The Community of Goods among the First Christians and among the Essenes

Justin Taylor, S.M.

The community of life and goods in the early church, as portrayed in the New Testament book called the Acts of the Apostles, is a topic which has attracted commentary, mostly edifying, throughout the ages. In more recent times, critical attention has been drawn especially to the summaries Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32-35 and to the narratives concerning Barnabas (4:36-37) and Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11). I believe that much light is thrown on these texts by certain passages in the Qumran documents, as well as i n the descriptions of the Essenes given by Philo and Josephus. The first point to make concerning the texts of Acts, is that it is not necessary to assume that all do, or were intended to, refer to one and the same practice.

1. The first summary, 2:44-45. I refer you to the Appendix, where you will find, in Greek and English, both the standard Alexandrian Text of this passage, and also the Western Text form as it has been reconstituted by M.-É. Boismard and A. Lamouille.[1] It is part of the working hypothesis that the WT is, on the whole, prior to the Alexandrian Text, which represents a revision.

a) In v. 44, the WT reads literally: "And all those believing were ejpi; to; aujtov”. This Greek expression is used frequently in the LXX to translate the Hebrew djy and wdjy. I do not need to remind you of the special, quasi-technical significance that djy has in the Qumran literature. It has been pointed out that the expression "to be to the djy” is used in 1 QS 5:2 in the sense of "to belong to the community".[2] If this expression underlies the Greek h\san ejpi; to; aujtov, the opening words of this verse, in the WT, might be translated: "All the believers belonged to the community".[3] This emphasis on a radical community of life in the primitive text of 2:44 is matched by the statement that "they had all things in common" (ei[con a{panta koinav), which deserves to be taken in its literal sense.[4] Living together, they pooled all their resources. The Qumran Community Rule lays particular stress on forming a community not only of life but also of possessions (1 QS 1:11f. and 5:2). V. 45 (WT) goes on to describe what this community of goods meant in practice: "as many as had properties or possessions used to sell and they used to divide them among those who had need".[5 ] The subject of the first verb (ejpivpraskon) is, those of the believers who had properties or possessions. It is not said when they used to sell their goods, but, if we suppose that "all the believers" lived together and had all things in common, then we must suppose that this was done on entering the community.[6] The two Greek words standing for the goods which were sold are kthvmata and uJpavrxei". Both can mean generally "possessions", but each has a more precise meaning. The former, cognate with the verb ktavomai, meaning to "obtain (for oneself) ", frequently refers specifically to real estate, so farms, houses: in 5:1 Ananias sells a kth`ma, which, in the following verse is referred to as a cwrivon or "farm". The second expression, cognate with the verb uJpavrcw, in its sense of & #147;belonging to", can mean precisely "chattels". The intention is thus to emphasize that all possessions of all kinds were sold. Such an intention would support the interpretation that this passage describes a radical self-divestment of property, rather than the sale of a piece from time to time. There is no expressed subject for the second verb (diemevrizon). Commentators have supposed that it is the same as for the first verb, so that those who sold their goods also divided the proceeds, whereas in the parallel in 4:34b-35, they brought the prices obtained and laid them at the feet of the apostles, who then redistributed them. However, there is no necessity to carry the subject of the first verb over to the second; grammatically, the second subject can just as well be an indefinite "they used to divide". This possibility becomes a probability when we consider a problem which seems to have escaped the notice of most commentators, namely the referent of the pronoun "them" (aujtav) which is the object of the second verb: what precisely did "they" divide? The nearest substantives are "properties or possessions" (kthvmata h] uJpavrxei"), which could, grammatically, be referred to by a pronoun in the neuter plural. But the sense is not good, as these properties and possessions have been sold and cannot properly be said then to be divided.[7] Perhaps the author means to refer to the proceeds of the sale, but then he could have been expected to use a clearer expression, such as the ta;" timav" of 4:34. Both grammar and good sense are saved if we take aujtav as referring to the earlier expression in the neuter plural: "(all things) common" (a{panta koinav). In that case, "they" - and probably not those who had s old their properties or possessions - divided out the common goods of the community among those who had need. The apostles are not named and should not be "read into" the text. On the other hand, it is reasonable to think that the community had a recognized way of distributing its goods to those who had need. Codex Bezae (D) reads: "and they used to divide them every day (kaq j hJmevran) ...", whereas most other witnesses have this expression in the following verse. Since Codex Bezae is here supported by the Old Latin (it) and two patristic witnesses, Speculum and Pseudo-Augustinus, the question arises whether this may not be the original WT (although it is not accepted as such by Boismard-Lamouille). It does at least correspond to the "daily distribution", mentioned in Acts 6:1, in which, or so complained the Hellenists, their widows were neglected.

b) The AT of v. 44a differs in two respects from the corresponding WT. First, instead of the present participle of "believe" (pisteuvonte"), with its emphasis on the continuing state of the believers, it has the aorist participle (pisteuvsante") , which is found also in 4:32 and emphasizes rather the act by which they became believers, that is to say, came into the community of believers. Secondly, it omits the verb "were", which means that the adverbial expression ejpi; to; aujtov must be read as qualifying either the immediately preceding participle or the following verb "had (all things common)". It is likely that the change is intended to modify subtly the sense of the adverb so that it now implies that the believers were morally "at one" in believing or in having all things common, therefore close to the "one in heart and mind" of 4:32. At the end of v. 45 there is a further notable difference between the WT and the AT. The former tells us that the goods were divided "to those having need", whereas the AT has: "to all accordingly as any had need." This reading represents a harmonization on 4:35 ("to each accordingly ..."). It is less certain, however, that the WT means that the goods were distributed to "the needy" in general, and rather outside than inside the community, whereas 4:35 (and the AT o f 2:45) refer to the sustenance of needy members of the group itself. The expression of the WT is less precise but can still be perfectly well taken as referring, at least principally, to those within the community who were in need.

c) Although our passage is brief and does not go into many details, it seems, especially when read according to the WT, to describe a radical form of common life and property which resembles that reported of the Essenes by Josephus (J.W. 2.8.3 (section)12 2): "Riches they despise, and their community of goods (koinwvnikon) is truly admirable; you will not find one among them with greater property (kthvsei) than others. They have a law that new members on admission to the sect shall hand over their sub stance (oujsivan) to the order, with the result that you will nowhere see either abject poverty or inordinate wealth; the individual's possessions (kthmavtwn) joins the single substance (oujsivan) which belongs to all as brothers." The Qumran Community Rule (1 QS 6:13-22) specifies that, at the end of one year of probation of a candidate, "his property (wnwh) and his earnings (wtkalm)" are to be handed over to the one in charge but not amalgamated with the goods of the community until the successful completion of a second year of probation. Here we notice the use of two words for property, as in Acts 2:45, no doubt with a similar intention of indicating that every kind was to be brought into the community.

2. The second summary, 4:32-35[8] The second summary on community of life and goods presents itself as a companion to and even as a repetition of 2:44-45, an impression reinforced, as we have seen, by the harmonization of the conclusion of 2:45 (AT) on that of 4:35. In fact, although it repeats and transposes the themes of the earlier passage, it implies a different form of life and of the sharing of material resources, as we shall now see in detail.

a) V. 32 begins with the statement that "The company of those who had become believers had one heart and soul". Here the Greek word to; plh`qo" should indeed be translated as company, implying a group that is not simply an indeterminate "crowd", but constituted and of limited membership, if not in number at least by qualification (here, those who had become believers), and capable of acting and deciding. Once again, there is a correspondence with the vocabulary of the Qumran documents, this time with bwr. On the other hand, to describe them as having "one heart and soul" introduces a different emphasis from that of the earlier passage, where "those believing" were "together". We are dealing here with a company which, though striving for unity of heart and mind - we so interpret the Lucan hyperbole - did not practise strict community of life. The WT insists, however, on the unity of the believers, by adding: "and there was no separation among them” ;. The remark is interesting, and capable of more than one interpretation. The D text uses the Greek word diavkrisi", which would suggest internal dissension; the WT restored by Boismard-Lamouille from other witnesses has cwrismov", suggesting rather departure from the group. On the other hand, Luke does not omit to report certain dissensions within the community itself, notably the "murmuring" of the Hellenists against the Hebrews in 6:1, even though they are generally settled amicably.[9] The expressions "heart" and "soul" are frequently juxtaposed in the Old Testament, especially in the familiar commandment of Deuteronomy 6:5 (see also Deut 10:12; 11:13; 13:4; 26:16; 30:2,6,10 etc). Unity or singleness of heart represents human integrity, and the prophets promise in the name of God that, when the people return to the Lord, he will give them "a single heart and a single way of life" (Jer 32:39), "a single heart and a new spirit" (Ez 11:19). Singleness of heart can also, of course, represent unanimity. It occurs in this sense in 1 Chron 12:39, where all Israel is "one heart" in wanting to make David king. The Septuagint translates this expression as "one soul". The latter expression is found also in Greek literature.[10] Another "tag" from Greek literature is to be found at the end of the same v. 32, where we read that the company of those who had become believers had "all things common" (pavnta koinav). This was also a maxim about friendship, attributed to Pythagoras. It too became a commonplace in Hellenistic thinking and writing.[11] Already in 2:44 we were told that the believers "had all things common". There, as we have argued, the expression should be taken as referring to a strict sharing of goods by the pooling of resources by those who lived together. Here, however, it seems to refer to a different practice of community of goods, consonant with a way of life in which those concerned are not "together" but cultivate "unity of heart and soul". The meaning of the expression "all things common" in Acts 4:32 is indicated by the explanatory phrase: "and they did not say that any of their belongings (uJparcovntwn) was their own private property (i[dion)".[ 12] This would mean in practice that, among the believers, as among true friends, the possessions of any one were at the disposition of all. The text implies that those concerned retained their possessions, but they were pre pared to make them available to other members of the community.[13]

b) V. 34 tells us that "there was no one needy among them" (cf. Deut 15:4). The rest of this verse and the following explain how the community ensured that none of its members was in want. Those who were "possessors of farms (cwriva) or houses" (the WT has only houses) used to sell them and bring (pwlou`nte" e[feron) the prices (of what they had sold, adds the AT) and "lay them at the feet of the apostles".[14] A distribution was then made (diedivdeto), no doubt by the apostles, "to each as anyone might have need". In other words, there was a common fund, administered by "the apostles", which was intended to meet the needs of those members who would otherwise be in want. It is implicit in this description that members normally supported themselves - it was not the case that all lived off the resources of the community. According to our text, the common fund was maintained by the proceeds of the sale of property belonging to members of the group. Such persons did not divest themselves of it on entering the group, but were prepared to sell property from time to time - the force of the imperfect tenses here - for the benefit of the community's fund, and so of needy members. That not all did so is apparent elsewhere in Acts (cf. 12:12; 21:16). We may even question how many property-owners sold their possessions for the benefit of the community. Luke implies that it was the usual practice, but we may detect here a generalizing and idealizing touch; in any case, in the examples which follow from outside the New Testament, contributions to the common fund are expected to be made out of income or earnings, rather than from capital.

c) With our text from Acts we can compare a passage from the "Damascus Document": "And this is the rule of the Many, to provide for all their needs: the salary of two days each month at least. They (the members) shall place it in the hand o f the Inspector (Mebaqqer) and of the judges. From it they (the Inspector and the judges) shall give to the orphans and with it they shall strengthen the hand of the needy and the poor, and to the elder who is [dy]ing, and to the vagabond,[15] and to the prisoner of a foreign people, and to the girl who has no protector, and to the unma[rried woman] who has no suitor; and for all the works of the company ..." (14:11b-16). Although the group for whom the regulations of CD are intended is clearly of Essene type, it does not appear to practise the strict community of life and goods prescribed by 1 QS: the members in receipt of a salary apparently keep most of it to live off; the same document elsewhere (13:15f.) seems to suppose that members had property of their own, but prescribes that "no one should make a deed of purchase or sale without informing the Inspector of the camp ...". In fact, the Damascus Document criticizes excessive or unjustified wealth (CD 6:15; 8:5; 19:17). The Essenes of whom Philo writes[16] seem to have practised a form of community of goods somewhere in between that envisaged by the Qumran Community Rule and that envisaged by the Damascus Document. T his makes a distinction between patrimony or capital and income. They kept property which they already possessed, but its use and usufruct were ceded to the community: "No-one dares to acquire anything in absolute private property (i[dion ... to; par avpan), neither house, nor slave, nor land, nor flocks, and equally equipment (paraskeuaiv) and supplies of wealth; but they put all these things together in common and reap the common profit of all" (apud Eusebius, Praep. evang. 8.11.4). They earn t heir living as farmers, herdsmen, artisans (8.11.8-9). They bring their wages and give them "to the one treasurer who has been appointed"; each one then receives in return what he needs in order to live (8.11.10). Here, however, strict community of life is practised, in the form of a common table and even a common supply of clothes (8.11.11-12). The description of Acts 4:32,34-35 does not conform exactly to any of the forms of community of goods attributed to the Essenes. It also leaves us wishing for more information on a number of important points, for instance, whether the members pooled their incomes; perhaps Luke had none, or perhaps he was more impressed by the apparently extraordinary generosity of those who surrendered their real property to the community. On the other hand, as in the case of Acts 2:44-45, it is easy enough to recognize characteristic features of Essene type. They at least suggest that there is no good reason for excluding a priori the historical value of our texts.[17]

3. Barnabas, 4:36-37. The second summary is followed by two narratives which are generally taken to provide a "positive" and a "negative" example of the community of goods described in 4:32,34-35. That may well have been Luke's intention; the narrative s in question are not, however, without difficulties. The first, 4:36f., introduces the person known as Barnabas, who is to play a significant role in Acts (see 9:27; 11:22,30; 12,25; ch. 13-15) and is mentioned also in 1 Cor 9:6, Gal 2:1-13 and Col. 4:10. Attention in these latter texts is focused on his relations with Paul. Here we are told something of himself and his origins and learn that he sold a "field" (ajgrov") - perhaps in Cyprus - and laid the price (crh`ma) at the feet of the apostles. This information is couched in terms practically identical with those of v. 35. Commentators generally admit, however, that it is derived from pre-Lucan tradition. The very fact that Barnabas' action is recorded in Acts could imply that it was rare. So think many exegetes, and in fact, we have already seen that the practice of selling land for the benefit of the community's welfare fund was probably not as common as Luke's formulation would suggest. On the other hand, in view of Barnabas' importance later in Acts, Luke has a sufficient reason for recording the fact here that he was one of those who sold land and gave the proceeds to the community.[18]

5. Ananias and Sapphira, 5:1-11. After the exemplary story of the "good" Barnabas comes the cautionary tale of the "bad" Ananias and Sapphira and their sad end. Or so we might suppose. But there is a problem with Acts 5:1-11, even on this level of a "negative 8; text corresponding to 4:36f. For, after the story of someone who sells his land for the benefit of the community, we might expect one about someone who refuses to do so. But - and this is not the least difficulty with our text - Ananias (with the consent of his wife) sells his "land" (kth`ma) for the benefit of the community. So what is the nature of his fault? Most readers of Acts, however, are troubled rather by the punishment inflicted on the guilty pair, with no mercy and allowing no time to repent.

a) V. 1 tells us that Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of land. Acts twice mentions that Sapphira co-operated with her husband, here in the sale of the land and, in the next verse, in keeping back part of the sum realized by the sale . Her collaboration was not simply moral but also legal, and necessarily so, as she would have had a vested interest in her husband's property, part of which would have been secured on her by her marriage contract.[19] V. 2 contains the heart of the problem: "Ananias - with the consent also of his wife - embezzled some of the price and bringing a part laid it at the feet of the apostles". The Greek word translated here as "embezzled", which is repeated by Peter in v. 3, is ejnosfivsato. In Hellenistic Greek the word nosfivzw occurs "not infrequently" and implies: a) that the theft was secret, b) that the object stolen was part of a larger sum, and c) usually, that the property stolen had be en entrusted to the thief for safe-keeping and good management, so, typically, the property of a minor embezzled by a guardian, royal funds embezzled by ministers or agents or public funds by state officials, sacred vessels by the high priest, public trust funds by the trustees, the spoils of war.[20] All commentators point out that the same word is used also in Josh 7:1-26 LXX of Achan, who took some of the spoils of Jericho which had been vowed to the Lord, that is to destruction, and so brought a curse on the Israelites, which was lifted only when t he culprit was discovered and stoned to death. The parallel between Ananias and Achan is, however, far from perfect. Not only is Ananias punished directly by God, but, even more important, the two crimes are not at all the same. Achan took something of what had never been his, and which already belonged to the Lord. On the other hand, as Peter makes clear in v. 4, the land belonged to Ananias, and even after he had sold it, the money obtained was still his. How can he be said to have "embezzled" part of the price? Peter in vv. 3-4 accuses Ananias of "deceiving the Holy Spirit" and of "lying not to men but to God"; in v. 8 he asks Sapphira if she and her husband had received "this amount" for the land, and on receiving an affirmative answer, accuses them of "putting the Spirit of the Lord to the test". Commentators therefore generally infer - for it is never clearly stated - that the crime of Ananias and Sapphira consisted in making a false declaration concerning the amount they had received for the sale of their land, pretending that the amount laid "at the feet of the apostles" was the whole sum, whereas it was only a part. Their motive may have been to get the glory of having given all. So their crime was not then theft or embezzlement, since they had a perfect right to keep their own property, but rather one of lying. It is all very confusing, and their punishment seems all the more disproportionate.

b) So we are looking for a situation where property initially belongs to an individual, who has full rights over it, including the price obtained for its sale, but which then becomes in full the property of the community, in such a way that the previous owner has no right to retain any of it. This situation would fit that of a candidate for a community of Essene type living under the system of strict community of goods prescribed by the Qumran Community Rule and described by Josephus in his report on the Essenes. According to this system, as we have seen, those joining the group handed over their property, of whatever sort; it would be returned to them if they left during the probationary period, but on their final aggregation, it became part of the property of the community. They would be expected to transfer all of their assets, even though they could withdraw them and depart up till the time of final acceptance. So a candidate who presented part of his property while declaring that it was the whole, would be embezzling the community which had acquired provisional rights to the whole property, as well as making a false declaration. It seems reasonable to think that Ananias, with the consent of his wife, made such a provisional transfer of their assets to the community on entering the probationary process, but kept back part, although they were obliged to hand over all and declared t hat they were doing so.[21] Their story should therefore be associated, not with the second summary describing a modified community of goods, but with the first summary, 2:44-45, which describes a strict community of goods, resembling that of the Essenes and the Qumran group.