Introducing A New New Testament
It is time for a new New Testament. A New Testament that causes people—inside and outside church—to lean forward with interest and engagement. This is meant to be that book. It contains astounding new material from the first-century Christ movements and places it alongside the traditional texts. Among its offerings are a new gospel whose primary character is a woman, a previously unknown collection of songs in Christ’s voice lifting to God, another gospel with more than fifty new teachings from Jesus, and a prayer of the apostle Paul discovered in the sands of Egypt less than seventy years ago.
This New New Testament is not simply the product of one author. The ten added books have been chosen by a council of wise and nationally known spiritual leaders. An eclectic mix of bishops, rabbis, well-known authors, leaders of national churches, and women and men from African American, Native American, and European American backgrounds have studied many of the recent discoveries from the first two centuries, deliberated rigorously together, and chosen those new books.
What have these deliberations produced? Where did it come from? And what do readers need to know before immersing themselves in this new New Testament experience?
Where did these new books come from?
How could new books from the first centuries of Christianity, ones not in the New Testament, just suddenly appear? Where did they come from? And why aren’t they in the New Testament to begin with? There is no simple answer to these questions. And these are not questions that need to be in the foreground of our experience of A New New Testament. So, they are addressed them in a number of chapters that follow the scriptures included here, a "Companion to A New New Testament: Basic Historical Background for This New Book of Books."
But there is a short answer to these important questions that can be summarized here. In the past hundred years a number of new works from the first centuries have been discovered in the desert sands of Egypt, the markets of Cairo, and the libraries of ancient monasteries. In some cases, scholars already knew about the existence of these books because they were mentioned in other, more familiar ancient texts, but the books themselves had never been found. In other cases, these newly found documents from the beginnings of Christianity had never before been heard of at all. In still other cases, some of these "new" documents have actually been in hand for quite a while but have been ignored, repressed, or known only to scholars.
There is no reason, then, to think that the Gospel of Thomas, which is not in the traditional New Testament, was read any less in the first and second centuries than the Gospel of John, which is in the traditional New Testament. Indeed, in the ancient world the Gospel of Thomas was distributed widely and translated into at least two languages. Early Christian writings that did not make it into the New Testament had, in their time, similar status to the works that did find their way into it. There was no "stamp of approval" until at least three hundred years after Jesus’s birth.
Wait a minute! Wasn’t the New Testament written, selected, and collected very soon after Jesus?
No. The New Testament did not exist for at least the first three hundred, if not five hundred, years after Jesus. Some of its books appear to have been written some twenty to thirty years after his death, but others probably not for at least 140 years after Jesus.
In the early centuries of Christianity the only hints of a sacred collection of texts are several lists of some gospels, letters, and apocalypses suggested for reading, with different Christ communities following different lists, and many communities not following any list. The second through fourth centuries after Jesus did see some actual bound books of collected early Christian works, but none of them are identical to, or even progenitors of, the New Testament. In other words, as is shown in more detail in the "Companion to A New New Testament" at the back of this book, these new additions to the New Testament existed for many years and during the crucial early period of Christianity alongside the books we know, without any privilege of one over any other, for a very long time. This "new" New Testament, then, in a very real way restores the kind of mix of early Christian documents about Jesus that existed in the first centuries.
The assumption that the existing New Testament was always the privileged, authorized book about Jesus is not true. The New Testament did not somehow descend from God after Jesus was gone. Christian churches spent centuries engaging in arguments and political deals to decide which early books would be included in their most sacred collections. This, of course, does not mean that the New Testament is fraudulent or less meaningful. It simply means that the historical record shows that collection to be a product of complex human negotiation over a long period of time.
So, if the New Testament as a collection of early Christian books did not come into existence in the first century, where did all these different books from the traditional New Testament and beyond it come from? And when were they written?
The introduction to each ancient text in A New New Testament gives an approximate date for when it might have been written. But it is difficult to know these dates exactly. None of these individual books make note of when they were written, and historians are left with many imponderables in dating them. It is reasonably clear that Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Corinthians were written in the 50s CE (AD). On the other hand, the Gospel of Luke could have been written anywhere from 60 CE to 140 CE, according to different historians. Many scholars now argue that the Gospel of Thomas (not included in the traditional New Testament but included in this New New Testament) was written much earlier than the Gospel of Luke. We will look more closely at the difficulties and approximations of when the books in and outside of the traditional New Testament were written later, in both the individual introductions to each ancient text and in the "Companion to A New New Testament."
The books inside and outside the traditional New Testament specify little about the conditions in which they were written, though from their hints at times, places, and real-life circumstances it is clear that they were written by and for particular people. The precise origins of the individual works of the traditional New Testament are in many cases just as elusive as the new additions to this new New Testament.
It can be shocking to learn just how many ambiguities and unknowns surround the origins of these documents, both familiar and new. However, it is worth stepping back from specific questions about individual texts to look at the bigger picture of the things we do know about them—because all of these documents have much in common. For instance, none of the traditional New Testament was written after 175 CE; so the 2012 council that chose the new books also did not allow books definitely written after 175 CE. Although there is little certainty about when, by whom, and for what these individual works were written, there are some general similarities in all of them. They were all—traditional and new—composed by and for people between 50 and 175 CE, somewhere around the Mediterranean Sea, with certain similar themes and within certain realities of life. All these books had a life of their own long before they were in the New Testament—not unlike the new books added to this new New Testament.
Why are certain books in the traditional New Testament and others are not?
Many people acknowledge that the books of the New Testament were written and assembled by humans, but they still assume that some sort of reasonable criteria must have been in place to determine which books were included and which were not. The common assumption holds that the books that became the New Testament must have been in some way more true, more divinely inspired, or more historically accurate than the ones that weren’t. One goal of A New New Testament is to rethink that misconception. The Gospel of Truth contains poetry about Jesus that is as beautiful as anything found in the traditional New Testament. The Gospel of Thomas records sayings of Jesus found nowhere else that are every bit as likely to have come from his lips as any of those in the New Testament. The Odes of Solomon provide us with more material from early Christian worship than the entire existing New Testament.
This New New Testament means to assist both the general public and scholars in getting beyond the overly simplistic readings of the existing New Testament and the new early Christian documents as either orthodox or heretical. Based on my experiences teaching the new documents and the existing New Testament side by side in churches and seminaries for the past twenty years, this project embodies a new way of thinking about what belongs in the heritage of early Christianity. It invites the reader to see how this new mix illuminates spiritual seeking, ethical issues, patterns of belief, and social practice. It calls for scholars and religious leaders to listen carefully to the way the public receives and responds to this new mix, and to provide fresh and solid ideas about how to make sense of the ways the various documents belong to each other and to the contemporary world.
What is in A New New Testament?
A New New Testament offers thirty-seven works of scripture from the early centuries of Christianity. It places new discoveries alongside familiar texts and groups them into six sections in an effort to create further contact and contours to their reading. These books include gospels, teachings, prayers, and prophecies.
A New New Testament also offers key summaries and introductions to each ancient book. These include discussions of their inspirations, important historical background, suggestions for ways to use the texts with and against the others in the collection, and potential meditations for broader and deeper understanding of the texts on a spiritual level.
Finally, after the last ancient book—the Secret Revelation of John—we present "A Companion to A New New Testament." These six chapters help the reader with major questions about how the new books were found, how the traditional New Testament came into being, what the new books have in common with each other and with the traditional ones, the specifics of how A New New Testament came into being, what twentieth- and twenty-first-century scholarship says about the new books, some of the meanings produced by reading the recently discovered and the traditional books together, and what the future of A New New Testament might be.
How was this new New Testament brought into being?
In the second through eighth centuries, early synods and councils often brought a group of spiritual leaders together to decide important issues. In honor of this tradition, I invited spiritual leaders from across North America to form a council that would decide which of the seventy-five or so additional early Christian documents should be collected together to create A New New Testament. After more than six months of preparation, a group of nineteen such leaders convened in February of 2012 in New Orleans; the results of that invaluable discussion and decision-making process are what you hold in your hands. The names and brief biographies of the members of that council are listed in the back of this book, and the process of the council’s deliberation is described in the "Companion to A New New Testament," also at the end.
As the bishops, authors, rabbis, and scholars of the New Orleans Council finished their work on a windswept day in 2012, they were tingling with excitement. They were confident of the integrity of their conversations and the literature they had just added to the traditional New Testament. Several worried that they had not added enough new books. All were certain that more discussion lay ahead and that this contribution would provide many opportunities for reconsidering how we imagine and encounter the story of Christianity. May your reading help this ongoing deliberation, as this new world of possibilities unfolds.