Cultural Attitudes in Western Christianity Toward the Community of Goods in Acts 2 and 4
RETA HALTEMAN FINGER*
Abstract: In Acts 2 and 4, the Lukan author summarizes the nature of the Jerusalem church by describing a community of shared material goods. Because the texts are descriptive, rather than prescriptive, it has not been clear whether they should be considered normative for church life. Through analysis of some of the major Acts commentators, this article comprises a Western history of interpretation of these texts from the Reformation to the present, noting the way in which the social and political locations of the interpreters has shaped their understanding of these passages. The essay argues that a social science analysis is essential for an understanding of the normative socioeconomic system of first-century Palestine. Only by recognizing what is unusual about the communal organization of the early church can we decide how to apply these texts to Christian communal life in our culture today.
They devoted themselves to the apostles? teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 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, 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. (Acts 2:42-47 NRSV)
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles? feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means ?son of encouragement’). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles? feet. (Acts 4:32-37 NRSV).
Luke’s second volume begins with a narrative account of the origins of the Christian church in Jerusalem. According to Luke, after Pentecost the believers organized into a tightly knit community that shared property, worship and daily meals. But how are such descriptive texts to be interpreted? As a model for the church to follow? As an impossible ideal? As an experiment that quickly proved impractical?
Growing up Mennonite in eastern Pennsylvania, the only sermon I recall from my childhood was one preached on these texts at my grandparents? congregation in the 1950s. Although rural or small-town Mennonites from that time were accustomed to understanding the biblical texts quite literally, in this case the minister made an exception. The texts on communal sharing in Acts, he said, should not be applied literally. In truth, he said, they describe a brief experiment that was impractical and eventually failed.
Now, decades later, I do not recall ever hearing another sermon preached on these texts. Instead, the secular, urban world is far more integrated within contemporary Anabaptist groups today than it was half a century ago. We are immersed in capitalism, no doubt watching the stock market’s ebb and flow with as much anxiety as our neighbors. Meanwhile, virtually every Mennonite church agency struggles to adjust to staff layoffs and reduced budgets.
At the same time, various conference and churchwide publications brim with examples of Mennonite-sponsored projects to help poor and underprivileged people in their own communities and around the world. The percentage of our giving is generally higher than that of mainstream churches. It is clear to outsiders as well as to ourselves that the Anabaptist ethos is instinctively more communally oriented than that of most other religious denominations and far more than the general American public. Luke’s description of the origins of the Jesus-movement in Jerusalem set forth a clear model of shared possessions in a community-of-goods where there are no needy. How much influence do these ancient texts exert upon our lives today? Has interpretation of these texts shaped Mennonite behavior? What potential do they have to push us to think even more radically about economic imbalances in our church, our communities and our world? How has the church historically interpreted and wrestled with such a radical ideal?
This article surveys selected interpretations of these texts throughout Western church history, primarily since the Reformation. It asserts that interpretation of socioeconomic texts such as these will be significantly more influenced by factors other than hermeneutical principles or other objective criteria. To be specific: if it is not in the economic, political or theological interests of an interpreter or an interpretive community to share material goods (beyond alms-giving), they will find different ways to explain these texts. One may further note, however, that the disciplines of biblical studies and theology have not traditionally interacted with the field of economics (or any of the sciences or social sciences, for that matter). Biblical commentators who are not personally and consciously suffering under unjust economic structures tend not to be aware of them or to critique them or to propose creative systemic changes.
Since I am dealing with the biases of others, I confess to my own. Growing up relatively poor in a culture where others seemed to have more wealth aroused my interest in economics and my concern for those crushed by systemic poverty. Education was the key to my escape; what about those kept underprivileged because it is in the interests of the more powerful to keep them so? Liberation theology and its ?option for the poor? captured my thinking, especially now that social science reflection on the biblical texts has highlighted the low socioeconomic status and political powerlessness of most people in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Most of us have no idea what it was like living in first-century Palestine and thus tend to read our own cultural assumptions and behaviors into the biblical texts. I want to avoid doing that as much as possible, while knowing that none of us can totally escape our social location.
PRE-REFORMATION UNDERSTANDINGS OF
ACTS 2 AND ACTS 4
After Christianity became a state religion, the orthodox church assumed that these community-of-goods texts were both relevant and practical’but only as a model for monastic life. Only celibate monks or nuns were thought to be able to live out the ?counsels of perfection,? while ordinary lay people living in the world were subject to less stringent standards of moral life.
By 360 there were monasteries in Egypt and Syria, where groups of men and women were physically separated from the life of the parish church and congregation, having their own worship and living by their own rules. In the West, John Cassian founded two monasteries in Marseilles in Gaul, one for women and one for men, around 415. His writings, the Institutes and Conferences, give the classic expression to the understanding that monks were the successors to the original Christian community in Jerusalem.
Many other monastic writings cite the Acts summaries in Chapters 2 and 4 as their basis for sharing the common life. Augustine, for example, assumes that it is only monks or nuns who follow the common life described in Acts 2 and 4. Augustine did not imagine any other sharing of goods and a common life apart from monasticism.
Throughout pre-Reformation history, various lay groups attempted to live what they called an apostolic life. Some, like the Humiliati in Italy, the Waldensians in France, the Beguines in the Low Countries or, later, the Beghards and Brethren of the Common Life in Germany and the Netherlands, encountered resistance from the hierarchy or conservative members of the clergy. Though they were not cloistered, they did take vows of celibacy and at least some kind of voluntary poverty. Within the established church no model existed for families to share a community of goods.
REFORMATION ATTITUDES TOWARD A COMMUNITY
The interpretations of Luther and Calvin must be seen in the context of a sixteenth-century European society in turmoil. Although some monasteries and convents reflected the ideals of community, morality in many monasteries had seriously deteriorated and some religious orders of the church had themselves become wealthy at the expense of ordinary citizens. Between 15 and 30 percent of the urban population of that period was homeless or hungry, dependent on alms for survival. At the same time, social movements emphasizing more rights for the underclasses were threatening the stability of the social order. In Germany in 1524 and 1525, peasants joined in a mass rebellion against the ever-increasing dues and services demanded by their princes. And the Anabaptists refused to ally themselves with either Catholics or Protestants. Believing church and state should be separate, their congregations developed their own systems of communal sharing, posing yet another threat to the social order.
Martin Luther did not specifically address the relevant passages in Acts until a sermon in 1538. However, his ?Order of a Common Chest? (1523) mentioned three ways in which the wealth of the monasteries taken over by the government should be dispersed. After doing justice to those who choose to stay and those who choose to leave, the government should, he suggested, pursue ?the best? of these options: ?to devote all the remaining property to the common fund of a common chest, out of which gifts and loans could be made in Christian love to all the needy in the land.?
In 1526, Luther’s ?German Mass and Order of Worship? discussed three kinds of worship, the third service representing an ?evangelical order,? in which serious Christians would meet in homes to pray, read, baptize, ?receive the sacrament,? discipline one another and solicit gifts for the poor. Though he does not quote Acts 2 and 4, the picture he creates is not unlike Luke’s description of the early church.
But by 1538, when Luther did preach a sermon on Acts 2:44f, he no longer spoke of the ?third way,? since he realized few people were ready to follow him on it. As Hans-Joachim Kraus puts it, ?his cautious impulses induced him finally to let fall the concrete practices about worship which he had expressly stated in the ?German Mass? that serious Christians ought to do.? However, he believed that the early church did share a community of goods (communio bonorum) and that it would be impossible to live that way except by a ?work of the Holy Spirit.? But this sermon made few specific applications. Luther expressed ?no requirement, no guiding model for a new order of society, no law to follow, but only the ?worship of love.??
But even if it was the ?work of the Holy Spirit,? Luther felt compelled to discourage movements in his own day that struggled for more equality of rights and goods. He first sympathized with the demands of the peasants, but when the movement became more violent, he urged the princes to subdue it by any bloody means necessary. In ?Against the Thieving and Murdering Mobs of Peasants? (1525), Luther wrote: ?The gospel does not make goods common, except in the case of those who, of their own free will, do what the apostles and disciples did in Acts 4:32-37. They did not demand, as do our insane peasants in their raging, that the goods of others…should be common, but only their own goods.? Luther turned increasingly to established authority to maintain the peace and order that he considered necessary for the spread of the Gospel, ignoring the context of Acts 4 in which the apostles were constantly challenging the authority of the religious and political leaders.
Luther did believe in an original community of goods in Jerusalem, and his early writings demonstrate a wistful longing to follow their practice. But he could not see beyond the traditional marriage of church and state and thus adjusted his theology accordingly. By aligning himself with the state and not with the peasants, Luther remained in his social class and did not exhibit solidarity with the poor. Unlike Acts 4:34, in his church there were many needy persons indeed.
In his commentary on Acts, Calvin took pains to interpret Acts 2:44 properly, ?on account of fanatical spirits who devise a koinonia of goods whereby all civil order is overturned.? He allowed that Luke’s words could be taken to mean that the believers lived together in the same place, but he preferred to see it as simply their ?agreement? together. Their liberality was the result of this harmony, in that the rich sold their goods to help the poor.
Calvin noted two extremes concerning giving. ?For many on a pretext of civil order conceal what they possess and defraud the poor, thinking that they are doubly righteous so long as they do not seize another man’s goods. Others are carried away to the opposite error, desiring to have everything mingled together.? Here he especially criticized the Anabaptists because ?they thought there was no Church unless all men’s goods were heaped up together and everyone took therefrom as they chose.? Because of his own fear of the breakdown of social order, Calvin recommended that ?common sharing . . . must be held in check.?
Calvin quoted a Pythagorean proverb, ?All things are common among friends,? to prove that, since surely the Pythagoreans did not hold houses or wives in common, ?this community of goods of which Luke speaks does not do away with household government.? Rather, they ?brought forth their goods and held them in common only with the object of relieving immediate necessity.? Here Calvin criticized monks in wealthy cloisters who technically own nothing but who ?have no other interest in the community of goods than seeing that they are fully and luxuriously provided for, although the whole world should starve.?
Calvin regarded Barnabas as an exception when it comes to sharing wealth’?most likely there were many who made no inroads upon their possessions’?revealing his projection of sixteenth-century European social and economic structure back into first-century Palestine. He tacitly assumed that the majority of Jerusalem believers owned land and other private property as did those in his own class.
In the Institutes (IV, 1, 3) Calvin made an analogy between the inequality of material possessions with the diversity of gifts given by the Spirit. ?The communion of saints,? he says,
is as if one said that the saints are gathered into the society of Christ on the principle that whatever benefits God confers upon them, they should in turn share with one another. This does not, however, rule out diversity of graces, inasmuch as we know the gifts of the Spirit are variously distributed. Nor is civil order disturbed, which allows each individual to own his private possessions, since it is necessary to keep peace among men that the ownership of property should be distinct and personal among them. But a community is affirmed, such as Luke describes, in which the heart and soul of the multitude of believers are one [Acts 4:32].?
Calvin thus assumed that the hierarchical, oppressive socioeconomic order of his day was God-given. Poor people should accept their lot as ordained by the Spirit, since this is the only way to preserve social order.
Both Luther and Calvin conformed their biblical interpretation of the early chapters of Acts to a society in which everyone was nominally a Christian. Their goals were to reform the church while maintaining the social status quo. Giving alms to help the needy and to relieve some of the worst cases of hunger and homelessness helped to calm feelings of social unrest. The views of both of these reformers shaped Protestant orthodoxy for centuries to come and often adversely affected religious groups who applied more literally the economic sharing described in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37 to their own communities.
THE RADICAL REFORMATION AND THE COMMUNITY
The sixteenth-century Anabaptists threatened both Catholic and Protestants because of their communal emphasis, as well as their belief in the separation of church and state and renunciation of violence. Though their tendency towards literal interpretation of the New Testament emphasized a shared life, persecution from both Catholics and Protestants also demanded that they share possessions and help of every sort in order to survive.
Menno Simons based the group’s sense of community on being one body (1 Cor. 12:13), partakers of one bread (1 Cor. 10:17), and having one God and one Lord (Eph. 4). He did, however, explain that this oneness had very concrete results. Like Acts 4:34, he asserted that Anabaptists ?receive the wretched? and ?do not suffer a beggar among them.? Though many fathers and mothers were ?killed with fire, water, and sword . . . and the times are hard; nevertheless none of the pious nor the children left behind by the pious, who are willing to adapt themselves among us, have had to beg.? Rather than calling for or demanding a common purse, Anabaptists emphasized stewardship and radical sharing of material goods, first with fellow believers, but on many occasions with their enemies and persecutors as well.
Most Anabaptists did not see the panta koinonia (?having all things common’) of Acts 2:44 as a special commandment of Christ, but rather a necessary and short-lived adjustment to the needs of the situation in Jerusalem. Conrad Grebel specifically protested against the charge that he taught ?that no one should be interested in his possessions.? Felix Manz, first Anabaptist martyr, declared that he understood community of goods to mean a willingness to help those in need. Menno Simons vigorously denied the charge that Anabaptists practiced a community of goods:
For although we know that the apostolic church had this practice in the beginning, as can be seen in the Acts of the Apostles, nevertheless we note from their epistles that it disappeared in their time. . . and was no longer practiced. Since we do not find it a permanent practice with the apostles . . . we have not taught or practiced community of goods, but we urge earnestly and zealously to practice liberal giving, love, and mercy, as the apostolic writings teach. . . . And even if we had taught and practiced community of goods, as we are falsely accused of doing, we would still not be doing otherwise than the holy apostles, full of the Holy Ghost, themselves did in the former church at Jerusalem . . . although they stopped the practice as has been said. 
Why this vigorous denial of communalism? The major reason seems to have political, not exegetical, roots. By the early 1530s, Anabaptism had broken apart into pacifist and militant wings, the latter represented by the Mnsterite experiment of 1534-1535 in northern Germany. In Mnster, apocalyptic Melchiorites taught the right of true believers to destroy those who would not accept their message of rebirth. Rather than modeling their movement on the pattern of the early church, as pacifist Anabaptists were doing, they took the Old Testament as their model, and saw themselves as the Israelites in exodus from Egypt.
One of the leaders, John Mathijs, dictated a form of Christian communalism, based on his interpretation of Acts 2 and 4. He declared money, food and real property to be held in common, although householders were allowed to continue using what was theirs. To show compliance with the new communalism, doors of houses had to be left open day and night. After Mathijs was killed in a skirmish, John Beukels took over leadership and introduced polygamy, partly to emulate Old Testament patriarchs and partly because the male population was being decimated in the fighting.
Since then Mnster has been used as a negative example of what can happen when the communal sharing described in Acts 2 and 4 is practiced literally. The New Testament scholar Luke T. Johnson, for instance, maintains that events like the Mnster experiment or the massacre in Guyana under Jim Jones are the logical results of a community of goods because the practice encourages loss of individuality, greater social control and the growth of authoritarianism.
But while Mennonites and Amish, as primary descendants of Anabaptism, have never practiced a literal community of goods, their attitude of sharing enabled them to survive persecution for two centuries in Europe, and to assist each other in establishing close-knit communities in Pennsylvania beginning in the early 18th century. After both world wars, North American Mennonites and Amish helped many of their counterparts in Germany and Russia to escape intolerable political situations and settle in Paraguay and Canada.
The Hutterites, beginning as part of the Anabaptist movement of the early sixteenth century, have been practicing a full community of goods family-style for over 450 years. They are the only example in history in which a noncelibate group has successfully carried on this practice for so long a time. Hutterites (named after their first leader, Jacob Hutter) flourished during the sixteenth century in Moravia and Slovakia under the protection of the nobles. By the late sixteenth century, there were about a hundred farm colonies, with 20,000 to 30,000 members.
The primary statement of early Hutterite faith is Peter Rideman’s Account of Our Religion, Doctrine, and Faith, first published in 1565. Rideman argues that just as God has given all material as well as spiritual gifts to share, so these gifts are to be shared with the whole body. God’s entire created order is designed for all things to be common, and only human sinfulness has led to private property. This renewal was found in the early church. ?For this reason the Holy Spirit also at the beginning of the Church began such community right gloriously again, so that none said that aught of the things that he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37).? This communal sharing was supported by the Apostle Paul and ?where this is not the case it is a blemish upon the Church and ought verily to be corrected.?
For Hutterites then and now, the texts on community in Acts 2 and 4 are a scriptural witness that a literal community of goods was a historical reality in the early church and therefore should be practiced today.
Reformation and post-Reformation Europe as a whole has not shown much toleration for groups who did practice communal sharing in some form on the economic and material level. Consequently, interpretations of Acts 2 and 4 that attempted to apply a communal lifestyle were marginalized and had a largely negative influence on mainstream Protestant orthodoxy. The high commitment demanded cannot be realized in state churches full of nominal Christians.
DEVELOPMENT OF HISTORICAL CRITICISM IN EUROPE
IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
Two movements during the nineteenth century left their imprint upon the interpretation of the community of goods described in Acts: the rise of communistic socialism and the development of historical criticism of the Bible.
In 1826, Wilhelm de Wette published Introduction to the New Testament, in which he claimed that there were many uncompleted and defective details in Acts. For example, he said, in Acts 2:44 and 4:32,34 Luke expresses himself ?too strongly.? He really means to speak of a willingness to share possessions with others in the community.
A few years later, in 1831, F. C. Baur introduced ?tendency criticism,? a theory asserting that conflicts within early Christianity between the Jewish-Christian party (founded by Peter) and the Gentile-Christian party (Pauline) skewed the New Testament documents with a theological bias. The passages in Acts, therefore, do not necessarily represent historical events accurately. Using this theory, Baur hypothesized that Acts was written by a Paulinist who wanted to defend Paul’s mission to the Gentiles against the criticism of the Jewish-Christian party. Though Baur never wrote a commentary on Acts, his son-in-law Eduard Zeller did so, applying tendency criticism to the whole of Acts. Zeller understood Chapters 1-7 to be composed of legends, myths and fictitious creations of the author, and full of contradictions. The description of property sharing in Acts 2 and 4 is so extreme that it cannot be excused as hyperbole but as an ?unhistorical account . . . founded on lofty concepts of a later period regarding the state of the original church.? Friedrich Spitta, more detailed and adept at cutting and pasting, says that Acts 2:44 was added by a later redactor, and that the community of goods in 2:45-47 refers only to that practiced by the apostles.
Ernest Renan’s 1866 commentary on Acts was not quite as skeptical as Zeller’s, but Renan believed the writer of Acts had exaggerated and ?overcolored? his description. Thus, the writer’s doctrine of absolute poverty led him to shape the facts to fit his beliefs. From a practical point of view, a true community of goods could only work in a very small church in which people live in the same neighborhood (indeed, it came to an end as the community grew and administrative difficulties arose). Renan also claimed, naively, that such a community would have been easier to initiate in the East, where people are less attached to material possessions. In the East, he claimed, people have few cares, and there is no ?slavery of labor,? as in the industrial European West.
Other commentators were less skeptical of the historicity of the Acts? community of goods, both in Germany but especially in Britain. Heinrich A. W. Meyer’s 1834 commentary on Acts disagreed not only with Baur and Zeller but also with other scholars like Wilheld De Wette or G. V. Lechler, who spoke of the sharing of possessions in terms of a ?mutual rendering of help? or a willingness to place private property at the disposal of the church. Meyer insists that Acts describes a real community of goods in which the members truly possessed everything in common.
Henry Alford, whose 1872 commentary on Acts was the first British commentary to interact seriously with Germany scholars, agreed. The sharing was voluntary but gradually became a custom. Its purpose was relief for the poor. Both Meyer and Alford believed that this community of goods happened only in Jerusalem, for rich and poor are mentioned in the letters of Paul, James and John. It had no connection with the Essenes, but rather with the practice of Jesus and his disciples as described in the Gospels. The communal sharing ceased because of inconveniences such as those described in Acts 6:1, and probably explains the later poverty of the Jerusalem church.
The oft-reprinted commentary of Richard Rackham (1901) connected more clearly than those above the sharing of goods with Jesus? practice and teaching, and, like Renan, regarded it as a local institution that could not survive economically as the church grew in numbers. Rackham believed this was due to a lack of organized labor, as well as to lost goods during persecution. Nevertheless, the common purse and shared life had provided a sense of brotherhood at a time when other ethnic and family ties had been broken. Indeed, the common life was the greatest ?wonder and sign? (v. 42) of all. Believers implemented a community of goods because they expected Jesus? imminent return. Later, when that did not happen, the selling of possessions was succeeded by sending alms from one church to another.
Other major nineteenth-century commentaries, such as those by G. V. Lechler, Richard John Knowling and Horatio Hackett also assumed that the Jerusalem believers? communal life was rooted in historical reality, but placed their emphasis on the willingness of the believers to hold their possessions as if they were common property rather than a full, literal community of goods. As need arose, possessions would be sold. Lechler notes that the sale of goods (2:44) fits better with this view. Emphasis is then placed on poor relief as the major reason for such communal sharing.
The development of the historical-critical method in biblical scholarship during the nineteenth century called attention to the book of Acts in a new way. Stressing rational objectivity, historicity and source critics, fewer of these scholars made a transparent attempt to react to Acts in light of contemporary social or political life. Many of the conclusions or observations in these nineteenth-century commentaries have been carried over into later commentaries and other theological writings of the twentieth century.
But in spite of erudite learning in theology, philosophy, philology, classics or standard history, even the best biblical commentators did little social or economic analysis. They either ignored or rejected any resemblance between the Jerusalem community of goods and the socialist communism struggling to be born in their day. Lechler, for example, sees the Jerusalem arrangement ?contending against this modern and ungodly communism and against every false leveling process.? The judgments of these writers reflect an all-male, all-Western European, all upper- or upper-middle-class academy, living in a society of growing individualism in which capitalism was the only appropriate economic system. From this perspective, the poor are ?the other’?those of lower classes, who are dependent on the charity of those above them. Such a mentality can hardly imagine a community of goods working on anything but a small scale and promptly discontinued when problems arose and the money ran out.
Knowling commentary had appeared in the famous Greek Expositor’s Testament series. Around the same time, the English Expositor’s Bible series (with the same editor) laid bare a more popular and naked reflection of Victorian England’s sharp class divisions and the paternalistic concept of the ?White Man’s Burden.? G. T. Stokes, author of the Acts commentary, viewed the Jerusalem experiment as a socioeconomic disaster. The community of goods in Acts, he argued, was a mistake’even an evil’that should never have happened. As in Thessalonica later, so here in Jerusalem the believers’ intense expectation of Christ’s return led inevitably to financial irresponsibility:
The community of goods was adopted in no other church . . . [and] no Christian sect or Church has ever tried to revive it, save the monastic orders, who adopted it for the special purpose of completely cutting their members off from any connection with the world . . . and, in later times still, the wild fanatical Anabaptists at the Reformation period, who thought, like the Christians of Jerusalem, that the kingdom of God, as they fancied it, was immediately about to appear.
Stokes, however, regarded this incident recorded in Acts as ?a significant warning for the mission field,? to encourage missionary churches ?to strive after a healthy independence amongst their members.? Since another evil connected with sharing of goods was the conflict between the Hellenists and the Hebrews, this account also teaches prudent poor relief and almsgiving to the church at home:
No classes are more suspicious and more quarrelsome than those who are in receipt of such assistance. . . . Managers of almshouses, asylums, charitable funds, and workhouses know this . . . and ofttimes make a bitter acquaintance with that evil spirit which burst forth even in the mother Church of Jerusalem.
For fifteen pages, Stokes continued preaching in this vein.
THROUGH THE LENSES OF SOCIALIST COMMUNISM
AND SOCIAL HISTORY
Such an attitude could hardly be further removed in tone and content from the interpretation expressed in socialist writers of the same period. The development of socialist philosophy by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels during the mid-nineteenth century had a profound effect on some interpretations of the community of goods described in Acts. Taking a materialist view of history and emphasizing the solidarity of the working classes, some socialists or communists analyzed the Jerusalem community and subsequent developments within the Christian church as an important stage in the evolution of civilization toward a communistic society.
Friedrich Engels’s The Peasant War in Germany
Already in 1850, Friedrich Engels realized that the roots of his economic philosophy lay in biblical religion. In his view, Thomas Mntzer was a hero’an anti-Catholic, anti-Christian revolutionary who saw the kingdom of God as something to be sought in this life, ?a society without class differences, private property, and a state authority? alienated from the people. Engels identified all Anabaptists as associated with the peasants? revolt of 1525, the successors of Mntzer’s ?propaganda? regarding the kingdom of God. ?This sect, which had no definite dogmas, held together only by its common opposition to all ruling classes . . . , ascetic in [its] mode of living, untiring, fanatical and intrepid in carrying on propaganda, had grouped itself more and more closely around Mntzer.?
Karl Kautsky’s Foundations of Christianity
Building on Engels’s approach, Karl Kautsky provided the most detailed discussion of the earliest Christian community from a communist perspective. Kautsky’s materialistic view of history interpreted the rise of Christianity as an important stage in humankind’s development. Because he assumed social progress throughout history’?a continuous evolution from lower to higher forms’?he associated Christian ?communism? closely with the proletarian movement of the nineteenth century, though it was ultimately inferior to the communism of his day.
Kautsky shared the extreme skepticism of the historicity of the New Testament with other radical European thinkers of his day. But he acknowledged that the early Christian writings do reveal something about the social conditions of the times:
The historical value of the Gospels and of the Acts of the Apostles is probably not of higher value than that of the Homeric poems or of the Nibelungenlied. . . . But such poetic narrations are of incalculable value for the study of the social conditions under which they arose, and which they faithfully reflect, no matter how many liberties their authors may take in their treatment of facts and persons.
Thus, he regarded the descriptions of the communal meals and the community of goods in Acts 2, 4 and 6 as authentic. In fact, Kautsky argued that this communistic development was logical and inevitable, since Christianity began among the ?proletarian elements almost exclusively and was a proletarian organization . . . for a long time after its earliest beginnings. A related characteristic of the movement was ?a savage class hatred against the rich,? expressed most clearly in the Gospel of Luke. Matthew, written several decades after Luke, revises this class hatred to attract wealthier and more cultured persons; hence ?the poor? become ?poor in spirit,? and so on.
Since Christianity is proletarian, ?it is natural that it should aim to achieve a communistic organization.? But the Jerusalem church had only a communism of consumption, not of production. Communism in Kautsky’s day meant concentrating wealth at one place (as in a state or municipality) for the sake of production. But in the Greco-Roman world, the concentration of wealth in a few hands meant anything but a basis for production or social welfare. The rich used their wealth for luxury items and to maintain their status and political power.
As the church evolved and spread geographically, Christian groups retained their property sharing but remained communities of consumption only, based on private contributions by the members. The only activities that held them together were their daily common meal and their charity work. And by the fourth century, the common meal was eliminated and the church had entirely ?ceased to be a proletarian institution.?
It is small wonder why Kautsky would have aroused the ire of scholars who viewed the New Testament from a middle-class capitalistic perspective, or from those who saw religious motives at the heart of those writings. Kautsky betrayed his own modern Enlightenment perspective when he denied the role of religion, especially miracles, within the New Testament world. He was seemingly unaware of the pervasive presence of religion and religious motives throughout Greco-Roman society’pagan, Jewish and Christian’and attributed all human motivation to economics and politics. Further, Kautsky’s use of terms like ?communism? for a community of goods or ?propaganda? for the preaching of the gospel was inflammatory to those who primarily stress the religious aspect of the New Testament story.
Yet Kautsky was well ahead of his time in grasping the value of the New Testament documents, including Acts, for what they can say about the social conditions of the first century in the Mediterranean world. His opponents overreacted by refusing to see early Christianity in any economic or social terms. Yet most of the early Christians were poor, living at a subsistence level. Daily communal meals made a lot of sense, given the economic situation of the believers. And much of Kautsky’s economic analysis regarding early Christianity was actually quite accurate. To ignore either the religious or the socioeconomic aspects of this movement is to misunderstand the holistic nature of the Christian gospel and what was happening on the day-to-day level of believers? communities in the first centuries of the era.
A GROWING SOCIOLOGICAL AWARENESS AND RESPONSE
TO SOCIALIST COMMUNISM
Ernst Troeltsch and Johannes Weiss
Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923) was a contemporary of Kautsky, a German philosopher-theologian who was among the first to ask questions about the sociological influences on church doctrine and, conversely, to examine the sociological implications of what the church taught. Troeltsch’s reflections on the early church’s practice of community of goods is found in The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (first published 1912). His interpretation reflects major sociopolitical ideas and movements of the late-nineteenth and early- twentieth-century Europe.
Troeltsch set out his ideas in sharp contrast to a communist philosophy of history and economics, asserting that ?the message of Jesus is not a program of social reform.? It did not arise out of a class struggle and in no way was it connected to political social revolutions. Rather, Jesus? message was a ?summons to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God,? which ?is to take place quietly within the framework of the present world-order, in a purely religious fellowship of love, with an earnest endeavour to conquer self and cultivate the Christian virtues.? Though Troeltsch assumed the community of goods described in Acts was historical, it was thoroughly impractical, primarily a response to the ?rapture of their first love.? It was a communism based solely on consumption in which ?members will continue to earn their living by private enterprise, in order to practice generosity and sacrifice.? Moreover, ?it has no theory of equality at all,? nor was it hostile to the institution of the family. It soon outgrew itself and led to the total impoverishment of the church, fading away without even a struggle for the principle. ?The fundamental idea,? Troeltsch argued, ?was solely that of the salvation of souls.?
Love is the core of communalism. Though the idea contains a revolutionary element’seen in the monastic system, medieval communistic movements, the Anabaptists or among ?modern fanatics and idealists’?it has no desire for revolution and is socially conservative.
The central idea of religion is based upon a monotheism that sees all humanity under a benevolent deity. Recognizing this loving God will lead us to see that earthly possessions are for everyone and that we need to share with those in need. It is the religious impulse towards love that has affected society sociologically in the form of promoting individualism (the worth of each individual) and universalism (God loves everyone).
These are tenets of classical liberal theology. The tone is abstract and intellectual, giving no evidence of understanding the practical organization involved in the growth of the early church, nor of identification or solidarity with the poor. Moving in that direction thus leads back to socialist communism, which is ultimately coercive and certainly not based on love.
Troeltsch’s work, however, did provide a sociological basis from which others could grapple with aspects of Christian faith and religion. One such exegete of Acts was Johannes Weiss. In his Earliest Christianity, Weiss demonstrated a greater awareness of economic and sociological issues than had commentators of the previous century, even as he strongly rebuted Kautsky’s position. The generalized statements about property sharing in Acts 2:44f, 4:32 and 34, claimed Weiss, bear the stamp of a later redactor who idealizes the beginnings of Christianity. By Acts 6:1-6 we see that the needy are provided with alms, which was the usual Jewish practice of charitable relief. It would have been a true example of collectivism ?if Joseph Barnabas and others turned over their houses and lands as such to the group, for common or joint use. . . . But any such idea was wholly alien to the old community.?
Statements about the blessedness of poverty and woes pronounced on the rich in Luke’s Gospel (i.e., 6:2f) do not reflect class hatred, but rather the passions of a later period when the ruling classes of Judaism and the poor Christians were hostile toward each other. The real reason for such willingness to share property in the original community was because they were expecting an imminent Parousia, a notion totally opposite from a communistic scheme of social reform, which assumes a permanent organization in the present world.
Shirley Jackson Case
Troeltsch’s ideas on the ?social teachings of the Christian Churches? were picked up in a variety of different ways. During the 1930s in the United States, Shailer Mathews and Shirley Jackson Case asked further questions about the social history of Christianity. Case, for example, insisted that early Christianity be studied ?in the full light of the conditions and processes of the actual life of real people . . . within a concrete social nexus. . . .? In his Rauschenbusch lectures of 1933, he specifically addressed the question of ?Christianity and Worldly Goods.? Case saw the ancient church’s ideas about wealth and property as starting out with a primitive or ignorant attitude and evolving in a positive direction. The earliest community in Jerusalem was so indifferent toward possessions that members quickly fell into poverty and had to be bailed out by the collection that Paul organized for them from the more prosperous Gentile churches. Paul’s ideas helped to change attitudes, for he asked the believers in the churches he founded to continue in their present vocations and callings (1 Cor. 7:17-24).
Nevertheless, the economic structure of the Roman Empire was such that a huge gap existed between the mass of the poor and the few rich, who wantonly displayed their luxury. Christians were disgusted at this pride and selfishness, and they ?spurned wealth as the inevitable concomitant of wickedness.? By the end of the first century, however, Christians gradually realized that ?prosperity could be made to serve worthy religious ends.? Part of the ?social triumph? of the ancient church is that it eventually practiced Christian charity on a worldwide scale and brought ?the material resources of the world into the service of religion.?
Case shows more awareness of ?the actual life of real people? than does Troeltsch. Yet his analysis derives not only from sociological research into Greco-Roman culture, but also from assumptions imbibed from his own culture and era. Unlike Kautsky, who saw the decline of communism in the church as a deterioration of its principles, Case viewed the church’s use of wealth as appropriate and progressive. This is consistent with his optimistic, progressive view of history that the wars and economic depressions of the twentieth century had not yet challenged. The poor are definitely ?the other? for Case, but capitalism’s rosy future and the church’s proper use of wealth ensured that the worthy poor would be taken care of.
THE INTERLUDE OF NEO-ORTHODOXY: BRUNNER, BONHOEFFER, BARTH
For the next forty-five years, little advance was made to Case’s social analysis of early Christianity. European neo-orthodoxy, with its emphasis on the revelatory word of God, spread to North America and began to displace the more optimistic social gospel. Neo-orthodoxy’s reaction to liberal theology in the face of destructive world wars is understandable. However, its stress on the otherness of God and God’s discontinuity with human beings, and its separation of faith and reason rendered this approach antihistorical and antisociological.
The Swiss theologian Emil Brunner discussed Acts 2:44 and 45 and 4:32 under the heading of ecclesiology. Brunner did see that the most ?immediately credible expression? of God’s self-giving love was this Christian community of goods. His further reflections, however, highlight the typical neo-orthodox gap between the life of faith and actual concrete social life in this world. When love takes such a concrete form it is unrealistic and impractical. It led to the impoverishment of the Jerusalem community, and then disappeared. But even though it is not practical, Brunner continued to regard it as the ideal of ?brotherly love? reminiscent of Calvin’s emphasis on spiritual unity while he supported the economic and social status quo.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology stressed the church as the original essence of community, but primarily as a spiritual community, rather than a social organization. Significantly, Bonhoeffer stressed the community of goods in Acts 2:44 as flowing from the ?word and sacrament? of 2:42. The sharing of material goods is clarified by the apostles? teaching and the daily communal meals, which become, in Protestant theological terminology, ?word and sacrament.? Bonhoeffer does not challenge the historical actuality of the community of goods within the early church so much as to ignore its concrete, social organization in order to highlight the spiritual reality it represents.
In his massive Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth referred only once to the community of goods in Acts 2:42-47, and this within a section on Jesus as King. The attempt to share all material goods in the original Jerusalem community, he argued, is grounded in Jesus? teaching and actions. Reacting against a theological liberalism that looked for the kingdom of God to be realized in Western society, Barth insisted that Jesus was not a reformer championing a new order against old ones. Rather, he ?set all principles and programs in question because he displayed a freedom which we can only describe as royal.?
Barth understood Jesus? attitude as one of passive conservativism, which acknowledged existing orders, subjected himself to them and advised his disciples to do the same’but yet was always superior to them. However, he and his disciples did call the economic order in question by not owning possessions. Jesus issues an either/or call to sell everything and follow him. The earliest post-Pentecostal community boldly took up this challenge, even though it was only an attempt to live like Jesus. Indeed, there have been numerous impulses toward an economic reordering of community where Jesus? gospel is proclaimed but, Barth claimed, none has ever succeeded.
Barth believed that Jesus? call to give no thought to material possessions is not workable in the present order of society. ?There can be no sound or solid economy without this laying up and taking thought,? he insisted. But Jesus? call is not necessarily practical and does not lead to a better social order. It was a free and simple call to freedom. It was ?the royal man Jesus penetrating to the very foundations of economic life in defiance of every reasonable and . . . honorable objection.?
Behind both Bonhoeffer’s and Barth’s reflections on the social order lie their eschatological viewpoints. A true and lasting communal sharing can never happen on this earth, but will be part of the final culmination of life and history, the point at which the whole world will know that Jesus Christ is Lord. That is why communism is ultimately unworkable. Although its impulse starts from the same origins as the community of goods in Jerusalem, it diminishes and narrows the messianic ideal. As long as neo-orthodoxy dominated the interpretation of the Acts texts on community of goods, no advances could be made toward understanding ?the actual life of real people? in the growth of the early church. The neo-orthodox theologians recall the Reformation social ethic, with its concern to distance itself from a semblance of Christian ?fanaticism.?
FROM SOURCE CRITICISM TO STYLE AND REDACTION CRITICISM
The major question dominating Acts criticism during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had been its historical accuracy, with related issues of authorship and sources. But by the mid-twentieth century two scholars began shifting the emphasis toward literary studies of Acts: Henry J. Cadbury, probably the most important American in the history of Lucan research, and Martin Dibelius, who pioneered ?style criticism? of Acts.
Henry J. Cadbury
Cadbury’s primary contribution to scholarship on the community of goods in Acts is his identification of 2:43-47 and 4:32-37 as Lukan summaries, the ?connective tissue by which memorabilia are turned into the beginnings of a continuous narrative.? As an editor, Luke used sources for the intervening narrative. Then he broke up these narratives by inserting generalized summaries that he wrote himself. Cadbury was not necessarily skeptical of Luke’s historicity; he did not see this as the primary issue of concern.
Along with Rudolph Bultmann, Martin Dibelius pioneered use of the ?form critical? method for the Gospels, although in applying it to Acts he called it ?style criticism? because the structure of Acts was dissimilar to that of the Synoptics. In using this approach, Dibelius called for an end to ?one-sided interpretation, which only inquired about the historical reliability of the material.?
Dibelius concluded that Luke did not adequately understand the early development of the church. So he interposed general summaries between various scenes and narratives that link them together. In this way individual events become examples of something mentioned in a general summary. For example, the sale of possessions in 4:32-35 leads on to the story of Ananias and Sapphira. As a historian in the ancient rather than the modern sense, Luke omits, alters or generalizes what really happened. For example, referring to the community of goods mentioned in the summaries, Dibelius noted that ?in order to bring out the communal ideal . . . , [Luke] overdoes the communism.? Dibelius did not express interest in the historical or sociological possibility of a community of goods.
In his massive commentary The Acts of the Apostles, Ernst Haenchen systematically applied Dibelius’s method to the whole of Acts. The writer of Acts’who, he argued, lived toward the end of the first century and thus cannot be Paul’s companion Luke’read his own Gentile Christian theology back into the earliest days of the Church. Haenchen noted that Acts 4:34 has in view the Old Testament text of Deuteronomy 15:4 (that there be no needy persons in the community). But because Luke’s language also reflects Greek utopian phrasing about ?friends having everything in common,? Haenchen concluded that the writer is suggesting that the ?primitive Church also realized the Greek communal ideal.? Luke probably generalized verses 34-35 from the examples of Barnabas and Ananias and Sapphira. ?In reality, no doubt, the good deed of Barnabas only survived in memory because it was something out of the ordinary, not the rule.? Though he did consider the possible connection between the Jerusalem community and the Essenes at Qumran, Haenchen ruled it out because only celibate monks could practice a total community of goods. For him, family life and monastic life are incompatible.
Haenchen believed the actual reality behind Luke’s idealizing generality was the Jerusalem community, a community always struggling in poverty from the beginning, but more affected by the deteriorating economic situation of Palestine through famine and political unrest. They were driven to help one another and to depend on sharing from other congregations in order to survive. In other words, Luke looks at a bad economic situation through rose-colored glasses and makes it sound like a Golden Age.
Haenchen did not connect the economics of Acts with the Gospel, and Jesus? teachings and practice of communal sharing do not figure in his understanding of the structure of the Jerusalem church. Nor does he seem aware of ancient Palestinian family life. Haenchen apparently knew nothing of contemporary Hutterites, who have lived as families in just such communities, or of the many types of intentional communities in the past and present who have arranged a common purse or intensive sharing. In general, his analysis seems far removed from the world of the economically and politically oppressed.
In 1954 Hans Conzelmann, also a German New Testament scholar, published an influential monograph on the theology of Luke-Acts. Conzelmann’s historical skepticism was even greater than that of Haenchen, and he attributed nearly the whole of Acts to the writer’s literary and theological motives. In his reading, the book was essentially a historical novel. Thus, the summaries in Acts should not be seen as historical reality but as a literary device. In Acts 2:42-47, the writer is clearly idealizing the original community and its sharing of property. This information was either handed on by tradition or was deduced through knowledge about communistic groups in the contemporary world’either actual, such as the Essenes, or idealized, such as the original community of Pythagoreans. ?Idealized communal portraits,? he argued
are associated with utopian dreams or accounts of primeval times . . . . Thus Luke’s portrayal should not be taken as historical . . . and we cannot speak of a ?failure of the experiment,? nor can we draw conclusions for a primitive Christian communistic ideal. . . . Furthermore, Luke does not present this way of life as a norm for the organization of the church in his own time. It is meant as an illustration of the uniqueness of the ideal earliest days of the movement.
The same criticisms of Haenchen may be applied to Conzelmann, though the latter’s dismissal of any historical reality behind the Lukan summaries seems even more presumptuous.
REACTIONS TO STYLE AND REDACTION CRITICISM
Evangelical Biblical Scholars.
Conzelmann’s interpretation proved far too radical for evangelical scholars, who defended Luke as a historian. I. Howard Marshall’s Acts commentary, published in 1980, reflects similar concerns as those of nineteenth-century exegetes. It is possible that in their first flush of religious enthusiasm, Marshall argues, the early believers may have had a total community of goods, influenced by some of Jesus? sayings and the contemporary Jewish Qumran sect. But Acts 4:34-5:11 demonstrates that the community may not have been so tightly knit, since the selling of possessions was entirely voluntary, and goods were held until needed.
F. F. Bruce concurs, although he does concede that Luke has idealized the scene somewhat. The tone of C. S. G. Williams’s commentary is more negative, also reminiscent of some nineteenth-century attitudes. The ?communism? described in Acts was totally different from the modern economic and political form. It was voluntary and unsuccessful, and ended with the widows? complaint in 6:1. Thus the community became impoverished and Paul felt it necessary to raise a collection. Donald Guthrie also distances these texts from modern communism. The sharing of property was entirely spontaneous, for material possessions were simply not important to these believers.
Generally, commentators who emphasize Luke as a historian seem concerned to explain ?what actually happened? in terms that reflect something less than a total property sharing, as something quite different from an economic system such as modern communism, and to stress that whatever sharing there was did not last long.
Redaction and Literary-Critical Studies on Community of Goods
The influence of Haenchen and Conzelmann on biblical studies, however, was considerable. By far the majority of contemporary scholars accepted the redaction-critical method and embarked upon the task of supporting, rejecting or modifying Conzelmann’s concept of Luke’s theology.
Luke Timothy Johnson and Gerhard A. Krodel are two recent commentators who accept his argument that Luke idealized the community of goods in Acts 2 and 4. Johnson’s interest in the theme of possessions dates to his doctoral dissertation in 1977. Both Luke’s Gospel and Acts, he observed, lay a strong stress on possessions (or the lack of them), and he asks about the literary symbolic meaning of possessions for Luke. Through a detailed exegesis, he concludes that:
Luke sees possessions as a primary symbol of human existence, an immediate exteriorization of and manifestation of the self. But . . . possessions do not merely express the inner condition of a man’s [sic] heart; they are also capable of expressing relations between persons and the play of power between persons. Indeed, . . . possessions are a sign of power.
In a later volume, Johnson popularized his conclusions and reflected on them theologically for the sake of the contemporary church. Possessions symbolize a person’s very self and speak to the human nature of acquisitiveness. The way we respond to other people and their needs is the way we respond to God. Yet the Bible does not consistently propose one model of sharing possessions that is eternally valid.
Johnson contrasts a communal lifestyle with Western society’s concept of private property and helping the needy through alms. Because of the terminology Luke used to describe the communalism of the Jerusalem community (?one heart and soul,? ?all things common’), Johnson associated this community of goods with Greek utopian thought that looked backwards to a primitive Golden Age and is unrepeatable later. Not unlike Brunner, he understood Luke’s description as an idealized picture ?against which later communities could measure themselves. Luke is not proposing this picture as a concrete example to be imitated.?
Johnson saw several problems with all attempts to establish a community of goods, from ?benign forms? found in monasteries and the Bruderhof movement to ?malignant forms? found in Jim Jones’s community in Guyana or in sixteenth-century Mnster. First, a community of goods will emphasize unity at the expense of individuality and diversity. Second, it will lead to strong social control and firm boundaries concerning who is in and who is out. Third, it will tend toward authoritarian structure.
Consequently, Johnson was much more favorable toward almsgiving, which he regarded as characteristic of ?normative? Judaism. Here there is no sense of ?making equal? but of caring and sharing so that the needs of the poor are met. However, this solution does nothing to deal with class structure and middle-class Christians? tendency to view the poor as ?the other.?
In his Acts commentaries in both the 1981 Proclamation series and the 1986 Augsburg series, Gerhard A. Krodel offered an argument very similar to that of Luke Johnson. The property sharing described in Acts is a highly idealized portrait that has no basis in history because of numerous inconsistencies between the summary statements and the rest of the narrative. For example, if no one called anything they possessed their own, how could they give alms? Yet almsgiving is a Lucan emphasis. The real reason for Luke’s positive picture is his concern about about the indifference of rich Christians in his own community; he wants them to find new ways to close the gap between rich and poor, ?so both can be ?one heart and one soul? (4:32). . . In Acts this ideal picture shows the direction for social responsibility rather than constituting a timeless directive.?
Since the 1970s, insights from the social sciences have begun to be applied to biblical studies, adjusting and refining the earlier interpretations of Kautsky and Case. The disciplines of social history, sociology and cultural anthropology shed light on human values and behaviors and socioeconomic structures in Palestine and Jerusalem during the first century. However, little has been done to propose a comprehensive model by which an actual community of goods might have reasonably existed as something more than an idealization on the writer’s part. Already in 1929, Joachim Jeremias had described social realia in Jerusalem zur Zeit Jesu but made no attempt to analyze these facts in social-scientific fashion. Philip Esler’s Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts contains extensive sections on table-fellowship and poverty and wealth, but Esler used a redactional approach that primarily asks what there was about economic disparities in Luke’s community that would lead him to idealize ?the social welfare arrangements in the early Christian community in Jerusalem.? A number of essays in The Social World of Luke-Acts deal with issues related to the Acts summaries in Chapters 2 and 4, but the authors are not exegeting particular texts. Brian Capper’s essay ?The Palestinian Cultural Context of Earliest Christian Community of Goods’?published in the ambitious six-volume series edited by Bruce Winter, The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting’comes somewhat closer. But Capper and the entire series lean more heavily on social history and archeology, so that the conceptual framework is predominantly historical rather than social-scientific. The essay that most directly addresses this issue is S. Scott Bartchy’s ?Community of Goods in Acts: Idealization or Social Reality’? which does draw on the work of social scientists for its analysis of the community of goods described in Acts summaries.
But Acts commentaries have been slow to pick up on these insights. C. K. Barrett’s 1994 International Critical Commentary on Acts includes a dense analysis, devoting eleven pages to Acts 2:41-47 alone. But his evidence is primarily linguistic, textual, historical and archeological. Luke Johnson’s 1992 commentary notes earlier uses of redactional and literary criticism but lacks social analysis. Richard Longenecker in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary series includes one sentence on socioeconomic factors’the situation of famine and political unrest gave the believers many opportunities for sharing. But Longenecker uses social history without benefit of social-scientific analysis. This led him to see these acts of sharing as both voluntary and extraordinary, done only in response to special needs within the community at that time. They ?were not meant to be normative for the church.?
The question that no commentary seems to deal with is: what socioeconomic system would have been normative for first-century Palestinian Christians? Against what cultural background does the Jerusalem community of goods stand? If Luke presents these events as unusual, how do they compare to the norms of first-century, agrarian culture? Without some grasp of ancient economic systems and social values, the tendency is always to evaluate the descriptions of the early Jerusalem community by the standards of one’s own culture.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
This history of scholarship on the community of goods in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37 has demonstrated not only a variety of views, but significant negative reaction and even hostility toward the intense communal sharing described in these texts. Few commentators except those from Anabaptist traditions respond positively toward these texts as a lifestyle that ought to be emulated in some way by Christians. Often the complaint of the widows in Acts 6:1 is used to show that the sharing of property did not work and was therefore discontinued. Not surprisingly, the social and political location of the commentators has contributed, such as those described below, to a general skepticism of communal sharing.
Union of Church and State
For many centuries, church and state were inseparable. This political arrangement has greatly affected Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed exegesis of these Acts texts. When everyone is a nominal Christian, a commitment to sharing wealth so that all have enough is impossible. Though many Catholic interpreters took the Jerusalem sharing literally and saw it as a model for later Christians, they believed it could only work with groups of unusually dedicated people’or at least, if dedication flagged, within a group governed by strict authority from the top down. Sharing of material possessions was only practicable among celibates or within the family, the latter conforming to the prevailing economic and social structures of its environment.
More openly hostile toward communal life were the Lutheran and Calvinist Reformations, who opposed both the corrupt monasteries and the social-order-threatening Anabaptists. Christian marriage was the ideal relationship, and the only one in which a sharing of property could occur. In spite of their reforms and high ideals, neither Luther nor Calvin could envision any political arrangement other than the unity of church and state. Almsgiving was encouraged, since it helped maintain the status quo and satisfied the demands of Christian charity.
Abstraction of Spiritual Qualities
Several commentators use the narrative descriptions of communal sharing from Acts and abstract from them spiritual qualities of unity, love and generosity. While this is not an inherently bad approach, it can downplay the concrete situation in the text and neutralize the demands it makes on the reader. The literal becomes figurative. Actual, physical actions of sharing are replaced by theoretical ideals and vague feelings of generosity, instead of grasping the integral relationship between the two. This tendency seems most evident in the later Luther, Calvin, Troeltsch, the neo-orthodox theologians and Luke Johnson. The effect of generalizing and abstracting the message lessens the ability of readers to know how to reconstruct the situation Luke is describing or to respond ethically in a concrete way.
Classism and Paternalism
How many commentators on Acts 2 and 4 have experienced poverty and the inconveniences, lack of opportunities and class discrimination that accompanies it? Most write out of a milieu in which capitalism is assumed and from which they have profited as members of a comfortable middle or upper-middle class. Sharing of goods and eating together does not sound attractive if it means giving up class privileges to throw in one’s lot with people of a lower social class. Few interpreters express much awareness of the economic and social milieu in first-century Palestine.
Although classist and paternalistic attitudes are expressed most egregiously by Stokes, the majority of other commentators betray an ?us-them? mentality by not recognizing their social location compared with that of the earliest Christians. Class distinctions must be maintained, however unconsciously, so the idea of giving up status and power through sharing possessions and meals with uneducated, uncouth, ignorant, lower-class persons cannot be tolerated.
Reactions against Communism
When materialist, atheist, communist philosophy developed into a political alternative for Western capitalism, and when the Jerusalem community in Acts was used as an example of a politico-economic proletarian movement, biblical interpreters of that age felt compelled to downplay the sharing of possessions stressed in these texts. The impulse was to reject these readings wholesale, thereby ignoring perceptive economic insights of writers like Kautsky or even divorcing Christian love from economic reflection altogether.
Up to the present, commentators have had a natural bias against koinonia partially because of the strong Western emphasis on capitalism and private property and because of the antipathy toward communism as it has been practiced until recently by the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China. Struggling with inadequate interpretations of communally oriented texts in Paul’s Thessalonian letters, Robert Jewett notes that standard commentaries:
reflect the hostility toward communalism in all its forms that is characteristic of European and American biblical scholarship. Arising from the struggle against various forms of sectarian communalism in the European Reformation, this hostility was reinforced by 20th-century atrocities in creating collective farms on the graves of peasant farmers and by enforcing industrial communism through Gulag Archipelagoes.
Historical Skepticism in Liberal Scholarship
The rise of ?higher criticism? of the Bible in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries produced skepticism about the historical accuracy of many aspects of the biblical writings. Questions concerning the authorship of Acts, the purpose of Acts and the author’s sources led some to doubt the historical accuracy of most or all of the early chapters of Acts. Influential scholars like Haenchen and Conzelmann focused on literary analyses of the text and doubted the existence of an actual community of goods among the Jerusalem Christians. Though a literary emphasis does not necessarily imply historical skepticism, they have been combined in the assumptions of some scholars.
Lack of Adequate Research Tools
The development of methods of source and form criticism during the twentieth century did lead to an intense interest in the social setting of various traditions that emerged in the biblical record. Some redaction critics also discuss the social circumstances of biblical authors. However, a comprehensive analysis of the relationship between the biblical texts and their social contexts has been slow in coming.
There are several reasons for this. First, biblical scholarship has until quite recently assumed that ideas are the determining factors in the historical process. Thus theological interests have tended to predominate; theology, then, is the real historical reality, while social and cultural data are helpful background but not essential for interpreting texts. A second assumption is the ?big man? view of history, focusing on individual geniuses (mostly male) who shape development, and underplaying circles and groups who transmitted and produced texts.
Third, historical criticism was successful in identifying facts but less insightful when it came to questions of ?why? or ?how.? How was ancient society organized? How were attitudes and values shaped by the natural and social environment? Such questions are especially missing in the discussion of the Acts community of goods. Commentators have not asked what other social and economic alternatives the Jerusalem believers might have had besides their community of goods. And if it did break down due to inefficiency, what system replaced it? Without a proper sociological imagination and tools, scholars fall back on theological and more abstract qualities of love, unity and generosity to explain what was happening in the Acts summaries.
A final reason for the pervasively negative attitude toward communalism is an inadequate exploration of the full range of meaning of the term. Many commentators assume an all-or-none attitude: a group shares everything in common’housing, clothing, food’but then must be celibate because of close daily contact. There is also confusion about the need for such a community to have the means of production as well as consumption in order to be practicable.
In point of fact, there are many methods of practicing communal sharing. Those who recognize the biases and limitations inherent in the above history of scholarship on communalism in the early chapters of Acts can begin to explore various ways in which believers have adapted Jesus? teaching and practice of community to many sociopolitical situations. One basic mode of sharing community, for example, is through regular communal meals. Some scholars make little or no connection between a community of goods and daily communal meals. Yet for a society with a subsistence economy, how food is obtained, shared and eaten becomes a very high priority. Moreover, the fact that the Lord’s Supper became the central rite of the Christian church needs to be linked to the early Christian practice of sharing meals together. These issues and connections need to be explored in order to better understand how the practices of the earliest Jerusalem community were perpetuated and enabled the church to grow rapidly during its first few centuries.
Today, capitalization, mass production, technology and globalization have made the world of American Christians very different from the world of our Palestinian forebears. Yet the enormous power of multinational corporations continues to concentrate more and more wealth in fewer and fewer hands, just as the Roman occupation and the collaboration of Jewish elites did in first-century Palestine. In our world, a billion people live on less than a dollar a day. Mennonites have some wonderful programs that help needy people get on their feet. The challenge, however, is to keep examining our own concepts of individualism and private property and our own lifestyles so that we can better absorb those with lower incomes in our communities and thus further develop Luke’s Jubilee vision that there be no needy among us.
. To compare the history of Eastern Orthodox, Coptic or African Christian interpretations with this survey would be fascinating but beyond the scope of this paper; my interest here is limited to the major interpretive influences upon American churches today.
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. John Cassian, Institutes 2.5; Conferences 18.5. In Cassian’s 18th Conference, he struggles with the problem that troubled the monastic movement for its first 200 years: whether living as a hermit was a higher way than living as a cenobite. In theory, Cassian accepted the common Egyptian view that the hermit life was superior, but in practice he discouraged monks who wanted to become hermits. He thought only perfect men should go into the wilderness, and he saw himself as only a beginner. Chadwick, 54.
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. Augustine, De Opere Monachorum 25. Also De Sancta Virginitate 45. See also Athanasius, De Vita Antonii 2; Jerome, Epistulae 58:4, 130:14; Regula Magistri 82:20-21, 87:14f; Benedict, Rule, ch. 33, 34, 57.
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. Preserved Smith, The Age of the Reformation (New York: Holt, 1920), 558-559; quoted in ?Introduction? to Martin Luther’s ?Ordinance of a Common Chest? (1523) in Luther’s Works, American Edition, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann, 53. The Christian in Society, 2nd ed. Walther I. Brandt (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1962), 161.
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. Martin Luther, ?Predigt am Mittwoch nach Pfingsten,? Juni 12 1538. Predigten des Jahres 1538. Martin Luther’s Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe. 46 Band. Herman Bhlaus: Weimar Nachfolger, 1912, 1967, 428-432.
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. The Acts of the Apostles 1-13, Calvin’s Commentaries. Trans. John W. Fraser and W.J.G. McDonald, eds. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (London: Oliver and Boyd, 1965), 87.
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. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, The Library of Christian Classics, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 21:1014-16.
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. Menno Simons, ?A Humble and Christian Justification and Replication,? The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, ed. John C. Wenger, trans. Leonard Verduin (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1956), 309.
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. Robert Friedman, ?Community of Goods,? The Mennonite Encyclopedia. eds. C. Henry Smith, Harold S. Bender, Cornelius Krahn, Melvin Gingerich (Scottdale, Pa.: Scottdale Publishing House, 1969, 1982), 658.
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. See esp. ?Part Three: Historical Case Studies,? in Building Communities of Compassion: Mennonite Mutual Aid in Theory and Practice, ed. Willard Swartley and Donald B. Kraybill (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1998), 103-70.
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. ?Many . . . utopian groups began in Europe and found they could not flourish there because of official harassment that lasted through the 19th century.??Robert Jewett, Paul the Apostle to America: Cultural Trends and Pauline Scholarship (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1994), 75.
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. Eduard Zeller, Die Apostlegeschichte nach ihrem Inhalt und Ursprung kritisch Untersucht (Berlin: Habel, 1854). ET: The Content and Origin of the Acts of the Apostles Critically Investigated, trans. Joseph Dare (Edinburgh: Williams and Norgate, 1875).
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. G. V. Lechler, The Acts of the Apostles, trans. from the German (New York: C. Scribner, 1871); Richard John Knowling, The Acts of the Apostles. Expositor’s Greek Testament, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1951; Edinburgh, n.p., 1900); Horatio B. Hackett, A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1882). Knowling’s commentary is especially strong on points of grammar and philology, as well as a careful consideration of the historical problems arising from the study of Acts. Knowling appears equally conversant with German and British scholarship.
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. Knowling is sympathetic to property sharing and ties it to Jesus? former practice, while emphatically denying any connection to the Essenes. Unlike many who assume this sharing was discontinued because the church was driven into poverty, Knowling thinks the poverty was more likely caused by famine and persecution.?Knowling, The Acts of the Apostles, 101-102.
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. Among the most extreme were the German Bruno Bauer, applying his methods to Acts in the monograph Die Apostelgeschichte. Eine Ausgleichung des Paulinismus und des Judenthums innerhalb der christlichen Kirche (Berlin, 1850). See also Gasque, ?The Radical Descendants of the Tbingen School,? which includes A. Pierson, S. A. Naber, A. D. Loman and its leading representative, Willem Christiaan van Manen.
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. Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, trans. Olive Wyon (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd; New York: Macmillan, 1931, 1949, 1950; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992). It was first translated into English in 1931 and has been reprinted as recently as 1992, demonstrating that Troeltsch’s ideas are still attracting serious attention.
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. H.-D. Wendland echoes similar sentiments in Ethik des Neuen Testaments (Gttingen: Vanden Hoeck Ruprecht,1970), 38; noted in Kraus, ?Aktualitt des ?Urchristlichen Kommunismus’?? 314-15.
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. It is true that some effort was made to develop sociological methods of biblical study. Rudolph Bultmann, a great pioneer of form criticism, understood that he was dealing with popular traditions from the lower strata of society. Ironically, however, he forsook this method in favor of a ?demythologizing? program in order to make Christianity palatable to the modern scientific mind. Rudolph Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, trans. John Marsh (N.Y.: Harper & Row, 1963), 3-4; (German edition 1921).
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. Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation: Dogmatics, vol. I, trans. David Cairns with T. H. L. Parker (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), 33; (German edition 1960).
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. Henry J. Cadbury, ?The Summaries in Acts,? The Beginnings of Christianity. Part I. The Acts of the Apostles, eds. Frederick J. Foakes-Jackson and Kirsopp Lake. Additional Notes to the Commentary, eds. Kirsopp Lake and Henry J. Cadbury, vol. 5 (1933; all volumes reprinted Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1966), 392-402.
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. Martin Dibelius, ?Stilkritisches zur Apostelgeschichte,? Eucharisterion fr H. Gunkel (Gttingen, 1923); ET: ?Style Criticism of the Book of Acts,? Studies in the Acts of the Apostles, ed. Heinrich Greeven (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1956, 1973), 1-25.
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. Dibelius, ?Zur Formgeschichte des Neuen Testaments? Theologische Rundschau, New Series 3 (1931), 207-42; 211. Quoted in Ernst Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary, trans. from 14th German edition (1965) by Bernard Noble, Gerald Shinn, Hugh Anderson, R. McL. Wilson (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971), 35.
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. Other commentators also say nothing about Lucan idealizing or redactional emphases. R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles (Columbus, Ohio: Wartburg Press, 1944), 118-119?This arrangement was not ?communism,? but voluntary. Many Diaspora Jews were now living in Jerusalem and living off their wealth, which they shared as a revival of the old Mosaic law. G. H. C. MacGregor, The Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1954), 50, 73?Communalism was a continuation of Jesus? practice. But it broke down because of dissension between Hebrews and Hellenists and the administrators were driven from the city. William Neil, Acts of the Apostles. New Century Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans,1973), 80-81?Sharing was voluntary and involved practical sharing of personal possessions. The property was held in trust for whenever need arose. Even so, it was an unrepeatable standard and was only instituted in Jerusalem because of the expectation of the imminent Parousia.
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. Luke T. Johnson, ?Sharing Possessions: Mandate and Symbol of Faith,? eds. Walter Brueggemann and John R. Donahue, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981).
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. The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina Series, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, S. J., vol. 5 (Collegeville, Minn.: Michael Glazier, 1992). Johnson’s recent commentary on Acts continues to emphasize Luke’s literary idealization of the first Christian community.
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. Philip Esler, Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts (New York: Cambridge, 1987). One could argue that many social realities of Luke’s day would be similar to those of the thirties in Jerusalem, but Esler does not discuss this. Nor does he make any connection between issues of wealth and poverty with communal meals.
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. In The Future of Early Christianity, ed. Birger A. Pearson (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 309-18. Bartchy’s commentary on Acts in the Word series is forthcoming and can be expected to include social-scientific analysis.
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. Ibid., 12-13.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Christian Attitudes Toward Community of Goods
*Reta Halteman Finger is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Messiah College, Grantham, Pennsylvania.
MQR 78 (April 2004)