A few months ago, in fact a few months after my book was published—this article was released on the Stream called “After Pentecost, was the Church Communist?” Of course, being a right wing Christian website the answer is “no”—but what I find interesting is how they arrive at that answer. The author of the article, Jay Richards defines communism this way:
Communism is based on Marx’s theory of class warfare. Under capitalism, Marx predicted, the workers are exploited and at some point, revolt against the capitalists — the owners of the means of production. The workers take control of private property by force and then the state owns it on behalf of the people. Then, after a while, Marx claimed, the socialist state would wither away and you’d get a communist utopia in which everyone lived in peace, harmony and preternatural freedom.
Already Jay has basically defined the term to meaninglessness in the first century context. Capitalism didn’t exist as an economic system yet, so if communism is defined as Karl Marx’s eschatological post Capitalist, post Socialist, utopia then obviously that didn’t exist in the first century. Not only that but “the state” owning it on behalf of the people obviously wasn’t an option since the first Christian communities were not a “state” (also if state ownership on behalf of the people were the defining factor of socialism then the ancient Egyptian kingdoms were “socialist” … showing just how silly such a definition is).
Empirically this definition is also not true: the term “communism” existed well before Karl Marx was born, as a concept, and as an ideology. Also, Karl Marx, being the most prominent of the “communists”, talked a whole lot about “primitive communism”, i.e. the communism that existed in tribal societies—which did not have a state. So even if you take Marx as being the definer (don’t know why one would do so) Jay’s definition doesn’t work.
I propose a more useful definition—one that we can actually apply to social situations—one that doesn’t define “communism” to basically an eschatological utopia or limit it to post 19th century politics. I propose we use David Graeber’s definition, which is used in anthropology in studies of human relationships and organization:
In fact, communism really just means any situation where people act according to the principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”
If we think about it, this definition makes sense as something workable as a category—it side steps the question of the state (and thus explains how tribal societies could be described as “communist”) as well as the question of property—which is only relevant in state societies where property law is enforced. The early Christian communities were not states, they were sub-state communities, and they existed before the modern nation-state and the rise of Capitalism. Using this definition, and then examining the historical evidence—it is almost certain that the early Christian communities were very communistic, and that these economic practices lasted at least up into the late second century, and existed in Christian communities throughout the Roman World. I lay out the evidence in detail in my book.
Jay Richards goes on to say:
These new Christians freely sold their possessions and shared. This is pretty much the opposite of real-world communism.
That’s a very strange statement, I mean they also “freely” stopped worshiping idols, they “freely” participated in the Eucharist, they also “freely” became Christians. The point I’m making is that of course they did it freely, there was no enforcement mechanism—that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a moral obligation, there is plenty of evidence—inside and outside the New Testament—that it was a moral obligation for the Christians to share—as much as it was to refrain from idolatry.
Jay Richards then goes on, like every single market-fundamentalist does, to read the account of Ananias and Sapphire as an apologia for private property:
So, Peter condemns the couple not for keeping part of the proceeds of the sale, but for lying about it. In fact, he takes for granted that the property was theirs, even after it was sold. Peter says nothing about private property per se.
Peter doesn’t defend private property nor does he oppose it—however. Interestingly in Acts 4:32, Luke says that no one said that what they had was their own: no one claimed private property. One could easily read Peter as saying, “you didn’t have to join the Christian community.”
Next Jay claims that this practice wasn’t the norm, that it may have only lasted a few months and was only in Jerusalem, he says:
For all we know, this selling-and-sharing stage lasted six months. It’s unlikely that all these new Christians, many denizens of the far-flung Jewish Diaspora, stayed in Jerusalem for the rest of their lives. Many surely returned home at some point, and brought their new faith with them.
We know from the New Testament that other churches in other cities had different arrangements. For instance, Paul sternly warned the Thessalonian Christians, “If anyone will not work, let him not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.” (2 Thess. 3: 10b-11, RSV)
Some new Christians had begun to take advantage of the generosity of their new brothers in the faith. That may be why the emergency communal life in Jerusalem was never held up as a model for how the entire church should order its life, let alone used to justify the state confiscating private property.
Jay completely contradicts himself here. 2 Thess. 3:10–11 only makes sense if it was possible to eat without working—what would make that possible? A communist, or communist-like arrangement—2 Thess. 3:10–11 is actually evidence that these practices were not only in Jerusalem and not only for a couple of months. There is no point of protections against the tragedy of the commons without the commons.
The fact is these practices were the standard; there is evidence for this in the Pauline letters, the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, Tertullian, Justin Martyr, as well as non-Christian sources talking about the Christians such as Lucian.
Ultimately, much of this anxiety around Acts 2:42–47; 4:32–37, and the desire to marginalize what it’s saying or say it isn’t relevant, is just about defending market ideology. Modern market ideology says that private property is built into creation, as though ordained by God, it says that market relations are the only real legitimate way to organize society, and basically that Ayn Rand was right (maybe other than her anti-Christian rhetoric for the Christian free-market fundamentalists). This ideology is not the biblical ideology.