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.

Hal TaussigThe 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:

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