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A ‘New’ New Testament: Pastor’s Book May Anger Some, But He Hopes It Also Illuminates

The Rev. Hal Taussig poses for portrait, April 6, 2012, at Chestnut Hill United Church, where he is co-pastor. His book, "A New New Testament," raises deep questions about the early years of Christianity. (Michael S. Wirtz/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)

The Rev. Hal Taussig poses for portrait, April 6, 2012, at Chestnut Hill United Church, where he is co-pastor. His book, "A New New Testament," raises deep questions about the early years of Christianity. (Michael S. Wirtz/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)

Philadelphia — “In the beginning was the Word,” begins an ancient Middle Eastern text, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

In time its anonymous author would be assigned the name John, and his mystical story of the life and death of Jesus — whom he presents as having existed before all time — would join 26 other texts in a book that has shaped Western civilization like no other.

The New Testament is, for many millions of Christians, the inspired Word of God, sacred and immutable: the perfect account of Jesus, the perfect human.

And so the Rev. Hal Taussig’s forthcoming book, A New New Testament, may seem an assault on Christianity’s very foundation.

But Taussig, 65, a Philadelphia pastor and New Testament scholar, hopes that Christians and others will find much that is illuminating in his provocative expansion of the Good Book.

A New New Testament contains 10 gospels, letters, and prayers that circulated in early Christianity but never made it into its official Scripture. “Split the piece of wood. I am there,” Jesus says in one.

Selected after much study and debate by a council of 20 spiritual leaders whom Taussig convened last year, A New New Testament intersperses those 10 unfamiliar texts with the traditional 27.

Published March 5 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, it is Taussig’s 12th book on early Christianity. A visiting professor of New Testament at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, and a professor of early Christianity at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa., he penned its extensive commentary, which includes introductions to each of the 37 books.

“We are very self-consciously saying this is not … what the New Testament should have looked like,” he said in an interview at his home in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood. “That’s why we called it A New New Testament. We invite others to create their own.”

The soft-spoken, bald, and bearded scholar acknowledged, however, that he has crossed a line.

“This,” he said, “is the first revision of the Christian canon. Period.”

Even if Christianity had been receptive to such an idea in centuries past, so large an expansion would not have been possible before 1945, when two brothers digging near the Upper Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi unearthed an earthen jar containing leather-bound papyrus manuscripts.

One of the greatest archaeological finds of history, this jar contained 52 early Christian texts, most of them unknown, evidently hidden by a Jesus community in the fourth century. They present a complex picture of Jesus and the nascent Christ movement as omnidirectional and challenging as a cubist painting.

Taussig, who holds a doctorate from Union Institute and grew up in a “gently fundamentalist” cattle-ranching household in Colorado and who reads Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Coptic, and Aramaic, began studying the Nag Hammadi manuscripts as they became public in the 1970s.

Like many other Bible scholars, he concluded that this unorthodox collection of miracle stories, letters, and oblique sayings shed as much light on the swirl that was early Christianity as do the standard books of the New Testament.

“And as I started teaching them over the last 20 years, I found that people would react as if they had discovered their long-lost sister,” he said. “People would be very moved, very gripped in their own spiritual life.”

The new volume opens with the short Prayer of Thanksgiving, thought to have been written in the first century. “”We have known you, Oh light of mind, Oh light of life . Oh womb of all that grows,” reads a part.

“As the wind passes through the lyre, the strings speak,” says the long, psalm-like Odes of Solomon. “So also the spirit of the Lord.”

An ordained Methodist minister and co-pastor of Chestnut Hill United Church, where he sometimes references these texts in liturgies and sermons, Taussig recalled a talk he gave last fall at First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem that drew an audience of 400.

As he read to them long-forgotten writings of the early church, “people began weeping” he said, “and shouting, ‘Amen!’ and ‘Alleluja!’ ”

Afterward, “they came up to me saying: ‘Why didn’t anybody tell us about this? Why isn’t this in our Bible?’ ”

The answer to the first is that most of these texts were lost until Nag Hammadi, then kept from view for three decades by a handful of scholars.

The answer to the second, says Taussig, is that the traditional New Testament’s creation was an “irregular and extremely long process” that lurched uncertainly for centuries as the early Christian Church worked out its understanding of Jesus.

“The first thing people need to understand,” he said, “is that no ecumenical council, no authorized body of the early church, ever rejected any of these books or said, ‘Don’t read that.’ ”

True. But a discernment process was already under way by the mid-second century as bishops engaged in a lively debate over what the Christ movement should believe about Jesus. Human? Divine? One with the Father before all time, or “adopted” by God at his baptism?

Where to turn? Dozens of teachers and seers had been fabulating their own stories of Jesus and his disciples, often presenting them as written by the apostles.

Around A.D. 180 the French bishop Irenaeus — an early exponent of the idea that Jesus had died for the sins of man — composed a treatise, Against All Heresies. In it he quotes from many of the books that would later be deemed canonical, and affirms the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as reliable.

Irenaeus also condemned by name the literate and poetic Gospel of Truth (presented in A New New Testament) on grounds that it did not agree with the four others, and ignored the widely circulated Gospel of Thomas, a sometimes baffling but intriguing collection of 114 sayings ascribed to Jesus, and included in A New New Testament.

The Gospel of Thomas received the third-most votes when Taussig convened his panel of religious leaders last year in New Orleans. What makes it appealing, they said, is its depiction of Jesus as a cryptic, provocative sage who speaks of beginnings, not end-times. But this was a Jesus too obscure, too oblique, for the early church.

Written as early as A.D. 50 or as late 150, it contains no biography of Jesus but presents many of his now-familiar aphorisms, such as “Render unto Caesar …” “If a blind man leads a blind man …” and “The realm of heaven is like a mustard seed.”

But 55 other Thomas sayings, unseen for perhaps 1,000 years, depict a sage who repeatedly invites his followers into oneness with him in the “realm of heaven” — provided they can grasp his meaning.

“When you make the male and the female into a solitary one, so that the male is not male nor the female female,” Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas, “then you will enter the realm.”

Thomas is a jigsaw puzzle whose Jesus is hard to cohere. “Lift the stone, you will find me there,” he says. “Split the piece of wood. I am there.” And “Be passers-by.”

What might these mean? “I tell my secrets to those worthy of my secrets,” says the inscrutable Jesus of Thomas, who speaks of things that have “never encountered the human mind.”

Later bishops rejected Thomas and the whole idea of a Jesus dispensing secret knowledge, or “gnosis,” to a few. Theirs was a universal, “catholic” Jesus whose atoning death and resurrection were for all who believed in him, and that would be the axis on which the church would grow.

Settling on texts that would best foster this foundational understanding would prove elusive. The Gospel of the Egyptians? The Shepherd of Hermas? The Traditions of Matthias? The Apocalypse of Peter? Clement of Alexandria, head of the first Christian seminary and a saint of the Eastern church, thought them all authentic, but none would enter the canon.

Another in circulation at this time was The Revelation of John. Its apocalyptic visions of seven-headed beasts and a wrathful Jesus returning at the end of time were so idiosyncratic that Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, put it on both his “accepted” and “dubious” lists of A.D. 327.

Cyril of Jerusalem omitted Revelation from his list of 350, as did the regional Council of Laodicea in 363, which admonished the faithful to “read none other.”

But four years later, at Easter, Athanasius of Alexandria included Revelation in a list of the 27 books he recommended to the church in Egypt.

“Let no one add to these,” warned Athanasius, who would later be declared a saint, and the Western church obeyed. Their 158,000 words would become The Word of God, to be read and revered, held aloft in processionals, kissed, incensed — even studied for clues to the end of time — as sacred scripture.

How long it took for news of Athanasius’ decree to travel up the Nile to Nag Hammadi may never be known. But the fact that the Jesus community there — possibly a Coptic monastery — sought to hide its unorthodox books so soon afterward suggests it, and they, may have been targets of suppression.

As the new orthodoxy and its standardized Bible became ascendant, the noncanonical books declined in circulation, uncopied, and fell into disuse.

Two years ago, however, Taussig decided to gather a panel of national spiritual leaders to consider which of those many texts merited inclusion in an expanded canon. Three major publishing houses bid for rights to the book.

He chose not to rely for his council solely on gospel scholars but “people I knew to be committed to raising spiritual questions for themselves.”

Nine were women, six were people of color, all were North American, and they ranged theologically from centrist to very liberal with a strong feminist outlook. The three evangelical leaders he invited “didn’t like the idea” of tinkering with holy writ, and declined.

Taussig first presented 43 texts, in English, to a small “pre-council” that met in October 2011 in New Jersey. Its 10 members selected 19 texts for consideration by the larger “council.”

After four months individually studying the texts, the council met at Taussig’s expense in New Orleans in February 2012, where they spent four days “fighting good-naturedly about what should and shouldn’t get in” to an expanded New Testament that speaks to 21st century North Americans.

They settled on 10. Like the canonical books, no one theme connects them all. The council clearly favored texts with strong women, however, and new ways of understanding Jesus.

In The Gospel of Mary, whose protagonist is thought to represent Mary Magdalene, the Savior teaches that “there is no sin, but it is you who make sin.”

The mysterious voice of The Thunder: Perfect Mind never mentions Jesus but reveals itself as a divine being who knows the suffering of women. “I am she who is honored and she who is mocked,” it says. “I am the mother and the daughter … humiliation and pride.”

A New New Testament opens with the short Prayer of Thanksgiving, said Taussig, because it “likely belongs to a very early layer of Christian practice,” such as the collective meal, which the early Jesus followers called “eucharist,” Greek for “thanksgiving.”

“We give thanks to you; every life and heart stretches toward you, O name untroubled,” it begins. The council welcomed it, said Taussig, because the traditional New Testament contains so few prayers.

The council also embraced with special enthusiasm the psalm-like Odes of Solomon, a collection of 41 Christian psalms that the New Orleans council chose, Taussig writes, because it appeared to have originated as liturgies in several of the earliest Jesus communities.

In some songs a Christ-like figure speaks, suggesting that worshipers took on the person of Jesus in early liturgies. “Love me with gentleness, those who love,” he says in Ode 8, “for I do not turn my face from my own.”

Taussig concedes some traditionalists may see blasphemy in A New New Testament, whose very premise seems to question whether Christianity got Jesus right.

But as the “gentle fundamentalism” of his Colorado boyhood gave way to inquiry and scholarship, he said, he came to see the Bible not as history but poetry. The ancient writers seeking to grasp the astonishing new Jesus movement “didn’t write down what happened,” he says.

“They wrote what it meant.”

“Harking back to ancient documents helps us think about things in new ways,” he said. “The more good ones the better.”