Tomorrow is the roll-out for Hal Taussig’s book, A New New Testament. The volume combines, with original commentary, the canonical New Testament plus ten other well-known ancient religious writings, eight of them found in the legendary Nag Hammadi trove (and the separately discovered Berlin Codex) of “Gnostic” compositions.
In fantasy, once upon a time, there was a Committee who chose which works to anthologize as the Twenty-seven from Heaven. These shadowy canonizers may be imagined to have met in a great hall, or maybe they sat around a table, each advancing some disreputable, or at least debatable, agenda. Sometimes a Roman Emperor takes personal charge, or lurks just off-stage.
There never was any such committee, but what if you could sit on a committee like that? Oh, hell, dream large. What if you were the chairman?
So dreamt Hal Taussig, a pastor, professor, and New Testament scholar, apparently subject to the constraint that he became chairperson only after twenty-seven books had already been selected. Taussig convened a real-life committee to consider rehabilitating 43 writings, all of them ancient, arguably Christian, but omitted from the canon. The working group chose 19 finalists, which were culled to the book’s 10 during a later and larger four-day “Council” in New Orleans.
If this sort of thing interests you, then why not do likewise? Taussig invites that response. Instructions and measured drawings for his DIY New Testament follow, or you can customize the project and do your canon your way.
The Uncertaintist does not intend that this article to be a substitute for Taussig’s book. Extensive learned commentary appears there, and its English translations are distinctive, too. You may sample these features for free and at generous length here:
Nevertheless, “Build or buy?” is a fundamental project decision, and it is reasonable to explore the merits of whether assembling this or some other set of ancient texts on your own might better serve your interests. Let the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, present the case to buy,
while our thoughts now turn to the option to build.
The Open English Bible
Most of the New New Testament is the old New Testament. Taussig relies heavily on the Open English Bible for the canonical part of his work. The publisher’s webite is here:
The OEB is distributed under a “Creative Commons Zero” license, which is to say that, in the opinion of the people offering it, it is in the public domain. This status is suitable for Taussig’s purpose, since it means that its text can be edited and then redistributed free of royalties, as a new work that is not in the public domain.
The OEB is a “meta translation,” edited together from other public domain English translations, especially the 1904 Twentieth Century New Testament, and reconciled with the public domain Greek New Testament of Westcott and Hort. Details and links are at the publisher’s website.
For a do-it-yourselfer, the OEB may or may not be suitable. It is a not a “study Bible,” lacking footnotes with commentary, alternate translations, and cross-referencing. Public domain sources also mean that the translation is dated, as if critical reading of the text froze about a century ago. Thus, undisputed Mark ends at 16: 8, followed by the canonical and one shorter ending as appendices. On the other hand, Luke 22: 44, the “blood sweat” incident, is presented without any indication that it is disputed based on divergent manuscript witness.
So you want to read the Gnostics?
The heavy reliance of the Twice New Testament on the famous Nag Hammadi cache and Berlin Codex inspires the obvious question, Why not buy the whole thing? An excellent English-language edition, with both collection-level and individual item-level scholarly commentary, has been available for about 25 years, The Nag Hammadi Library, James M. Robinson, editor; Harper Collins, 1988.
For all of the individual ancient works mentioned in this article, free online sources appear at the end of the story. As already noted, translations in these linked resources are generally not those used in 2NT.
Some of Taussig’s choices from the Gnostic library are, with all due respect for the careful and inclusive process he used, no-brainers. The Gospels of Thomas, of Truth and of Mary are frequent topics of both lay and professional discussion. Two others are surprising, with the same respect for the process, because it is unclear that they even were Christian works, The Thunder: Perfect Mind and the Hermetic – or was it eucharistic? – Thanksgiving Prayer.
The remaining three are The Apocryphon of John (also known as The Secret Revelation of John), the Letter of Peter to Philip, and the short Prayer of the Apostle Paul. These are all very readable testimonies to the reality of a genuine Gnostic piety. On the other hand, comparison with their contemporary or earlier First Epistle of Clement, which also didn’t make the canon, quickly dispels any impression of skulduggery in the omission of the Gnostic works. They are plainly the foundation of a different religion than that of the canon compilers.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s also no surprise that the Christian canon doesn’t include the Koran, either. You needn’t imagine that any committee was required to see these Gnostic works as fundamentally different from, say, 1 Clement.
Perhaps something more like the ancient mainstream…
Not everything that didn’t make it into the canon was “heretical.” But not everything that was popular among the proto-orthodox was intended as the basis for doctrine, as a witness to history, or as otherwise suitable for reading aloud in meetings. Some early Christian works of literature were just plain good reads, and maybe good for the soul, too. A well-known example of the genre is The Shepherd of Hermas.
What could a Twenty-first Century Christian Bible really use? More books that begin:
The master, who reared me, had sold me to one Rhoda in Rome. After many years, I met her again, and began to love her as a sister. After a certain time I saw her bathing in the river Tiber; and I gave her my hand, and led her out of the river. So, seeing her beauty, I reasoned in my heart, saying, “Happy were I, if I had such an one to wife both in beauty and in character.”
Go on, admit it. You want to read more.
Shepherd didn’t make the cut back in the day, nor did it make it this time, either. However, the chaste but still rollicking Acts of Paul and Thecla did make it into 2NT, and good for Taussig and company that it did.
Taussig’s other addition is the liturgical gem, The Odes of Solomon. Pliny the Younger wrote to his boss, the Emperor Trajan, in the early Second Century that Christians “were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god.” The hymns they sang may have been from among these 41 (there were 42, but one is lost to time).
Before leaving the mainstream, we would be remiss not to mention that the Gospel of Thomas is a special case. Our most nearly complete text, from Nag Hammadi, is full of Gnostic accretions. However, these may have been added onto a much older, thoroughly regular “sayings gospel.” The storied Jesus Seminar tried to extract the older material from the Gnostic composite. The version of Thomas in the following links gives the consensus of the Jesus Seminar as to which sayings might date back to a historical Jesus or his apostles, and which are later additions of somebody else’s ideology.
Non-canonical works included in A New New Testament
When two links are given, the first is to an English translation, and the second is to a resource page at the Early Christians Writings site. Dating estimates are from Early Christian Writings, when a link there is given, otherwise either from the source provided or the associated article offline in Robinson’s The Nag Hammadi Library. Codex references for that volume, when applicable, appear after the dating. Codex I is the Jung Codex. Roman numerals run through XIII. “BG” is the Berlin Codex (also known as Papyrus Berolinensis 8502).
Gospel of Thomas (~ 50-140 CE; II, 2)
Gospel of Mary (~ 120 to 180 CE; BG 1)
The Apocryphon or Secret Revelation of John (~ 120 to 180 CE; II, 1; III, 1 and IV, 1 and BG 2)
Gospel of Truth (~ 140 to 180 CE; I, 3 and XII, 2)
Acts of Paul (and Thecla, ~ 150-200 CE)
Letter of Peter to Philip (~ 170-220 CE; VIII, 2)
The Prayer of the Apostle Paul (~150-300 CE; I,1)
The Thunder: Perfect Mind (Undated composition, but cached about 350 CE; VI, 2)
Hermetic Prayer of Thanksgiving (Before 300; VI, 7 and 7a)
Odes of Solomon (~100-200 CE)
Mentioned here, but not included in The New New Testament
First Epistle of Clement (~ 80-140 CE)
The Shepherd of Hermas (~ 100-160 CE)
Pliny’s Letter to Trajan ( ca. 112 CE)