In short, the New New Testament is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The council that put these books forth is a farce. It has nothing to do with the councils of old, yet implicitly seeks to claim authority on the basis of concocted semblance. The books were selected by those who, though certainly having a right to scholarly examination of the Christian faith, are not at all qualified to make any pronouncements on canon. That belongs to the church, the true church.
Just released from the giant publishing firm, Houghton Miflin Harcourt: A New New Testament: A Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts, edited by Hal Taussig.
The advertisement from HMH distributed widely via email last week was not shy in its claims for the 600-page volume. The subject line read, “It is time for a new New Testament.” In the email blast are strong endorsements by Marcus Borg, Karen King, and Barbara Brown Taylor. Borg and King, like Taussig, were members of the Jesus Seminar (a group headed up by the late Robert W. Funk, which determined which words and deeds of Jesus recorded in the Gospels were authentic). King and Taylor are on the Council for A New New Testament. All of them share a viewpoint which seems to be decidedly outside that of the historic Christian faith, regardless of whether it is Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant.
The New Books
The title of the book sounds provocative; the reality is just as much so. “A council of scholars and spiritual leaders” was convened to determine which books besides the traditional 27 should be added to the New Testament. Significantly, it’s not called a “council of scholars and church leaders” for a reason. Although, to be sure, there were bona fide scholars on the council, not all were church leaders; arguably, in fact, almost none were. The council of 19—including two rabbis—examined several ancient writings which the jacket blurb euphemistically calls ‘scriptures’ and determined which of these worthies deserved a place at the table with original New Testament books. Ten books were selected for this honor, along with two prayers and one song. The song (if that’s the right term) is called “The Thunder: Perfect Mind” and is one of the Nag Hammadi codices. There are no references to it in the ancient world; it never mentions Jesus and may, in fact, have been written three centuries before he was born. Some of the council members wanted it to be listed first in the New New Testament, in spite of (or because of?) its apparent non-Christian perspective. How it is possible for the jacket blurb to say this book was ancient ‘scripture’ when our only knowledge of it comes from Nag Hammadi staggers the mind.
Here is the list of new books added to the New Testament by this council:
- The Prayer of Thanksgiving
- The Prayer of the Apostle Paul
- The Thunder: Perfect Mind
- The Gospel of Thomas
- The Gospel of Mary
- The Gospel of Truth
- The Acts of Paul and Thecla
- The Letter of Peter to Philip
- The Secret Revelation of John
- The First, Second, Third, and Fourth Books of the Odes of Solomon
What strikes one immediately is that most of these additions seem to be of two types: Gnostic or proto-Gnostic essays and writings that exalt women. Further, what is also striking are books that did not make the cut. Among them are the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, First Clement, and other books in the collection known as the Apostolic Fathers. In other words, the books selected by the council were selected with an agenda in mind; they were not chosen because they ever made a serious claim to canonicity. Indeed, as was mentioned above, at least one of them is not even mentioned in any extant ancient writing.
Consider again the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. These are writings that were considered orthodox in that they offer a similar viewpoint on doctrinal and practical matters as is found in the New Testament. They are purportedly written by first-generation disciples of the original apostles, though in some cases they are another generation removed. The Shepherd of Hermas was so highly regarded in the ancient church that we have more copies of it from before AD 300 than we do the Gospel of Mark. The Muratorian Canon speaks highly of it but stops short of treating it as bearing the same authority as the New Testament books because of its known recent vintage (mid-second century). But certainly the Shepherd has far better credentials than any of the 13 newly discovered writings for canonization. That the ancient church rejected even this document is implicitly damning evidence that none of the new discoveries really belong within the pages of Holy Writ. We will revisit this issue of the ancient church’s view of authoritative writings at the end of this short review.