In Part one of this series of posts on Michael Heiser’s treatment of Acts 2:42-47, I went over Michael’s assumption of Capitalism as the default system ignoring Capitalism’s actual history, and his ignoring of the theological background of the text. In this post, we continue with his understanding of Acts 2:42-47. To get the full context I would suggest you listen to Michael Heiser’s podcast episode and then read Part 1 of this series. Michael Heiser says:
The activity described in acts of having all things in common, that phrase is actually only mentioned in acts 2 and 4 in the New testament, the phrase never occurs of any other new testament church founded by Paul or any other apostle. Now that suggests that there was something unique about the situation in the original Jerusalem church that presumably wasn’t transmitted or handed down by the apostles as some kind of binding custom or inspired idea to other new testament churches. That omission would be really strange if what we’re reading in acts chapter 2 was binding revelation, or a binding example, that this what the kingdom of God is. If that was true the omission here is strange, since it’s not passed down to all the other churches that we read about in the new testament, much less some sort of political state.
So according to Michael Heiser this communal situation was unique. This goes completely against the evidence as we see in Tertullian who wrote in his Apologia (Ch 39):
(The Christians are) 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 Justin Martyr’s first apology (Ch14):
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;
These to quotes (among others), show us that the system of small c communism among the Christian community was not unique, nor was it a flash in the pan, it lasted well in to the second and even third centuries, and was mentioned by Church fathers from North Africa to Rome. The Communal system is also assumed elsewhere in the New Testament. In 2 Thessalonians 3:6-10 Paul gives the admonition that those who do not work should not eat, and that Paul did not take from people’s bread without reimbursement, even thought it was his right to do so, but rather he worked. This admonition makes no sense unless in the congregation in Thessalonica had a communal system from which people could and would take from, you need a communal system in order for someone to abuse it. Had there been no such system, there would be no reason to say “let him who does not work not eat” since there would be no way for that to happen, Paul himself says that he had a right to take from that which is common, but he chose not to. So even within the New Testament, much less from the Church fathers, we see that the communal system was not just in one place at one time, but rather a continuous institution. We also get an idea of this by the fact that the passage is paralleled in Acts 4:32-37. Back to the podcast Michael Heiser continues:
Second according to the rest of the New Testament, the shared wealth of the Jerusalem Church did not elevate its economic condition. Now this is one of the myths that socialism and communism spread, that if, you know, this whole idea of everyone having all things in common, each according to his own need, the leveling, or the commonality is always in a downward direction. It’s never the people who are poor who are elevated to having wealth, like the people at the top, it’s always the people at the top sort of essentially have their wealth taken from them and distributed so that everyone is at some sort of level of underclass compared to, you know the wealth that had existed, prior to the advent of this sort of system. So, you know, that alone should make us suspect of what’s going on, but if you actually look at the Jerusalem Church it’s sort of illustrative of this myth, again, if this was this utopian society, then you’d think that the Jerusalem Church would be so much better off than other churches, they would have been a sort of model. But the exact opposite is what you read in the New Testament, the Church at Jerusalem is described in the New Testament, every time you get into these sorts of details, as notoriously poor, and its poverty is the reason that Paul took up collecting money on his missionary trips from the startup gentile churches. The joy in the Jerusalem Church wasn’t in the fact that they were all the same, at a very low economic level, like this is a great thing, what made it noteworthy in Acts 2, was they had each other, and they were all in Christ and they were mutually supportive. They didn’t have much but what they did have, they took care of each other, again it was not sort of to make an economic model that was utopian in nature that everybody should just thirst after. That is clearly not what we see in the New Testament, the goal was Unity and Community, it wasn’t to make some sort of economic or political statement. If it made any statement at all it was “this doesn’t work,” as far as having much more than a subsistence lifestyle.
I assume Micahel Heiser is taking this from the fact that Paul was collecting money from other Churches for the Jerusalem Church, for famine relief, and later for the poor. There is no indication that the famine was caused by the small Christian community in Jerusalem’s communal system, to assume that a famine would be caused by that is absurd. We have to remember that around this time, in Judea, a revolutionary movement was building up, which eventually lead to the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. Not only that, but Judea was a relatively poor province in the Roman Empire, especially when compared to provinces in Asia Minor or Greece. If anything, the communal system helped raise the living standards of the Christians, which might explain why the Christians were so popular with the common people in Judea. So much so that, according to Josephus, there was a huge outcry when James the brother of Jesus was killed.
Had the system in Jerusalem not been successful, it would have hardly been recorded twice in acts positively, nor would it have continued well into the second century as we saw earlier.
As far as his idea that communal systems are always in a downward direction, this is simply empirically not true. All one has to do is compare healthcare systems where the system is set up as a Capitalist, for profit industry and those where it is more or less considered to be a common public service, to see that this is not actually the case, just to take one example. One can also take into account the fact that for centuries societies did quite well without Capitalism, and actually thrived. The statement in Acts 2 was not by any means “this doesn’t work,” such a reading is complete fantasy; the statement is clearly “this is good,” or “this is what God’s kingdom in action looks like.”
As far as it not making a political or economic statement. I think for now we can just remember that in ancient times there was no distinction between politics, economics or religion, they were one in the same. With that in mind, we see that the Kingdom of God was clearly political, and the declaration of the Jubilee, and good news to the poor was clearly economic, perhaps not in our modern materialistic thinking of politics, or economics, but certainly in a larger sense. Further, on this distinction, Michael Heiser says:
The Church is disconnected from all political systems, and that’s because of some things Jesus said. Jesus could not have been much clearer, when he said, prior to the events of Acts chapter 2 back in the gospels, “my Kingdom is not of this world,” that’s John 18:36, the Kingdom of God is not to be identified with any political or socio-economic system that guides statecraft. The concerns of Gods Kingdom are other than those of an earthly state, so consequently Acts 2:42-47 cannot legitimately be used to tell the state how to conduct its business, that isn’t the concern of the Kingdom of God. The political systems of men are to be evaluated by biblical theologies oppositions to things like coercive power, and the sanctity and dignity of human life, again, that’s biblical theology and of course divine law. But nowhere does scripture teach that the Church is the State, or more obviously that the State is the Church. Again Jesus himself, in other place, called for the separation of the Church and the State, he spoke of the kingdom of heaven as distinct from the state, you know the whole render on to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to Gods the things that are God’s, and again back to John 18:36, my kingdom is not of this world.
To begin answering this objection I turn to NT Wright and his commentary on John 18:36 in his book “John for everyone part 2”:
Jesus answer is both apparently incriminating and deeply revealing. His kingdom (yes, he agrees he has a kingdom; Pilate seizes on this) doesn’t come from this world. Please note, he doesn’t say, as some translations have put it, ‘my kingdom is not of this world’; that would imply that his ‘kingdom’ was altogether other-worldly, a spiritual or heavenly reality that had nothing to do with the present world at all. That is not the point. Jesus, after all, taught his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come ‘on earth as in heaven.’
No: the point is that Jesus’ kingdom does not come from ‘this world’. Of course it doesn’t. ‘The world’, as we’ve seen again and again, is in John the source of evil and rebellion against God. Jesus is denying that his kingdom has a this-worldly origin or quality. He is not denying that it has a this-worldly destination. That’s why he has come into the world himself (v. 37), and why he has sent, and will send, his followers into the world (17.18; 20.21). His kingdom doesn’t come from this world, but it is for this world. That is the crucial distinction.
This is very important point. Jesus said at the end of verse 36:
ἡ βασιλεία ἡ ἐμὴ οὐκ ἔστιν ἐντεῦθεν.
My kingdom is not ἐντεῦθεν “from here.” as NT Wright correctly points out, the statement Jesus is making is not that his kingdom has nothing to do with this world and its Kingdoms; his statement is that the source of his Kingdom is not an earthly source, this is God’s Kingdom, the authority comes from God. Of course, as Jesus said earlier, this kingdom will come on earth as in heaven, and it is a kingdom, a kingdom that will, as Jesus describes in Luke, bring about the great jubilee. To think that this is only some future event and has no place in a Christians approach to communities and society today is contradicted all over the place in the bible, including in Acts 2 and 4.
As far as the passages about giving Caesar’s things to Caesar but God’s things to God (found in all 3 synoptic gospels). The assumption here is that Jesus is describing an idea that only came about in the last couple hundred years with the advent of the Modern State, and in fact the founding of the United States, the idea of separation of Church and State. This idea assumes that in Jesus’ time there was such a thing as “Church” or “Religion” as distinct from civic life or anything else, there was no such thing. It also assumes that there was such a thing as “The State” in Jesus’ time, that can be in any way analogous to the modern State and which could be considered as distinct from religion, there was no such thing. Therefore, the passage cannot be making some sort of statement about separation between Church and state, a statement that would have been completely at odds with the fact that Jesus was proclaiming the Kingdom of God.
When looking at the passages about giving Caesar’s things to Caesar but God’s things to God we have to ask some questions. Where do the coins come from? Were they native to Judea? No, they were brought in by the Roman Imperialists, and used for taxation purposes, and for transactions, this was a monetary system imposed on the Judeans. What about the statement about what belongs to God, what would belong to God in the mind of a first century Judean? Well, first of all, the land (Leviticus 25:23), as well as the law. Ultimately, however, what belongs to God is everything. This was not a statement of separation between Church and State, but rather an elevating of God above the Roman Imperial system, a promise that God will liberate his people and bring a new Kingdom. This is not to say that Jesus was a revolutionary of the Zealot type, but it is to say, that the statement here cannot mean that Jesus was declaring some sort of American style separation of Church and State.
As far as Michael Heiser’s comments on coercive power, we can look back at Part 1 of this series, where I go into the coercive and violent history of Capitalism. Beyond that, I don’t understand why he would assume that having things in common is somehow more coercive in principle than having private property, or a system of sharing is more coercive than a market system. Either system requires coercion to establish and protect private property or any other type of property and to enforce contract or to protect and regulate the commons. The reason Michael Heiser is assuming coercion is because, I assume, he’s thinking of the Leninist Systems of the 20th century, which has nothing to do with what we are talking about in Acts 2:42-47, and he is assuming that Capitalism is nothing more than the state of nature, which historians and anthropologists will tell you is absolute nonsense.
In the next part of this series, we will continue with Michael Heiser’s treatment of Acts 2:42-47.