An assessment of the historical value of Acts (2:41–47; 4:32–5:11; and 6:1–6), for understanding the real economic life of the early Jerusalem church
In consideration to the question at hand, let us have a look at Jesus’ exchanges with some of the rich people he encountered during the course of his ministry. Of particular interest to me was his conversation with a man just described as the rich young ruler, captured in the synoptic gospels (Matthew 19:16–30, Mark 10:17–31 and Luke 18:18–30); and the conversation that ensued between Jesus and his disciples afterwards.
By way of background, this young, pious, wealthy, and perhaps ambitious young man was obviously drawn to Jesus’ ministry for reasons we are not particularly clear about. His lifestyle received a rare praise from Jesus who was at most time at loggerheads with the theology, philosophy, and ethics of the ruling classes of his time. This gulf in understanding was profound, most times evidenced in the trick questions and debates posed at Jesus – especially from the Pharisees.
The kingdom of God
Jesus’ ministry was heralded by John the Baptist, who some theologians allude to having led a lifestyle not dissimilar from that of the Essenes; preaching: ‘Repent for the kingdom of God has come near.’ (Mark 3:2 NRSV). With this in mind I hasten to clarify that Mark, Luke and John use the term kingdom of God, while Matthew uses Kingdom of heaven. Therefore, avoiding any theological debate with reference to God or heaven, I would like us to consider both interchangeably, as traditional thinking allude to God’s domain being heaven – as such, the kingdom of God or heaven simply means God’s Government.
According to Scott Mcknight (2008) this term was ‘the central category used by Jesus to express his mission and vision for what God was doing through him for Israel.’ (p. 354). To this end the word kingdom becomes increasing important as we build our thoughts on the question at hand. For instance, in a content analysis I carried out on the Kings James’ translation of the New Testament for the term kingdom of God, I discovered that it appears seventy-six times, surprisingly, fifty-four of these occurrences are found in the gospels. A similar exercise on the Old Testament, reveals that it appears in less than half of this figure – only thirty times. When we consider the fact that most of Palestine at this time was under Roman occupation, the thrust of Jesus’ ministry was not welcome development for the ruling elites – regardless of tribe or stock. However, for those that were poor, sick, widowed, orphaned, imprisoned, enslaved, oppressed, or marginalised; this was a message of hope. They now had something to live for, perhaps best encapsulated in the words of Paul to friends in Rome: a hope [that] does not disappoint us (Romans 5:5 NRSV).
For followers of Christ, this kingdom not only provided hope after death, it also demonstrated deliverance from practical challenges in this world. This mind-set was evident in many accounts in the New Testament, and succinctly articulated in Luke’s writing in Acts: ‘how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.’ (Acts 10:38 NRSV). Those last five words (for God was with him), echoing something about the origin of the power and authority in operation through the person of Jesus Christ; for a kingdom ceases to exist once its means of power and authority is taken away. But even after his death, this power continues to be demonstrated through his followers by the same spirit – God’s spirit (the Holy Spirit). (John 14:12).
It is imperative to note also that not all who came to Jesus came for their worldly needs, others had deeper needs. To this end the following individuals come to mind: Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), Nicodemus (John 3:1-21), and of course the rich young ruler. Apart from his financial and political background, his religious or tribal affiliation is not exactly clear, however his alias (the rich young ruler) brings in the possibilities of family ties with the ruling aristocracy, he was probably a Pharisee, Sadducee, or Scribe. But unlike some from similar background, his was not a trick question. He asked Jesus: ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ (Matthew 19:16 NRSV). After a brief exploration of his spiritual background, Jesus said to him: ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ (Matthew 19:21 NRSV).
These words bears some resonance to the exchange between Elisha and a widow whose sons were about to be enslaved by her late husband’s creditors. In those days debts were passed on to a next of kin, and because work opportunities were limited for women, male offspring were attractive redemption for these ruthless creditors. In the absence of equity and social justice, she came to the prophet for divine intervention (the kingdom of God). The prophet instructs her to go and borrow as many vessels as possible, and pour the contents of the only jar of oil she had into all the vessels she had collected. Miraculously, the oil continued to flow until she ran out of vessels. Not knowing what to do next, she went back to prophet, and he said to her: ‘Go sell the oil and pay your debts, and you and your children can live on the rest.’ (2 Kings 4:7 NRSV).
Sadly the rich young ruler went away with a heavy heart, unable to comply with Jesus’ instructions. And as the young man turned his back from the kingdom of God, enroute back to the kingdom of this world; Jesus dropped a bombshell on his disciples: ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ (Matthew 19:23, 24 NRSV). In shock, they asked: ‘Then who can be saved?’ (Matthew 19:25 NRSV). Jesus replied: ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’ (Matthew 19:26 NRSV). Still stunned at what he had just heard, Peter had a mini stand-off with Jesus – he said: ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ (Matthew 19:27 NRSV).
In response Jesus made this profound statement: ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’ (Matthew 19:28, 29, 30).
Grippingly, it might seem that the poor and needy are provided for in God’s kingdom – albeit sometimes miraculously, while the rich are instructed to sell all and disburse the proceeds of their wealth among the poor in their community. This story provides us with a beautiful backdrop as we assess the historical value of Acts: 2:41–47; 4:32–5:11; and 6:1–6; for an understanding of the real economic life of the early Jerusalem church.
The early Jerusalem Church
As with the conception of Mary by the Holy Spirit, the early Jerusalem church was born out of a similar experience on the day of Pentecost. The followers of Jesus were all together in one place (Acts 2:2 NRSV) as he instructed, then suddenly they heard a sound like that of a rushing mighty wind, tongues of fire descended on each one of them, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit – demonstrated initially in their ability to speak in unknown tongues. They were emboldened to preach, teach, baptise converts and manifest miracles. This small community of believers suddenly witnessed a surge of converts after Peter inspired by the Holy Spirit, delivered an impromptu sermon to the crowd of onlookers, and: ‘So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’ (Acts 2:41-42 NRSV).
According to Haenchen (1971), ‘verse 42 leads to the following description of the situation which does indeed still speak of the new converts, but at the same time describes the life of all the faithful.’ (p. 190). The new converts not only accepted Jesus Christ as their lord and saviour, they also accepted the underlying culture of the disciples. Luke gives us a snippet into some of the cultural practices within the community in verses 42-47. Jeremias and Bauernfeind (1930) listed them as: instructions by the apostles, contribution of offering, solemn partaking of food together and prayers (cited by Heanchen, p. 191). However, Haenchen (1971) sees these verses in a dual sense – perhaps not dissimilar to the practices in most churches today, where as well as their various vocation, they also had communal and individual or family worship. Another important point to note in verse 45 (with regards to properties and goods), is that properties were sold as and when a need arose by owners who voluntarily relinquished the proceeds of sale towards kingdom projects.
This line of thought strengthens Peter’s indictment to Ananias in the book of Acts: ‘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, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart?’ (Acts 5:3-4 NRSV). Furthermore Capper (1983) mentioned that Ananias and Sapphira sold what was to be termed extraneous assets, in other words, anything they did not need for accommodation or work. (p. 121).
When Jesus commissioned the disciples for mission, he said to them: ‘Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.’ (see Matthew 10:5-15 NRSV). This corroborates with Jesus’ response to the scribe who offered to become one of his disciples: ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ (Matthew 8:20 NRSV).
Among the sects in Jesus’ era, the Essenes were the closest to this approach to community life. According to Geza Vermes (1982), ‘they lived on the fringes of Jewish society as an esoteric community and imposed a lengthy initiation process on aspiring candidates.’ However, theirs was highly formalised. For instance they had: a probationary period for new converts, a hierarchical structure, training, rituals, tribunal board, vow of membership, and an excommunication process (p.125). Also, fully fledged members were required to hand over their belongings and earnings to stewards, and in return all their needs were met (p. 126). This model contrasts, the light touch approach we see used in addressing the dispute between Hellenists and Hebrews believers within the community of the early church in Jerusalem (Acts 6:1-7). If anything, the appointment of seven stewards was in order to alleviate the problem at hand.
Haenchen (1971) in his exegesis on Act 4:32-37 highlights a pertinent point with regards to worship for believers in this community by linking the mention of heart and soul to references in Deuteronomy 4:29 – ‘with all thy heart and with all thy soul’; emphasising that they control our conduct and personality, and both elements are integral for worship. (p. 231).
In light of this, one can argue that the call to sell all and follow was for those in leadership as was the case with the twelve who were called to follow Jesus. For example we see Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) on his own accord being inspired through Jesus’ teaching and preaching to give freely out of all he had; as such what was his, remained his, and he was not under any compulsion. The call to leadership is therefore a call to total dependency on the kingdom. Paul articulated this in a letter to Timothy (his protégé) when he said: ‘No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; the soldier’s aim is to please the enlisting officer.’ (2 Timothy 2:4 NRSV); most likely inspired by Jesus teaching on being single minded: ‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.‘ (Matthew 6:24 NRSV). As such these leaders were meant to be free of worldly pressures with a view to immerse themselves in the work of the ministry. The community of believers were meant to reciprocate through freewill or voluntary contribution for their leaders and those in need within the community.
This concept also aligns with Old Testament paradigms, for instance David (1 Chronicles 29:1-9) raised funds towards the building of the temple, and in similar vein Moses (Exodus 35:4-29) asked the people to give voluntarily for causes that can be best be described as national projects. Therefore, this new community of believers were likely to be building on this tradition in addressing missional and social causes.
To this end we can deduce that the rich young ruler was only asked to sell all, give to the poor and follow because Jesus wanted him to be a disciple – perhaps not dissimilar to his call to Matthew the tax collector (Matthew 9:9), and the fishermen (Peter, Andrew, James and John), (Matthew 4:18-22).
Brian J. Capper, The Interpretation of Acts 5.4, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 19 (1983) 117–131.
Haenchen, E. (1971) The acts of the apostles. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Mcknight, S. (2008) The Kingdom of God. In: Evans, C. (ed.). Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus. New York, Routledge/ Taylor & Francis Group, p. 354.
Scripture quotations marked (KJV) are taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version. New York: American Bible Society: 1999; Bartleby.com, 2000. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the Holy Bible, The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Vermes, G. (1975) The Dead Sea Scrolls. 2nd edn. London: SCM Press Ltd.