CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Really?

There weren't any actual new goofy theories to trot out this year for disparaging Easter, so they had to settle for this?

"They", this year, are Hal Taussig (a Visiting Professor at the Union Theological Seminary and a founding member of the now defunct Jesus Seminar) and a group of liberal/sceptical scholars and "religious leaders" (some of them nominally Christian, others vaguely or just outright not, many of whom are JSem alumni), who have decided that the only way to cash in on controversy this year is to propose and release A New New Testament. Never let it be said that I haven't done my part to market them now!

I fraternally anticipate questions. Let the FAQ commence.




WHY AREN'T YOU GOING TO REVIEW THIS BOOK?

I could review the few essays of the book, if I cared to pay them money for those essays, I guess. But I wouldn't be saying anything new because I can already tell from the marketing foofaraw (and from early responses like Dan Wallace's review) that the essays don't say anything new.

"...DON'T SAY ANYTHING NEW" IN WHAT WAYS?

Here's a short pithy example (helpfully provided by the publisher in marketing the book here at Google Books): "The sensuous and ecstatic vocabulary of these two works breaks out of dogmatic Christian categories and offers some new, less belief-oriented ways of belonging for twenty-first-century readers." That's said about the Gnostic text called "The Gospel of Truth" and the canonical epistle to the Ephesians, trying to suggest why anyone would care about GosTru today, enough to put it on par with canonical texts like EpistEph. Never mind that the whole point of GosTru is to prepare special initiates with secret codes of 'knowledge' in order to belong to an elite group of true believers; never mind that "dogmatic Christians" base our "dogmas" partly on ideas expressed by the Epistle to the Ephesians. Trying to market obscure and super-marginal ancient texts heavily invested with the importance of right belief (even moreso than the canonical texts!) as "new" "non-dogmatic" texts for "less belief-oriented" modern readers to somehow "belong" to something in some vague sort of way, is utterly par for the course for this group of scholars and ministers. There are dozens of trenchant examinations of these marketing mindgames on the market already.

(I'll take a moment to promote my friend David Marshall's readable and accessible The Truth About Jesus And The "Lost Gospels", as only one of many perfectly serviceable works on this topic. Here's an interview he did for the Cadre as an introduction.)

WAIT, WE JUST CLICKED ON THAT BOOKS.GOOGLE LINK FOR A NEW NEW TESTAMENT -- DID WE JUST SEE A COMMENTARY ESSAY ON "THE EPISTLE TO THE EPHESIANS"?

Yes. That's because the vast majority of this 600 page book is the "council"'s new translation of the canonical New Testament, plus introductory essays of those books.

WHAT?!? ISN'T THIS SUPPOSED TO BE A NEW NEW TESTAMENT??!

Not really, no. And it isn't even a new idea.

The late Robert Funk who convened the original "Jesus Seminar" marketed their efforts largely on the call for a new New Testament. The best they could come up with at the time was to suggest a Q-source reconstruction (not the Q-source, mind you, because Q is not an existent document, only a hypothesis about a source for some of GosMatt and GosLuke's material shared by those two texts but not by GosMark) and the "Gospel of Thomas" (which aside from being the oldest known non-canonical text labeled as a "Gospel" happens to look a lot like the sort of text Q is sometimes hypothesized to be. Also, most of its material parallels the four canonical Gospels, mostly the Synoptics.) Why? Because those two texts (one real, one theoretical) happen to observably fit most closely with the canonical Gospels. (In the case of Q that's because the "text" is simply theoretical extractions from canonical GosMatt and GosLuke!) Sure, there were problems with trying to include them as "Lost Gospels" and "The Fifth Gospel" etc. -- lots and lots of problems -- but for better or for worse, those could be given the (relatively) most plausible arguments for inclusion in the canon (much less for replacement which was Funk's stated goal--a goal most of the JSems themselves rejected for various reasons.)

This new attempt, being necessarily weaker because the texts are either definitely younger than GosThom or not originally Christian to begin with, doesn't even have the shaky plausibility of the previous effort a few decades ago. But that doesn't stop them from trying, because when it comes to Easter Season there is one fundamental truth these people will agree on: there's money to be made! {g}

SO WHY WOULD ANYONE EVEN BOTHER BUYING THE BOOK?!?

Because... um.... ......... marketing? The publisher prepaid significant amounts of their own cash to pay the contributors and to kill 640 pages of trees per book and to engage in a massive advertising campaign, and they have families to feed and cars to pay for, just like you. Those are good reasons, right?

WE DON'T HAVE TO WASTE TREES ON THIS BOOK, WE CAN GET IT ON KINDLE AND OTHER EBOOKS!

At the same cost you'd be paying for the hardback. I know some things about how the publishing industry works: if the list price on a 600 page book with multiple contributors is only $32, and the eBook editions are selling for the same retailer discounts, that means Houghton Mifflin Harcourt prepaid to print a vastly huge number of these things (to bring the cost per unit down to something reasonable for buyers) but still has to subsidize the dead-tree cost with the ebook profits. So yes, you're still paying for the paper by buying the ebook.

WELL, IT'S A NEW TRANSLATION OF THE NEW TESTAMENT ANYWAY. AND IT ISN'T LIKE WE DON'T HAVE FIFTY THOUSAND TRANSLATIONS OF THAT TO CHOOSE FROM ALRE----OH. WAIT.

I guess yet another new translation of the canonical NT docs might be interesting, if you're worried that other Greek scholars are imposing their theological biases and you want an alternative where you can have highly liberal/sceptical biases definitely being imposed on the translation instead. (You know, in order to make the texts relevant to less belief-oriented readers, unlike the intentions of the authors of the texts themselves.)

AREN'T YOU LETTING YOUR OWN BIAS IN FAVOR OF THE RELIGIOUS VALUE OF THE CANON BIAS YOUR OWN BIASES?!

On the contrary, I go out of my way to use a number of techniques to neutralize translator bias as much as possible. Because if I'm going to study any translated text for any reason I consider the author's intentions (whether I approve those intentions or not) to be more important than the translator's ideological preferences.

And it doesn't matter if I'm talking about the Judeo-Christian canonical scriptures or not. If I wanted to study the Qu'ran, I wouldn't look for a translation that tries to make it relevant to 21st century unbelievers so that I could thereby feel like I somehow "belong". I'd look for a translation that respects and tries to understand the intention of the author.

(To give a somewhat related example, this is exactly why I stopped bothering to read a recent translation of The Heliand: the translator routinely foisted his own idiosyncrasies on the text. It didn't help that those idiosyncrasies weren't even entertaining. Yes I am fully aware of the irony of rejecting a translation of a text that is itself already a highly idiosyncratic translation and interpretation of the canonical Gospels. But I do want to know what that original interpreter actually said in order to appreciate, for better or for worse, his intentions and strategies in bringing some kind of Christian message to early medieval Saxony.)

ARE YOU SAYING THESE PEOPLE HAVE NO RIGHT TO DO THEIR OWN BIASED TRANSLATIONS?

Do I have a "right" to re-interpret what these people themselves write according to how I would prefer to believe, even if that's flagrantly different from what they believe?

Frankly, no, I don't believe anyone has a "right" to do that. Certainly not and try to promote that as an authoritative reading of what they wrote. (Going back to The Heliand for a minute, while the original author of that epic poem was definitely changing a lot of details to make the story more accessible to his audience, he was still doing his best to get across what he really thought was the intentions of the canonical Gospels and, ultimately, the intentions of the historical Jesus Christ. He wasn't doing that to replace his source material with what he thought was an intrinsically superior meaning.)

And part of the marketing for this attempt is that these nineteen people, some of whom are explicitly not Christian remember, have decided to treat themselves as a "Council", specifically the "Council of New Orleans", as though they have authority to add books to the accepted list of texts.

Never mind that the Councils featured hundred of representatives from all over the Christian world instead of a handful from North America and maybe Europe. Never mind that the early Councils were comprised of representatives elected to be authorities by local members of their churches. Never mind that they were actually Christians at all!--and ones who cared about the importance of what actually happened historically.

Despite what the the "New Orleans Council" tries to claim, they are only "modeled on early church councils of the first six centuries CE" (from page 100 of the Google preview) in the most superficial and self-aggrandizing ways possible. They may want to "ma[ke] important decisions for larger groups of Christians" like the councils they "modeled" themselves after (that's literally their next phrase in describing the councils they call themselves "modeled" after), but they don't even accept that those councils should have "made those important decisions for larger groups of Christians" (or they wouldn't be trying to add to a canon those Councils eventually declared closed!) So why should anyone accept these people on even less grounds?!

Seriously. If someone tells me that Nancy Fuchs Kreimer (for example), a Reformed Jewish rabbi, accepts the actual authority of the councils which this council she has joined "models" itself after, I'm going to bluntly call that person a liar. Otherwise she'd be a Christian (if perhaps a Messianic Jewish Christian), and at least a moderately conservative one at that. So why should I or anyone at all regard her as having the tiniest bit of authority to add texts to Christian religious canon?--am I supposed to be impressed by the sheer arrogance of such an attempt?!

Speaking of sheer arrogance, is this a good time to mention that several of the "Council" have graciously submitted reviews of their own project, which Amazon accepted and has printed on its product page? Holy Christ, I can review my own book on Amazon, too! Why didn't I ever think of that?!

"CRY OF JUSTICE will be a vital epic fantasy for the twenty-first century. Freshly vibrant, important both dramatically and as a treasure chest of brilliant facets, waking up those who thought they knew it all. While this book will be a welcome addition to academic courses on modern, relevant literature, I expect it will have its greatest impact in churches, as people of faith struggle with a range of voices and theological perspectives. Readers will not be able to see literature the same way again. Definitely over 9000 stars!!!1!" -- Jason Pratt, author of Cry of Justice

BUT THOSE OTHER COUNCILS DIDN'T REPRESENT THE DISENFRANCHISED MINORITIES!

Well there weren't women among them. But they represented majority beliefs of the people (including women). And some minority beliefs, too.

It's true that even the early Councils were much messier affairs than piety would have preferred. Here is a fine pair of books from Philip Jenkins that gives a warts-and-all account of the messiness: Jesus Wars and The Lost History of Christianity. I routinely and heartily recommend both books to Christians and non-Christians alike. You're welcome!

Even so, what the Councils didn't much represent were the small groups of self-appointed religious elitists who wanted to create exclusive clubs that didn't let in other people and held secret meetings to discuss things only they themselves were allowed to know, which they expected to allow them to ascend above the dirty common masses.

Now, I'm willing to grant that that demonstrably wasn't the intention of this small group of modern self-appointed religious elite, who have met to promote the idea that various Gnostic texts ought to be added to the New Testament to create a "New" New Testament in some fashion they hope will be authoritatively accepted (on their own authority). But that was the intention of the authors of several of the texts this New Orleans Council wants to promote as being equal in value to the canonical NT texts! Those other ancient authors didn't give a hoot in hell about writing something so that a larger number of less-belief-inclined people could feel like they belonged (in some vaguely ill-defined fashion) to their special elite groups. Nor, by the way, were these Gnostic authors much interested in a historically sweaty human Jesus, the way the orthodox Councils (and the authors of the New Testament texts) were -- and presumably the way most of these hyper-liberal and/or sceptical scholars are.

If someone wants to make an argument that, in the interest of broadening out our inclusions for the sake of disenfranchised groups who were primarily concerned with disenfranchising as many people out of their secret knowledge as possible, we ought to include their unhistorical and unauthoritative mystery texts -- and no one in the "New Orleans Council" thinks their proposed additions to the canon have anything remotely to do with the historical Jesus Whom-or-whom "Christ-ianity" is supposed to be about -- then they're welcome to try making that argument and see how far the attempt gets them.

But of course, that argument would be hilariously self-defeating. Not surprisingly, Hal Taussig & Co. don't try to make that argument. But the rationales they do try, simply ignore and rewrite facts in order to convince people to buy this "new" New Testament.

WAIT, SO THESE PEOPLE ACTUALLY DO PROPOSE ADDING OTHER TEXTS TO THE NEW TESTAMENT? DID YOU MENTION THAT BEFORE?

Did I forget to mention that? Sorry. I guess that's because adding around 20 pages to the New Testament canon doesn't sound very "new" to me, especially when the texts have been available for public use for decades now.

BUT AREN'T THOSE TEXTS AT LEAST A LITTLE USEFUL FOR SOME KIND OF HISTORICAL PURPOSE?

Sure, for people who want to study early obscure Christian history and/or various ways early Christians expressed themselves from the second century onward. They can even buy much better critical editions of those texts and ignore all this rummaging around trying to get some kind of relevant socio-religious (or quasi-religious or pseudo-religious) value out of them for people today.

WEREN'T SOME OF THOSE TEXTS REGARDED AS "ORTHODOX" BY THE MAJORITY OF CHRISTIANS?

Some of the texts selected by the NOC were indeed regarded as "orthodox" in theology (I mean by the "orthodox" majority -- obviously all the texts were regarded as "right-teaching" or "right-praise" or "right-representation" by anyone who accepted them); but not as having actual historical value and authority. They were known to have been written too recently; or the connection with close confederates of Jesus was too fuzzy. And not enough churches across all Christendom were using these extra-canonical texts for them to be regarded as having primitive roots back to the first Christians.

That's the opinion of practically all scholars today, too, Christian or not, including the "council" who put together this collection and translation.

(By "some of the texts" I mainly mean "The Acts of Paul And Thecla", a very popular brief pious novel retelling the story of St. Paul from canonical Acts with new material detailing his chaste relationship with fellow evangelist Thecla, strongly based on romantic novel forms of the time. Except without the romance. No doubt this was chosen by the NOC because it's a token "orthodox" text that respects a female evangelist.)

But here's the thing. Some of the texts in the final NT canon itself barely squeaked in, and a few of them (the ones toward the end of modern Bibles) weren't and still aren't accepted by some ancient Christian groups. The "New Orleans Council" is well aware of this and wants to use that fact as a way of making the canon more porous about what counts and what doesn't. But then they suggest using texts that didn't even make that much of the cut (by far) despite (at least one of those texts) being recognized as safely "orthodox"! Where is the logic in that? (Aside from the logic of a cash grab. Profit has its own validity, as some tycoon once said.)

BUT... BUT HAL TAUSSIG PROMISES THAT THESE 'NEW' TEXTS WON'T BE OLD-FASHIONED AND NARROW-MINDED LIKE THE OTHER SLIGHTLY OLDER TEXTS THAT HAVE FED HUMAN CULTURE ALL OVER THE WORLD FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS!!

Yes, the idea that texts written by spiritual elitist doctrinaires for their few congregations only 1800 years old, won't be "old fashioned" or "narrow-minded" like the doctrines of texts written 1900 years ago and broadly used all over the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East, as well as used with spiritual profit by something like 2 billion people alive today in all walks of life and all cultures all over the world {inhale!}... that idea is something Prof. Taussig seriously considers to be a selling point in his marketing interview on Amazon.

Hey, at least he doesn't present his own opinion of his book as a review of the book!

BUT IF THE CANON ISN'T REALLY SET AS AN IRON RULE (which is what "canon" meant, thus where we get the term "cannon" by the way) FOR ALL CHRISTENDOM EVERYWHERE, WHY CAN'T WE ADD SOME MORE TEXTS?!

Indeed, one could flip that on its ear and ask why this "Council" doesn't include the texts regarded as canon by the ancient Catholic branches (thus by the historical majority) but not by the Protestants? The NOC certainly knows about them; Professor Taussig mentions them himself when he thinks doing so will help make the canon look more porous.

Because those texts aren't historically accurate to the events they purport to describe? Actually, the Maccabees texts are routinely cited by historians, not uncritically of course, but still as being useful sources for the Maccabean rebellion. But anyway the NOC proposed texts barely pretend to have any historical data at all, and the NOC scholars sure don't think they do. If anything the Catholic inter-testamental texts provide a wider range of genres!

Because those texts don't provide instruction by the persons supposedly given as authors of the texts? Even more palpably true of the NOC-proposed texts. However far from the original Solomon "The Wisdom of Solomon" might be, "the Odes of Solomon" must be further.

Because those texts are "narrow" and "old-fashioned" and "doctrinaire"? All equally true of the NOC-texts, despite NOC's marketing otherwise.

Because those texts are Jewish and not especially Christian? Shouldn't have been a problem for a Council with avowedly non-Christian Jews on it.

Because those texts include wildly vague and poetical mystical language, making it difficult to suss out a common theological gist between them? That sure didn't stop NOC from putting "The Odes of Solomon" (which features pantheistic self-divine poetical mystical language the NOC editors gush over in contrast to "much of modern Christianity, which highlights a personal belief in Jesus and God") together with "First Epistle to the Corinthians" (where St. Paul stresses a personal belief in Jesus and God over against belief in any lesser lords or gods, much less self-identification-oneness with God and/or Christ. Wait a minute -- doesn't that mean St. Paul's "narrow" "old-fashioned" "doctrinaire" text counts as being "modern Christianity"???)

Maybe the NOCkers didn't include the inter-testamental texts because large swatches of Christendom still take those inter-testamental texts very seriously, and they can be easily found in any Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Bible?

Ding!

BUT THESE NEW OLD TEXTS... or... or whatever... CAN BE EASILY FOUND, TOO, EVEN FREELY ON LINE. AND LOTS MORE OF THEM!

Indeed. Here is a decent critical edition, providing even more information about the same texts, and providing even more texts. Why not promote this as "A New New Testament" instead? 864 pages of text and essay commentary (some of it nicely gushy about how spiritually profound the texts are supposed to be), instead of 640 pages almost entirely of-and-about the canonical New Testament. Sounds like a better deal! Costs less, too.

The difference of course is that that book was already released (to ride the coat-tails of the promotion of "The Gospel of Judas" a few years ago) by someone else. (Though with contributions from some of the same crew as ANNT.) This "New New Testament" isn't really about "A New Testament that causes people—inside and outside church—to lean forward with interest and engagement," (as the introduction puts it), because 95% of ANNT is already the most famous literary material in world history which most people can access for free or already have copies in the home -- everyone already leans forward with interest and engagement in this, except for people who have no interest in it -- and 5% of it has already been repeatedly pushed forward in recent years for people to lean forward with interest and engagement about, without gaining any substantial number of serious adherents.

SO WHAT NEW NEW TESTAMENT BOOKS ARE BEING PROPOSED?

• The Acts of Paul and Thecla
• The Gospel of Thomas (Nag)
• The Prayer of Thanksgiving (Nag)
• The Prayer of the Apostle Paul (Nag)
• The Thunder: Perfect Mind (Nag)
• The Gospel of Mary (Nag)
• The Gospel of Truth (Nag)
• The Letter of Peter to Philip (Nag)
• The Secret Revelation of John (not to be confused with the canonical Revelation)
• The First through Fourth Books of the Odes of Solomon

Paul/Thecla is the only nominally "orthodox" text, and was probably included because of the respected heroine. SecretRevJohn and OdesSol are just as highly esoteric and Gnostic as anything in the Nag Hammadi collection. Thunder/Perfect mind probably pre-dates Christianity, and no ancient source anywhere talks about it, so trying to pass it off as being important in any way for "early Christianity" (aside from whoever stashed the cache of texts at Nag Hammadi) is blatantly ridiculous.

Ironically, ActsPaulThecla was probably more important for "early Christianity" broadly speaking than all the other texts put together!--because unlike everything else in this group, it was intended to be a popularly read text, teaching important practical faith lessons to the mass of common people, some of whom might also be facing the lions someday in the local coliseum -- not a fate any of the secret Gnostic groups typically had to worry about.

It was the disenfranchised and persecuted and marginal "orthodox" group who changed the world into the world we live in today; they were the ones whose doctrines people of all stations high and low sat up and leaned forward to engage with--sometimes with torturously lethal intensity.

And it's still their beliefs, fractured and varied through their various heirs worldwide, Catholic and Orthodox and Protestant, yes even among the remnants of the Oriental Orthodox and the Church of the East, that these nineteen "councilors" have been leaning forward to engage with (and against) for their professional adult lives--including in daring to take it upon themselves to release A New New Testament at all.

At the end of the day, those other texts just aren't even remotely worth caring about to the same degree. Not worth living for; not worth dying for; not worth building a coherent worldview from; not worth challenging the worldview(s) of.

As the late dean of modern textual criticism, Bruce Metzger, liked to say, when the Imperial police come knocking on your door to search your house, it makes a difference whether you're willing to hand them the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of John.

People gave up GosThom. They kept and hid GosJohn at the risk of their lives; but they didn't hide it in a hole and never take it back out again--they also thought it was important enough to share with everyone as much as they possibly could, even when that did mean risking their own lives.

And that, in a nutshell, is why we still have GosJohn today. Not because some council somewhere made that decision for other people.


Rather than trying to impress people (and pad the wallets of himself and his friends) with texts that no one anywhere is willing today to die to give to other people -- or by any evidence were ever willing to die to give to other people -- maybe Hal Taussig should try focusing on figuring out and teaching why these slightly older 27 books (more or less) are so very much more important to people who have never heard of Nicea and wouldn't give a feather in a firestorm for the Muratorian Canon, but who are tortured and killed by the thousands every year, still today, to bring the light of those words to every tongue and color of skin, to great intellectuals and to those who can't even count (but who often learn to read their own language in order to read these words), to men and women and children of every creed --

-- because the bringers believe this creed they bring is truly better news, truly higher truth, than anything else in the world.


Seriously Hal?

That's what you want to compete with, and improve upon?! With these extra little blips of mostly obscure puffery??!


As that bastion of conservative narrow-minded dogma, Kirkus Review, declares: "Not a substitute for the real thing."

Good luck, pastor Hal.

3 comments:

Epilogue,

If you absolutely must drop some coin on an eccentric English New Testament translation this holiday season, which you can be as assured as possible minimizes both conservative and liberal theological biases, may I recommend Jonathan Mitchell's recent attempt?

True, he's a conservative trinitarian (as far as I can tell) with a reverently high view of the scriptures, but he also knows about and appreciates liberal interpreters and linguists whose works have (at least somewhat) stood the test of time; and his approach involves providing all the nuances he can dig up on every phrase and term (plus the most common textual variants).

Does that make a very clunky reading experience? Absolutely, yes. But he also thereby allows and encourages the reader to put the meanings together in the way that seems to make the most (inspired?) sense to you.

Plus he's a struggling self-publisher. Stick it to the man and support someone who actually needs the money to eat tomorrow!, yo!

(Seriously, I own this "Amplified Translation" myself, among many other translations, and I recommend it from personal experience. It's far from the smoothest reading New Testament on the market, but his approach is helpfully unique.)

JRP

"I'll take a moment to promote my friend David Marshall's readable and accessible The Truth About Jesus And The "Lost Gospels", as only one of many perfectly serviceable works on this topic. Here's an interview he did for the Cadre as an introduction.)"

you really know how to sell books man. "serviceable" Hu? that good is it?

Pratt says "half a thumb up." ;-)

I was just kidding Jason. I like you reviews.

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