Everything together? The economic life of Jesus and the first Christian communities

A review by prof. Paul van Geest

After reading Jonathan's Cornillon Tout en commun ? La vie économique de Jésus et les premières communautés chrétiennes, I have ventured a prediction. This prediction is that his thesis will enjoy the same splendid fate as Peter Brown's brilliant biography of the life of Augustine.

In 1967, a young historian, Peter Brown, obtained his doctorate in Oxford with a biography of Augustine of Hippo. Usually, good dissertations are put on library shelves to be consulted from time to time by other PhD students in the same field over the years. But in the case of Peter Brown, things were different. His biography was so excellent that it has established itself as the standard account of Saint Augustine's life and teaching, especially since in 2000 the remarkable discovery of a considerable number of letters and sermons by Augustine has led Peter Brown to reconsider some of his judgements on Augustine.

So, sometimes a dissertation has eternal value.

After reading Jonathan's Cornillon Tout en commun ? La vie économique de Jésus et les premières communautés chrétiennes, I have ventured a prediction. This prediction is that his thesis will enjoy the same splendid fate as Peter Brown's brilliant biography of the life of Augustine.

In his Rule for the clerical community he founded around 397 in the monastery garden at Hippo, the Church Father proposed the community of goods as the foundation for a common life where, due to this community, jealousy and greed would be banished and  property would be shared. Of course, in describing his ideal of the community of goods, he based himself on the passage from Acts 4. There, Luke tells us that the Christian community in Jerusalem had all possessions in common and that Ananias and Sapphira had to pay with their lives for withholding the profit from the sale of a tract of land.

Many in the history of Christianity after him would idealize the situation of the first Christians on basis of this passage. In our part of the world, in the Middle Ages for example, the early Christian way of living together was characterised by people like Thomas à Kempis as the Devotio Antiqua, whereas the reform movement he belonged to was judged on a similar idealizing level with the first Christians and described as Devotio Moderna.

Well. If influential authors such as Augustine and Thomas a Kempis, to name but a few, had read Jonathan Cornillon's thesis, they would probably have taken a more nuanced view of the community of goods. And if Luke had read this thesis, the question would probably have been whether he would have been so certain about the fate of Ananias and Sapphira. That the community of goods does not imply that the first Christians possessed everything in common, Cornillon proves convincingly and valuably, for example, by pointing out that Jesus certainly owned a house in Capernaum which he made available to a group of Christians. Only at a later stage in his public life did everything become communal. However, this communal ownership does not mean that all property in Jerusalem was initially expropriated. It did shine a different light on private property and the poor could be helped sooner thanks to the community of goods.

Cornillon's in-depth study of literary and archaeological sources enables him to reconstruct the characteristics of the household, the oikonomia of Jesus. This results in surprising insights, for example into the considerable differences in wealth among the first disciples of Jesus. Some probably had to live on a bare minimum, but fishermen like Peter and his brother Andrew must have had some property and Matthew (Levi), a tax collector, must even have been wealthy. In addition, Cornillon demonstrates just as convincingly in the first part of his book (pp. 59-207) that the financing of the sending-forth of the twelve - and probably more - apostles was logistically and economically more complicated than Jesus suggests, when he says in Luke 9: 1-10 that they were not even allowed to bring a travel bag. That women not only accompanied Jesus and his disciples (Luke 8: 3), but wealthy women also, more than previously thought, financed his enterprise, is also an insight that has not been so explicitly addressed anywhere in the literature. And the situation in the ecclesia primitiva was by no means ideal, as Thomas à Kempis believed. John, for instance, accuses Judas of theft from the collective treasury, which he managed (Jn 12.6). Precisely because the author, for the purpose of studying the financial situation of Jesus and his disciples, makes no distinction between the gospels and non-biblical sources, a very nuanced and credible picture emerges of the financial situation in the first community around Jesus, which, by the way, cannot yet be called Christian.

This approach also leads to wonderful insights into the economic circumstances of Jesus' disciples in the following period. In the second part (212-400) he makes it plausible that in the first Christian communities there were indeed people who were very wealthy, like Erastus, Gaius (Rom 16:23) or Phoebe (Rom 16:1-2). It is therefore evident that there was great socio-economic heterogeneity in the early Christian communities. Archaeological research by Leonard Rutgers into the petrified faecalia found in the area of Rome where many Christians lived, for example, showed that they really did not have enough money to buy good food.

At the same time, however, a system of material solidarity that had no precedent arose in Greece through the collections that were held there and which made care of the poor all the more effective. There, the foundations were laid for the credibility, appeal and élan of the first Christian community. Paul himself financed his travels with gifts from the communities he evangelised. Even though he supported himself by labour, it was impossible for him to pay for it alone (Acts 18:3). Much later, Paul's financing was an important issue for Augustine. In De opere monachorum, the Church Father hints that Paul derived his credibility from his efforts to provide for himself. The more autonomous the proclaimer economically is, the more credible he is. But Augustine is also aware that the costs of Paul's travel and stay could not be covered by his income. Therefore Paul was free to accept gifts. Based on his exhaustive knowledge of Scripture, Augustine obviously anticipated the conclusion Cornillon would draw 1620 years after the release of De opere monachorum: the missionary journeys were simply too expensive to be paid for by a tent maker like Paul alone.

In the third part (403-551) of his book, Cornillon discusses the early Christian sources which show that already in the first, early second century, the pastors  in the Christian congregations received a certain remuneration for their services. This was done with the necessary wisdom and prudence. The Didachè (11-13), for example, points out that prophets who visit a particular congregation may be granted hospitality, but must leave after a certain time. So, they do not burden the congregation too much and do not give the impression that they are seeking a comfortable life. Preaching and its financing appear to have been linked to the credibility and integrity of the pastor and preacher from early on in the history of Christianity. The remuneration of clergy is very well documented from the third century onwards, and institutional diversity appears to be very great. This makes it all the more remarkable that in a period that Cornillon does not discuss, the fourth and fifth centuries, bishops of average-sized churches were paid substantially better than most professionals at the time. The bishop of Anastasiopolis was paid six times what the public doctor in Antinoopolis earned. And other bishops were paid as much as proconsuls or praetors.

In a fourth and last part (555-691) Cornillon reconstructs the forms and ideals of material solidarity of Jesus' followers from the end of the first century to the third century. I have just given an example of this above.

In short: as with Peter Brown's Augustine biography, after reading this magisterial book by Jonathan Cornillon one wonders: why hasn't someone come up with the idea before to sketch the concrete financial situation of the communities that wanted to live as followers of Jesus in the first three centuries of Christianity? Why has this highly relevant issue never been raised before? Certainly, there have been previous studies on the fiscal aspects of Paul's journeys. But never before has such a comprehensive study been published in this area. The author puts an underexposed, important subject on the agenda and sheds new light on Jesus and his movement of disciples, also because he refuses, and very rightly so, to study the material and socio-economic aspects of early Christianity separately from the spiritual message contained in the gospels and other early Christian works.  Precisely because this separation has been avoided, Cornillon has made it possible for himself to paint - as far as possible - a realistic picture of the socio-economic circumstances of the first Christians. They were much more diversified than had been suspected. This book deserves to be translated into many languages so that it can be read by many people.


Prof. dr. Paul van Geest

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