Thursday, March 14, 2013

The New New Testament: Another Attempt at Pushing Gnostic Christianity

Here it comes again--just in time for Easter--the latest attempt to push a "new" version of Christianity under the guise of Gnostic texts.  A New New Testament is the brain-child of Hal Taussig who is a professor at Union Theological Seminary and a pastor in the United Methodist Church.  A New New Testament (ANNT) contains the 27 canonical New Testament books as well as an additional 10 more books.  Here is the promotional video for ANNT:

With scholars like Karen King (of the Gospel of Jesus' Wife fame--see here for details) and John Dominic Crossan you know this is not going to be any where near orthodox nor historically credible.

As can be seen from the video this newer grouping of books was put together by a "council of spiritual leaders"--a full 19 of them.  Sixteen of them are self-confessed Christians and three are non-Christians, according to an interview with Taussig over at Amazon.  One can be a little skeptical that a group of 19 "spiritual leaders" should really be considered a "council."  Michael Bird has these appropriate words to say:
Okay, I’m all for encouraging the study of extra-biblical texts, esp. early Christian literature from the second and third centuries. But you CAN”T just gather a council of nineteen buddies and decide to put new books in the New Testament. It’s a great marketing ploy, but these folks don’t seem to have a grain of catholic or canonical respect.
So what is included in this new version of the New Testament?  Of course, the Gospel of Thomas is included--it's placed first in the whole package.  So for one's daily devotions one can read saying 114:
Simon Peter said to them, "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life."  Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males.  For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven."
And these are supposed to be the "more inclusive" texts?

There is also The Prayer of the Apostle Paul.  I went looking in my copy of The Nag Hammadi Library (edited by James M. Robinson) and found the following words by Dieter Mueller introducing The Prayer of the Apostle Paul:
The short text is of unknown provenance.  Its general gnostic affinities are clear.  Details such as the reference to the "psychic God" (A,31) may indicate Valentinian connections.  That association in turn suggests a date of origin between the second half of the second century and the end of the third century.  (p. 27)
I'm thinking that Paul didn't write this or pray this prayer.

There is The Thunder: Perfect Mind which doesn't even mention Christ and may be a pre-Christian text.

There is The Gospel of Truth with its "clear affinities to the Valentinian school" and "some scholars have suggested that the Gnostic teacher [Valentinus] himself was the author" (p. 38 in The Nag Hammadi Library).  So who is Valentinus?  New Testament specialist Ben Witherington in his excellent book The Gospel Code: Novel Claims About Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Da Vinci (IVP, 2004) gives a brief description:
Valentinus, certainly one of the most prominent names associated with Gnosticism, began as an orthodox monk in the second century A.D.  After he lost an election to be a bishop, he went in a Gnostic direction, which his contemporary Tertullian called a lapse into heresy.  His real influence in terms of Gnosticism came in the last third of the second century.  (Remember, there is no evidence that Gnosticism existed before the second half of the second century).  So there was perhaps a couple of centuries of development before Gnosticism was officially repudiated, but it is clear enough from Tertullian and Irenaeus that it was already deemed heretical by major figures in the second century.  (p. 85)
Why is it that some scholars continued to be fascinated with the Gnostic texts and alternative versions of "early" Christianity?  In a previous post last year I mentioned the work of Karen King and her interest with the Gnostic texts.  I wrote the following:
 According to King, there were alternate versions of Christianity and over time the forces of "orthodoxy" silenced other versions of Christianity.  This is nothing new for Dr. King.  She has been arguing this thesis for a number of years.  For example, in discussing the Nag Hammadi texts which contain a number of Gnostic "gospels" she has written:
These writings are of inestimable importance in drawing aside the curtain of later perspectives behind which Christian beginnings lie, and the exposing the vitality and diversity of early Christian life and reflection.  They demonstrate that reading the story of Christian origins backward through the lens of canon and creed has given an account of the formation of only one kind of Christianity, and even that only partially.  The fuller picture lets us see more clearly how the later Christianity of the New Testament and the Nicene Creed arose out of many different possibilities through experimentation, compromise, and very often conflict.  From her book The Gospel of Mary Magdala (Polebridge, 2003), p. 157 as quoted in Ben Witherington The Gospel Code (IVP, 2004), p. 118.
New Testament scholar Ben Witherington effectively answers this perspective when he responds directly to Karen King:

Did you catch the sleight of hand in this analysis?  Forget altogether the fourth and fifth century councils and the formation of the creeds.  The essential question is, What were the earliest documents (and what do they say)?  The answer is the New Testament itself.  We have no documents earlier than these, and as any good historian knows, the documents closest to the source of a movement are likely to be most revealing about its origins.
The documents written by eyewitnesses or those in contact with eyewitnesses are our primary sources, and these documents happen to be in the New Testament, plus a few other likely first-century documents, such as the Didache and 1 Clement.  There is no good evidence that Gnosticism was one of the dueling forms of Christianity in the first century A.D.  Thus the degree of diversity that King thinks existed in the earliest churches is not historically demonstrable.  There is no evidence of Gnostics or Marcionites in the first-century church.
In King's view the earliest Christians modeled wide diversity, and we are called to "emulate their struggles to make Christianity in our own day."  So the agenda is laid bare: it's our job not merely to rewrite the history of ancient Christianity but to remake modern Christianity.  This clarion call needs to be seen for what it is.  It's not simply a rejection of the canonizing process and creedal orthodoxy but also of the limits of first-century Christian diversity in favor of a much broader and more pluralistic model.  King calls us to reject our earliest historical sources, the New Testament, as the basis of defining the normative character of the Christian faith.  It plays right into our culture's belief that "the new is true."   Ben Witherington The Gospel Code (IVP, 2004), p. 118-119. 
These ancient fragments become, for some scholars and others, vehicles for contemporary agendas.
This is agenda is also seen in the words of Hal Taussig in answering questions on Amazon:
Q. What will Christians learn from A New New Testament?
A. They’ll learn that their early roots are deeper, more diverse, and more widespread than the general story of how Christianity began is told. Perhaps most importantly for Christians, they will be able to claim a set of new resources for their 21st century life. A New New Testament opens the door to a wider set of expressions, practices, stories, and teachings than they have previously known. 
Q. What will non-Christians learn from A New New Testament?
A. Non-Christians will learn that some of the narrow-minded doctrines of orthodox Christianity and the old-fashioned ideas of the traditional New Testament are not the only way that the early Christ movements expressed themselves. 
Did you catch that?--"narrow-minded doctrines of orthodox Christianity and the old-fashioned ideas of the traditional New Testament"--hardly detached and "objective" analysis.  This is an endeavor with an agenda.

The Jesus of the canonical gospels is too much for some people.  But rather than reject Him outright they seek to re-make Jesus into something more culturally palatable.  This is done under the banner of "scholarship" but the attempt to tie the historical Jesus to a Gnostic portrait continues to be overthrown in the scholarly literature.  But how many Americans are aware of this thorough debunking of this Gnostic lunacy?  The church needs to be ready to speak the true gospel about the true Jesus as revealed in the canonical New Testament.