Propertied Patriarchs, Prophets, and Apostles (The Problem of Private Property, Pt. 3)

In the previous post in this series, I sketched the common appeal to a “Biblical defence of private property,” and then addressed the first and chief pillar of that defence–the eighth commandment.  Now I will take a look at the remaining components of this appeal: “God’s approval of private property is further demonstrated by the approbation given to so many wealthy men throughout the Scriptures–from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to Job and Solomon to Joseph of Arimathea, Barnabas, and Lydia.  In the New Testament, Jesus and the Apostles never call the institution into question, but on the contrary, they presuppose it and bolster it, whether through parables that feature wealthy landlords, or through the case of Ananias and Saphira, where Peter tells them that they were completely free to sell or keep their lands as they saw fit (Acts 4:4).” 

So, first, what do we learn from the fact that many patriarchs and other godly people in the Bible were blessed with great wealth and seem to be approved in their use of it?  Well, it could of course be asked in response: what do we learn from the fact that many people in the Bible were condemned for their great wealth and their use of it?  Private wealth is clearly an ambiguous good, as the case of Solomon makes clear: the king is not supposed to amass private wealth, but God blesses Solomon with it anyway, but it helps lead him away from God and involves the oppression of his people.  But the fact that God blesses his saints with rich private possessions does at least establish one important point contra Proudhon and his ilk, who believed “property is theft”–there is nothing inherently wrong with private property, it would seem.  However, does it tell us much more than that?  Does it tell us, to ask again the questions I put to the eighth commandment, about of the origin of PP?  The basis for it?  The conditions of its legitimacy?  Does it tell us whether PP is the only appropriate system for property, whether it is a biblically mandated institution?  Does it tell us whether PP is an imprescriptible right, or merely one “right” among others, which under various circumstances should be constrained or even abolished in favor of other considerations?

It doesn’t look like the cases of wealthy Biblical saints answers any of these questions for us.  Indeed, to return to the parallel with marriage that I mentioned in the discussion of the eighth commandment, it is worth noting that most of the wealthy Old Testament examples were blessed not merely with multiple flocks but with multiple wives as well, something we have come to treat as not merely a bad idea but as flat-out unnatural.  Moreover, we shouldn’t forget that one of the patriarchs (Joseph) engaged a full-scale communist expropriation of the land of Egypt, which, unless you are to take the theonomist tack that this was legitimate as the plundering of the godless by the godly, tends to complicate the picture.  If we can learn anything about property rights from these examples, though, it would seem to fall under the heading of “the conditions of its legitimacy,” and here again, the conclusions do not prove terribly friendly to a laissez-faire arrangement.  The patriarchs amassed their fortunes in what we might consider to be a “pre-social” or “pre-political” state–they were wandering nomads in an only partially-settled land, not members of a settled society.  Such is not our situation, and one might easily argue that once a political settlement was established, property would have to be reallocated according to a more equitable arrangement (which was in fact what happened in the settlement of the Promised Land).  And when we come to the wealthy saints of the New Testament, the striking thing is not the privateness of their property, but its commonness.  Their private property is either given away to be shared among the community, or is used for the needs of the community–as a place of worship, hospitality, etc.  But to say this is to jump ahead to the next point.

So, what about private property in the teaching of Jesus?  Is it really true, as the divine right capitalists claim, that Jesus never called private property into question, but on the contrary, presupposed and affirmed the institution throughout his teachings?  Well, truth be told, Jesus tells us little or nothing regarding the legal and political basis of property, but he certainly doesn’t have many encouraging things to say to or about those who possess a lot of it: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven….It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Mt. 19:21, 24; Mk. 10:21, 25; Lk. 18:22, 25)  “He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.” (Lk. 1:53)  “Blessed be ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven….But woe unto you that are rich, for ye have received your consolation.” (Lk. 6:20, 24)  “Sell all that ye have, and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not.” (Lk. 12:33)  We hear sometimes that Jesus in his parables portrays wealthy owners positively; even if that is so (and most of the cases are debatable), there are certainly many parables aimed quite directly at the rich (e.g., Luke 12:16-21; 16:19-24).  If we are to seek the justification of private property in the mere fact that some characters in the stories Jesus tells are property owners (as, I kid you not, some have done), then we could justify pretty much anything via appeal to Scripture.  Jesus’s own practice, from what we can tell, was to hold property in common with his disciples, and to share the little they had with those who had still less.  The example of Jesus, it seems, is hardly a promising place to look for justification of a private property regime. 


The same pattern carries over into the early Church, where the anti-property tone becomes increasingly blatant:

“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” (Acts 2:44-45). 

“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.  And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.  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.  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” (Acts 4:32-37). 

It is at this point in the narrative, with Christians, as soon as they embrace Christ, renouncing property left and right, without exception throwing all their resources into a common pool, that we meet the story of Ananias and Saphira.  In other words, the defenders of PP are clearly venturing into some fairly dangerous territory to find here a proof-text for private property.  One might just as readily seek to plunder the pages of the Communist Manifesto for some isolated paragraphs in defence of private property.   

So, if we are reading naturally, we will probably encounter the story of Ananias and Saphira with a prima facie skepticism about the good of private property.  So, when Peter says to Ananias, “While it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power?” we are probably not going to jump to the conclusion that Peter is attempting to defend the institution of PP.  Those who take it so read the passage as follows: “Some people were voluntarily coming forward and offering all of their property to the apostles.  They didn’t need to, but they chose to.  Ananias and Saphira, for some reason, decided to pretend to do so, when in fact they only gave a portion of their property.  Their sin here was not greed, for there was nothing wrong with holding back the property, but merely lying.  And this is what Peter says to them– ‘You were perfectly free to hold onto the property–there woulda been nothing wrong with that–but why lie about it?’”

 On the contrary, it will make much more sense to take Peter as describing no more than the de facto powers which Ananias possessed in this situation.  Contextually, the episode reads more like this.  “Everyone was coming forward and yielding up all of their property to the common fund.  Ananias and Saphira didn’t want to do so, but wanted to hold back some for themselves, but they didn’t want to look bad, so they decided to pretend they were giving away all of their property.  When Peter saw this, he demanded of Ananias, ‘Look, if you wanted to be stingy, then why not go ahead and be stingy?  You had the power to hold onto your property if that’s what you wanted to do, so why pretend to give it if you’re not really ready to?’”  In other words, Peter acknowledges Ananias and Saphira’s legal right over the whole of the property, since they are clearly jealous of that right, but there is no reason to suppose that he is encouraging them or any other Christians to lay stress upon that right; the tenor of the passage seems rather to be quite dismissive of it.  


Now, none of this, I must be very clear to say, is intended to deny that there are good counter-arguments to such readings.  For instance, I recognize that much effort has been expended to make the case that the community of goods in the early Church was not intended, or at the very least not required, to be a model for all ages of the Church.  There is no doubt merit in many of these efforts.  Likewise, much effort has been expended to argue that Jesus’s commands to “sell all your possessions” and his indictments of the rich are not as sweeping as they at first appear, and do not mean that many of us need to worry about selling our good and giving them to the poor.  There is no doubt merit in many of these efforts.  However, I want to draw attention to the fact that these readings take effort–they are not straightforward, simple, and natural.  One can certainly defend PP against the Gospels and Acts, but it would be exceptionally cocky to try and defend PP out of the Gospels and Acts.  The best PP seems to get from the NT is a sort of curt nod–an acknowledgment that the institution in fact exists, but with little attempt to make it look very respectable, or to encourage us to lay much stress on it.  If we go back before Christ to the Old Testament, we find a somewhat more congenial atmosphere, clearly affirming some kind of private property ownership as legitimate, but under significant restrictions, and without ever coming close to telling us that private property is the only legitimate regime, or telling us that the private property is somehow rooted in nature.   

If we were to seek to argue anything like these latter claims, we would have to do it on some other basis than that of Scripture, and careful always not to directly contravene Scripture.  In the following segments, I will explore what forms such arguments might take.

One thought on “Propertied Patriarchs, Prophets, and Apostles (The Problem of Private Property, Pt. 3)

  1. Moreover, we shouldn’t forget that one of the patriarchs (Joseph) engaged a full-scale communist expropriation of the land of EgyptWoah! Joseph's exploitation of his prophetic gift to centralise power in the hands of Pharaoh is communist? Surely it is more monarchist?Otherwise, great!


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