Why has Christian communism always remained a peripheral if persistent feature of Christianity? This study explores the origins of the idea in the biblical book of Acts of the Apostles, the foregrounding of such communism in the work of Friedrich Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, and Karl Kautsky, and how their work influenced, often in polemical response, biblical scholarship on early Christianity. In particular, this tradition of Christian communism has taken two forms, one concerned with communal living and “having all things in common” and the other with the revolutionary origins of Christianity. While Engels argued for the latter, Luxemburg and Kautsky argued for the former. Some of the basic assumptions of these arguments persist in biblical scholarship: the appeal of Christianity to the lower classes, the ground-shaking nature of the movement, but also the betrayal involved in becoming a religion of the state. But did Christian communism actually exist in earliest, first-, or even second-century Christianity? The evidence is exceedingly slender if not nonexistent. And so I take a dialectical line, arguing that the probable nonexistence of early Christian communism is precisely the basis for the political myth of Christian communism. Later this myth would gain historical traction through those who sought to emulate the myth. One question remains: why did this political myth not become central to Christianity? I argue that it was a regressive myth, attempting to hold on to a fading economic form rather than (like Paul) offering a mediation that enabled a transition to the newer, slave-based mode of production of the Hellenistic world.
Roland Boer; The Fate of Christian Communism. the minnesota review 1 November 2011; 2011 (77): 111–130. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00265667-1422607
Download citation file: