Why do some scholars want to add more books to the New Testament?

Q. Recently, A New New Testament, published by Hal Taussig, has incorporated 10 new books into the New Testament.  Most of these texts are Gnostic.  Can you shed some light on the claims of the “Bible scholars” behind the project as to why these texts should be added to the canon?

Your specific question is why a group of scholars wants to add particular books to the New Testament when these books are “Gnostic,” that is, they “come from a different time period than any New Testament document, and they represent a fundamentally different worldview,” as one reviewer has observed.  I will answer that question first.  But this new publication also raises the issue of whether anyone can add any more books to the New Testament at this point, and if so, how and why might that be done?  I’ll respond to that question as well.

I have not seen a copy of A New New Testament, but in my doctoral studies I did read some of the extra books it contains, such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Acts of Paul and Thecla.

The publisher’s web site, in “A Conversation With Hal Taussig,” explains that the committee of scholars behind the edition wanted to include these books precisely because they represent a fundamentally different worldview.  Taussig says that the new books will show 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.”  He says that the expanded collection “opens the door to a wider set of expressions, practices, stories, and teachings than [Christians] have previously known.”

In other words, the scholars on the committee behind this publication (a complete list of them can be found in this article) didn’t like traditional Christian beliefs and practices, they wanted to challenge them by adding other kinds books to the Bible, and they’re hoping this will attract  people to their own beliefs.

No one can do this.  No self-appointed, narrowly-defined committee (this one excluded any scholars who didn’t find orthodox Christianity narrow-minded and the ideas of the New Testament old-fashioned) can decide on its own what books should be in the Bible.  The canon of the New Testament was not established by a committee or council of church leaders.

Rather, as I explain in this post, “books that stood the test of time through continuous use in diverse Christian centers were eventually accepted by almost all believers.”  The formation of the canon was a process that unfolded over centuries.  I believe, by faith, that through this process the Holy Spirit was bearing witness to the church corporately about which books were Scriptural.  (For specifics about the virtual consensus among Christians regarding the canon of Scripture, see this post.)

If we were going to add any more books to the canon, the same process would have to unfold in the centuries ahead.  For example, suppose we discovered another letter by the apostle Paul—his letter to Laodicea, for instance, mentioned at the end of Colossians but not known now to survive in any copies.  This letter would have to stand the test of time and continual use in diverse Christian communities, as the other New Testament documents have, before it was accepted as part of the word of God.

And the individuals who contributed to this ultimate determination would all have to be active community followers of Jesus.  The committee behind A New New Testament included a Jewish rabbi and an “expert in yogic and Buddhist traditions.”  While such people may have an academic background in biblical studies, by their own admission they are not part of the living Christian community that is animated and directed by the Holy Spirit.

I can, however, think of one good use for the extra books in question.  Recognizing that “early Christ movements expressed themselves” in ways different from the ones we know today can help us appreciate the good reasons behind many of the beliefs and practices we have adopted.

For example, in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Thecla, thinking she is about to be killed in the arena by wild beasts, baptizes herself.  Her life is miraculously preserved and when she finds Paul afterwards, she tells him, “I have received the baptism.”  Paul does not correct her, from which we understand that in the circles in which this work originated around AD 80-160, self-baptism was considered acceptable.  But over time, Jesus’ followers recognized that baptism had to be the community affirming the work of God’s Spirit in an individual’s life, and so the practice of self-baptism was abandoned.

Since there is value in seeing that our beliefs and practices are the result of careful deliberation over time among alternatives, I think it’s helpful for people to know about early books that describe some of these alternatives.  But if we’re going to put these books together with the New Testament documents, I would call the whole collection An Anthology of Early Christian Literature.  That’s the title that many universities now use for what used to be called courses in “New Testament.”  Saying “Early Christian Literature” gives assurances that the enterprise is secular and historical.  The title of the new publication, by contrast, is a bid to change what people believe and practice as Christians by changing their Scriptures, and we should rightfully be concerned about this.

Another response to this questioner is offered in this post on Stephen Miller’s blog.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister who served local churches as a pastor for nearly twenty years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

4 thoughts on “Why do some scholars want to add more books to the New Testament?”

  1. Interesting thoughts. Regarding the Acts of Paul and Thecla, it is true that most commentators interpret Thecla’s baptism as a self-baptism. Peter Dunn has made the interesting argument, however, that it is actually God who baptizes her, and that she merely facilitates the process by throwing herself into the water. Regardless, it may not be the case that her action is meant to serve as an example for those reading or listening to the story, any more than one would interpret Jesus’ statement in the Gospels that the thief on the cross would be in Paradise (without being baptized) as indicating that baptism was not an important rite. Thecla is also in a sticky situation, about to be martyred by wild animals. In fact, her baptismal pool is filled with ravenous seals! (Not exactly something you’d see every day…) You may also be interested to know that an early critic of the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Tertullian, condemns the work not because of self-baptism, but because it allows teaching and baptism to be done by a woman, which he thinks should be prohibited (De bapt. 17). It is not clear whether he is referring to her own baptism or later baptisms of other people.

  2. Thank you for these very helpful observations about Thecla’s baptism. The different ways it can be understood and interpreted underscore for me the value of having these early works available (thought not as Scriptures) to help us appreciate the thinking behind the beliefs and practices we have adopted. For example, even if it’s understood that God baptized Thecla, not that she baptized herself, this is still an understanding I wouldn’t encourage today. I don’t see baptism as a direct transaction between the believer and God, but rather the community’s affirmation of God’s work in the believer’s life to bring them to salvation. And while I support the full participation of women in communities of Christ’s followers, without restrictions, someone who did think there should be restrictions on what women can do is challenged by the story of Thecla to think about whether they believe women can baptize. Is baptizing someone exercising spiritual authority over them? Or is it simply representing the community in ratifying something that has been accomplished by God’s authority? Your observations add to the breadth of insights we can gain by considering these early non-canonical works.

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