PHILADELPHIA — “In the beginning was the Word,” begins an ancient Middle Eastern text, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
In time its anonymous author would be assigned the name John, and his mystical story of the life and death of Jesus – whom he presents as having existed before all time – would join 26 other texts in a book that has shaped Western civilization like no other.
The New Testament is, for many millions of Christians, the inspired Word of God, sacred and immutable: the perfect account of Jesus, the perfect human.
And so the Rev. Hal Taussig’s forthcoming book, “A New New Testament,” may seem an assault on Christianity’s very foundation.
But Taussig, 65, a Philadelphia pastor and New Testament scholar, hopes that Christians and others will find much that is illuminating in his provocative expansion of the Good Book.
“A New New Testament” contains 10 gospels, letters and prayers that circulated in early Christianity but never made it into its official Scripture. “Split the piece of wood. I am there,” Jesus says in one.
Selected after much study and debate by a council of 20 spiritual leaders whom Taussig convened last year, “A New New Testament” intersperses those 10 unfamiliar texts with the traditional 27.
Published March 5 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, it is Taussig’s 12th book on early Christianity. A visiting professor of New Testament at New York’s Union Theological Seminary and a professor of early Christianity at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa., he penned its extensive commentary, which includes introductions to each of the 37 books.
“We are very self-consciously saying this is not … what the New Testament should have looked like,” he said in an interview. “That’s why we called it ‘A New Testament.’ We invite others to create their own.”
The soft-spoken scholar acknowledged, however, that he has crossed a line.
“This,” he said, “is the first revision of the Christian canon. Period.”
Even if Christianity had been receptive to such an idea in centuries past, so large an expansion would not have been possible before 1945, when two brothers digging near the Upper Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi unearthed an earthen jar containing leather-bound papyrus manuscripts.
One of the greatest archaeological finds in history, the jar contained 52 early Christian texts, most of them unknown, evidently hidden by a Jesus community in the fourth century. They present a complex picture of Jesus and the nascent Christ movement as omnidirectional and challenging.
Taussig, who grew up in a “gently fundamentalist” ranching household in Colorado and who reads Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Coptic, and Aramaic, began studying the Nag Hammadi manuscripts as they became public in the 1970s.
Like many other Bible scholars, he concluded the unorthodox collection of miracle stories, letters and oblique sayings shed as much light on early Christianity as do the standard books of the New Testament.
“And as I started teaching them over the last 20 years, I found that people would react as if they had discovered their long-lost sister,” he said. “People would be very moved, very gripped in their own spiritual life.”
An ordained Methodist minister and co-pastor of Chestnut Hill United Church, where he sometimes references these texts in liturgies and sermons, Taussig recalled a talk he gave last fall at First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem that drew an audience of 400.
As he read to them long-forgotten writings of the early church, “people began weeping,” he said, “and shouting, ‘Amen!’ and ‘Alleluia!’ ”
Afterward, “they came up to me saying, ‘Why didn’t anybody tell us about this? Why isn’t this in our Bible?’ ”
The answer to the first is that most of these texts were lost until Nag Hammadi, then kept from view for three decades by a handful of scholars.
The answer to the second question, says Taussig, is that the traditional New Testament’s creation was an “irregular and extremely long process” that lurched uncertainly for centuries as the early Christian Church worked out its understanding of Jesus.
“The first thing people need to understand,” he said, “is that no ecumenical council, no authorized body of the early church, ever rejected any of these books or said, ‘Don’t read that.’ ”
But a discernment process was already under way by the mid-second century as bishops engaged in a lively debate over what the Christ movement should believe about Jesus. Human? Divine? One with the Father before all time, or “adopted” by God at his baptism?
Where to turn? Dozens of teachers and seers had been sharing their own stories of Jesus and his Disciples, often presenting them as written by the Apostles.
Around A.D. 180, the French Bishop Irenaeus – an early exponent of the idea that Jesus had died for the sins of man – composed a treatise, “Against All Heresies.” In it he quotes from many of the books that would later be deemed canonical and affirms the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as reliable.
Irenaeus also condemned by name the literate and poetic “Gospel of Truth” (presented in “A New New Testament”) on grounds that it did not agree with the four others and ignored the widely circulated “Gospel of Thomas,” a sometimes baffling but intriguing collection of 114 sayings ascribed to Jesus and included in “A New New Testament.”
Later bishops rejected “Thomas” and the whole idea of a Jesus dispensing secret knowledge, or “gnosis,” to a few. Theirs was a universal, catholic Jesus whose atoning death and resurrection were for all who believed in him, and that would be the axis on which the church would grow.
Settling on texts that would best foster this foundational understanding would prove elusive. “The Gospel of the Egyptians”? “The Shepherd of Hermas”? “The Traditions of Matthias”? “The Apocalypse of Peter”? Clement of Alexandria, head of the first Christian seminary and a saint of the Eastern church, thought them all authentic, but none would enter the canon.
Another in circulation at this time was “The Revelation of John.” Its apocalyptic visions of seven-headed beasts and a wrathful Jesus returning at the end of time were so idiosyncratic that Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, put it on both his “accepted” and “dubious” lists of A.D. 327.
Cyril of Jerusalem omitted “Revelation” from his list of 350, as did the regional Council of Laodicea in 363, which admonished the faithful to “read none other.”
But four years later, at Easter, Athanasius of Alexandria included “Revelation” in a list of the 27 books he recommended to the church in Egypt.
“Let no one add to these,” warned Athanasius, who would later be declared a saint, and the Western church obeyed. Their 158,000 words would become the Word of God, to be read and revered – even studied for clues to the end of time – as sacred scripture.
How long it took for news of Athanasius’ decree to travel up the Nile to Nag Hammadi may never be known. But the fact that the Jesus community there – possibly a Coptic monastery – sought to hide its unorthodox books so soon afterward suggests it, and they, may have been targets of suppression.
As the new orthodoxy and its standardized Bible became ascendant, the noncanonical books declined in circulation, uncopied, and fell into obscurity.
Two years ago, however, Taussig decided to gather a panel of national spiritual leaders to consider which of those many texts merited inclusion in an expanded canon. Three major publishing houses bid for rights to the book.
He chose not to rely for his council solely on gospel scholars but “people I knew to be committed to raising spiritual questions for themselves.”
Nine were women, six were people of color, all were North American, and they ranged theologically from centrist to very liberal with a strong feminist outlook. The three evangelical leaders he invited “didn’t like the idea” of tinkering with holy writ and declined to participate.
Taussig first presented 43 texts, in English, to a small “pre-council” that met in October 2011 in New Jersey. Its 10 members selected 19 texts for consideration by the larger council.
After four months of studying the texts individually, the council met in New Orleans in February 2012, where they spent four days “fighting good-naturedly about what should and shouldn’t get in” to an expanded New Testament that speaks to 21st-century North Americans.
They settled on 10 texts. Like the canonical books, no one theme connects them all. The council clearly favored texts with strong women, however, and new ways of understanding Jesus.
Taussig concedes some traditionalists may see blasphemy in “A New New Testament,” whose very premise seems to question whether Christianity got Jesus right.
But as the “gentle fundamentalism” of his Colorado boyhood gave way to inquiry and scholarship, he said, he came to see the Bible not as history but poetry. The ancient writers seeking to grasp the astonishing new Jesus movement “didn’t write down what happened,” he says. “They wrote what it meant.
“Harking back to ancient documents helps us think about things in new ways,” he said. “The more good ones, the better.”