Michael Heiser on Acts 2:42-47 – Part 1

A few months ago Michael Heiser uploaded a podcast episode specifically about Acts 2:42-47, one of the 2 “communism of the apostles” texts in Acts. Texts which I have posted about as well, mainly in connection with Jesus’ mission statement in Luke 4 and a possible Jewish context found in the Essene movement (Part 1 and Part 2). Michael Heiser is a very good scholar, and I by no means want to challenge that, however, when dealing with this passage, I think he has let way too much Modern Enlightenment and Capitalistic thinking cloud his exegesis and understanding of what this passage is about. Over the next 3 posts I will address his commentary on Acts 2:42-47 bit by bit, it might be smart to listen to the podcast episdoe before reading my response to it. Here is the text in question (from the NRSV):

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 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.

And this is how Michael Heiser begins his analysis of it:

This passage as you can probably tell, if you paid close attention to it, has been used by many people, scholars and otherwise to defend Socialism, Communism, or some sort of politically Utopian society, as if one of those political economic systems is the “biblical” form of government or that it has some sort of theological superiority over any other system.

He then defines Socialism and Communism:

Socialism is an economic system, and it’s one that advocates public ownership of all resources, so that the production or distribution of resources or wealth within a society that it is under the control of the members of that society either collectively or by some sort of governmental body that “represents the society.” In a socialist system, socialist economy, workers contribute to the society based on their ability, what they can produce rather than being paid wages, and using money to purchase what they want, they don’t have to purchase anything they want because everybody has all things in common so to speak. Private possessions are limited to personal use items, and of course the goal is distribution of cumulative wealth and in theory equality among everyone. Now communism is sort of upping the ante with socialism, communism is socialism with teeth, as some people have said. It abolishes private ownership and seeks to create a classless society, hence the term “communism.” The abolition of private property is a major feature of communism, and really in theory and practice both of these theories, again, forbidding private property and having a society without classes, is sort of nonsense, because you need leadership, you need people at the top to enforce those rules or those ideas, because not everybody is just gonna want to do that, and so you need some sort of coercion and enforcement, and that in and of itself creates 2 different classes. So as soon as people who mutually agree again in theory to have a classless society do or say something perceived as violating the idea those people have to be dealt with or they in fact become a sort of default superior ruling class.

Right from the get go we have a few conceptual problems.

First of all the definition of socialism, which I think is fair in a modern political context, only really works in a modern capitalist context, socialism grew out of enlightenment values as a reaction against Capitalism, and thus is framed in that way. Using those definitions and that context and measuring the “communism of the apostles” verses in acts against those definitions simply doesn’t work. It would be if I compared Israelite monarchies to modern totalitarian states, it’s just not the right framework, it’s a whole different world we are talking about. As far as his definition of Communism, again, what he’s defining is the modern usage of the term as applied post 1917 to Leninist Socialist governments and parties, primarily by those who were opposed to those governments or wished to distinguish them from the democratic socialists of Western Europe. That definition of communism, which is a modern one, and frankly nothing more than a polemical definition, is useless when looking at the “communism of the apostles” texts. Both definitions are modern, and have a specific context within post enlightenment, industrialized, financialized capitalist cultures. Not ancient near eastern cultures.

The definition’s he uses assumes the existence of private property as we think of it today, something which has not existed for most of human history, and most certainly has not been the dominant institution of distribution as it is today. It assumes the existence of the modern state, something which really only started to come about in the 1700s, it assumes the existence of such a thing as “society” that can be defined in a statist way. It assumes the existence of wages, and money, and markets, again things that have not been dominant institutions for most of human history. It assumes modern concepts of class (mainly a category made by Karl Marx), again something completely alien to ancient near eastern people.

Take for example his statement that you need people to enforce lack of private property, the assumption here is that in a state of nature people will divide things up into private property. A quick glance at the work of anthropologists and histories will show this is not at all true, in fact it’s the opposite, private property needs to be enforced, you need coercion in order to turn the commons, or what is more or less seen as the commons, into absolute private property. But even our concepts of what separates private and common property is a modern phenomenon.

I think a much better definition, one that is actually workable in a broad historical sense and can be applicable to both modern social contexts and ancient ones, is the one we find in David Graebers book Debt the first 5000 years (a book which I also drew from extensively in my post about Luke 6:34,35):

I will define communism here a s any human relationship that operates on the principles of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.”

He explains why this is a better working definition:

Starting, as I say, from the principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” allows us to look past the question of individual or private ownership (which is often little more than formal legality anyway) and at much more immediate and practical questions of who has access to what sorts of things and under what conditions. Whenever it is the operative principle, even if it’s just two people who are interacting, we can say we are in the presence of a sort of communism.

The question of whether the state should run the economy or private capitalists was not a question that was, or could be raised until very recently, so we have to use definitions that can actually fit with ancient contexts. The communism that we are talking about is not in opposition to Capitalism, which again has only been around for a few hundred years, but rather to likewise broad concepts of hierarchy and exchange.

As far as the question of coercion, which assumes that private property is the state of nature and that a kind of communism needs to be coerced, this is obviously untrue when one looks at history and anthropology. In fact things like usury and absolute private estates and the such have generally come about through violence. A clear example of this is the enclosure movement which laid the basis for English Capitalism, In the article “a short history of enclosures in Britain” by Simon Fairlie we learn the origins of Private land in England:

However, as medieval England progressed to modernity, the open field system and the communal pastures came under attack from wealthy landowners who wanted to privatize their use. The first onslaught, during the 14th to 17th centuries, came from landowners who converted arable land over to sheep, with legal support from the Statute of Merton of 1235. Villages were depopulated and several hundred seem to have disappeared. The peasantry responded with a series of ill fated revolts. In the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt, enclosure was an issue, albeit not the main one. In Jack Cade’s rebellion of 1450 land rights were a prominent demand.15 By the time of Kett’s rebellion of 1549 enclosure was a main issue, as it was in the Captain Pouch revolts of 1604-1607 when the terms “leveller” and “digger” appeared, referring to those who levelled the ditches and fences erected by enclosures.

So the development in what we see as modern Capitalism, which began largely in England, really only began with a violent privatization of the commons. So Michael Heiser is completely wrong here in assuming that it is the commons that requires coercion, historically it has been the other way around, property and markets come about through violence. Unfortunately Michael Heiser doesn’t manage to see through his 21st century liberal orthodoxy that teaches the myth that markets and private property are states of nature, something which anthropologists and historians would quickly correct, as Simon does in his article as well:

Private ownership of land, and in particular absolute private ownership, is a modern idea, only a few hundred years old. “The idea that one man could possess all rights to one stretch of land to the exclusion of everybody else” was outside the comprehension of most tribespeople, or indeed of medieval peasants. The king, or the Lord of the Manor, might have owned an estate in one sense of the word, but the peasant enjoyed all sorts of so-called “usufructory” rights which enabled him, or her, to graze stock, cut wood or peat, draw water or grow crops, on various plots of land at specified times of year.

We see this in the mosaic code itself. With laws on gleaning, sabbatical and jubilee years, as well as restrictions on usury, private property as we understand them today (in terms of absolute individual rights over one’s property) is simply not an institution that we can just assume. Private property and markets only exist within systems of coercion, as David Graeber points out.

However, when one looks a little closer, one discovers that these two elements-the violence and the quantification-are intimately linked. In fact it’s almost impossible to find one without the other.

And later:

In creating a notion of dominium, then, and thus creating the modern principle of absolute private property, what Roman jurists were doing first of all was taking a principle of domestic authority, of absolute power over people, defining some of those people (slaves) as things, and then extending the logic that originally applied to slaves to geese, chariots, barns, jewelry boxes, and so forth-that is, to every other sort of thing that the law had anything to do with.

I could continue in examining the fallacy of assuming property and markets as basic, but I think the point is clear, Private Property and Markets are modern inventions which come about primarily through institutions of violence and domination. Of course coercion will exist in any system, depending on what you take as a given, for example if you take private property and markets as a given people violating those principles will be dealt with, just as much as someone who would try and fence off common lands without any right to do so. You can’t, when examining ancient texts, assume modern capitalist ideologies as the base point. Michael Heiser continues:

You notice in the passage there’s no state authority, in the passage, it’s talking about the apostles, and of course that would be the 12 and really the greater number, the 120 we saw from acts chapter 1, and probably some converts from the day of Pentecost, and I say probably because most of the people actually mentioned at Pentecost were from other countries, that was the whole idea the whole point was that once they had embraced the gospel they would return to the nations and begin the process of reclaiming the nations that had been disinherited in the Babel event. So in this passage there’s no state authority, it’s not setting up a state system of government, government for the whole society, it’s very particular. Second what we read is described as voluntary, since there’s no state authority that makes sense, in fact we don’t even read that the apostles taught anyone they should do this, sell their goods and all that sort of thing.

And further he says:

In fact since it’s entirely voluntary it’s from the heart, and that alone, the absence of coercion, and a mandate by sort of overlords, distinguishes what’s going on in Acts 2:42-47 from socialism and communism and any other sort of political state. The people were selling possession and distributing the wealth to the poor voluntarily, you’re also gonna see this again in chapters 4 and 5, and of course Peter in those contexts says very plainly that it wasn’t required, Acts 4 and 5 there’s no condemnation of private property either, it’s just that this is what some people were doing, they didn’t have to do it, they did it voluntarily, they thought it was the right thing to do to help people out and they did it.

This objection is a strange one, I don’t see why one would expect a modern style state to be formed by the early Church, since the modern state didn’t exist at the time. The modern state as we know it today, doesn’t come into being until centuries later. You had the Roman imperial system, which was not so much a state whose purpose was to represent the people and establish an economic framework, as much as it was a giant protection racket. Was the communal system voluntary? Sure, of course it was, it was voluntary to be a Christian also, it was voluntary to preach the gospel, it was voluntary to declare Jesus as lord, it was voluntary to abstain from sin and so on, all of these things were voluntary, in a sense. But in another sense they weren’t voluntary, they were actions driven by principles established and declared by God, and which were part of his Kingdom. The fact that the apostles didn’t explicitly preach any type of communism, which isn’t exactly clear, I would argue that there are passages which can easily be interpreted that way, such as it being an obligation to care for the poor, and widows, Paul’s desire for there to be and “equalizing” and so on, isn’t that important. This practice we read about in Acts would be the logical response to Jesus’ teaching we read about in Luke (being the first part of Luke-Acts, which was written to be one work). There are many places where Jesus in Luke points to this kind of practice or system, but one that should immediately be called to mind is his mission statement in Luke 4, where Jesus declares Liberation and the Jubilee (my first post on this blog was actually about that declaration). We would expect that this declaration would be taken seriously by the first Christians, and not just be taken as a metaphor for some heavenly realm, but rather a declaration of the Kingdom of God actually setting foot here on earth, starting with the Church. I’m not the only one who makes this connection, NT Wright says in his “Acts for everyone Part one” in his commentary on the parallel for the passage in question found in Acts 4:32-37 the following:

He (Luke) is making the striking, controversial claim that the early Christian movement, was, in effect, the true covenant community that God had always intended to set up. It had been achieved by the massive and total forgiveness of sins and debts accomplished by Jesus in his death; Jesus had, after all, announced his agenda (in Luke 4) the program of ‘jubilee’ set out in Isaiah 61, and had gone around talking about forgiveness both of sins and of debts. Now his followers were, in the most practical way possible, making real the implied promise of covenant renewal. Not only would they forgive debts every seven years; they would not keep their own private property to themselves, but would share it in common.

The passage in question says that “All who believed” had “all things in common,” πάντες, a greek word for all, means all, everyone, the whole. This was not something that just a couple people were doing, this was a system which was established, a system which was not incidental to the new covenant, but an integral part of it.

In short Michael Heiser takes Capitalism, modern concepts of private property and the modern concept of the state, all of which are completely modern inventions and would have not been understood for most of history, and which were only introduced with the background of extreme violence, and forces them into the context of Acts 2:42-47, assuming that these concepts are some sort of state of nature. He also ignores the theological background of the text, Jesus’ declaration of God’s Kingdom and the Jubilee, so as to try write it off.

In the next post, I’ll continue going over Michael Heiser’s treatment of Acts 2:42-47 in his podcast.

Read Part 2 here.

Michael Heiser on Acts 2:42-47 – Part 1

3 thoughts on “Michael Heiser on Acts 2:42-47 – Part 1

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