PHILADELPHIA — "In the beginning was the Word," begins an ancient Middle Eastern text, "and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
In time its anonymous author would be assigned the name John, and his mystical story of the life and death of Jesus — whom he presents as having existed before all time — would join 26 other texts in a book that has shaped Western civilization like no other.
The New Testament is, for many millions of Christians, the inspired Word of God, sacred and immutable: the perfect account of Jesus, the perfect human.
And so the Rev. Hal Taussig's forthcoming book, "A New New Testament," may seem an assault on Christianity's very foundation.
But Taussig, 65, a Philadelphia pastor and New Testament scholar, hopes that Christians and others will find much that is illuminating in his provocative expansion of the Good Book.
"A New New Testament" contains 10 gospels, letters, and prayers that circulated in early Christianity but never made it into its official Scripture. "Split the piece of wood. I am there," Jesus says in one.
Selected after much study and debate by a council of 20 spiritual leaders whom Taussig convened last year, "A New New Testament" intersperses those 10 unfamiliar texts with the traditional 27.
Published March 5 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, it is Taussig's 12th book on early Christianity. A visiting professor of New Testament at New York's Union Theological Seminary, and a professor of early Christianity at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa., he penned its extensive commentary, which includes introductions to each of the 37 books.
"We are very self-consciously saying this is not what the New Testament should have looked like," he said in an interview at his home in Philadelphia's Chestnut Hill neighborhood. "That's why we called it 'A New New Testament.' We invite others to create their own."
The soft-spoken, bald, and bearded scholar acknowledged, however, that he has crossed a line.
"This," he said, "is the first revision of the Christian canon. Period."
Even if Christianity had been receptive to such an idea in centuries past, so large an expansion would not have been possible before 1945, when two brothers digging near the Upper Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi unearthed an earthen jar containing leather-bound papyrus manuscripts, know as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
One of the greatest archaeological finds of history, this jar contained 52 early Christian texts, most of them unknown, evidently hidden by a Jesus community in the fourth century. They present a complex picture of Jesus and the nascent Christ movement as omnidirectional and challenging as a cubist painting.
Taussig, a Ph.D. who grew up in a "gently fundamentalist" cattle-ranching household in Colorado and who reads Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Coptic, and Aramaic, began studying the Nag Hammadi manuscripts as they became public in the 1970s.
Like many other Bible scholars, he concluded that this unorthodox collection of miracle stories, letters, and oblique sayings shed as much light on the swirl that was early Christianity as do the standard books of the New Testament.
"And as I started teaching them over the last 20 years, I found that people would react as if they had discovered their long-lost sister," he said. "People would be very moved, very gripped in their own spiritual life."
Taussig concedes some traditionalists may see blasphemy in "A New New Testament," whose very premise seems to question whether Christianity got Jesus right.
But as the "gentle fundamentalism" of his Colorado boyhood gave way to inquiry and scholarship, he said, he came to see the Bible not as history but poetry. The ancient writers seeking to grasp the astonishing new Jesus movement "didn't write down what happened," he says.
"They wrote what it meant."
"Harking back to ancient documents helps us think about things in new ways," he said. "The more good ones the better."