The point of contention is whether the early Church would have expected a Canon or anything like it. For example one scholar says, “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 generations of Christian believers.” (Harry Gamble, The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning, p. 57).
There are good reasons to believe that the early Church would have expected new divine written revelation. In fact we have three reasons:
- The Eschatological Nature of Early Christianity
- The Role of Covenant in Early Christianity
- The Role of the Apostles in Early Christianity
Even though Israel had physically returned from exile and come back to the Promised Land, they still conceived of themselves as in “exile” since they were oppressed by foreign powers. One Jewish text, which is found in the apocrypha, relates Israel’s current situation to the Exodus plagues (c.f. Baruch 2:7ff) . Therefore, even though they were physically back they are spiritually still in exile.
Naturally this would lead to their interpretation of the covenant-renewal texts and redemptive passages in the Old Testament. The Jews of Jesus day had expectations of a new redemptive kingdom (Jn 1:41, 4:25; Lk 2:25, 38; Acts 1:6). They believed that the story of the Old Testament was incomplete, that is, it was a story in dire need of a conclusion.
Jesus was seen as the climax of the Old Testament story; the one who ushered in the “last days” (Mk 1:15; 1st Cor 10:11; Heb 1:2). In fact the Gospel of Matthew portrays him as the New Moses. Notice a sample of Matthew’s literary technique.
- The Israelites were baptized through the Red Sea—Jesus in baptized (Mt 3)
- Afterwards, they enter into the Wilderness Temptation—Jesus is taken into the Wilderness to be tempted (Mt 4)
- They come to the mountain and receive the Law—Jesus comes out, goes to a mountain and gives a Law (Mt 5)
In fact the OT writings themselves indicate that this is exactly what would happen. God often brings new Word revelation after he acts to redeem his people (e.g. Exodus 20:2). But the most explicit example is the statements found in the OT which proclaim that a new word revelation is coming.
- Isa 11:1-4 compared with 2nd Thess 2:8 & Rev 19:15
- Isaiah 61:1-2 is even more explicit. This Spirit-filled anointed one will “bring good news”, “proclaim liberty”, and “proclaim they favorable year of the Lord”. The three words used here (LXX) are εὐαγγελίσασθαι, κηρύξαι, and καλέσαι. These are all words used in the NT to refer to Apostolic preaching.
- Isaiah 2:2-3 is linked by many of the church fathers to Acts 1:8. That is, they interpreted the word of the Lord proceeding from Zion as the 12 Apostles preaching the Gospel.
And when the Spirit of prophecy speaks as predicting things that are to come to pass, He speaks in this way: “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people; and they shall beat their swords into plough-shares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isa_2:3) And that it did so come to pass, we can convince you. For from Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number, and these illiterate, of no ability in speaking: but by the power of God they proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the word of God…(1 Apology 39).
Israel considered the OT story incomplete, one in need of a conclusion. The early Church considered Jesus as the conclusion to the story. The OT itself prophesied about new word revelation coming after God’s final redemptive act through the Messiah. Therefore, it is not strange to think that the early Church would have expected a written corpus to complete the incomplete written corpus of the OT.
This post relies heavily upon the book by Kruger, "The Question of Canon"