[Classics] Foundations of Christianity

Part Four: The Beginnings of Christianity

9. The Primitive Christian Community

The Proletarian Character of the Community

We have seen that the purely national democratic movement of the Zealots did not satisfy many proletarian elements of Jerusalem. However, escape from the city to the country, as the Essenes did, was not to everyone’s taste either. At that time, as today, escape from the country was very easy, escape from the city very difficult. The proletarian, accustomed to urban life, was not at home in the country. The rich man might well see his country villa as an agreeable change from the turmoil of the city; for the proletarian, return to the land meant hard work in the fields, work that he did not understand and was not fitted for.

The mass of proletarians must therefore have preferred to stay in the cities, in Jerusalem as elsewhere. Essenianism did not give them what they needed, least of all those who were mere lumpenproletarians and had got into the habit of living as parasites on society.

A third proletarian tendency therefore necessarily arose, along with the Zealots and Essenes, and in fact combining the two. This found expression in the Messianic community.

It is generally recognized that the Christian community originally contained proletarian elements exclusively, and was a proletarian organization. This remained true long after the first beginnings.

Paul stresses, in his first letter to the Corinthians, that neither education nor wealth are represented in the community:

“For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen.” (chap. 1, verses 26f.)

Friedländer gives a good description of the proletarian nature of the primitive Christian community in his Sittengeschichte Roms:

“No matter how many factors contributed to the dissemination of the Gospel, it obviously had found only isolated supporters among the upper classes up to the middle or the end of the second century. Their philosophical tendencies, and the rest of their education, so intimately intertwined with polytheism, was strongly opposed to Christianity; then, acceptance of Christianity led to the most perilous conflicts with the established social order; and finally, giving up all worldly interests was most difficult for those who had honor, power and wealth. The poor and lowly, says Lactantius, are more ready to have faith than the rich; among the latter there must often undoubtedly have been a hostile attitude toward the socialistic tendencies in Christianity. In the lower classes, however, the spread of Christianity, which was extraordinarily favored by the dispersion of the Jews, must have been very rapid, especially in Rome proper; in the year 64 the number of Christians there was already considerable.”

Nevertheless, this spread for a long time was confined to single places.

“The data we have, which have been preserved by mere chance, show that up to the year 98 there are some 42 places in which it can be shown that there were Christian communities; by the year 180, the figure is 74, and by 325, more than 550.

“The Christians however were not merely a small minority in the Roman Empire up to the third century, but this minority, at least at the outset, was made up exclusively of the lowest groups in society. The heathen scoffed that the Christians were only able to convert simpletons and slaves, women and children, that they were uneducated, crude and peasant-like men, and that their communities consisted chiefly of little people, artisans and old women. Nor did the Christians deny this. It was not from the Lyceum and the Academy that the community of Christ was assembled, says Jerome, but from the lowest (de vili plebecula) in society. Christian writers expressly state that the new faith had only isolated adherents among the upper classes until the middle of the third century. Eusebius says that the peace the church enjoyed under Commodus (180 to 192) had helped a great deal to extend it, ‘so that even many men in Rome prominent in wealth and birth turned to salvation with their whole household and clan.’ Under Alexander Severus (222 to 235) Origen said that now the rich too, and even haughty and nobly-born ladies accepted the Christian message of the Word: successes therefore that Christianity could not claim previously ... From the time of Commodus on therefore the spread of Christianity in the upper orders is confirmed just as expressly and often as such testimony is lacking for the earlier period. ... The only people of high rank in the period before Commodus whose conversion to Christianity is conceded as being very probable are Flavius Clemens, consul, executed in 95, and Flavia Domitilla, his wife or sister, banished to Pontia.” [1]

This proletarian character is one of the principal reasons for our being so ill-informed about the beginnings of Christianity. Its first champions may have been eloquent orators, but they were not expert in reading and writing. Those were arts that were even further removed from the masses of the people than they are today. For generations the Christian doctrine and the history of its communities were confined to oral traditions, traditions handed down by people who were feverishly excited and incredibly credulous, traditions dealing with events in which only a small group were involved, in so far as they took place at all; and hence traditions that could not be tested by the mass of the people, and especially by its critical, impartial elements. The putting down of these traditions in writing began only as better educated elements, of higher social standing began to turn toward Christianity, and then this recording had a polemical not a historical purpose; it aimed at supporting definite views and demands.

It requires a great deal of boldness, as well as of bias, in addition to total ignorance of the conditions of historical trustworthiness, to use documents that came into existence in this way and teem with impossibilities and crass contradictions, to narrate the lives of individuals and even their speeches, in detail. We showed at the outset that it is impossible to make any concrete statement about the alleged founder of the Christian community. On the basis of what has been said thus far, we can add that there is no need to know anything concrete about him. All the systems of ideas that are usually indicated as characterizing Christianity, whether in praise or in blame, have been seen to be products of the Greco-Roman or the Judaic development. There is not a single Christian thought that would make it necessary to refer to some sublime prophet and superman, no thought that can not be traced in the “heathen” or Jewish literature.

But although it is of no significance for our historical insight to be instructed as to the personalities of Jesus and his disciples, it is of the utmost importance to be clear about the character of the primitive Christian community.

Fortunately, this is not at all impossible. The speeches and actions of the persons whom Christians honor as their champions and teachers may have been fantastically adorned or made up out of the whole cloth; at any rate, the first Christian authors wrote in the spirit of the Christian communities in which and for which they lived. They repeated traditions handed down from an earlier period, which they might alter in details, but whose general character was so clearly established that any attempt to alter them noticeably would have met with violent opposition. People might have tried to water down or reinterpret the spirit that prevailed in the beginnings of the Christian community, but they could not completely falsify it. We still can trace such attempts at watering down, and they become bolder as the Christian community loses its originally proletarian character and takes in educated, prosperous and reputable people. But it is precisely from these attempts that the original character can be clearly inferred.

The insight won in this way is confirmed by the evolution of the later Christian sects, whose history is known to us from the beginning and repeats, in its later development, the patterns of the Christian community from the second century on. We may therefore consider this development to be a regular one, and that the known beginnings of the later sects are analogous to those of Christianity. Such an inference by analogy is not of course in itself a proof, but it can very well serve to substantiate a conception otherwise arrived at.

Both sorts of evidence, the analogy with later sects and the remains of the earliest traditions of primitive Christian life, exhibit tendencies that were to be expected as a result of the proletarian character of the community.

Class Hatred

The first thing we encounter is a fierce class hatred against the rich.

It appears clearly in the Gospel according to St. Luke, a composition of the beginning of the second century, especially in the story of Lazarus, which is found only in this gospel (16, verses 19f.). The rich man goes to hell and the poor man to Abraham’s bosom, and not because the rich man was a sinner and the poor man just: nothing is said about that. The rich man is damned just because he was rich. Abraham says to him: “Remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.” The thirst of the oppressed for vengeance is gloating here. The same gospel has Jesus say: “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (18, verses 24f.). Here too the rich man is damned for his wealth, not for his sinfulness.

Likewise in the Sermon on the Mount (6, verses 20f.):

“Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh ... But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.”

As we see, being rich and enjoying wealth is a crime that merits the most bitter atonement.

The same spirit breathes through the epistle of James “to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad,” dating from the middle of the second century:

“Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver is cankered: and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days. Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth. Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter. Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you. Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord” (5, verse 1f.).

He even thunders against the rich in the ranks of the faithful:

“Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted; But the rich, in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away. For the sun is no sooner risen with a burning heat, but it withereth the grass, and the flower thereof falleth, and the grace of the fashion of it perisheth: so also shall the rich man fade away in his ways. ... Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him? But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats? Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called?” (James 1, verses 9 to 11; 2, verses 5 to 7).

The class hatred of the modern proletariat has hardly reached such fanatical forms as did that of the Christian. In the brief moments in which the proletariat of our days has come to power hitherto, it has never taken vengeance on the rich. It is true that it feels stronger today than the proletariat of budding Christianity did; and one who knows he is strong is always more magnanimous than the weak man. It is an indication of how weak the bourgeoisie feels today that it always takes such frightful vengeance on the proletariat in rebellion.

The Gospel according to St. Matthew is some decades later than that of Luke. In the interval prosperous and educated people had begun to come close to Christianity. Many Christian propagandists felt the need of giving the Christian doctrine a form which would be more attractive to these people. The uncompromising tradition of primitive Christianity became inconvenient. Since however it had struck too deep roots to be simply put aside, an effort was made at least to revise the original composition in an opportunistic way. By virtue of this revisionism the Gospel according to St. Matthew has become the “Gospel of Contradictions” [2], and the “favorite gospel of the church.” Here the church found “the unruly and revolutionary elements of enthusiasm and socialism in primitive Christianity so moderated to the golden mean of a clerical opportunism that it no longer seemed to endanger the existence of an organized church making its peace with human society.”

Naturally, the various authors who successively worked on the gospel according to St. Matthew left out all the inconvenient things they could, such as the story of Lazarus and the rejection of the inheritance dispute, which too gives rise to an attack on the rich (Luke 12, verse 13f.). But the Sermon on the Mount was already too popular and well-known to be treated in the same way. It was patched up: in Matthew, Jesus is made to say:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven ... Blessed are they, which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled” (chap. 5).

Of course all the traces of class hatred have been washed away in this adroit revisionism. Now it is the poor in spirit that are blessed. It is not certain what sort of folk these are, whether idiots or people who were paupers only in an imaginary sense; who continued to have possessions, but assert their heart is not in them. Apparently the latter are meant; but in any case the condemnation of wealth which was contained in the blessing of the poor is gone.

It is really amusing to find the hungry transformed into those that hunger after righteousness, who are assured that they shall be filled; the Greek word used here (chorazein – have their fill) is used of beasts for the most part, and applied to men humorously or in contempt. Having the word used in the Sermon on the Mount is another indication of the proletarian origin of Christianity. The expression was current in the circles from which it sprang, to indicate the complete quenching of their bodily hunger. It is ludicrous to apply it to quenching the hunger for righteousness.

The counterpart to these blessings, the cursing of the rich, has disappeared in Matthew. Here even the shrewdest manipulation could not find a formulation acceptable to the prosperous groups whose conversion was being aimed at. The curses had to go.

But although influential groups of the Christian community, turning opportunistic, strove to efface its proletarian character, the proletariat and its class hatred were not eliminated, and there were always individual thinkers who expressed it. The little book of Paul Pflüger, Der Sozialismus der Kirchenväter, gives a good collection of passages from the writings of Saint Clement, Bishop Asterius, Lactantius, Basil the Great, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Ambrose, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Jerome, Augustine, etc., almost all figures of the fourth century, in which Christianity was already the official state religion. They all contain bitter attacks on the rich, whom they equate with robbers and thieves.


In view of the strong proletarian imprint on the community, it was likely that it should strive toward a communistic form of organization. This is testified to expressly. The Acts of the Apostles says:

“And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship [communism, koinonia], and in breaking of bread, and in prayers ... And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need” (2, verses 42f.). “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common ... Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet, and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need” (4, verse 32f.).

We all know that Ananias and Sapphira, who withheld some of their money from the community were immediately punished by death, by a divine visitation.

Saint John, called Chrysostom (Golden Mouth) because of his fiery eloquence, a fearless critic of his time (347 to 407), attached to the above description of primitive Christian communism a discussion of its advantages which sounds very realistically economic and not at all ecstatic and ascetic. This is in his eleventh homily (sermon) on the Acts of the Apostles. There he said:

“Grace was among them, since nobody suffered want, that is, since they gave so willingly that no one remained poor. For they did not give a part, keeping another part for themselves; they gave everything in their possession. They did away with inequality and lived in great abundance; and this they did in the most praiseworthy fashion. They did not dare to put their offering into the hands of the needy, nor give it with lofty condescension, but they laid it at the feet of the apostles and made them the masters and distributors of the gifts. What a man needed was then taken from the treasure of the community, not from the private property of individuals. Thereby the givers did not become arrogant.

“Should we do as much today, we should all live much more happily, rich as well as poor; and the poor would not be more the gainers than the rich ... for those who gave did not thereby become poor, but made the poor also rich.

“Let us imagine things as happening in this way: All give all that they have into a common fund. No one would have to concern himself about it, neither the rich nor the poor. How much money do you think would be collected? I infer – for it cannot be said with certainty – that if every individual contributed all his money, his lands, his estates, his houses (I will not speak of slaves, for the first Christians had none, probably giving them their freedom), then a million pounds of gold would be obtained, and most likely two or three times that amount. Then tell me how many people our city [Constantinople] contains? How many Christians? Will it not come to a hundred thousand? And how many pagans and Jews! How many thousands of pounds of gold would be gathered in? And how many of the poor do we have? I doubt that there are more than fifty thousand. How much would be required to feed them daily? If they all ate at a common table, the cost could not be very great. What could we not undertake with our huge treasure! Do you believe it could ever be exhausted? And will not the blessing of God pour down on us a thousand-fold richer? Will we not make a heaven on earth? If this turned out so brilliantly for three or five thousand [the first Christians] and none of them was in want, how much more would this be so with such a great quantity? Will not each newcomer add something more?

“The dispersion of property is the cause of greater expenditure and so of poverty. Consider a household with man and wife and ten children. She does weaving and he goes to the market to make a living; will they need more if they live in a single house or when they live separately? Clearly, when they live separately. If the ten sons each go his own way, they need ten houses, ten tables, ten servants and everything else in proportion. And how of the mass of slaves? Are these not fed at a single table, in order to save money? Dispersion regularly leads to waste, bringing together leads to economy. That is how people now live in monasteries and how the faithful once lived. Who died of hunger then? Who was not fully satisfied? And yet men are more afraid of this way of life than of a leap into the endless sea. If only we made the attempt and took bold hold of the situation! How great a blessing there would be as a result! For if at that time, when there were so few faithful, only three to five thousand, if at that time, when the whole world was hostile to us and there was no comfort anywhere, our predecessors were so resolute in this, how much more confidence should we have today, when by God’s grace the faithful are everywhere! Who would still remain a heathen? Nobody, I believe. Every one would come to us and be friendly.” [3]

The first Christians were not capable of going into such clear and calm details. But their brief remarks, appeals, demands, wishes, all point to the same communistic character of the beginning of the Christian community.

In the Gospel according to St. John (dating, it is true, only from the middle of the second century) the communistic life of Jesus and the apostles is taken for granted. They had only one purse among them, kept by Judas Iscariot. John, who here as elsewhere tries to outdo his predecessors, deepens the revulsion felt at Judas’ treason by branding him as a thief from the common fund. He describes how Mary anointed the feet of Jesus with costly ointment.

“Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, which should betray him, Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor? This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein” (chap. 12, verses 4f.).

At the Last Supper Jesus says to Judas: “That thou doest, do quickly. Now no man at the table knew for what intent he spake this unto him. For some of them thought, because Judas had the bag, that Jesus had said unto him, Buy those things that we have need of against the feast; or, that he should give something to the poor” (chap. 13, verses 27-29).

Over and over again in the gospels Jesus requires of his disciples that each give everything that he owns.

“... whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14, verse 33).

“Sell that ye have, and give alms” (Luke 12, verse 33).

“And a certain ruler asked him [Jesus], saying, Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God. Thou knowest the commandments, no not commit adultery. Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother. And he said, All these have I kept from my youth up. Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. And when he heard this, he was very sorrowful: for he was very rich” (Luke 18, verses 18-28).

This leads Jesus to the image of the camel who goes more easily through the eye of a needle than a rich man into the kingdom of God. Only those can share in that kingdom who share their goods with the poor.

The gospel attributed to Mark describes the matter in the same way.

The revisionist Matthew however weakens the original vigor here too. The requirement is put as a condition. Matthew has Jesus say to the rich youth: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor” (19, Verse 21).

What Jesus was originally supposed to have required of each of his supporters, every member of his community, was reduced in time to a requirement only of those who professed perfection.

This development is quite natural in the case of an organization that was originally purely proletarian and later admitted more and more wealthy elements.

There are however many theologians who deny the communistic character of early Christianity, on the grounds that the report of it in the Acts of the Apostles is of later origin, and allege that, as so often happened in antiquity, the ideal condition that one dreamed of was represented as having been actual in the past. In all this it is forgotten that for the official church of later centuries, going out to meet the rich half-way, the communistic character of primitive Christianity was most inconvenient. If the account of it were based on a later invention, the champions of the opportunistic tendency would have protested against it at once and seen to it that the writings containing such accounts were stricken from the canon of the books recognized by the church. The church has tolerated only those forgeries which are in its interest. This, however, would not apply to communism. If it was officially recognized as the original requirement of the primitive community, this surely took place only because no other course was possible, because the tradition on this point had too deep roots and was too generally accepted.

Objections to the Existence of Communism

The objections of those who contest the communism of the primitive community are not very efficacious. They are all to be found assembled by a critic who opposes the account I gave of primitive Christianity in Forerunners of Socialism.

The critic A.K., a doctor of theology, published his objections in an article in Neue Zeit on So-called Primitive Christian Communism (Vol.XXVI, No.2, p.482).

First of all, it is objected that “the preaching of the Nazarene did not aim at economic revolution.” How does A.K. know that? The Acts of the Apostles seem to him an unreliable source for descriptions of organizations whose origin is set in the period after the supposed death of Christ; but the Gospels, he thinks, which are in part later than Acts, are to give us a sure idea of the character of Christ’s words!

The same can be said for the Gospels as for Acts: what we can learn from them is the character of those who wrote them. In addition they may give reminiscences; and memories of organizations last longer than memories of words, and can not be distorted as easily.

Moreover we have seen that it is possible to find in the words attributed to Christ a character corresponding to the communism of the primitive community.

The particular doctrines of Jesus, of which we know virtually nothing definite, can not serve therefore to prove anything against the reality of communism.

Next A.K. tries very hard to have us believe that the practical communism of the Essenes, which the proletarians of Jerusalem had before their eyes, had no effect on them, but that the communistic theories of the Creek philosophers and thinkers had the deepest of influences on the uneducated proletarians of the Christian communities outside of Jerusalem and inculcated these communistic ideals, whose actuality they transposed into the past (as was the custom in that period), namely into the primitive community in Jerusalem.

Thus we are to believe that the educated imbued the proletarians with communism at a later time, when the practical image of communism had previously left them unmoved. It would require the very strongest of proofs to make this conception plausible; but what proofs there are, tend to the contrary. The more influence the educated have on Christianity, the further it gets from communism, as Matthew tells us and as we will later see in discussing the development of the community.

A.K. has entirely false notions of the Essenes. He says of the communistic Christian community of Jerusalem:

“It arouses our suspicions that this solitary communistic experiment was made precisely in a society consisting of Jews. Jews never made social experiments of this nature down to the beginning of our era; up to that time there was never a Jewish communism. Among the Creeks, however, theoretical and practical communism was nothing new.”

Our critic does not let it be known where he finds the practical communism of the Hellenes at the time of Christ. But it is downright incredible that he should find less communism among the Jews than among the Hellenes, when actually the Jews’ communism with its practical realization rises far above the communistic dreams of the Greeks. And it is obvious that A.K. has no suspicion of the fact that the Essenes were already mentioned a century and a half before Christ; he seems to believe that they first arose in Christ’s time!

Now these same Essenes, who are supposed to have had no influence on the practices of the Jerusalem community, are to have produced the communistic legend that found its way into the Acts of the Apostles in the second century after Christ. The Essenes, who disappear from view after the destruction of Jerusalem, probably because they were carried off in the fall of the Jewish commonwealth, are to have transmitted legends about the origin of the Christian community to the Hellenic proletarians and to have suggested a communist past to them, at a time when the opposition between Judaism and Christianity was already inflamed; and yet at the time when the Jewish proletarians in Jerusalem were founding an organization that must have had many personal and operational points of contact with Essenianism, they are not to have been influenced by it in the slightest!

It is quite possible that Essenian legends and conceptions too are woven into the beginnings of Christian literature; but it is much more probable that in the early stages of the Christian community, when it was not producing any literature, their organization was influenced by Essenian models. This can only have been an influence in the direction of putting a genuine communism into effect, not in the sense of the representation of a supposed communistic past that did not correspond to anything actually existing.

All this artificial construction, introduced by modern theologians and accepted by A.K., which denies the influence of the Essenes for a period when it existed, in order to claim for it a decisive role at a time when it had ceased to exist, shows only how inventive many a theological brain can be when it is a question of taking the “evil odor” of communism from the primitive church.

All this is not however what is decisive for A.K. He knows of a “main point,” that has hitherto “never been noticed: The opponents of the Christians threw everything possible into their teeth, but not their communism. And yet they would not have overlooked this point of their indictment, if it had had a foundation.” I am afraid that the world will not take this “main point” either into consideration. A.K. can not deny that the communistic character of Christianity is sharply stressed in many statements, both of the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospels. He merely asserts that these statements are purely legendary. But they were there, at any rate, and corresponded to actual Christian tendencies. Now if despite this the enemies of Christianity did not raise the objection of its communism, the reason can not be that they found no basis for such an accusation: for, they reproached the Christians for things like child murder and incest for which there was not the slightest justification in Christian literature. And they would refrain from accusations which they could confirm from the Christian writings from the earliest Christian literature!

That cause lies in the fact that ideas about communism were quite different at that time from what they are now.

Today communism in the primitive Christian sense, that is sharing, is irreconcilable with the progress of production, with the existence of society. Today, economic conditions definitely require the opposite of sharing, the concentration of wealth in a small number of places, whether in private hands, as today, or in the hands of society, the state, the communities, perhaps in cooperatives, as in the socialist system.

At the time of Christ matters were different. Apart from mining, what industry there was was on a petty scale. There was extensive production on a large scale in agriculture, but being worked by slaves it was not technically superior to the small farms and could sustain itself only in those cases where merciless predatory exploitation was possible, based on the labor power of hordes of cheap slaves. The large enterprise was not the basis of the whole mode of production as it is today.

Hence the concentration of wealth in a few hands did not by any means signify increased productivity of labor, let alone a basis for the productive process and so for social existence. Instead of constituting a development of the productive forces, it meant nothing more than accumulation of the means of pleasure in such quantity that the individual was simply unable to consume them all himself, and had no alternative to sharing them with others.

The wealthy did this on a large scale, in part willingly. Generosity was considered to be one of the principal virtues in the Roman Empire. It was a means of winning supporters and friends, and thus of increasing one’s power.

“The emancipation [of slaves] was probably often accompanied by a more or less liberal gift. Martial mentions one of ten million sesterces, apparently on this sort of occasion. The Roman magnates extended their generosity and their protection to the families of their supporters and clients as well. Thus, a freedman of Cotta Messalinus, a friend of the Emperor Tiberius, says proudly in his epitaph, found on the Appian Way, that his patron had several times given him sums equal to the census of a knight [400,000 sesterces, or $20,000], had taken care of the education of his children, provided for his sons as a father would, helped his son Cottanus, who was serving in the army, to the position of military tribune, and had set up this gravestone for him himself.” [4]

Many such cases occur. But in addition to voluntary generosity there was involuntary generosity, where democracy ruled. Anyone who sought public office had to purchase it by rich gifts to the people; in addition the people laid high taxes on the rich, and lived on the proceeds by using the public revenues for paying citizens for attending popular assemblies, and even public spectacles, or providing common meals or distributions of foodstuffs.

The idea that it was the function of the rich to share was not one which alarmed the mass of people or went against common notions. On the contrary, it attracted the masses rather than alienated them. The enemies of Christianity would have been fools to stress this side of it. We need only look at the respect with which writers as conservative as Josephus and Philo speak of the Essenes’ communism. It does not seem to them to be either unnatural or preposterous, but very noble.

The “main objection” of A.K. against primitive Christian communism, namely that it was not assailed by its enemies, proves merely that he looks at the past with the eyes of modern capitalist society, not with the eyes of the past.

Along with these objections, which are not supported by any evidence, but are mere “constructions”, A.K. makes a number of other reservations which are based on facts related in the Acts of the Apostles. It is remarkable that our critic, who is so skeptical with respect to descriptions of persistent conditions in primitive Christian literature, takes every account of an isolated event at face value. It is almost as though he wanted to explain the descriptions of social conditions of the Heroic Age in the Odyssey as fabrications, but accept Polyphemus and Circe as historical personages, who really did what is related of them.

But in any case these single facts prove nothing against the communism of the primitive community.

The first point A.K. makes is that the community in Jerusalem is supposed to have been 5000 strong. How could such a throng, including women and children, make up a single family?

But who says that they made a single family, eating at a single table? And who would take his oath that the primitive community really was five thousand strong, as the Acts of the Apostles says (IV, 4). Statistics were not the strong point of ancient literature, least of all in the Orient; exaggeration for the sake of an effect was a favorite procedure.

The exact figure of five thousand is often given when it is desired to indicate a great throng. Thus the gospels know with precision that there were five thousand men, “beside women and children” (Matthew 14, verse 21), that Jesus fed with five leaves. Is my critic willing to swear in this case too that the figures are exact?

Actually, we have every reason to consider the number of five thousand members of the primitive community as exaggerated. Soon after Jesus’ death Peter, according to Acts, makes a fiery agitational speech, and three thousand have themselves baptised on the spot (2, 41). Further exhortation makes many more believe, and now the number is five thousand (4, 41). How large then was the community when Jesus died. Immediately after his death there was a gathering and “the number of names together were about an hundred and twenty.” (1, verse 15).

This indicates that the community was very small at the beginning, despite the most intense propaganda by Jesus and his apostles. And now after his death are we to say that the community suddenly grew from something over a hundred to five thousand, because of a couple of speeches? If we have to take any definite number, the first would be much more likely than the second.

Five thousand organized members would have been something very striking in Jerusalem, and Josephus would certainly have taken notice of something so powerful. The community must have been quite insignificant as a matter of fact for all its contemporaries to have let it pass unnoticed.

A.K. makes a further objection: After describing the communism of the community, Acts continues: “And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, (which is, being interpreted, the son of consolation), a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus, having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles feet. But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, and kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (chapters 4 to 5).

This is supposed to be testimony against communism, for, A.K. holds, Barnabas would not have been picked out for mention if all the members had sold their goods and brought the money to the apostles.

A.K. forgets that Barnabas is contrasted with Ananias here, an example of how to act. This brings out the communistic requirement even more clearly. Should the Acts of the Apostles name every one who sold his property? We do not know why Barnabas is singled out, but that emphasizing him means to say that he was the only one that practiced communism – that is really having too low an opinion of the authors of Acts. The example of Barnabas comes directly after the account of how all that owned anything sold it. If Barnabas is named particularly, that may be because he was a favorite figure of the authors, who often mention him later. perhaps also because only his name was handed down along with that of Ananias. After all, these two may have been the only members of the primitive community who had something to sell, the others being all proletarians.

The third objection rests on the fact that in Acts 6, verses 1f., it is said: “And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministrations.”

“Is this possible in a thorough-going communism?” asks A.K. indignantly.

But who says that in putting communism into operation there were no difficulties, or even that there could be no difficulties? The account goes on, not to say that communism was abandoned, but that the organization was improved by introducing the division of labor. From then on the Apostles were concerned only with propaganda, and a committee of seven was chosen for the economic functions of the community.

The whole account is in excellent accord with the assumption of communism, but is meaningless if we accept the view of our critic, which he borrows from Holtzmann, that the primitive Christians did not differ from their Jewish fellow citizens in their social organization, but only in their faith in the “recently executed Nazarene.”

What was the point of the complaints about the division, if there was no sharing?

Again: “In chapter 12 [of Acts] it is said, in strict contradiction to the report of communism, that a certain Mary, a member of the group, lived in a house of her own.”

That is correct, but how does A.K. know that she had the right to sell the house? May not her husband have been alive, and not a member of the community? And anyway, even if she was allowed to sell the house, the community might not have been helped thereby. This house was the place where the comrades assembled. Mary had put it at the disposition of the community, and they used it, even though it may have belonged to Mary in the legal sense. It is not evidence against the existence of communism that the community used places of assembly, that it was not a juristic person that could acquire such premises, that hence individual members formally owned them. We can not ascribe such a senseless spirit of routine to primitive Christian communism as to require that the community should have put those houses of its members up for sale, and divided up the proceeds, when they were needed for use.

Finally, and as the last objection, there is the point that communism is reported as applied only with respect to the Jerusalem community, and that nothing is said about the other Christian communities. We shall have more to say on this when we come to the further development of the Christian communities. We shall see whether, and how far, and for how long, communism was practiced. That is a separate question. It has already been suggested that the large city created difficulties which did not exist in agricultural communities such as the Essenes, for instance.

Here we are dealing only with the original, communistic tendencies of Christianity; and there is not the slightest reason for doubting them. They are attested to by the testimony of the New Testament, by the proletarian nature of the community, by the strong communistic element in the proletarian part of Judaism in the last two centries before the destruction of Jerusalem, so strongly expressed in Essianism.

What is alleged against it are misunderstandings, subterfuges and empty constructions without any support in reality.

Contempt for Labor

The communism to which primitive Christianity aspired, in accord with the conditions of its period, was a communism of the means of consumption, a communism of sharing them and eating them in common. Applied to agriculture, this communism could have led to a communism of production, planned work in common. In the metropolis under the conditions of production at that time, the proletarians were kept apart by their occupations, whether those were handicrafts or begging. Urban communism could not aim any higher than intensifying the process of bleeding the rich by the poor, which the proletariat had developed to such a pitch of perfection in the cities where it had achieved political power, as in Athens and Rome. The communalism it aimed at could not go beyond common consumption of the victuals thus obtained, a communism of housekeeping, a family community. As we have seen, Chrysostom discusses it from this point of view solely. He does not care who is to produce the wealth that is to be consumed in common. The same attitude is to be found in primitive Christianity. The Gospels have Jesus discuss everything under the sun, but not work. Or rather, when he does speak of it, it is in the most disdainful manner. Thus he says, in Luke (12, verses 22f.):

“Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on. The life is more than meat, and the body is more than raiment. Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls? And which of you with taking thought can add to his stature one cubit? If ye then be not able to do that thing which is least, why take ye thought for the rest? Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothe the grass, which is today in the field, and tomorrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith! And seek not what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, neither be ye of doubtful mind. For all these things do the nations of the world seek after: and your Father knoweth that ye have need of these things. But rather seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you. Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell that ye have, and give alms.”

Here the theme is not that the Christians should not worry about eating and drinking on ascetic grounds, because he should care only for the weal of his soul. No, the Christians should seek the kingdom of God, that is their own kingdom, and then everything they need will come to them. We shall see how earthy was their conception of the “kingdom of God”.

Destruction of the Family

If communism does not rest on community of production, but of consumption, it tries to convert its community into a new family, for the presence of the traditional family tie is felt as a disturbing influence. We have seen this in the case of the Essenes, and it is repeated in Christianity, which often voices its hostility to the family in harsh terms.

Thus the gospel attributed to Mark says (3, verses 31f.): “There came then his [Jesus’] brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him. And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee. And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren? And he looked round about on them which sat around him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.”

Luke is particularly harsh in this point too. He says (9, verses 59f.): “And he [Jesus] said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead; but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house. And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”

This demands extreme disregard for the family, but the following passage from Luke breathes direct hatred of the family (14, verse 26): “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”

Here too Matthew shows himself an opportunistic revisionist. He gives the foregoing sentence the following form (10, verse 37): “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” The hatred of the family is toned down here.

A closely related theme is the aversion to marriage, which primitive Christianity required as did the Essenians. The resemblance goes so far that it seems to have developed both forms of being unmarried: celibacy, abstinence from all marital practices, and unbridled extra-marital sexual intercourse, which is also described as community of women.

There is a noteworthy passage in Campanella’s City of the Sun. A critic says: “St. Clement of Rome says that by apostolic institutions wives too should be in common, and praises Plato and Socrates for having also said that this must be done. But the commentary takes this to mean community of obedience towards all, not the community of the couch. And Tertullian confirms the gloss, and says that the first Christians had everything in common, excepting the women, who were in common only in obedience.” This community “in obedience” reminds one strongly of the blessedness of the poor “in spirit”.

Peculiar sexual relations are indicated by a passage in the Doctrine of the Twelve Apostles or Didache, one of the oldest books of Christianity, from which we can see its organization in the second century. It says (XII, 11):

“But every prophet, tried and true, who acts with a view to the earthly secret of the church, yet does not preach that all should do as he does, shall not be judged by you, for he has his judgment in God; for just so did the old [Christian] prophets act.”

Harnack comments on these obscure words that the “earthly secret of the church” is marriage. The aim is to counteract the mistrust of the communities towards such prophets, who practiced strange sorts of marriage. Harnack conjectures that these lived in marriage like eunuchs or treated their wives as sisters. It is hard to conceive that such restraint would have aroused scandal. It would be different if these prophets did not merely preach sexual intercourse without marriage but practiced it “like the old prophets”, that is, the first teachers of Christianity.

Harnack himself cites as a “good illustration of acting with a view to the earthly secret of the church” the following passage from the letter on virginity, falsely attributed to Clement (I, 10): “Many shameless people live together with virgins under the pretense of piety and so fall into danger, or they go out alone with them on paths and in solitary places, in ways that are full of dangers and scandals, snares and pitfalls ... Others again eat and drink with them, reclining at table, with virgins and consecrated women (sacratis), in the midst of pride and ease and much shamefulness; yet such things should not be among believers, and least of all among those who have chosen the virgin state for themselves.”

In the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians the apostles, who are pledged to remain unmarried, claim the right to roam freely through the world with ladies. Paul cries out: “Am I not free? ... Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles, and as the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas [Peter]?” (I Corinthians 9, verses 1 and 5).

This comes immediately after Paul has advised against marriage.

This going about of the apostles with young ladies plays a great role in the Acts of Paul, a romance which according to Tertullian was written by a presbyter in Asia Minor, during the second century, as he himself confessed. None the less, “these Acts were for a long time a favorite book of edification” [5], a sign that the facts related in it did not scandalize many pious Christians, but seemed highly edifying to them. The most remarkable thing in it is the “pretty legend of Thecla ... which gives an excellent picture of feeling in the Christian world of the second century.”

This legend tells how Thecla, the betrothed of a noble youth in Icarium, heard Paul speak and immediately became an admirer of his. In the course of the tale we get a description of the apostle: small stature, bald head, crooked legs, projecting knees, big eyes, eyebrows grown together, longish nose, full of charm, looking sometimes like a man and sometimes like an angel. Unfortunately we are not told which of these features is classified as angelic.

In any case, the magic power of his words makes a deep impression on the beautiful Thecla and she leaves her betrothed, who accuses Paul before the governor as a man who induces women and youths to withdraw from marriage; Paul is thrown into prison, but Thecla gets to see him and is found in prison with him. The governor sentences Paul to be banished from the city and Thecla to be burned. A miracle saves her; the burning pyre is extinguished by a rainstorm, which also drives away the spectators.

Thecla is free and goes after Paul, finding him on the road. He takes her by the hand and goes with her to Antioch. There they encounter a nobleman who falls in love with Thecla at once and seeks to take her from Paul, offering a large sum as compensation. Paul answers that she is not his and he does not know her, a timid answer indeed for so proud a confessor. Thecla however defends herself vigorously against the dissolute aristocrat, who tries to obtain her by force. She is therefore cast to the wild beasts in the circus, who will not harm her, and so once more she goes free. She now puts on men’s clothing, cuts off her hair and wanders off again after Paul, who directs her to preach the word of God, and probably gives her the right to baptize, to judge by a comment of Tertullian’s.

Obviously the original form of this tale contained much that scandalized the later church; “but since these acts were found edifying and instructive in other respects, they made it do by means of a clerical revision that excised the most objectionable parts without however eliminating all traces of its original character” (Pfleiderer, op. cit., p.179). But although much of the data may have been lost, the hints that have come through suffice to attest very peculiar sexual relations, quite at variance with traditional rules, that caused great scandal and hence needed to be energetically defended by the Apostles: relations that the later church, turned responsible, sought to palliate so far as it could.

How easy it is for celibacy to go over into extra-marital sexual intercourse, except in the case of fanatical ascetics, needs no elaboration.

The Christians expected marriage to come to an end in their future state, which would be inaugurated at the resurrection; this is shown by the passage in which Jesus has to answer the ticklish question as to who will be a woman’s husband after the resurrection if she has had seven on earth, one after the other:

“And Jesus answering said unto them, the children of this world marry, and are given in marriage: But they which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither many, nor are given in marriage: Neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels; and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection” (Luke 20, verses 34 to 36).

This should not be taken to mean that in the future state of the primitive Christians men would be pure spirits without bodily needs. Their corporeality and their delight in material pleasures is particularly stressed, as we shall see. At any rate, Jesus says here that in the future state all existing marriages will be dissolved, so that the question as to which of the seven husbands is the right one becomes academic.

It is not to be taken as a proof of hostility to marriage that the Roman bishop Callixtus (217-222) permitted maidens and widows of senatorial rank to have extra-marital intercourse even with slaves. This permission was not the product of a communism whose hostility to the family was carried to an extreme, but mere opportunistic revisionism, which by way of exception, in order to win rich and powerful supporters, makes concessions to their tastes.

Communistic tendencies constantly kept arising in the Christian church in opposition to this sort of revisionism, and they were often linked up with rejection of marriage, either in the form of celibacy or what is called community of women, as often among Manichaeans and Gnostics. The most energetic of these were the Carpocratians.

“The divine justice, taught Epiphanes, the son of Carpocrates, gave everything to his creatures for equal possession and enjoyment. Human laws first brought thine and mine into the world, and along with them theft and adultery and all the other sins; as the apostle says, ‘By the law is the knowledge of sin’ (Romans 3, verse 20; 7, verse 7). Since God himself implanted the powerful sex drive in men for the conservation of the species, it would be ridiculous to prohibit sexual desire, and doubly ridiculous to prohibit coveting your neighbor’s wife, which would make what is common into private property. According to these Gnostics, then, monogamy is just as much a violation of the community of women required by divine justice as the private ownership of property is a violation of the community of goods ... Clement concludes his description of these libertine Gnostics (Carpocratians and Nicholaites, a branch of the Simonians) with the remark that all these heresies may be divided into two tendencies: they either preach moral indifferentism or an overwrought sanctimonious abstention.” [6]

Those were as a matter of fact the two alternatives of thoroughgoing housekeeping communism. We have already pointed out that the two extremes meet, that they rise from the same economic root, however discordant they may be in thought.

With the dissolution, or at least the loosening, of the traditional family ties a change in the position of woman must have taken place. If she ceased to be tied down to the narrow family housekeeping, she would get a feeling for and an interest in, other ideas outside the family. Depending on her temperament, talents and social position, she might now, along with family ties, get rid of all ethical thinking, all respect for social prohibitions, all discipline and shame. This was largely the case with the noble ladies of Imperial Rome, who were relieved of all family work by the size of their fortunes and artificial childlessness.

Conversely, the elimination of the family by housekeeping communism produced a marked rise of ethical feeling in the proletarian women which was now carried over from the narrow family circle to the much broader sphere of the Christian community, and rose from the selfless care for the daily needs of husband and child, a concern for the freeing of the human race from all misery.

Thus at the beginning we find not only prophets but also prophetesses active in the Christian community. For example, the Acts of the Apostles tells us of Philip the “Evangelist,” who “had four daughters, virgins, which did prophesy” (21, verse 9).

The story of Thecla, whom Paul entrusts with preaching and even baptism, probably, also indicates that the existence of female teachers of the divine word was not at all unheard-of in the Christian community.

In the first Epistle to the Corinthians (chapter 11), Paul expressly conceded the right of women to appear as prophetesses. He requires of them only that they keep their heads covered, – in order not to excite the lust of the angels. The fourteenth chapter it is true says (verses 34f.): “Let your women keep silence in the churches; for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”

But this passage is considered by modern textual critics to be a later forgery. Likewise, the entire first letter of Paul to Timothy (together with the second one and the letter to Titus) is a forgery of the second century. Here the woman is vigorously forced back into the narrow realm of the family: “She shall be saved in childbearing” (I Timothy 2, verse 15).

That was not at all the position of the primitive Christian community. Its notions of marriage, the family and the position of women are in complete correspondence with what followed logically from the forms of communism that were possible at that time, and are one proof more that this communism dominated the thinking of early Christianity.


1. Sittengeschichte Roms, II, pp. 540-43.

2. Pffeiderer, Urchristentum, I, p.613.

3. S.P.N. Joanni Chysostomi opera omnia quae exstant, Paris 1859. ed. Migne IX, 96-98.

4. Friedländer, Sittengeschichte Roms, I, p.111.

5. Pffeiderer, Urchristentum, II, p.171f.

6. Pffeiderer, Urchristentum, II, p.113f.

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