Unless you’re a biblical scholar or a geography whiz, chances are the words “Nag Hammadi” don’t ring a bell. Though Nag Hammadi is an actual city in Egypt, it’s also the name of a collection of early Christian texts that were found there in 1945. These documents—allegedly written before most or all of the canonized books of the New Testament—include works like The Gospel of Thomas, The Acts of Paul and Thecla, and The Secret Revelation of John. Hal Taussig, a practicing pastor and seminary professor, has spent nearly two decades pondering the significance of the Nag Hammadi texts. In early 2012 he assembled a council of scholars and spiritual leaders to reconsider which books belong in the New Testament. After scrutinizing approximately 75 texts, the council recommended that 10 of them be added to the New Testament canon, and the result is Taussig’s new book, A New New Testament.
Of course, when you challenge orthodoxy by adding to something that’s sacred, there’s going to be intense debate. “The first impulse, even within scholarship, was, ‘Oh, this has got to be heresy,’” Taussig says. “The word Gnosticism is mostly a recent invention in scholarly discourse, and it’s just a code word for heresy.”
There is another argument that Haussig finds problematic. Although he’s an admirer of noted biblical scholar Elaine Pagels’ work and says he’s indebted to her because of her scholarship, he doesn’t agree with her about the significance of the Nag Hammadi texts. “Her basic proposal as I understand it is that the new discoveries are better than the traditional scriptures,” he explains. “I just think it’s more complicated than that. It’s too romantic to propose that all of a sudden we’ve got the ‘real’ story. For me, spending an intense two decades on this with all kinds of laypeople and scholars, it just seems to me that there’s an unbelievable amount of good stuff, but there’s still some junk in there.”
Taussig doesn’t believe a document should be categorically rejected just because it contains questionable content. If that were the case, he says he’d have to throw out the traditional New Testament. “I certainly owe my own spiritual vitality to the traditional New Testament,” says Taussig, “so I know there’s wonderful things in it. But it takes a lot of rationalization not to see that there are also serious flaws in it.”
“If you look at a regular Greek New Testament,” he explains, “there’s not one manuscript that all the other manuscripts agree with. There are thousands of differences. So when someone stands in the pulpit and says, ‘This is the truth,’ I want to say, ‘Well, tell me which of the 5,000 manuscripts you’re consulting.’”
Critics of the Nag Hammadi texts contend that they contain bizarre misinformation—things like Jesus having had a twin brother, that he was sexually involved with Mary Magdalene, or that he turned children into goats. Of those allegations, only one of the books in A New New Testament contains such a reference. The first verse in the Gospel of Thomas says, “These are the veiled sayings which the living Jesus spoke and Judas, the Twin, Thomas wrote them down.” Haussig doesn’t think the writer meant a biological twin; in his estimation it’s a spiritual reference. “The ‘beloved disciple’ in the Gospel of John [is never named] but is assumed to be John,” says Taussig. “Actually, the Gospel of John says that Lazarus is the one Jesus loved. But this is a tendency in early Christian writings to say, ‘There’s someone who is very close to Jesus, who is the source of this teaching.’ So I would say that the term ‘Jesus’ twin’ in the Gospel of Thomas means more or less the same thing—very close.’”
Taussig thinks that considering these extra-canonical texts can add another perspective to early Christian practice, especially when it comes to the debate about gender and authority. The Gospel of Paul and Thecla, for example, demonstrates that despite Paul’s supposed mandate in First Corinthians that “Women should remain silent in churches” (there’s intense debate over whether that passage was added later by someone other than Paul), he recognized the authority of women leaders and in fact worked closely with one. “Both liberals and conservatives today have oversimplified Paul and his relationship to women,” says Taussig. “He’s gotten pigeonholed in this idea that he was against women colleagues. And so the liberals are up in arms about Paul’s being mean to women, and the conservatives are applauding that he’s upholding male authority. That’s simply not an accurate portrait of his letters. If you don’t know Paul and Thecla, you don’t have the story of Paul working alongside a woman. And that introduces a dimension of him that most haven’t seen.”
Laura Jenkins is a writer and photojournalist based in her hometown of Austin, Texas.
Photograph of Hal Taussig by Ron Hester.