In part 1 and part 2 of this series we addressed Michael Heiser’s commentary on Acts 2:42-47 on an episode of his Podcast, showing how it simply doesn’t hold up to history, anthropology, theology, or a careful exegesis of the text. I also defended the idea that the small c communism described in Acts is not just a side note, but a real outworking of Jesus’ message, and something which was an integral part of the primitive Christian communities. In this last part of the series we’ll go over Michael Heiser’s quick overview of economic principles found in the bible. (If you have not yet heard the podcast, or read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I suggest you do those things first so as to have some context.)
Michael Heiser says:
The bible doesn’t forbid or condemn private property. It quite transparently does the reverse, laws against thievery are what they are, and only make sense as they are, if private property is something that is good, that is valued that is legitimate. The bible doesn’t forbid of condemn private property. Second the bible doesn’t forbid of condemn private possessions that are used to create wealth, entrepreneurship, having a business that sort of thing. Profit is actually neither forbidden nor condemned, now what is condemned are things like extortion, using your economic power to, again, coerce someone to do something for you, against their status. That sort of thing is universally condemned in scripture. Using your wealth, again, to create injustice before the law, absolutely condemned in scripture. But the idea of, again, owning private property and having a business, and generating wealth, employing people, these things are not condemned in scripture. Third, the bible contains no laws that call for a classless society, in fact old testament law, presumes social classes, you know it’s just sort of part and parcel of human behavior, and frankly human ability. We are all created in Gods image, but we are not all created equal in terms of attributes, our abilities our interests, our ambitions, our drives and those sorts of things. Those things get manifest in different ways, because we’re all, we’re different. We share a status, an identity being a divine imager, back in Genesis 1:26 and so on, and that’s the way God made us, we reflect him, we share that attribute and other attributes with him, but that doesn’t mean we’re clones, we don’t have the same interests and abilities.
So, according to Michael Heiser laws against thievery only make sense in the context of private property. So without absolute private property laws could there be no stealing? Of course there could. Thievery simply means taking something which does not belong to you, it could be public property, it could be common property, it could be private property or it could be something which isn’t property at all, but just isn’t for you to take for yourself. The Old Testament describes things like not tithing, charging too much rent and so on as theft, in other words, theft is violating the distributive system a society has established, no matter what that system is, from a small c communist system, to an entirely private capitalist system, to anything in between.
When it comes to extortion, what is extortion biblically? Well we get a description in Ezekiel 22:
12 In you, they take bribes to shed blood; you take both advance interest and accrued interest, and make gain of your neighbors by extortion; and you have forgotten me, says the Lord God.
13 See, I strike my hands together at the dishonest gain you have made, and at the blood that has been shed within you.
The charging of interest, or usury, is extortion. Usury was banned in Israel and it was considered a form of oppression and extortion as we see in Nehemiah 5 and other places in the Old Testament. The entire Capitalist system as we know it today is based on Usury, lending Capital for a profitable return, this is something which is clearly, and over and over again, condemned in scripture. Modern Capitalism is not just about people having personal possessions and running a business of sorts, that has been going on in various degrees for most of civilization’s history. Modern Capitalism is based first and foremost on profit from Capital, i.e. Usury.
As far as us being equal in the sense of being in God’s image, but different with abilities and interests, what does this have to with modern class systems? I don’t know where he’s getting the idea that different abilities or interests necessitates people having unequal access to resources, but it certainly isn’t scripture. I presume he believes that Capitalism is some sort of meritocracy, where those who “deserve” (whatever that means) more wealth and economic power gain it. It isn’t, Capitalism rewards people based on their control of capital and ability to make profit for those with the capital. It only is a meritocracy if you believe that maximization of private profit is the ultimate and only value by which to measure merit. This unfortunately is the dogma of modern Capitalism, and it is a dogma that has been engrained into the minds of many people in wester Capitalist societies, the dogma that the only value when it comes to economics is profit, private property and market value. This dogma is the modern Imperial Cult, and it gets sacrificed to regularly.
Michael Heiser goes on to talk about social classes in the New Testament:
The same thing could be said for the teachings of Jesus. Not only does the Old Testament law presume social classes, but when Jesus talks about social classes, and he brings them up a lot, he never calls for their abolition. What he calls for is righteousness, among the members of social classes, within their class and to all the other classes, he called for righteous relationships.
All one needs to do to challenge this is to read the introduction to the sermon on the plain in Luke chapter 6 again:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
If this isn’t a reversal of the class system of Jesus’ day, then I don’t know what is. When Jesus meets wealthy people what does he do? Well we have an example, we have the rich young ruler mentioned in Luke 18:18-23 (as well as Matthew 19:16-22 and Mark 10:17-22), and what does Jesus tell him to do? Sell his things and give to the poor. What does Zacchaeus, another rich man say when he meets Jesus in Luke 19:1-10, he says that he gave half his belongings to the poor, and Jesus commends him for it. This is not because Jesus thought that poverty was a requirement for righteousness, rather it is because Jesus cared about the injustice in society. If someone benefited from that injustice and came to Jesus to ask for advice, his advice was do undo that injustice that the benefited from.
I think the most powerful statement remains in Luke 4, Jesus’ mission statement, he comes to declare good news to the poor, and proclaim the Jubilee. There is a reason why the good news was primarily for the poor, it was because Jesus was absolutely concerned with the class systems of his time, and the social injustice of his time.
If you want to see more of the concern for the social injustices and class systems of the time, we can look at the Epistle of James, Jesus’ brother.
I think the major issues of the Podcast have been more or less addressed. Sufficed to say, Michael Heiser is exegeting the text in a very, not only biased, but unthoughtful way when it comes to this specific text. He assumes the absolute legitimacy and primacy of Capitalism, which historically, anthropologically and philosophically has no legs to stand on, and he ignores the evidence we have that this was a lasting and important system in the early Christian community. Michael Heiser suffers from the same problem a lot of modern people do, they live in a Capitalist world where everything is property, everything is a commodity, and all interactions are market interactions, and they cannot see anything outside of that framework, and they cannot read scripture outside of that framework.
Now in all of this I want to be clear. I am not arguing that the apostles or Jesus were socialists, or communists in the modern sense of the word. Or that they were even political in the way we think of political today. What I am saying is that the New Testament, and especially the verses in Acts 2:42-47 most definitely lay down social and economic principles, that must be taken seriously, principles that often, conflict with the ruling Capitalist ideology of today, an ideology that has become almost religious dogma. When reading verses Like Acts 2:42-47, many people like Michael Heiser (who again is a brilliant scholar), unfortunately cannot remove their modern 20th and 21st century enlightenment capitalist glasses, but if we really want to understand the message of those verses we must do so. Acts 2:42-47 is not just some unimportant footnote.