One of the most-oft repeated ideas about the earliest Christians is that they believed that the Kingdom of God would come (apocalyptically) within their own lifetime. In fact Schweitzer famously argued that Jesus himself thought the world would end in his own lifetime; of course the world didn’t end and Jesus died disillusioned on the cross saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
In recent years, some have suggested that this belief in early Christianity would even have affected the development of the canon. If Christians thought the world would end in their own lifetime, then, it is argued, they would not have been interested in composing new scriptural books. Thus, the idea of a canon must be a later ecclesiastical development.
But, this argument simply doesn’t hold. First, it is by no means evident that early Christians believed Jesus would necessarily return in their own lifetime. Schweitzer’s views have been largely rejected–and rightly so. But, let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that Christians did have this apocalyptic mentality. Does that mean they would have resisted the composition of new books, focusing instead on only oral methods of delivery?
There appears to be little reason to think so. Ironically, Paul is put forth as one who believed that Jesus would return in his own lifetime (as supposedly indicated by texts like 1 Thess 4:15-17), but yet we only know about this belief because Paul wrote it down in a letter! And Paul viewed this letter, as all his letters, as authoritative (2:13) and to be read publicly to the church (5:27).
Such a scenario indicates that apocalyptic beliefs are not necessarily incompatible with the production of written, authoritative texts. Moreover, we have examples of apocalyptic communities that were prolific producers of literature, namely the Qumran group at the Dead Sea (see main photo above). On the basis of Qumran, David Meade argues that apocalypticism in the early Christian communities, far from preventing literary activity, actually “provides the ideological basis for the extension of Scripture” (“Ancient Near Eastern Apocalypticism,” 308).
Gerd Theissen sums it up well, “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” (The New Testament, 10).
Mike Gantt says
Very glad you are now writing a blog. This will allow a much wider audience for your ideas. The site is well organized, and rich with content. Extremely well done, and I look forward to learning from you on your area of expertise.
As for this particular post, I am surprised that some people would offer the objection you are addressing. I am one who believes that the earliest Christians believed that the kingdom of God would come in their lifetimes. However, with the possible exception of the gospels, practically all of the New Testament documents were written with specific needs of the recipients in mind – needs which would not have extended beyond the lifetimes of the recipients or authors.
Nevertheless, the Theissen quote does make the point succinctly.
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, Mike. Glad you are enjoying the site. I would agree with you that early Christians believed the ‘Kingdom of God’ had arrived (in some sense) in their lifetimes. However, this is not necessarily the same as saying they believed the second coming itself would definitely arrive in their lifetime. Either way, they seemed quite willing to write down their traditions about Jesus.