Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Communist Kristianoi

One of the most common complaints among Christians throughout history is that their present-day churches do not resemble the peaceable, loving and communitarian assembly of believers in the New Testament book of Acts. This is particularly true when it comes to money.

We are most of us familiar with at least the general picture painted in Acts 2:41-47 and  4:34-37 and other passages.

We are told of the 3,000 converts baptized after Peter's speech in Jerusalem. We learn that the believers held "all things in common" to the point of selling their possessions and handing over the proceeds to the apostles for the community as a whole.


Before we get too misty-eyed, let's bear in mind a few important background facts about the story. These accounts are about the very early Christian community, meaning the groups that started roughly 33-35 in Jerusalem and spread out through the Roman world by the time of Nero's burning of Rome in 64, in the aftermath of which both apostles Peter and Paul were executed.

Acts is not a first-hand eyewitness account. No one who had been at the events in Acts referenced above would have written about baptizing 3,000 people on the spot by immersion, as was the Christian practice borrowed from John the Baptizer for centuries. Jerusalem simply had no publicly available bodies of water capable of such an undertaking.

Instead, we are before a stylized and idealized account of  communities—as recalled by believers who lived at some point in the following 30 years.

Moreover, we are in the presence of accounts collected after Jerusalem was laid waste in the year 70—the current consensus for the year of composition of Acts ranges between the year 90 to 110. The test points as author to Paul's disciple Luke, one of the four accepted evangelists in the NT, although very likely the actual writers were a group of scribes associated with him.

There is one commonality between Acts and Luke's gospel that tell us the purpose of the work: the purported reader of the text, Theophilus, to whom both works are addressed at the outset. The name is made up: Theo is Greek for God, philos means love. Luke and Acts are books for a "God lover."


All analysis notwithstanding, Acts does add to our understanding of the early Christians. 

Notably, there is the startling communism—I use the word advisedly—of the group. Consider the similarity between the words of Acts in 4:47 and those of none other than Karl Marx.

Acts tells us that Christians sold what they had, gave the proceeds to the apostles, who then "divided them to all, according as every one had need." In his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx proposed as a summary of his ideas the famous sentence "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."*

The description of Acts concerning this sharing of possessions is entirely plausible. The very early small Christian community in Jerusalem encompassed no more than 300 people all counted, before the conversions and missionary travels of Paul.

Some scholars argue that the communal society of Christians might have begun when the 3,000 converts—mostly out-of-town visitors—decided to stay in Jerusalem with the first Christians. First, the 300 had to sell their stuff just to feed these people who had left everything behind; then, perhaps later, among the 3,000 some sent messengers back home to dispose of their property and bring the money to the community.

There is no indication that everyone was obliged to sell all and share. Indeed, there is the incident with Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-10), who lied to the apostles about how much they had obtained from the sale of their goods, pocketing the difference.

Acts puts in Peter's mouth the following words: "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God." (Acts 5:4-5)

There is, however, the strong gospel message of self-giving to the stranger, to those who are weak and needy, as there are the blessings Jesus bestows upon the poor and the woes he heaps on the rich. They all speak of the Christian gospel's "preferential option for the poor," a phrase enunciated in 1979 by the Latin American bishops gathered at Puebla, Mexico.

As we have seen, Judaism already contained nearly everything Jesus preached, including love of neighbor and caring for the poor. Again and again, Jesus had said he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, to make the rule of God—often rendered as the "kingdom" of God—a real thing.

The inescapable biblical teaching concerning property is that everything belongs to God and is only on loan to human beings. The early small communities of Jesus followers had good reasons to adopt a radical obedience to God: there was the practical survival of the community, of course.

But beyond that, is it not possible that proximity to apostles who had known Jesus like you and I know our friends may have infused Christians with greater zeal than those who came two millennia later? Certainly, at every attempt to revive that early zeal, in medieval monascticism and in latter day communalism, there was always an effort to return to that golden age of complete, propertyless sharing told of in Acts.

* Marx was familiar with the New Testament and even wrote a student paper about St. Paul, thus the similarity between Gotha and Acts may not be wholly accidental.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

A Jewish Quarrel

The friends of Jesus, or friends of his friends, were originally a bit unconventional, disliked and regarded by various authorities of their time as troublemakers—but at first, quite possibly, they did not think they were starting a new religion.

In the first 30 to 40 years after Jesus' execution they must have run about like scared rabbits. There is little trace of them until the 60s and 70s of the first century.

Before that, they were trying to make sense of what had happened, why he had died and whether they had actually seen Jesus alive after death—if so, what that meant.

The Pentecost experience—the dove, the tongues of fire, the strange warming, a sudden emergence of paranormal gifts (including the nerve to preach openly about the executed woodworker they called "Lord")—wasn't just a matter of feeling spiritually "high" 50 days after Easter.

They were Jews, albeit with some uncommon ideas. To them Pentecost (Gk. Pentekoste, "the fiftieth [day]") was the Feast of Weeks, celebrated today in Judaism as Shavuot. It recalls Moses receiving the Law on Sinai.

Wandering in the desert of despondency, afraid of Roman soldiers and the rabbinical authorities alike, these plain folks who had followed the Galilean experienced something akin to the reception of a new Law. They suddenly saw a new divine reign being born and gained the conviction that a coming upheaval would transform the established human order into a civilization of love.

Initially, they were treated as yet another annoying little group, one of many in the bazaar of religious opinions that was the Judaism of the time.

Then all hell broke loose. A revolt erupted against Roman rule in Judea. It ran from the year 66 of our era to 70.

The contemporary Jewish historian Flavius Josephus called it The Jewish War, a war of attrition by starvation and blockade by the most superpower of the day, waged in one of the empire's marginal provinces that was the homeland of a Jewish populace that stubbornly clung to its monotheistic way of life.

The year 70 marked the defeat of the rebels, the razing of Jerusalem, including Solomon's temple, of which a portion remains today as a site of prayer and remembrance known as the Wailing Wall.

As if the symbolic destruction was not enough, Jews were expelled from their homeland. Thousands were marched in chains to Rome (where they were pressed to build, among other things, the Coliseum). Most others escaped, bringing about the dispersion of the Jewish nation to all corners of the earth.

For Jews it was a disaster not unlike the plunder and captivity under the Babylonians centuries earlier. Among the stricken Jews was the little band of "Jesusites," who some called Nazarenes.

Unfortunately for the Nazarenes, in the eyes of the rabbis the time for temporizing and the luxury of debates on fine points had pretty much ended. At least for a while. The religious authorities of the Jewish nation did everything in its power to establish a fixed, concentrated version of Judaism.

The Jewish faith that had been rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures* grew new roots in the Talmud, the collection of rabbinical interpretations that have guided observant day-to-day Jewish life to the present.

The Nazarenes were expelled from most synagogues and virulent polemics called them "apostates" or, more the popular insult Kristianoi (a Greek street term you might think of as "Christies," much as today's Unification Church members are often called "Moonies" disparagingly after the name of their religion's founder).

Lest you doubt the animosity involved, consider polemical pro-rabbinical claims that Jesus' mother Myriam was really a whore and Jesus the son of a Roman who raped her. Conversely, note the often polemical use of the term "the Jews" in John's gospel, written well after the destruction of Jerusalem, when the Christians, still overwhelmingly Jewish, were trading barbs with their Talmudic-minded Jewish brethren.

Two factors—which did not necessarily arise in the order chronicled here—combined to solidify the rift between Jesus followers and other Jews.

First, the Roman authorities had immense trouble distinguishing between Jews who liked Jesus and those who did not. The Romans were ill-disposed to all Jews after the revolt and were not in a mood to tolerate street disputes between Jews—persecution of Jesus believers was probably at first anti-Semitic, rather than anti-Christian.

Second, a Jewish rabbinical student who had grown up in the Greek-speaking Asia Minor city of Tarsus dramatically shifted alliances from the rabbinical party to the pro-Jesus party. He became one of Christianity's most effective paladins, preachers, popularizers and propagandists. We know him as St. Paul.

There were other aspects of the lifestyle of the early Christian communities that set them apart—many are noted in the Acts of the Apostles—and I shall deal with them later.

For the moment, let's recall—centuries of Christian anti-Semitism and Jewish anti-Christian critique notwithstanding—that Christianity's separation from Judaism was, at heart, a Jewish quarrel launched two millennia ago.

* See the second paragraph of Story of the Faith 16 - Prophets.