It was the thesis of scholars, such as Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweister (King, p.68), that among the fundamental disparities identifiable within the New Testament canon which the historical critical method helped ‘reveal’, were characteristically different attitudes towards eschatology. It was clear (so it is argued) that the earlier works in the New Testament were especially concerned with apocalyptic imminence, whereas later epistles and Gospels turned their attention to pastoral concerns. This suggests that early Christians expected Jesus to return immediately and, when he failed to realize those expectations, the Christian community began concerning itself with matters of organization. I would like to challenge this standard narrative and re-open this question.
Consider the Ministry of Jesus Christ and his Apostles in the New Testament. It is a commonplace assumption in modern scholarship (one which I have always found quite dubious) that the earliest Christians had an immediate eschatological anticipation, which is to say that they were under the impression that Jesus Christ was coming back very soon. Later, as Christians relaxed this anticipation one begins to see eschatological responses shift, either putting the eschaton away into the far-future (and thus the concern with Church order), or else proposing an alternative eschatology, such as a realized eschatology (the Gospel of John is an example). This was seen just days ago in the Sunday Mass readings, particularly the reading from St. Paul:
I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
~ 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Take, for example, a passage from Christ oft cited in support of this thesis:
‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.
Now, this has been called by C.S. Lewis “the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.” Scholars take this to be Jesus the Rabbi predicting his return imminently, within this generation. I think the problem isn’t so difficult to solve theologically once one is an orthodox preterist, especially when one recognizes that Christ is speaking in a religious language according to which the Temple itself is a Micro-cosm, but I haven’t read enough on that particular idea to confidently rehearse a case for it. Setting aside the various ways in which Catholic theologians handle the passage, it seems to me that the passage cannot successfully be used to imply that the early Christian eschatology was anticipating Christ’s return within a decade or so. This can simply be seen by pointing out that the Gospel of Matthew, most agree, was written at least two generations after Christ’s death, and therefore it seems hardly believable that the author would have included such an embarrassing error exposing the Rabbi the author was trying to convince his audience was the Messiah! Therefore, it seems obvious, without any faith commitments, that it is unlikely that Matthew (let’s just call the author ‘Matthew’ for now, since I think it actually was Matthew, and in any case there is no better name to use) understood what he here wrote in the way many modern readers have read him.
Moreover, not only does imminent eschatology pervade even some of the latest material in the New Testament (such as, so it is thought, 2 Peter), but one of the very first books in the entire New Testament was specifically about eschatology: 2 Thessalonians. Here, Paul says the following:
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here.Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? And you know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed when his time comes. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned.
2 Thessalonains 2:1-12
Here, not only is Paul consoling those Christians who were under the impression that Jesus had already returned, but Paul reminded them of all the criteria which must be fulfilled before that time. These things were, in part, fulfilled by 70 AD, though that’s not the end of the story (as hyper-preterists sometimes want to say), but rather the history to 70 AD typifies the eschatological narrative of the human story, and that is why it is used in the Johannine Apocalypse – clear allusions to the history before and leading up to 70 AD exists in Revelation in order to typify the end times to come.
In short, then, it seems to me that the Eschatology(ies) of the early Church are not quite so naive as scholars sometimes imagine. Perhaps some epistles which have non-eschatological concerns are not inspired by any eschatological disappointment – perhaps they are inspired by actually ‘pastoral’ concerns. Perhaps there is a difference between one’s theology of eschatology, and one’s eschatological attitude. If God calls man to live according to a narrative which entails imminent eschatology, then Jesus the Rabbi called his Kahal to do the same. This lesson carries to today: we ought, as Christians, always to live, act and breathe as though Christ is returning any second. We ought also to confess that we know not the day nor the hour. Considering Paul’s advice in Corinthians: this advice is sound for Christians today. Do not seek to be given in marriage as though it were natural for you to seek it, but rather accept it as a vocation should it come your way. Obviously that has to be tempered with personal wisdom and Paul does talk about people ‘burning in lust’ but the point is more subtle and sublime; Paul is reorienting Christians, calling them to recognize that we are called by Christ out of this world in such a way that we should not ‘settle’ here thinking we are in safety, but we must recognize that Christ will return any moment. We are called not to fall asleep, but to stay awake. This attitude is, it seems to me, the properly Catholic attitude which the Church promotes, not merely for monastics, but for all Christians.
If this attitude exists in the early Church, there is no very good reason to think that there was any eschatological disappointment in the ‘later’ epistles. Indeed, many of the later ones are explicitly preoccupied with eschatology, while many of the earlier ones are not.