This post is a continuation of this one. Here I’d like to go into specifically the economic structure of the Essene Community and compare it to the early Christian community. Specifically I want to examine the communal economic systems that both the Essenes and the Christians implemented in their respective communities. It’s going to be quite long, and involve a lot of quotes. Let’s get right into it looking at what Philo says:
Of these men, some cultivating the earth, and others devoting themselves to those arts which are the result of peace, benefit both themselves and all those who come in contact with them, not storing up treasures of silver and of gold, nor acquiring vast sections of the earth out of a desire for ample revenues, but providing all things which are requisite for the natural purposes of life; (77) for they alone of almost all men having been originally poor and destitute, and that too rather from their own habits and ways of life than from any real deficiency of good fortune, are nevertheless accounted very rich, judging contentment and frugality to be great abundance, as in truth they are.
So, the economic system of the Essenes was based not around acquiring riches, but rather providing the things requisite for the natural purposes of life, but it also functioned as a kind of charitable organization, benefiting those who come in contact with them. Philo also says:
In the first place, then, there is no one who has a house so absolutely his own private property, that it does not in some sense also belong to every one: for besides that they all dwell together in companies, the house is open to all those of the same notions, who come to them from other quarters; (86) then there is one magazine among them all; their expenses are all in common; their garments belong to them all in common; their food is common, since they all eat in messes; for there is no other people among which you can find a common use of the same house, a common adoption of one mode of living, and a common use of the same table more thoroughly established in fact than among this tribe: and is not this very natural? For whatever they, after having been working during the day, receive for their wages, that they do not retain as their own, but bring it into the common stock, and give any advantage that is to be derived from it to all who desire to avail themselves of it; (87) and those who are sick are not neglected because they are unable to contribute to the common stock, inasmuch as the tribe have in their public stock a means of supplying their necessities and aiding their weakness, so that from their ample means they support them liberally and abundantly; and they cherish respect for their elders, and honour them and care for them, just as parents are honoured and cared for by their lawful children: being supported by them in all abundance both by their personal exertions, and by innumerable contrivances.
Here we get a little more of a picture of the workings of their system. Philo first describes how they view private property in the form of housing, they don’t consider the housing private property but it’s rather open to others who may need a place to stay. They even dwell together, and eat together. There are also some who earn wages, who then put it in the common stock, which is available for all there, and especially for those who are sick or elderly or unable to work. So here we have an example of small c communism, where the means of living are held in common, and where the resources of the community … in some sense … belong to everyone.
Josephus has a similar account of the Essene Economy:
These men are despisers of riches, and so very communicative as raises our admiration. Nor is there any one to be found among them who hath more than another; for it is a law among them, that those who come to them must let what they have be common to the whole order, – insomuch that among them all there is no appearance of poverty, or excess of riches, but every one’s possessions are intermingled with every other’s possessions; and so there is, as it were, one patrimony among all the brethren.
So everything was held in common according to Josephus as well, so as to make sure that there were no class distinctions between them. So here the holding in common was more than just an insurance system for the needy, it was done on the moral basis of equality.
Philo also records the Essene work Ethic:
but the different members of this body have different employments in which they occupy themselves, and labour without hesitation and without cessation, making no mention of either cold, or heat, or any changes of weather or temperature as an excuse for desisting from their tasks. But before the sun rises they betake themselves to their daily work, and they do not quit it till some time after it has set, when they return home rejoicing no less than those who have been exercising themselves in gymnastic contests; (11.7) for they imagine that whatever they devote themselves to as a practice is a sort of gymnastic exercise of more advantage to life, and more pleasant both to soul and body, and of more enduring benefit and equability, than mere athletic labours, inasmuch as such toil does not cease to be practiced with delight when the age of vigour of body is passed; (11.8) for there are some of them who are devoted to the practice of agriculture, being skilful in such things as pertain to the sowing and cultivation of lands; others again are shepherds, or cowherds, and experienced in the management of every kind of animal; some are cunning in what relates to swarms of bees; (11.9) others again are artisans and handicraftsmen, in order to guard against suffering from the want of anything of which there is at times an actual need; and these men omit and delay nothing, which is requisite for the innocent supply of the necessaries of life. (11.10) Accordingly, each of these men, who differ so widely in their respective employments, when they have received their wages give them up to one person who is appointed as the universal steward and general manager; and he, when he has received the money, immediately goes and purchases what is necessary and furnishes them with food in abundance, and all other things of which the life of mankind stands in need.
So we see here that hard work, and a variation of work was important to the Essenes. According to Philo the group had a very strong work ethic despite the lack of individual profit. So some worked as farmers, ranchers, craftsmen and managers, having a reputation for hard work and yet the revenue was all communal.
We’re going to now take a look at what the Qumran documents say on the matter, starting with the “Community rule” (aka the Manual of Discipline):
They are to belong to the community in both doctrinal and an economic sense.
They are to abide by the decisions of the sons of Zadok, the same being priests that still keep the Covenant, and of the majority of the community that stand firm in it. It is by the vote of such that all matters doctrinal, economic and judicial are to be determined.
So what economic sense is that? We get a hint in the instructions for candidates:
After he has spent a full year in the midst of the community, the members are jointly to review his case, as to his understanding and performance in matters of doctrine. If it then be voted by the opinion of the priests and of a majority of their co-covenanters to admit him to the sodality, they are to have him bring with him all his property and the tools of his profession. These are to be committed to the custody of the community’s ‘minister of works’. They are to entered by that officer into an account, but he is not to disburse them for the general benefit.
Not until the completion of a second year among the members of the community is the candidate to be admitted to the common board. [Drink] When however, that second year has been completed, he is to be subjected to a further review by the general membership, and if it then be voted to admit him to the community, he is to be registered in due order of rank which he is to occupy among his brethren in all matters pertaining to doctrine, judicial procedure, degree of purity and share in the common funds. Thenceforth his counsel and his judgment are to be at the disposal of the community.
Part of the reason for this is given in the beginning of the Document:
All who declare their willingness to serve God’s truth must bring all of their mind, all of their strength, and all of their wealth into the community of God, so that their minds may be purified by the truth of His precepts, their strength controlled by His perfect ways, and their wealth disposed in accordance with His just design. They must not deviate by a single step from carrying out the orders of God at the times appointed for them; they must neither advance the statutory times nor postpone the prescribed seasons. They must not turn aside from the ordinances of God’s truth either to the right or to the left.
So the reason, at least partially, is that the people who join this specific Essene community need to be 100% Dedicated, and those who maintain their own private property may not be 100% Dedicated.
We also have some details for us in the Damascus Document:
This is the rule for regulating public needs.
Their wages for at least two days per month are to be handed over to the overseer. The judges are then to take thereof and give it away for the benefit of orphans. They are also to support therefrom the poor and needy, the
aged who are dying, the [ ] persons captured by foreign peoples, unprotected girls, unmarriageable virgins, general communal officials [ ].
This, in specific form, is the way [ ] is to be disposed [ ] [com]munally.
Here we have more details on the reasons for the communal funds, as a kind of insurance for those who need help.
It’s important to keep in mind that there were Essenes throughout different towns, But also Essenes that lived in monastic conditions (such as the Qumran community). So it’s likely that they had different rules, for example the Qumran document “The Manual of Discipline” reads more like a rule book for a strict monastic order. Whereas the Damascus Document more for a community of Essenes within a larger community (such as a village or town), given it includes regulations for family life, as well as regulations for dealing with Gentiles. In fact Philo talks about the Essenes being in various towns and villages:
Essenes, being, as I imagine, honoured with this appellation because of their exceeding holiness. And they dwell in many cities of Judaea, and in many villages, and in great and populous communities.
Also Josephus says:
They have no one certain city, but many of them dwell in every city; and if any of their sect come from other places, what they have lies open for them, just as if it were their own; and they go in to such as they never knew before, as if they had been ever so long acquainted with them. For which reason they carry nothing at all with them when they travel into remote parts, though still they take their weapons with them, for fear of thieves. Accordingly, there is, in every city where they live, one appointed particularly to take care of strangers, and to provide garments and other necessaries for them.
So it seems that some of them lived among others, and (if the Qumran community is to be considered an Essene monastic community) also separated from others. It’s also important to notice that what Josephus mentions about one being appointed to take care of strangers fits with what the Damascus document says about the common fund being used for those in need, such as ex captors and the such, as well as Philo mentioning the Essenes benefiting all who come in contact with them.
It wasn’t absolute communism however, In Josephus’ description we find these descriptions:
Nor do they either buy or sell any thing to one another; but every one of them gives what he hath to him that wanteth it, and receives from him again in lieu of it what may be convenient for himself; and although there be no requital made, they are fully allowed to take what they want of whomsoever they please.
And truly, as for other things, they do nothing but according to the injunctions of their curators; only these two things are done among them at everyone’s own free-will, which are to assist those that want it, and to show mercy; for they are permitted of their own accord to afford succor to such as deserve it, when they stand in need of it, and to bestow food on those that are in distress; but they cannot give any thing to their kindred without the curators.
So in the more strict monastic communities, where the “community rule” would be enforced, there was absolute common property, everything was shared in a common fund. Whereas in the cities, and towns, there was a common fund, but also things were held in common in a more loose sense, people shared voluntarily rather than get into market relationships. So the formal common fund was accompanied by a less formal system of mutual aid and a loosening of private property rights to the point where sharing replaced market exchange.
So what can we say about the economic system of the Essenes.
- They had a common fund where the wages or production of their members was held.
- That fund was for the benefit the community as a whole and especially those who had a special need, who were sick, old or unable to work.
- The fund was also used to help those in need outside of the community.
- The common fund was there in order to not have class divisions as well as to maintain dedication to the cause.
- The common fund system was both for the stricter monastic communities and the communities within Palestinian towns, although to differing degrees.
- Hard work and thrift were considered virtues within the community.
- Along with the common fund there was a general loose system of mutual aid and sharing replacing market exchange.
I think it’s safe to say at least those things about the Essene economic system. Now what about the early Christian Parallel? The obvious example is in Acts 2 and 4.
43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.36 There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). 37 He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
The fact that this is mentioned twice would indicate that this system was ongoing. We have more evidence of that in Justin Martyr:
we who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need;
As well as Tertullian:
One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us but our wives.
As well as in the Epistle of Barnabas:
Thou shalt communicate in all things with thy neighbour; thou shalt not call things thine own; for if ye are partakers in common of things which are incorruptible, how much more [should you be] of those things which are corruptible!
We also have Paul mentioning and condemning abuse of that system in 2 Thessolonians 3:
6 Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they[e] received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8 and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9 This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11 For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13 Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
14 Take note of those who do not obey what we say in this letter; have nothing to do with them, so that they may be ashamed. 15 Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as believers.
This passage assumes that the system of common stock is in place, and rightly so, and that some in the community were availing themselves of it without contributing to it. This passage however assumes that the system was not only in Jerusalem, but also in other Christian communities in other cities, and that the system was so much part of the community that there were even instances of Abuse. This also parallels the Essene work ethic, Paul seems to be trying to instill that same ethic in the Christian community. So this was not a system for just one short time period, for one place, this was a lasting system, involving many different Christian communities, it was a large part of Christian life.
What’s also interesting is the Account in Acts 5, of Ananias and Sapphira indicates that the system was not absolute communism, so not everything one had would have to be part of the common fund.
So that being said how do we understand the statement “they had all things in common?” Well I think that statement should be understood in the same way we understand Philo’s statement about housing “there is no one who has a house so absolutely his own private property, that it does not in some sense also belong to everyone” or Josephus statement: “Nor do they either buy or sell anything to one another; but every one of them gives what he hath to him that wanteth it, and receives from him again in lieu of it what may be convenient for himself; and although there be no requital made, they are fully allowed to take what they want of whomsoever they please.” In other words the Christians had all things in common in the sense that there was a loose system of mutual aid and sharing, perhaps to the point where it replaced market relations. While at the same time people gave what they could give to the Apostles for distribution towards those in need. This is a system, I would argue, which was quite similar to the Essenes who lived in the cities among non Essenes. The Essenes had an aversion to wealth inequality, that attitude is found as well in the early Christian community, we find evidence of that in 2 Corinthians 8:
8 I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. 9 For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. 10 And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— 11 now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.12 For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. 13 I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. 15 As it is written,
“The one who had much did not have too much,
and the one who had little did not have too little.”
So when asking for funds in order to help out the Community in Jerusalem, Paul appeals to and ethic of equality, and ethic that was shared in the Christian Community, as well as the Essene community.
I’ve written on the verse in Acts 4 in a previous post, linking it to Luke 4 and with the Jubilee and Sabbatical Year. In this post I’m hoping to show that this small c communist system within the Christian community was not unique, in fact it seems to parallel very nicely with the Essene system. We also see that both communities had the features of an institutional common fund, as well as a more general system of mutual aid and sharing of common property, we also see that both communities paid special attention to the needs of the vulnerable in organizing their economic system, both communities valued economic equality, and both communities viewed the system as in some way part of their covenantal worship. The principles and moral foundations underlying the Christian Communal system are, I claim, relevant to Christian communities in any time and any place, and especially in modern times when Christian principles and moral foundations of mutual aid and equality have been replaced with greed and individualism.