Were the First Christians Socialists?

Now that Bernie Sanders has made socialism cool again, were the early church socialists?

We have to ask because of those famous passages in Acts 2.44-45 and 4.32-35 about the believers selling their property and depositing the proceeds in a general fund, and quite understandably, people have touted the first Christians as proto-socialists. On the one hand, this has some traction since the Lucan Jesus always sides with the ‘poor’ and frequently condemns the rich (e.g. Lk 16.19-31 on the Rich man and Lazarus). Plus Luke describes how in the church there was ‘no needy persons among them’ (Acts 4.34) which itself is a rehash of the Law of Moses which commanded that the covenant community be one where there were no persons in need (Dt 15.4). It helps as well if we remember that another Jewish sect, the Essenes, appear to have practiced pooling wealth and possessions (CD 14.13; Philo, Quod Omnis Probus, 76-77, 85-87; Hypothetica 11.4-13; Josephus, Ant. 18.20-22; War 2.122-27) and even Roman authors like Seneca idealized a past when ‘you could not find a single pauper’ (Ep. 90.38). So it makes sense that the early church, thinking of itself as the vanguard of a renewed Israel, believed that it was called to a particular form of covenant community justice where wealth was shared and no-one was left to fend for themselves (see also Gal 2.10; 2 Cor 8.13-15; Jas 1.26-2.7). What is more, this sort of thing was necessary if the church, made up mainly of Galileans, was to sustain itself in Jerusalem, it would need an economic support for its leaders and care for the vulnerable in its ranks.

As to whether this is ‘socialism,’ well, technically no. I don’t think Peter or John were interested in getting the state to regulate the means of production when it came to the amount of olives, wheat, and grapes that were harvested; with the state also controlling the distribution of these goods by selling them at a fixed price at specified times of the year. In addition there is no indication that disciples were expected to give up all private property. The donation of goods was voluntary (see Acts 5.4) and it seems that people kept some property, otherwise, they would have nowhere to live and nowhere to meet (see Acts 12.12-13)!

So, no, not socialists, but probably generous in a way that would put most of us to shame.

See further:

Hays, Christopher 2010. Luke’s Wealth Ethics: A Study in Their Coherence and Character. WUNT 2.275; Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck.

Walton, Steve. 2008. ‘Primitive Communism in Acts? Does Acts Present the Community of Goods (2:44-45; 4:32-35) as Mistaken?’ EQ 80: 99-111.