Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The start of something?

Went with my friends M and N to Union Theological Seminary for the launch of a book not quite like other books, A New New Testament: A Bible for the 21st Century. A "Council" of nineteen spiritual leaders met in New Orleans last year to "reinvent" the New Testament, amplifying the canonical books by ten out of the seventy-five early Christian texts which have been discovered in the last century. Editor Hal Taussig then reordered all the books in a way designed not only to integrate the "newly discovered" material but to open the "traditional" texts be new readings through fresh juxtapositions and contrasts. So, for instance, the first section (after a "Prayer of Thanksgiving") is called "Gospels featuring Jesus' teachings" and offers the Gospels of Thomas, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts. (Thomas first, and Matthew through Thomas!) The Gospel of John appears in the next section, "Gospels, poems, and songs between heaven and earth," after "The First Book of the Odes of Solomon" and "The Thunder: Perfect Mind" and before the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Truth. Not your Father's Bible, this!

I assembled our little crew to attend the launch out of skeptical curiosity as much as anything, but after hearing discussion by several members of the "Council of New Orleans," notably Margaret Aymer, at least two of us were impressed at the seriousness of the undertaking. (The third asked: what new good news is there?) We're all one or other kind of Catholic, though, so revelation isn't as all-or-nothing a thing as it is for Protestants, whose Bible doesn't include what they call the Apocrypha, and who don't see the teachings of the early Fathers, Councils, etc., as a kind of continued unfolding of Christian truth.

Taussig's book, with the "newly discovered" texts divided into chapter and verse, is designed for church use (although one questioner wondered why they had chosen not to print it on "Bible paper," an interesting question). Many readers of the newly discovered texts, we were told, were overjoyed as if they had rediscovered a long-lost sister or brother. It is weird that way. I can certainly see how the inclusion, or return, of several important women disciples (Mary Magdalene, Thecla) and the feminine (indeed genderqueer) language of the Jesus of "Thunder" are new good news for many.

The Council of New Orleans

(In the interests of full disclosure, one of my alums works at the press so I have had a chance to look through the book for a few days. My first reaction was not that of discovering a long-lost sibling, more like stumbling on the lecture notes and doodles of mediocre and distracted students. It seemed to cheapen the whole corpus - but I now think part of that was a reflection of the unpoetic language the translators used to align it with the equally flat Open English Bible - you think you're reading A Course in Miracles. And the fact it wasn't Bible paper! The inclusion of non-Christians and specialists on yoga in the Council continues to bother me. But that was then. Now the project seems to me more humble and, in its way, faithful. "Heretical" in the sense of choosing? No doubt. But we're all heretics now.)

The early church was not monolithic, and managed for many centuries without a fixed collection of books. That is an important, challenging, potentially liberating fact (and a bulwark against know-nothing Biblical fundamentalism): can we have one faith without one scripture? The compilers think this awareness of the early church's diversity is an empowering model for the contemporary church, and hope it will be the first of many new New Testaments. I can't imagine this particular collection will survive long, though I guess you never know. The genre might. It seems possible that we will one day date the proliferation of new New Testaments to this project. And we were there!

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