Thursday, December 19, 2013

Michael Kruger's The Question of Canon - Chapter 3 Summary

In Chapter three of The Question of Canon, Michael Kruger is concerned to address the popular notion among some scholars that early Christianity was “a predominantly, if not exclusively, oral religion that would have been hesitant to place value on written documents.” As readers who have followed the previous two posts can see, this argument by advocates of the extrinsic model of canon fits nicely into the overall case made by the extrinsic advocates that a written canon of Scripture would have been foreign to the earliest Christians. This chapter is largely negative in the sense that Kruger is interested in casting doubt on the three pillars of this above mentioned claim.

Claim #1: Early Christianity was an Oral Culture. Pointing to the fact that the majority of people other than leaders could not read, these critics go so far as to argue that early Christians would have thought that a written medium of communication “might compromise the Gospel” (to use Kelber’s words; 85). While Kruger acknowledges that this is largely true (Christians were not as literate as today, and oral tradition did have a high place in that time period), these facts are not “a sufficient basis to characterize it as having an ‘oral state of mind’” (86). Kruger argues that (quoting Mary Beard) “the number of literates is a secondary issue” (87).

a. Kruger argues that there is nothing self-contradictory about a culture where a high value is placed on text but also the majority of that culture or community cannot actually read. These are not mutually exclusive features for a community to possess. In fact, argues Kruger, “they exist within a symbiotic and mutually reinforcing relationship” (89).

b. Kruger also argues that early Christianity, contrary to the popular perception, was actually a highly textual culture. In support of this he points to (1) Early Christian writings, (2) the obvious textuality of the Old Testament, and (3) early evidence that Christians were producing books. In the end, he says, “to reconstruct the history of Christianity solely through the lens of orality is to significantly distort the history of Christianity” (103).

Claim #2: Early Christians Expressly Stated their Aversion to Writing. Two primary examples of this thinking come from Papias and from the Apostle Paul. Kruger points out the irony, of course, of someone expressing their dislike for written words in writing. Regarding the Papias quote, he says that “for Papias the ‘living voice’ is not antithetical to written texts, but often the foundation for them.” The quote from Paul that is often pointed to is in 2 Cor. 3:6 where he says, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life,” implying that this passage teaches Paul’s great dislike of literal letters. Kruger spends more time on this passage than I think he needs to, but he does conclude, accurately, that “Paul’s contrast between these two mediums is really a contrast between two covenants,” the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant (110). 

Claim #3: Early Christians Expected the Imminent Return of Christ. Implied in this argument is that if they believed the world was about to end, Christians would have had no reason, early on, to produce written works. This thinking is heavily influenced by Albert Schweitzer and Bart Ehrman. Kruger responds by pointing out

a. that one must understand the apocalyptic language of the New Testament by taking into account the already/not yet distinction. “In a very real sense, the kingdom of God did come in the lifetime of the disciples (Mt. 12:28; Lk. 4:21; 17:20-21); but in another (apocalyptic) sense, it is still yet to come when Jesus returns to judge the world (Mt. 7:21; 8:11; Mk. 14:25; 15:43). Failure to make this careful distinction leads to an all-or-nothing approach to the coming kingdom of God and thus creates the impression that Jesus was mistaken about his own return” (113-114). Kruger then argues that
b. even if the early Christians believed the return of Christ and end of all things was imminent, that still isn’t any reason to think this would mean Christians wouldn’t produce written documents. He points to the Qumran community which, though highly apocalyptic in their orientation, still produced numerous written documents. Kruger ends this response to claim #3 by quoting Gerd Theissen: “The thesis about the imminent expectation of the end as a factor impeding literary creation is false. Jewish apocalyptic writing is full of imminent expectations and yet attests to a flourishing literary production” (as quoted on 117).

In the end, says Kruger, “In many instances Christians may have even preferred oral modes of communication over the written. But this is not the same as a prejudice against writing" (118).

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