In the vast literature dealing with the rise of Christianity, we find many different accounts of how this small sect of Jewish messianists arose, spread, and eventually took over the Roman Empire. However, most of these histories focus on Christianity as a group defined by a set of beliefs, or a group dedicated to the adoration of the person of Jesus Christ. While it is true that Christianity, as it arose, was certainly those things, it was also a group with its own socio-economic ideology and set of practices.
In fact, one of the earliest voices we have of an outsider speaking about (and mocking) the Christians identifies them this way:
Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshiping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws. Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence (Lucian, The Passing of Peregrinus, 13 [Harmon]).
Lucian, with the grace of a Richard Dawkins, is basically calling the early Christians easily duped idiots. However, what is interesting is how he describes them. He considers their main identifying mark to be their solidarity and their (small c) communism.
In my book All Things in Common: The Economic Practices of the Early Christians, I lay out the evidence for, and a reconstruction of, early Christian communism, and demonstrate its large scope, its persistence over centuries, and its widespread practice. If one finds that term offensive perhaps we can use the term koinonia in Koine Greek, which is used often in the New Testament and Early Christian writings. However, if it is properly translated, then koinonia literally comes out to be something like communism and, when understood in its historical context, it ends up meaning something rather like "small c" communism.
Likely one of the most striking impacts Christianity had on the world was the introduction of the concept that everyone—and especially the most disadvantaged, the desperately poor—is valuable and has inherent dignity and, furthermore, that there are obligations we have towards the poor that are fundamental. There are precedents to this, such as the idea of a universal logos within all humans from Stoicism, or the constant calls for social justice in the Hebrew Bible. But what Christianity did in those first few centuries (and beyond) was truly revolutionary, so much so that by the time the last Pagan emperor reigned, he was desperate to counteract the popularity of Christian koinonia:
For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans (what Julian called the Christians) support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us (Julian the Apostate, Letters, 22 [Wright]).
And to mock them:
Therefore, since by their most admirable law they [the Galilaeans] are bidden to sell all they have and give to the poor that so they may attain more easily to the kingdom of the skies, in order to aid those persons in that effort, I have ordered that all their funds, namely, that belong to the church of the people of Edessa, are to be taken over that they may be given to the soldiers, and that its property be confiscated to my private purse. This is in order that poverty may teach them to behave properly and that they may not be deprived of that heavenly kingdom for which they still hope. (Ibid, 40)
Where did this come from? Some would say that this is just an ancient example of charity or philanthropy, nothing more.
However, as I demonstrate in All Things in Common, this was no mere voluntary charity; this was normative and systematic. If we go back to the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel material, we find teachings that—when understood in their historical and cultural context—give us a good explanation of where these, seemingly extreme, practices came from. One place one might want to go to is the Sermon on the Plain. This is because most historical Jesus scholars regard the material found in the Sermon on the Plain to be reliably original to the historical Jesus; and because it is a very nice summation of Jesus’s ethical teachings.
In order to fully understand the teachings of Jesus as they relate to his context, one has to understand two things about Jesus’s world:
- the Roman occupation with its Herodian ruling class and the debt problems that followed,
- and the religious traditions found within Second Temple Judaism with regards to social justice and liberation.
By the time Jesus was around, the areas of what we now know as Palestine/Israel had been ruled by much larger and more powerful foreign powers for centuries, with a century or so break under the Hasmonean dynasty. When Jesus was born, Galilee (along with Judea, Samaria, and Peraea) were under the thumb of Rome and ruled over by King Herod: an Idumean tyrant who had converted to Judaism (although his conversion was never fully thought to be genuine by the majority). During this period there was massive economic growth, while at the same time a lot of discontent among many sectors about the growth of debt.
The reason for this was taxation, more people having to rent land, larger sectors of the economy being commercialized; and as the cost of living increased in terms of money, so did the demand for credit. The debt often got to a point where one mishap, or bad harvest, could lead to a default on a loan and leave a peasant with his land taken by his creditor and forced to become a tenant farmer, a wage worker, or worse. This debt crisis led to more and more land going up to the Herodian aristocracy and high priesthood, and left the majority struggling under ever increasing debt and cost of living (does any of this seem familiar to you?).
However, at the same time, there was a long tradition within Judaism pushing against this trend ideologically. You had within the Torah itself various commandments—such as the Jubilee year law and the Sabbatical year law, the laws against usury, and the gleaning laws—that were meant to mitigate against market forces, wealth accumulation, and exploitation.
The Jubilee and Sabbatical year laws especially had become a symbol for an ideology of liberation growing in Second Temple Judaism. The Jubilee law (Leviticus 25) was one in which every fifty years Israelites who had become debt slaves were to be released and all the land redistributed back to family holdings. The Sabbatical year law (Deuteronomy 15:1–18) was one in which every seven-years debts were to be released. This law is especially interesting since the text gives the purpose of the law: to eliminate poverty, it also encouraged (in fact commanded) Jews to lend to those in need despite there being a coming release.
By the time Jesus came around, these laws came to be used in apocalyptic literature as a symbol for the hope that God would liberate Israel and would bring a just society for the poor. Given that almost all peasant rebellions in the ancient world dealt with land distribution and debt, it makes sense that these laws would be the focal point for resistance. During Jesus’s youth there was a resistance movement in Galilee led by an individual known as Judas the Galilean against the Roman census taken for taxation purposes. After Jesus’s death there was the great war started by the Zealots, which began with the burning of the debt records.
Another piece of context for understanding Jesus’s ethical teaching is Jesus’s ministry itself. The theme of Jesus’s ministry can be summed up in its beginning when he read from the Isaiah scroll in his hometown synagogue:
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16–21).
To first century Galilean Jewish ears, this would have certainly sounded revolutionary and somewhat shocking. The “year of the Lord’s favor” is a reference to the Jubilee year law, and the passage Jesus quotes is itself a mixture of Isaiah 61 and 58, both scriptures relating to the hope of God’s liberation of his people from oppression. This declaration has economic consequences (in terms of the Jubilee/Sabbatical year laws, release of the captives, good news to the poor), as well as cosmic and political (the implication is that God’s rule will be established and thus Rome’s, along with their Herodian allies’, will be overthrown). With this background in mind let us look at some parts of the Sermon on the Plain:
If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked (Luke 6:34-35).
Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back (Luke 6:38).
These passages are often taken as hyperbole, Jesus simply making wild demands from his followers that they simply could not keep. However, as I demonstrate in Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Plain, these commandments were meant to be taken absolutely seriously. The key is to look at them through the lending laws as well as the Deuteronomic Sabbatical year law. As already mentioned, usury was banned. Some rabbis interpreted the lending and the ban on usury through the Levitical framing, where the purpose of the ban was to prevent the taking of interest, or, profiting from loans (Leviticus 25:36-37; Mishnah, Baba Metzia. 5.1). Jesus, however, claims that nothing should be expected at all in return, neither in interest nor even the principle. Here it seems as though Jesus is appealing to the lending regulations as found in the Sabbatical year law in Deuteronomy 15, where lending was done for the sake of mutual aid:
There will, however, be no one in need among you . . . If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be (Deut 15:4;7–8).
Even though the debts were canceled every seven years (Deut 15:1–2), the commandment is to lend anyway:
Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt (Deut 15:9).
That Jesus is appealing to Deuteronomy 15 can be understood from the similarities of the language being used (more obvious in the original Greek), as well as the logic of the commandment. The commandment’s logic is to lend in order to satisfy need, whether or not you get a return, since the Sabbatical year will erase all debt anyway. One thing that is important to keep in mind here, is that we are talking about lending, not gifts. Both Deuteronomy (Deut 15:10) and Jesus (Luke 6:30) talk about giving; but lending here is a separate category.
Lending, unlike giving, implies mutual responsibility: the lender lends, and the borrower now has an obligation. However, there is a difference between calculated lending and uncalculated lending (See: David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years). Calculated, or contractual, lending generally implies the lack of an ongoing relationship, and the possibility of violence. That is, I have to know exactly how much you owe me just in case you try to cheat me, and I have to call the police to take you to court. Uncalculated lending, where no account is taken of exactly what is owed, is what happens when there is an ongoing relationship, when people generally trust each other and rely on each other. That is, if you need this, go ahead and take it, if I need something I am sure you would help me out. Basically, the difference here is the difference between exchange and communism (using those terms in their anthropological and sociological senses).
Going back to the text with this in mind we can see a little bit of what Jesus is saying. In Jesus calling for those to lend without expecting a return (with the Sabbatical release in mind, where all debts will be canceled), Jesus is commanding an ethic of uncalculated lending; in verse 38 however, he says what the return will be: “A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” Although verse 38 is speaking of the return being abundant, it is also speaking of it being unmeasurable: it is overflowing, it is not calculated to just fit the specific measure owed. Why is that the return? Because: “for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” The point is that what is being given and returned is not just a large amount, it is that what is being given and returned is not measured; it is not contractual, it is open-ended sharing: communism. This is regulated by the command to lend (based on Deuteronomy 15) despite the lack of a guaranteed returned (based on the Sabbatical release).
This ties back to Jesus’s original statement in Luke 4:18-19. There Jesus declares the Jubilee, tying in the Sabbatical law. Jesus’s ethics in the Sermon are part of his vision of an eschatological reversal, which is explicitly proclaimed in the beginning of the Sermon on the Plain with the blessings and woes (Luke 6:20–26). The commandment of Jesus however, deals with how his followers should organize their communities, and live, in light of the coming eschatological reversal.
This position was not unheard of during the time of Jesus. For example, the Damascus document of the Dead Sea Scrolls has an eschatological vision along with ethical commandments for those who await the eschaton. The eschatological reversal envisioned here is not only economic. Jesus clearly is apocalyptic in his thinking, viewing the reversal as a cosmic reversal overthrowing the power of Satan. Yet, a large part of that cosmic reversal is a reversal of the economic domination which enslaved many of his Galilean and Judean countrymen to landlords and creditors through the use of debt instruments. The early Christians and their opponents understood this well.