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.
I’ve made the connection earlier in this blog between Jesus and early Christianity and the Jubilee, especially in Jesus’ Mission statement. Christianity wasn’t the only form of Judaism that made the connection between messianism and the Jubilee; the idea had been around in Judaism for a while.
To demonstrate various views of the Messiah and his connection to the Jubilee, I want to look at some documents from the Dead Sea Scroll first of all the Messianic Apocalypse (4Q521). The Messianic Apocalypse is dated to the early first century B.C.E. and is made up of 2 fragments, the first one reads:
Μὴ νομίσητε ὅτι ἦλθον βαλεῖν εἰρήνην ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν· οὐκ ἦλθον βαλεῖν εἰρήνην ἀλλὰ μάχαιραν.
And in the NRSV:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
This scripture is used over and over again, by Reza Aslan types who want to prove that the New Testament and Christianity is just as potentially violent as the Koran, the Old Testament, or any other religious text, or to show that Christianity is entirely open to any and every potential interpretation. The argument goes something like this usually, the first person says “Such and Such religious text is problematic because of what it teaches,” and the Reza Aslan type responds with “well, the new Testament says I came not to bring peace but a sword” and Christians choose to ignore than, or interpret it away, so we can do the same with other religious texts. I is not legitimate to simply isolate a text in any religious tradition that may be violent and think that this in and of itself shows anything, for Christianity or any other tradition, you need to do exegesis and theology, and think the whole tradition through. So can this scripture be legitimately used to defend violence? Well let’s examine it.
God, the Cause of all, is one. This does not mean one as in one of a pair, nor one like a species (which encompasses many individuals), nor one as in an object that is made up of many elements, nor as a single simple object that is infinitely divisible. Rather, God is a unity unlike any other possible unity. This is referred to in the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4): “Hear Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”
Maimonides, from his 13 principles of faith.
“The three words ‘El,’ ‘Elohim,’ and ‘Yhwh’ connote one and the same person, as one might say, ‘King, Emperor, Augustus'”
Talmudic Rabbi Simlai, Yer. Berakhot 9:12d, a Rabbi who in fact argued against Origen on the Trinity.
“if a man claims to be God, he is a liar.”
Talmud Yer. Ta’anit 2:1
The book by John Howard Yodar named the politics of Jesus written in 1972 was extremely influential and remains influential; anyone who wants to understand contemporary political theology should read this book. The name can be misleading given the modern concept of what politics are. Modern politics generally have to do with the State, who controls the state, what the role of the state is, what state laws are and so on, but what Yodar is talking about could be more described as a social ethic.
Here is the final part of me and DFXC’s dialogue, starting with my final reply and the DFXC’s final reply, the first two parts of our dialogue can be found here and here. My part is in red and DFXC’s is in blue (as I said in the previous 2 posts, this is not a formal debate or anything like that):
It’s interesting what you say about the historical method, tomorrow I’m publishing a post on my blog specifically about the problems with apologists arguing from a purely secular historical method. None the less I do believe a secular historical method is important, so we take away tradition and inspiration, or “bracket” them, you don’t necessarily take out the divine, although it is “bracketed” then you go from there. I don’t think you get a kind of Jewish proto-Gandhi figure necessarily, not if you’re reading good scholarship and really examining the materials.