Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Community of Acts 4:32-35: An Inspiration for Equality Today

But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods' shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have.
--Xenophanes (c.570 - c. 475 BCE), in H. Diels and W. Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker.
If God has made us in his image, we have returned him the favor.
--Voltaire (1694-1778), Notebooks

Thousands of years ago Xenophanes recognized Greek religion was humanity writ large. Greek gods were often criticized for being less moral than humanity, which is likely why Xenophanes made his comment, although we don't have the context, since his only extant writings are quoted by others.

Hundreds of years ago Voltaire criticized more modern religions, specifically Christianity for the same reason. When we're honest, we see Hebrew and Christian scriptures reflect their culture and authors just as much as the Greek poetry creating their gods.

The authors of the Bible were most likely men living in an age where patriarchy and misogyny were the norm. There's no hiding that a lot of misogyny permeates through the Bible. People certainly try to hide it, but it is only hidden by those who don't want to see it.

Fortunately, the Bible also houses a lot that uplifts women, placing them on equal footing with men. Unfortunately, many people fail to see these parts. Some of them are hard to miss and others are hard to find.

Acts 2 and 4 both carry short descriptions of an early group that Acts describes as people who believed. It would be anachronistic for us to call these people "Christians," since Christianity as we know it today was not extant. These descriptions are a brief snapshot into gender equality in the Bible. 

Acts 4:32-35

At the very end of Acts 4, the storyteller tells us "the whole group of those who believed" were a community in a way sounding almost like socialism (v. 32). According to these verses, an echo of 2:42-47, none of those who believed--it would be anachronistic to call these people "Christians"--"claimed private ownership" (4:32). Instead, each individual or family unit thought mi casa es su casa, to introduce another anachronism. But it wasn't just their homes, it was also their fields and the crops therein. Since crops involve labor and care, one person's time was another person's time. To add to the oddness of this group, they managed to eradicate poverty in their numbers by selling any excess they had and giving the money to the apostles. (I assume this passage is the basis for the idea of a benevolent fund in today's churches.)

This sort of community stands against its own scriptures. They were Hebrews, but the concept of ownership is decently clear in Hebrew scripture. Even the "big ten" gives an implicit concept of ownership, specifically ownership of one's wife. Exodus 20:17 considers a wife a piece of property that should not be coveted, in the same ranks as another man's ox, servant, or even his ass (although, we're not talking about homosexuality ... yet). And the Ten Commandments aren't the only place making this implicit statement in the Jewish and Christian scriptures.

In Acts, the Israelite believers claim no "private ownership of any possession." "Of any possession" would include a house, wife, servant, ox, ass, or anything else. Personally, I doubt wives were shared with the entire community. Rather, giving up private ownership means wives are no longer possessions. They aren't something you own to complement or balance you in the home or in raising children, rather they are partners and equals--"of one heart and soul," like everyone else in the community (v. 32).

Deciding on Egalitarianism

These verses are simply examples of the contrasting view of the genders in the Bible, views that reflect the individual communities and constructed to be divinely right. Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures experience this contrast within themselves. Both display misogyny that many prefer to construe as complementarianism, the idea that men and women are inherently different in their societal roles, but are best when together in heterosexual marriage (Rachel Held Evans rightly calls it "soft patriarchy" 

The Hebrew and Christian traditions and scriptures are also filled with examples of women who are powerful, holy, and independent of men. Since the scriptures display many sides within the spectrum, any "biblical" theology of manhood and womanhood is a delicate balancing act of what you want to believe. Just as the community described in Acts decided men and women are equal, we, too, must decide. When it comes to religious communities today, the impetus to decide what is godly, just, and right remains with us.

And when we look at the world around us--including the world throughout history--and the world within us, I can't see how our decision could be anything but equality. Women and men everywhere are equals in virtue, leadership, business, art, entrepreneurship, religion, politics, and more, unfortunately including mistakes. The only area in which men and women are complementary is reproduction and balancing prospectives on life that are connected to one's sex. Men cannot fully understand life in relation to the menstrual cycle, child birth, and breast feeding--a perspective one might deem gynocentric or at least largely gyno-influenced--just as women cannot understand a man's necessarily phallocentric or phallo-influenced view on life. Men and women can balance each other and, indeed, need each other, but no more than white people need people of other races to balance them, Christians need people of other religions to balance them, and heterosexual people need the LGBTQ community to balance them. That is how we should understand complementarianism.

In making this decision towards equality, it cannot simply stop at sex and gender either. The community of believers in Acts took a dangerous leap of faith when they banished the concept of ownership from their midst, a decision that is very marginal  even today, especially when it comes to what we consider the continuation of those believers (viz., the Church). We, too, whether people of faith or not, need to take a similarly dangerous leap of faith by continually speaking out for equality of all humanity--equality of sex, gender, religion, race, nationality, gender expression and identity, and sexuality. And we need to work--not fight--for this equality in our personal lives, religious communities, and political communities.

When we make this decision for true egalitarianism--one that includes and goes beyond men and women--then we are honoring and living in the spirit of this community in Acts 4.


  1. Great article. One question: Does your statement about women being compared to property, such as a wild animal, derive from what the original Hebrew language is conveying?

    1. The English translations reflect the Hebrew decently in Exodus 20:17: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor is ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor's" (I use the KJV, because I feel like we know the Ten Commandments best in that translation). The Hebrew uses not only the same verb, but also the same pattern when it talks about the neighbor's house and the neighbor's wife: "You shall not covet/desire the house of your neighbor. You shall not covet/desire the wife of your neighbor." Afterwards, it simply lists everything else, "nor this, nor that, nor anything of your neighbor's."

      The only possibly insight I get from looking at the Hebrew here is that when the Hebrew says "thou shalt not cover thy neighbor's wife," it connects the negative "lo" with the verb "chamad" (tachmod, when conjugated) by a maqqep. A Maqqep connects to words like a hyphen in English. In this instance, the maqqep could be simply for reasons of rhythm and pronunciation. The maqqep would mean that the cantor would read the second "lo tachmod" as one word and doesn't need to have any connotative significance.

      Further one might infer that the commandment is "Thou shalt not cover thy neighbor's house" and that what follows are some examples of what is included in thy neighbor's house, house being a metonym for that which belongs to the neighbor. The translation might be as follows: "Thou shalt not covet they neighbor's house: neither they neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything of his."

      This new possibility wouldn't even mean that thy neighbor's wife is the crown of the possessions. Sure, she was listed first, but the emphasis is on his house, which has an echo in "nor anything of his." His wife is just an example, like his servants and his animals.

      In fact, the second commandment has a slightly similar example. It begins "thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image" (v. 4) using the "lo" and then the verb construction to say, "Thou shalt not." Verse 5 also begins "Thou shalt not," but is not considered another commandment, but rather an explanation of the same commandment. This one uses the "lo+maqqep+verb" construction to say "Thou shalt not bow thyself down to them." However, the very next part of v. 5 goes back to "lo" plus the verb without the maqqep. And v. 16 uses the maqqep.

      All that to say, the maqqep probably carries no significance in v. 17 and it is the only thing I can see in the Hebrew that could even begin to fight the idea that this verse implicitly considers women property.

      That said, there are still numerous examples of women being property and women being equal and independent in the Jewish & Christian scriptures. The story of Jacob, Laban, Rachel, and Leah is an example of the women as property, where Laban required Jacob to work for his daughters--a dowry is a father transferring ownership of his daughter to a man for a payment. Then you also have Huldah the prophetess to whom King Josiah went in search of God's desires. Or in the New Testament you have Jesus on the cross passing care and ownership of his mother to John on one hand and Paul's extreme admiration for Priscilla and her husband who is only mentioned in conjunction with Aquila. (One of my favorite examples of strong women are Judith from the Apocrypha and the Esther of the Greek book of Esther who uses her femininity to outwit the king.)

    2. Thanks for expounding. That definitely makes better sense now, and I can see why one would draw those conclusions. To add, I recall a story in Genesis, before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorroh. If I remember correctly, as the men are standing outside of the house, shouting threats and demanding for the owner to send out the "men" within, the owner actually offers up his own virgin daughter to appease them. Disgusting, despicable, and to me, a powerful example of how women were viewed as property in (at least) certain times of the Bible. The thought that a father could hand over his daughter in such a way is reviling.

  2. Good words, Trevar. Interestingly enough, I have been doing some research on sexual slander in early Christianity, specifically looking at Epiphanius' "Medicine Chest Against Heresies." In there he does accuse Christians of sharing wives, among other accusations. There is no evidence that early Christians did actually share wives, but ancients who were not exactly fans of Christians did use just these texts to accuse them of quite bad behavior.

    1. When I said I doubt they held wives in common, there was a nagging part of me saying, "Why?" I guess I agree that some NT texts lend themselves easily to that sort of interpretation--or even to a "free love" or "polyamorous" reading.

      I am glad to know you can back me up with a lack of evidence of those interpretations, since I made that assumption.