In this third chapter of Kruger’s book The Canon Question, he addresses the third major tenet of the extrinsic model. It argues Christians were “reticent to use written documents and that therefore the idea of a NT canon would have been a late phenomenon.” The reasons for this argument are in bold with responses underneath.
Early Christianity was an oral culture
This argument is problematic for a number of reasons. First, the presence of illiteracy doesn’t imply the absence of texts. Christianity was highly interested in books despite the high rates of illiteracy. We have good reasons to think they know and even used early Christian writings (Lk 1:1 and 2 Tim 4:13). And the church was preoccupied with the O.T. as they used it to bolster claims of Jesus as Messiah. Additionally, oral cultures can/do use written modes of delivering messages as they are complementary and not exclusive of each other. Kruger demonstrates why we have good reasons for believing that early Christians maintained a vibrant and literary culture in the presence of high illiteracy.
Early Christians Expressly Stated Their Aversion to Writing
There are only two substantive places where this is possible, Papias and Paul. But Kruger demonstrates that both of these writers seem comfortable with written texts and producing the texts themselves. Some have argued that Paul for example in 2 Cor 3:6 demonstrates that he disparages writing in favor of the oral tradition. But this misses the point of the text, Paul is not arguing against the writing of God’s word, but against reading God’s word without the Spirit. In fact as Kruger helpfully states, now that God’s Spirit has come we can appreciate and keep the law!
Early Christians Expected the Return of Christ Immediately
First, when critics cite particular texts to argue against writings because the disciples expected Jesus to return (Parousia), they make two types of mistakes. First, they fail to understand apocalyptic imagery. Secondly, they have fail to understand the two-stage nature of the kingdom of God (already not yet). This creates an “all or nothing” approach and falsely creates the impression that Jesus nor his disciples understood the Parousia. Additionally, would these teachings have maintained credibility past their lifetimes if this was what they believed? Jesus and his apostles would have been utterly rejected. Yes, they believed the Parousia could happen in their lifetime, but there was nothing to think it must happen in their lifetime. The anticipation of the Parousia did not inhibit literary production. Paul wrote many letters containing apocalyptic material, to be read in the churches, demonstrating that apocalyptic beliefs are not at odds with written, authoritative texts.
In conclusion, Kruger helpfully demonstrates why the early church was “bookish” from the start. They viewed the OT as their books, and quickly produced their own from which they taught the next generation. And just because the early church members were highly illiterate and oral doesn’t signify they were against writing. The development of a new body of books should not be regarded as unexpected, but a natural development.