Sunday, 22 May 2016

The Community of Goods

I've been doing some work on the community of goods as of late. The term "community of goods," for those unaware, refers to the configuration of the Jerusalem community described in Acts 2:44-45 and Acts 4:32-4:35 (and provided with exemplary narratives in 4:36-5:11). In this configuration, we are told, there was an effort to alleviate poverty within the community via the redistribution of wealth. This was accomplished via the liquidation of capital assets and the distribution of the funds thus generations. My interest lies in considering what insight it might give us into the earliest configuration of the Jerusalem community. As is typical of my interests these days, it is not an end on to itself, but is subordinated to my work as a chronologist (a wonderful yet obscure word that perfectly sums up my current research focus). I want to know not just about the early configuration of the Jerusalem community but also to situate that configuration as precisely in time as possible.

One thing that I come across at times is the claim that the community of goods is a Lukan fiction. The argument goes something like this: Acts is presenting the early community as ideal, and this ideal fully effaces any past reality. Frankly, I don't think that this works. First, the argument is a non sequitur. An idealized presentation of the past does not necessarily fully efface the reality of the past. Second, I'm not convinced that Acts in fact presents the early community as ideal. Acts certainly seems to think highly of the community (cf. 2:44 and 4:32 in particular), but it also does not hesitate to note its deficiencies (cf. 5:1-11, 6:1-6). At what point point does a deficient ideal cease being an ideal at all? Third, if this ideal is so strong that it effaces reality in the description of the Jerusalem church in its earliest state then why is there no hint of this ideal later in Acts? Why does Acts not make any effort to integrate this ideal into his discussions of the Antiochene or Ephesian or Corinthian or any other church that he describes? Either the past is sufficiently strong that it can overcome the ideal in these later parts of the work, or the ideal and the past are not in fact locked in conflict at all. Fourth, the account really isn't that extraordinary. The utopian community that fails to sustain itself in the long-term is a recurrent phenomenon in the histories of religion and politics, and the idea that a relatively small group of people might engage in some efforts to alleviate poverty in their midst does not seem particularly implausible. Given that this argument against the occurrence of the community of goods is a non sequitur, the fact that it probably overstates the degree to which the accounts aim to present an ideal, and the fact that our descriptions of the community are far from implausible, I'm generally happy to conclude that probably was some effort in the early Jerusalem community to alleviate poverty via the redistribution of wealth.

So, now the chronologist steps in. I ask: when did this effort take place? Acts gives me some clues. Luke presents the origins of the community of goods as a product of the outreach that occurred at Pentecost, several weeks after Jesus was crucified (cf. Acts 2). I don't know exactly what happened at that first Pentecost, but it also doesn't matter. What matters most is what it tells us about Luke's awareness about the Christian past. Again, there is nothing particularly improbable about the idea that there was an early expansion of the church. The church had to begin expanding at some point, and there's no reason to think that this expansion was a latter-day event. Returning though to the community of goods, I'm not sure that we should place its origin here or rather in Jesus's ministry. There is some indication of a common purse shared by Jesus and his inner circle and used to aid the poor (cf. John 12:6), and given that the members of this inner circle seem largely to have abandoned their trade its not impossible to imagine that this purse was generated by the sale of capital, such as described in Acts 2:45 and 4:35. What we might be seeing in post-crucifixion period is not the establishment but rather the expansion of the community of goods.

In any case, it is notable that Luke situates all reference to this effort before the Pauline persecution that he reports in Acts 8:1b-3 and 9:1-2 (and yes, I am aware that there are arguments that the Pauline persecution reported in Acts is also fiction. Let it suffice to say that these arguments strike me as spurious, but that's a discussion for another day). I'm generally inclined to follow Riesner and Jewett and date Paul's conversion to c. eighteen months after Jesus' death. Dating the crucifixion to 30, Riesner then dates the conversion to around October of 31; dating the crucifixion to 33, Jewett opts for October of 34. Although I'm inclined towards 30 for the crucifixion, it's a difference that makes no difference for the present discussion. The more important matter is that the community of goods disappears from our narrative after the report of an event that occurs around a-year-and-half after Jesus died.

This timing is interesting, and it allows us to venture a hypothesis regarding the temporal limits as well as the causes of the dissolution of the community of goods. Acts 8:1 reports that the Jerusalem community was scattered abroad throughout Judea and Samaria, 9:1 intimates that some fled also to Damascus, and 11:19 tells us that they actually went much farther afield than that. Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch are singled out in 11:19, but that appears to be primarily for narrative purposes. He is signalling a shift in the narrative towards these regions. Given such, there is no reason to think that he is enumerating every place in which members of the community sought refuge. Cumulatively however the important point is that there is a retrospective memory that members of the community were scattered far from Jerusalem. One imagines that as they received word that the persecution had abetted some might have returned, but presumably not all. Many instead appear to have taken it upon themselves to found communities in the new locales in which they found themselves (I say "new," but we can hardly rule out that in many cases these might well have been Diaspora Jews resident in Jerusalem who returned to their home countries and towns).

This all leads me to venture the following narrative. During Jesus's lifetime his inner circle was funded by a common purse which was also used to aid the poor. Following his death in April of 30 (less probably, 33) and an initial flush of demographic expansion his followers sought to maintain this common purse and the aid that it provided. This was not without difficulty. They pursued what was in fact probably not a viable model in the long-term: the liquidation of capital resources is a tenuous means by which to fund any enterprise. There were internal tensions: people holding back funds, people feeling that they were not receiving their fair share. The configuration was inherently fragile, and thus when an external blow came in the form of persecution it simply collapsed. This is perhaps part of the reason why by the mid-50s there were already two collections for the believers in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 11:29-30, Romans 15:25-31; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8-9): their social safety net, always precarious, never recovered. (Is this part of why Paul was so determined to aid the poor in Jerusalem? Perhaps, cognizant of his own role in disrupting that social safety net, he felt a particular obligation to assist them in their need. There's no positive evidence to suggest that this was the case, but if indeed Paul both destroyed the Jerusalem community's initial social safety net and then was instrumental in establishing for them a new one via the collections then the coincidence is tantalizing).

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