Interview: Hal Taussig and A New New Testament

A few months ago, I posted some information about a project that I was invited to participate in, the formation of A NEW New Testament, organized by Hal Taussig. If you read the post, from the comments you can see that this book will stir the theological souls of many. Some will feel liberated by discovering new lenses through which humanity may experience the gospel of Jesus Christ, while others will see the project as dangerous and heretical.

The book will be released on March 5th [ORDER HERE] and I had the pleasure of interviewing Hal about the book and process.  Here is my interview with Dr. Hal Taussig on his newest book project, A New New Testament: A Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts.

No doubt people who don’t know you are going to paint a one-dimensional picture of you. So who is Hal Taussig and what’s one thing that we might not guess about you?

I have been both a pastor and professor for over 30 years, never having given up either work. The major work I have done pastorally is to be a primary figure in the re-starting of two successive local churches, which were on the verge of dying and now both are vibrant communities. Almost all of my time as a professor has been teaching New Testament at the graduate or seminary level. For two of my early books, I was officially accused of heresy within the United Methodist Church, and I was exonerated of these charges.

I was raised on a cattle ranch in the high Rockies.

I love Motown, modern ballet, and raquetball.

How did this project come about and, knowing the kind of backlash that will be created, why did you take this on?

This project came slowly into focus over the past 20 years as I heard over and over again in the congregation where I pastor, with my M.Div. and Ph.D. students at the seminary where I teach, and at speaking engagements around the country that learning about many of the new discoveries of ancient Christian documents meant a great deal spiritually and intellectually to those who heard about them. Over and over again people acted as if they had just discovered their long lost sibling as I told them about the likes of the Gospel of Mary, The Thunder:Perfect Mind, the Acts of Paul and Thecla and others. So many people in so many different settings kept asking me why this material was not in the traditional New Testament.

In terms of the backlash that may come from this, I am not very good at taking this seriously. I generally expect people’s interest and honest engagement about what I do, so I do suspect that I am not well enough prepared emotionally for such a backlash. I can say that I do have a fair amount of experience with national controversy. In my national engagement with the Jesus Seminar and the national controversy during the accusations of heresy against my early books, I found it fairly easy to concentrate mostly on the promise of what I was doing rather than the damage done to me.

I blogged about this project a few months back, and while there were some positive comments, a majority of the comments accused you and The Council of being a group of arrogant religious celebrities who have finally gone too far. How do you respond to these accusations?

I would respond by telling them about the new works we have added to the traditional New Testament. I would quote to them how Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of Mary consoles the rest of the disciples after Jesus has left them. I would quote them the Odes of Solomon which sound so much like the Psalms in the Bible, but include Jesus in those “new” Psalms. I would tell them of how when the disciples in the Letter of Peter to Philip are threatened with death, they nevertheless go back out into the street to teach and heal. I would ask them what they think of these new discoveries from early Christianity, and whether they think they are important for the public to know about.

In this work, one needs to stay focused on the substance of the issue, and not be distracted by people trying to discredit by innuendo and allegations.

The Council was diverse in many ways. How did you decide who would be invited to be a part of the The Council?

I had three criteria for inviting people to be on the Council:

  1. that almost all of them were enthusiastically Christian;
  2. that a small minority were deeply spiritual leaders from beyond Christianity;
  3. that they all have wide experience in some kind of ministry and especially in recommending to the general public what they can read to help them grow spiritually.

Within these three criteria, I then asked as broad a spectrum as I could. I asked people from every major denomination. I asked conservative, middle of the road, and liberal people. I asked people from a broad range of ethnic backgrounds. I tried to ask as many women as men.

What surprised you about the process of getting to the final selection of writings?

I was most surprised by how enthusiastic these Council members, most of whom had not really known much about the new discoveries of documents from early Christianity, were about these documents. I was also very surprised at how meaningful the leadership of women in the newly discovered ancient documents was to the members of the Council.

Were you disappointed or surprised by the inclusion or exclusion of any particular writing/s?

About eight months before the final meeting of the Council, I secretly wrote down a list of documents I wanted to be in A New New Testament. But, of course, in the Council of 19 members, I only had one vote, just as each of the other Council members. So only half of my own choice of documents made it into A New New Testament. To a certain extent, of course, this is disappointing in the mundane way that we are disappointed when we don’t get our way. But honestly, I am so committed to this project being as an authentic and nationally framed collaborative effort, I now am much more excited about being a part of a process that reflects a wide spectrum of wisdom and a longstanding way churches have made decisions than remembering why some of my choices got lost. I know how much more wisdom emerges when more people from as diverse a perspective as possible are included in the decision-making.

How do you hope people will use A New New Testament?

I think there are three main (and different) ways I hope various people use A New New Testament:

  1. Like both Christians and non-Christians use the traditional New Testament. That is, as a way to be closer to God, more in tune with all of life, and challenged to grow in character, morality, and spirit.
  2. as a new way to picture how Christianity began. That is, as a new sparkling prism of the many different visions and experiences of the many groups that eventually made up the realities of emergent Christianity.
  3. as a way to deepen relationships with the existing New Testament, new initiatives to make Christianity come alive for individuals and communities, and those seeking a more spirited way in the world.

What do you hope does NOT happen as a result of the release of A New New Testament?

I hope that people do not dismiss A New New Testament without reading it, especially without reading the wonderful ways these old and new documents fit together.

Think five or 10 years down the line, what do you hope will be the overall impact of A New New Testament on culture, Christianity and/or the church?

My hopes are that A New New Testament becomes a significant part of the way we find meaning in our day relative to the ways we are connected to the beginnings of Christianity. As the head of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Bruce Nichols, said to me early in our discussions about publishing this book, he hoped that for the next two decades A New New Testament had a favored place on bookshelves and electronic readers, so that they would often turn to it and think about what they found there.

What part of the entire process brought you the most joy?

There was so much joy throughout the process, especially in the time I had to re-read and think about all the old and new texts, talk with very insightful and recognized spiritual leaders about all the books, and see the excitement in so many people as the reality of a new New Testament came into being. But, Bruce, two particular moments of joy come to mind:

  1. in the final deliberations of the Council’s choosing the books to be added, the careful and intense conversation among the Council, involving intense desire, much argument, and careful listening to one another. People laughed with so much shared appreciation, wept with desire and disappointment, and changed their minds in various directions.
  2. when the publisher committed a very substantial sum of money to make sure that a group of national spiritual leaders could work together for up-to-a-year together to study these texts and make these decisions together in a way that had integrity and time to prepare.

Pay it forward – Please name 2-3 groups, organizations or people you believe do great work in the world and why more people should know about them.

What a great question!

The First Corinthian Baptist Church of Harlem. A large,growing, spirit-filled congregation of thoughtful, young and old, multi-gendered, and courageous people. Their devotion to open-minded and open-hearted life together in the big wide world is stunning and powerful. (Among other things they are already in the process of reading the newly discovered documents of Christianity alongside the old ones.)

Two cutting edge scholars at the intersection of New Testament and new discoveries, Karen King, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School and Maia Kotrosits, newly minted Ph.D. in this field.

The Pennsylvania Ballet. A hugely creative ensemble whose dance breaks down old barriers and shows the beauty and volatility of the human body.

Personally, while I understand that there will be continued backlash about this project, it was a privilege to be a part of it. I only hope that even in the midst of the deepest disagreement, we may all see one another as created and complex children of God.

Here are a few more links of note:

This blog post was originally published on

Pre-Order Your NEW New Testament

[click image to pre-order]

Last year I was privileged to be part of a group of folks brought together to think about sacred Christian texts, past AND future. Yes, I said future because like many others, I have always felt that the texts that have informed my faith and life in Christ were never meant to be static, rather, were meant to expand and grow. So when Hal Taussig asked me to part of a Church Council who would determine the texts to be included in the new book, A New New Testament (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) I did not need much convincing.*

As this journey began, however, I was filled with great excitement and event greater trepidation. Who were we to decided what new texts should be part of any sacred canon? Who was I to be part of such a group of scholars, theologians and cultural icons (Barbara Brown Taylor, Margaret Aymer OgetKaren KingJohn Dominic Crossan, Bishop Alfred Johnson, etc.)? And most importantly, who in their right might would choose to wade into the firestorm of controversy that would be before us? After all, to many, this will undoubtedly be seen as messing with The Word of God and will be labeled as blasphemous and heretical. Not the first time that those labels have been directed my way, but why invite it?

From the book publisher . . .

In February of 2012, a council of scholars and spiritual leaders,convened by religion scholar Hal Taussig, came together to discuss,debate, and reconsider which books belong in the New Testament. They talked about dozens of newly found texts, the lessons therein, and how they inform the previously bound books. Reading the existing New Testament alongside these new texts—The Gospel of Luke with The Gospel of Mary, Paul’s letters with The Letter of Peter to Philip, The Revelation to John with The Secret Revelation to John—offers the exciting possibility of understanding both, the new and the old, better.

For me entering into this daunting task was simple. As I read text after text after text, it became clear to me that God was moving then and will move now through these words that we offer to you in this New New Testament. The Spirit of God moved in my reading, the Spirit of God moved in our sometimes heated discussions, and I truly believe that the Spirit of God will move in others as they are exposed to these transforming texts.

Take for instance one the texts that was very high on my list, the Nag Hammadi text, The Thunder: Perfect Mind.

I was sent out from power
I came to those pondering me
And I was found among those seeking me
Look at me, all you who contemplate me
Audience, hear me
Those expecting me, receive me
Don’t chase me from your sight
Don’t let your ovice or your hearing hate me
Don’t ignore me any place, any time
Be careful. Do not ignore me

I am the first and the last
I am she who is honored and she who is mocked
I am the whore and the holy woman
I am the wife and the virgin
I am he the mother and the daughter
I am the limbs of my mother
I am the sterile woman and she has many children
I am she whose wedding is extravagant and I didn’t have a husband
I am the midwife and she who hasn’t given birth
I am the comfort of labor pains
I am the bride and the bridegroom
And it is my husband who gave birth to me
I am my father’s mother,
My husband’s sister, and he is my child
I am the slavewoman of him who served me
I am she, the lord of my child

But it is he who gave birth to me at the wrong time
And he is my child born at the right time
And my power is from within him
I am the staff of his youthful power
And he is the baton of my old womanhood
Whatever he wants happens to me
I am the silence never found
And the idea infinitely recalled
I am the voice with countless sounds
And the thousand guises of the word
I am the speaking of my name

Full Translation and Commentary by Hal Taussig

Thunder, you had me at “I was sent out from power”

I have yet to see the gallery copy, but my understanding is that A New New Testament will read like a traditional Bible with short introductions at the beginning of each texts with translations and footnotes to follow. Our hope is that this is not simply an academic book that will be seen as a novelty accomplishment by a group of yahoos who sat in a room, but that it will be the beginning of some great conversations about the future of the Christian faith and the texts through which we view God’s relationship with humanity.

Lastly, not the snazziest of video treatment that I have ever seen, but the video below will give you and idea of how it began who was part of it and what it includes. You can also pre-order A New New Testament: A Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts and it is expected to be published in March 2013.

* Disclaimer: Other than the expenses associated with travel, room and board for the meeting of The Church Council, I have not and will not receive any compensation from the publisher or Hal Taussig.

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