10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon: #2: “Nothing in Early Christianity Dictated That There Would be a Canon”

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

April 10, 2012

Note: This is the second installment of a new blog series announced here.

Contemporary challenges to the New Testament canon have taken a number of different forms over the years.  For generations, scholars have mainly focused upon the problem of the boundaries of the New Testament. The perennial question has usually been “How do we know we have the right books?”  But, in recent years, a new challenge has begun to take center stage (though it is really not new at all).  While the validity of the canon’s boundaries is still an area of concern, the attention has shifted to the validity of the canon’s very existence.  The question now is “Why is there a New Testament at all?”

The answer, according to critics of the canon, is not to be found in the first-century—there was nothing about earliest Christianity (or the books themselves) that would naturally lead to the development of a canon. Instead, we are told, the answer is to be found in the later Christian church.  The canon was an ecclesiastical product that was designed to meet ecclesiastical needs. Thus, the New Testament canon was not a natural development within early Christianity, but a later, artificial development that is out of sync with Christianity’s original purpose—it was something imposed upon the Christian faith. Gamble argues this very point: “There is no intimation at all that the early church entertained the idea of Christian scriptures…Therefore, the NT as we think of it was utterly remote from the minds of the first generation of Christian believers.”[1]

However, are we really to think that there was nothing about earliest Christianity that might have given rise to a new collection of scriptural books?  I will argue here that the earliest Christians held a number of beliefs that, especially when taken in tandem, would have naturally led to the development of a new collection of sacred books—what we could call a “canon.”  In other words, the theological matrix of first-century Christianity created a favorable environment for the growth of a new written revelational deposit. Let us consider what three of these theological beliefs might have been.

1. The earliest Christians believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the eschatological fulfillment of foundational Old Testament promises about God’s redemption of his people.  It is important to remember the Jews of the first century period were in a state of anticipation—waiting and longing for God’s redemptive deliverance of Israel.  In other words, Jews of this period viewed the story of the Old Testament books as incomplete.  When the Old Testament story of Israel was viewed as a whole, it was not viewed as something that was finished but as something that was waiting to be finished. N.T. Wright observes, “The great story of the Hebrew scriptures was therefore inevitably read in the second-temple period as a story in search of a conclusion.”[2]  What made the earliest Christians unique is that they believed that the story of the Old Testament had been completed.  It was finished and fulfilled in the coming of Jesus of Nazareth.  The long-awaited redemption of God had arrived.

If so, it is not difficult to see how this belief might impact the production of new scriptural books. If Christians believed the OT story had now been completed, then it reasonable to think that the proper conclusion to the Old Testament might then be written.  Otherwise the OT Scriptures would be a play without a final act. This possibility finds confirmation in the fact that some of the New Testament writings seem to be intentionally completing the Old Testament story.  It is noteworthy that the first book of the New Testament begins with a genealogy with a strong Davidic theme (Matt 1:1), and the (likely) last book of the Hebrew canon begins with a genealogy that has a strong Davidic theme (1 Chronicles 1-2). This structural feature led D. Moody Smith to declare, “In doing so, Matthew makes clear that Jesus represents the restoration of that dynasty and therefore the history of Israel and the history of salvation. Thus, Jesus continues the biblical narrative.”[3] Davies and Allison agree that Matthew “thought of his gospel as a continuation of the biblical history.”[4]

2. The earliest Christians believed that Jesus inaugurated a new covenant.  We must remember that the Jews of the first century were covenantally oriented. N.T. Wright has observed that “Covenant theology was the air breathed by the Judaism of this period.”[5]  And it is clear that the earliest Christians were also covenantally oriented, as they saw Jesus as ushering in a new covenant (Luke 22:20; cf. Matt 26:28; Mark 14:24; 2 Cor 3:6; Heb 7:22, 8:8).  What implications does this belief have on canon?

The answer lies in the very close connection between covenants and written texts.  It is well-established by now that the very concept of ‘covenant’ (or treaty) was drawn from the ancient near eastern world where a suzerain king would often make a treaty-covenant with his vassal king. And here is the key: when such covenants were made, they were accompanied by written documentation of that covenant.  It is not surprising then that when God made a treaty-covenant with Israel on Sinai, he gave them written documentation of the terms of that covenant.  Indeed, so close was the connection between the covenant and written texts, that Old Testament language would often equate the two—the written text was the covenant!

If this is the background of early Christian understanding of covenants, then the implications are easy to see. The earliest Christians were themselves immersed in the covenantal structure of the Old Testament and thus would have understood this critical connection between covenants and written texts.  Thus, if they believed that through Jesus Christ a new covenant had been inaugurated with Israel (Jer 31:31), it would have been entirely natural for them to expect new written documents to testify to the terms of that covenant.

In other words, this Old Testament covenantal background provides strong historical reason for thinking that early Christians would have had a predisposition towards written canonical documents and that such documents might have arisen naturally from the early Christian movement.  At a minimum, the covenantal context of early Christianity suggests that the emergence of a new corpus of scriptural books, after the announcement of a new covenant, could not be regarded as entirely unexpected.

This appears to find confirmation in 2 Cor 3:6 when Paul refers to himself and the other apostles as “ministers of the new covenant”—and Paul makes this declaration in a written text that bears his authority as a minister of the new covenant.  Thus, one could hardly fault the Corinthians if they understood Paul’s letter as, in some sense, a covenant document.

3. The earliest Christians believed in the authority of the apostles to speak for Christ. Jesus had commissioned his apostles “so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority” (Mark 3:14–15).  When Jesus sent out the twelve, he reminds them that “For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matt 10:20).  Thus, he is able to give a warning to those who reject the apostles’ authority: “If anyone will not receive you or listen to your words…it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Matt 10:14).

Given this background, we come to the key question: what would happen if the apostles put their authoritative message in written form?  How would such documents be viewed?  Initially, of course, the apostles delivered their message orally through teaching and preaching. But, it was not long before they began to write their message down. And when they did so, they also told Christians “Stand firm and hold to the traditions you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thess 2:15). And again, “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person and have nothing to do with him” (2 Thess 3:14).

It is here that we see the obvious connection between the role of the apostles and the beginnings of the canon.  If apostles were viewed as the mouthpiece of Christ, and they wrote down that apostolic message in books, then those books would be received as the very words of Christ himself.  Such writings would not have to wait until second, third, or fourth-century ecclesiastical decisions to become authoritative—instead they would be viewed as authoritative from almost the very start. For this reason, a written New Testament was not something the church formally “decided” to have at some later date, but was instead the natural outworking of the redemptive-historical function of the apostles.

In sum, these three theological beliefs of the earliest Christians should, at a bare minimum, make us hesitant about confident proclamations from modern scholars that early Christians had no inclinations toward a canon.  On the contrary, these beliefs suggest that the development of a new corpus of scriptural books would have been a natural, and to some extent even inevitable, part of early Christianity.

 


[1]  H.Y. Gamble, The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 57.

[2] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 217.

[3] D.M. Smith, “When Did the Gospels Become Scripture?,” JBL 119 (2000): 7.

[4] W.D. Davies and D.C. Allison, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), I: 187.

[5] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 262.

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