Taussig writes,
These forty-one ‘songs’ of Early Christianity are most likely a collection from different communities over a period of time… They represent a certain kind of early Christianity in their beliefs, practices, and ways of framing the world. They look and sound very much like the psalms of the Hebrew scriptures, except that they have regular references to the Word, the Light, the Lord, and the Son of God in ways that indicate that they belong to some kind of Christ movement.
Because of their acceptable nature, the New Orleans Council “eagerly chose to include these odes, both for their beautiful and evocative language” and to make the collection in A New New Testament “a strong witness to actual material from the worship of some early Christian movements.”
In a 2013 interview with David O’Reilly, Taussig says, “We are very self-consciously saying this is not The New New Testament, or what the New Testament should have looked like. That’s why we called it A New Testament. We invite others to create their own.”
While this is a commendable effort, Taussig is not especially forthcoming. The New Orleans Council may sound more legitimate than it actually was. Convened in 2012 at Taussig’s request, each member of the council was chosen by him to corroborate his selections. They are not an official council convened to speak for Christians-at-large or even a particular denomination. For all of his scholarship, pastoral geniality, and implicit stature in the Church (measured by his ability to convene councils) it appears that Taussig has a mission he knows will upset believers. In his interview with O’Reilly, he went on to claim the book “is the first revision of the Christian canon. Period.”
As a lifelong student of theology and an occasional heretic, I appreciate A New New Testament and have gladly added the collection to my personal library, though I easily recognize the challenges this work poses to the belief system I grew up with – namely the Evangelical belief that the canon of scripture is closed. So again, one of the primary questions you will need to ask yourself before picking up A New New Testament is whether you are comfortable reading religious texts at all. Taussig’s collection is a good start, but comes nowhere close to including all of the creative expressions coming out of the hearts and minds of the first Christians. Hopefully, if Taussig has his way, it will encourage you to question long-held convictions, establish new favorites, and fall in love with scripture all over again.