I recently wrote up an article for the website Libcom. The article is basically a teaser for my book, as well as a very little history of early Christianity and its social framework.
Over the last few months I haven’t been posting that regularly, there’s a few reasons for that; one reason is that I’ve been working on a book. The book I’ve been working on is called All Things in Common: The Economic Practices of the Early Christians, which has just been published by Wipf and Stock.
The book is basically a historical reconstruction of the economic practices of the early Christians, as primarily described in Acts 2:42–47 and Acts 4:32–37. The basic idea is that I think the subject has often been approached using the wrong framework, many people approach these passages with the framework of twentieth-century political struggles; so the questions they ask are things like “was this socialism, or was this just charity?” or “Did they abolish private property?” or “Was this a commune?” I think these questions assume the wrong framework.
I approach the issue using a different framework, rather than questions of property or politics, I use the framework of different types of social-relationships as described by modern anthropology. Rather than asking questions of property or legal rights, I look at questions around things like obligations, moral norms, social assumptions, and economic practices. Approaching the question of the economic practices of the early Christians using this framework, I then go about examining all the evidence. This evidence ranges from the Dead Sea Scrolls to Greek Philosophy, to the writings of Josephus and Philo to the early Church fathers and early Christian documents to Roman literature.
The evidence, when examined carefully, and within the framework of categories of social relationships—we end up seeing that what was described in Acts 2:42–27 and Acts 4:32–47 was in fact, a long term, wide spread and significant shift in the economic realities of the Christian communities. These economic practices were done all over the Roman world at least up until the late second century (and probably beyond) by many Christian communities, and these practices distinguished the Christians from the surrounding Roman society and were seen by the surrounding Roman society as strange. It was not charity, or anything like that; but rather it was—in the anthropological sense of the word, meaning a situation where “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” is the primary moral framework—communism.
If this is something that interests you, and I think it should, pick up the book.
Whenever an American conservative Calvinist decides to preach on politics you can be sure you’re going to get as much shallow and cheap theology as you’ll get when listening to a liberal Episcopalian talking about homosexuality. Jeff Durbin, a few months ago, put out a sermon on the topic of “socialism” and “biblical economics.” Just as expected, it was full of misapplication of scriptures, full of shallow and fallacious theology and really beneath anyone who takes biblical theology seriously.
Most of his argument comes from the commandment not to steal. To make that argument apply to questions of Economic institutions or legal arrangements he tries to derive a defense of private property as foundational from scripture. After reading the story of Ananias and Saphira in Acts 5 he says:
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:
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):
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:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”