The Question of CanonI’m continuing my review of Michael Kruger’s The Question of Canon. The other parts of the review can be found here.

The Writing of Canon

Was early Christianity primarily an oral religion, and if so, then wouldn’t the earliest Christians have had little interest in written documents? Assuming the affirmative answer to that question is common amongst modern scholarship and so it is the next issue Kruger takes aim at. “Is it true that Christians were uninterested in books and placed no meaningful value on them until a much later time period?” (p83).

Kruger identifies three stages to this argument, and addresses each in turn:

  1. The socio-historical background: Christianity was an oral culture.
  2. Testimony: Christians stated their aversion to writing.
  3. Eschatology: Early Christians expected the imminent return of Christ.

Now this is quite a dense chapter so I will restrict myself to the final question since I found it the most interesting.

Why Write if Jesus is Coming Back?

So if the early Christians believed Jesus was “coming back at any minute”, then why would they have taken the time to write documents and expect them to be spread around to other churches, let alone compose writings as careful as the Gospels?

1. Did early Christians expect Jesus to return in their lifetimes? Schweitzer argued that Jesus expected the world would end in his own lifetime, hence his disillusion on the cross (Mark 15:34). Ehrman has argued that the earliest disciples expected Jesus to return within their own lifetime based on apocalyptic texts in the NT (Mark 13:30; Matt 24:34; 1 Thess 4:15-17).

Kruger responds to such criticisms in a few ways. First, he draws attention to a misreading of apocalyptic texts that has Jesus linking the events in AD70 with His return. Of course there are other interpretations of the Olivet Discourse texts, but Kruger’s point is that one can see them as predicting the events of AD70 and not require Jesus’ return to happen at the same time.

Secondly, if the earliest Christians did expect Jesus’ return within their own lifetime, then why did these teachings continue unchallenged when they (supposedly) weren’t fulfilled? Why were the Gospels still passed on? People did question why He was taking so long to return (2 Peter 3:4-10) but Christians believed Jesus could return in their lifetime, which is not the same as saying that He must do so.

2. Did expectation of Jesus’ return inhibit literary production?

Here Kruger draws on parallels with early Christianity and the Qumran community. Qumran believed they were on the cusp of God’s intervention and that He would do so in their lifetimes. However, this did not stop them from continuing their lives in a normal manner, and this in no way hindered them from producing a large amount of religious texts! This does not prove the same for Christianity, but it does show that it is not necessarily inconsistent and without precedent.

My Thoughts

I found this chapter particularly interesting because I had not considered this issue before, nor had I thought much about the three elements in the argument against written documents. I suppose they naturally seem illogical since we do have written documents! But I suppose that’s the question: how early are these writings? This is a factor that I wish Kruger had addressed here (though it may have taken him too far afield), the relationship of the early church’s belief in Jesus returning at any moment and late-dating the NT documents, Gospels in particular. Is this assumption part of the reason why some scholars assume the Gospels have a late(r) date than others? If Jesus was expected to return at any time, would this have postponed the creation of the Gospels until post-AD70? Of course, Kruger argued that this is an incorrect assumption, but is this why some scholars conclude such a thing?

Check back soon for part four of The Question of Canon where Kruger addresses the assertion that the apostles would reject the authority we attribute to them today.