Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Bishop Paul Barnett on the "New New Testament"

This article is from the website of well respected Australian historian and Anglican Bishop, Paul Barnett. In it Dr Barnett responds to Hal Taussig and his team who have published a “New New Testament” incorporating some of the literature the early Church ensured was not in the New Testament as it has come down to us. 

Hal Taussig and a team of eighteen scholars and religious leaders have chosen ten texts (out of sixty seven surveyed) to be published alongside the twenty-seven that comprise the New Testament and called it A New New Testament. The ‘new’ texts are from the post-New Testament eras and are mostly ‘gnostic’ in character (an exception is the Acts of Paul and Thecla). 

In fact, these texts are not ‘new’ but go back almost to the era of the apostle and for the most part have been known for many years by historians.

The stated aim of the group is to bring these texts to the general public.

Publicity for the book asks, ‘…don’t we have a great deal to gain by placing them back into contact with the twenty-seven books of the traditional New Testament—by hearing, finally, the full range of voices that formed the early chorus of Christians?’  In fact, however, the New Testament and the extra texts did not form a ‘chorus’ of united voices. The mainstream Christian leaders called the teaching in these texts ‘heresy’. An intellectual and spiritual chasm separated these opposing religious viewpoints.

Hal Taussig and his colleagues say that the ‘canon’ of the New Testament was not really ‘closed’ until relatively modern times and that it is therefore valid to publish other texts with the twenty-seven of the biblical canon within the one book. This asserts that the canon is, in effect, elastic. It is an elastic canon, capable of the addition of new texts.

That was not the view, however, of church leaders in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. By ‘church leaders’ I am thinking of people like Irenaeus who was a pupil of Polycarp, who was a pupil of John, who was a disciple of Jesus. Irenaeus, through the chain of orthodox teachers going back to Jesus, was articulating the views of those teachers, back to Jesus himself.

In the 2nd century these leaders were confronted with strongly differing, in fact, antithetical views. Marcion rejected the Creator God of the Old Testament and reduced his canon mainly to an expurgated version of Luke and some of the letters of Paul. The Gnostics from Egypt created extra gospels (mainly gnosticised adaptations of Jesus’ teachings with little narrative), for example the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Thomas. Scholars are broadly agreed that these are derived from the canonical gospels.

So the big issue for the true followers of Jesus in the century after the apostles was to establish which gospels were genuine and which were not. A succession of 2nd century leaders asserted the fourfold gospel. Irenaeus insisted that the gospel was ‘quadriform’, not less that four and not more than four. Likewise the Muratorian Canon and Tatian’s Diatessaron (= ‘one through four’) each insisted that there were four gospels.  The codex P46 dated to the end of the 2nd century has in it the four Gospels plus the book of Acts. The four superscriptions that date from the early second century – ‘according to Matthew’, ‘according to Mark’, ‘according to Luke’, ‘according to John’ – assert there is ‘one gospel’, but each ‘according to’ the four named gospel-writers.

Accordingly, it is clear that those who were disciples of the disciples of Jesus in response to Marcion, on the one hand, and to Valentinus, on the other, insisted on a closed canon of four gospels.

Following the first Easter the original followers of Jesus formulated creeds and confessions, for example, as quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 that affirms the death for sins, the burial, the resurrection and the numerous sightings of the risen Christ.  This and other creed-like statements eventually became expanded as baptismal creeds in the second century (e.g., by Ignatius), which then became the great creeds of Christendom to expose heresies like Gnosticism (the Apostles Creed) and Arianism (the Nicene Creed).

These creed-like statements within the New Testament insisted on the facts of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus and permeate the literature of the New Testament.

The Gnostics altered the sayings of Jesus in the genuine Gospels as vehicles for their alternative doctrines. Those doctrines reacted against the historical and geographical facts about Jesus and formulated a religion that was essentially non-historical, mystical and meditative. They reacted strongly against the Old Testament.  It was all about being absorbed upwards out of this material world into the pure world of deity. It skilfully used New Testament terms like ‘enlightenment’ and ‘salvation’ which it employed in diametrically opposite ways to the New Testament.

Should these texts be published? Definitely. It would be helpful to have these texts and others like them available in good translations, with critical manuscript apparatus and scholarly commentary, but not published in the same book as the twenty-seven genuine texts. Otherwise it would imply that the canon is indeed open-ended and that the genuine and that the non-genuine are reducible to the same level.

John Dominic Crossan, a leading member of the Jesus Seminar, was part of the panel of nineteen. This sends a pretty clear message that the publishing group is somehow connected with the Jesus Seminar, a body of scholars dedicated to questioning the integrity of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels. Marcus Borg, another member of the Jesus Seminar, has written a glowing review the book as part of its advertising campaign. In other words, this panel is not a broad-based body of scholars (for example, the Society of Biblical Literature) but an association committed to questioning the integrity of historic Christianity and promoting instead its own alternative version of Christianity.


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