A New ‘New Testament’ is an Old, Old Idea

The idea of rewriting the canon according to one’s personal preferences goes back to the time of the early Church

But while such grandiose claims about the New Testament canon may seem entirely new, it is in fact a very, very old idea. For one, there are other modern examples of such activity. The book The Five Gospels (Harper One, 1996), effectively rewrote the 4-Gospel canon by adding a fifth gospel, The Gospel of Thomas. Moreover, the book included the results of the votes of members of the “Jesus Seminar” about which sayings/stories of Jesus were authentic and which were not. In the end, we were left not with a New Testament, but with the Jesus Seminar’s personal, private New Testament. And that is something entirely different.

 
My email inbox has been flooded over the last day or so with queries about the recent book by Hal Taussig called A New New Testament (Houghton Mifflin, 2013). I have to admit, I love the title. When it comes to sensationalistic claims about the New Testament canon, modern publishers know what sells. This volume has bypassed the normal catchwords found in the titles of such books—words like “lost”, “forgotten”, “secret”, or “banned”—and has set a new standard for marketing apocryphal writings.

This volume also sets itself apart by the grandiosity of its claims. Here is the promo for the book:

To create this New New Testament, Hal Taussig called together a council of scholars and spiritual leaders to discuss and reconsider which books belong in the New Testament. They talked about these recently found documents, the lessons therein, and how they inform the previously bound books. They voted on which should be added, choosing ten new books to include in a New New Testament.

It’s one thing to suggest apocryphal books are early, or that they contain some true historical nuggets, but it is quite another to pick an entirely new canon on the basis of some arbitrarily chosen council of modern “scholars and spiritual leaders.” Do we really think these 19 people are in a position to decide such things? Is that the way we know which books are Scripture and which are not?

But while such grandiose claims about the New Testament canon may seem entirely new, it is in fact a very, very old idea. For one, there are other modern examples of such activity. The book The Five Gospels (Harper One, 1996), effectively rewrote the 4-Gospel canon by adding a fifth gospel, The Gospel of Thomas. Moreover, the book included the results of the votes of members of the “Jesus Seminar” about which sayings/stories of Jesus were authentic and which were not.

In the end, we were left not with a New Testament, but with the Jesus Seminar’s personal, private New Testament. And that is something entirely different.

But, the idea of rewriting the canon according to one’s personal preferences goes back even further. In fact, this was a challenge faced by the very earliest Christians. In the 140’s, a wealthy ship-owner named Marcion decided that the canon of the church was not the one he preferred and proceeded to offer his own—a truncated canon composed of only Luke and 10 epistles of Paul. But, Marcion went even further. In addition to selecting his own books, he took out the scalpel and edited these books, attempting to take out as much of the “Jewish” aspects as he could.

Marcion’s actions were widely condemned by the early church. He was condemned not only for his heretical views, but for his willingness to reshape and rewrite the New Testament canon according to his own personal preferences. The canon is just not something that one person (or 19!) can create.

Thus, despite the claims of this modern book to be doing something new and original, it is nothing of the sort. The idea of a New New Testament, is an old, old idea. One that has already been tried, and already been rejected.

Over the next few months, I will offer an extended review of Taussig’s new book, spread over a number of different blog posts. And I want to assure my friend Michael Bird that I will take a “nice deep breath” before I do so!

Dr. Michael Kruger is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and has President of RTS Charlotte where he also serves as a Professor of New Testament. This article first appeared in his blog, Canon Fodder, and is used with permission.

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