09 April 2013

The New New Testament

by Dr Philip Church

From the Jesus Seminar who gave us The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (HarperCollins, 1993) we now have The New New Testament (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013). The Jesus Seminar convened in 1985 to undertake a quest for the historical Jesus. They first looked at his sayings and his deeds and then proceeded to discuss what emerged from this evidence. Using a system involving voting with coloured marbles they concluded that, of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels, only about 18% were authentic. In doing this, they refused to privilege the canonical gospels, and included a fifth Gospel, the Gospel of Thomas. This Gospel, which contains 114 sayings of Jesus – some of which are paralleled in the canonical gospels – survives in a single Coptic Manuscript, and in a few Greek fragments dated from the second century. Most scholars date it to the second century, although some, including the members of the Jesus Seminar, believe that the sayings of Jesus it preserves are much earlier, and that it was composed around the same time or maybe earlier than the canonical Gospels. On the other hand they also claim that some NT books were not written until at least 140 years after Jesus, including the Gospel of Luke! Not a word is said about the extravagance of this claim and they nowhere admit that very few NT scholars believe it.

The New New Testament continues the tradition of refusing to privilege the canonical gospels. But it goes even further. As well as giving Thomas pride of place as the first Gospel, with its notorious Saying 114, “any woman that makes herself male will enter the realm of heaven,” they have also included a further nine documents, including the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), the Gospel of Truth, the Prayer of the Apostle Paul, the Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the Prayer of Thanksgiving, the Odes of Solomon, the Letter of Peter to Philip, the Secret Revelation of John, and The Thunder: Perfect Mind. The producers of The New New Testament acknowledge that many of these works have previously been labelled as “heresy” or “gnostic,” but they have ignored any suggestion that they are somehow inferior to the traditional New Testament documents or obscure. They have put them alongside the NT documents, bound them between the same two covers and treated them as other significant sources for the understanding of early Christianity.

The rationale behind the claim is that, by and large, people are bored with the New Testament as we know it (tell that to my Gospel of John class), and that we need something to make us lean forward with new interest, restoring the lost enthusiasm.

Of course, as someone deeply interested in primitive Christianity and in documents from that era, I have leaned forward to look at these texts. Some of them are fascinating. It deeply interests me to understand what some early Christians thought and said. But they hardly belong in the NT.

I only have space for one example, The Acts of Paul and Thecla. It does give a description of Paul: “... a man small in stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, healthy, with knitted eyebrows, a slightly long nose, and full of kindness” (3:2). That is fascinating, but probably fiction. Alongside this, Paul utters a benediction on “those who have wives as if they do not, for they will be heirs of God” (5:5), and another on “the bodies of maidens [presumably unmarried women], for they will have favour with God and will not lose the reward for their holiness” (6:6). These sayings attributed to Paul seem to me to suggest something inferior about marriage. As the story continues, Paul is represented as encouraging young women not to marry; indeed, if they do, there is no resurrection for them, for by marrying, they “sully the flesh” (12:1). Later, Thecla herself, because she refused to marry the man to whom she was betrothed (being influenced by Paul’s teaching), was condemned to be burnt, but was unharmed by the flames. She was then thrown to wild beasts who refused to harm her. Finally, when she baptises herself the sea lions float on the water as if dead! Of course, she is rehabilitated, and becomes a teacher and healer, eventually dying at age ninety. Interesting to be sure, but bound alongside Galatians and Romans? Absolutely not, or as Paul himself would say, “by no means!” (Rom 6:2). Such material does not sit well alongside Hebrews 13:4: “Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.” It has no place in the NT.

If The New New Testament elevates The Acts of Paul and Thecla to the level of the NT documents, it does something quite different to those documents. The introduction to Hebrews suggests that it has been “mostly ignored by official Christendom.” A strange comment, considering there have been more than a dozen major commentaries on Hebrews published since 1990. This suits their purpose of course, for the extra ten documents included in The New New Testament have also been mostly ignored by official Christendom. Placing Hebrews alongside “the now-emerging powerful works” that they have added, leads to the suggestion that more study of Hebrews might just reveal parallels with some of these. Unlikely, I say.

So what are we to make of all this? I am all for people discovering and reading these ancient documents. That is not the problem. The problem I have is what has been done with them. And it is twofold. First, they have elevated to the level of the NT documents, works that, at the very least, contain material of dubious orthodoxy. Conversely, binding them with the New Testament puts the NT documents on the same level as they are. It gives the reader the impression that these documents are as valid witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus (for that is what the NT is) as the Scriptures we are used to, and to which the Western Church has ascribed canonical authority. Of course, The New New Testament makes the claim that our canon is the canon of Western Christianity, and that the Syriac and Ethiopic churches have very different canonical lists. What they do not tell us is that no part of the church has ever, to my knowledge, called these books canonical. Binding them with the NT documents now makes that suggestion. And that is my problem.

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