Bible Socialism

This is just a quick thought-dump… And post title not-withstanding, I would never try to project modern socio-economic theories onto the socio-economic systems of ancient cultures: that would be comparing apples to eggs. So, whether or not this bit is a definitive and responsible estimate of the Levitical system of civil finance it is completely unjustified to argue from this to the notion that “the Bible is socialist” or anything of that sort. Caveat ended, thought-dump begins:

In a recent discussion of tithing, I revisited a fact that never stood out starkly to me before: under Mosaic law only agricultural landowners were required to tithe. As tithing was, as far as I can tell from scripture, the only means of finance of the Levitical government (caveats about what Solomon or other later kings required of their subjects notwithstanding), then it seems to follow that only land-owning farmers paid taxes. There was no property tax on a home if one didn’t raise one’s own livestock on the land. There was no tax that I can find on income earned laboring on someone else’s farm.

At the same time, the Levitical tax was used primarily to support the priests, who were forbidden from owning land (and therefore producing their own wealth), and secondarily for feeding “the poor”.

So, under Levitical law, taxes were purely redistributive, and uniquely “socialist” in that they applied to those who “owned the means of production” so to speak, and used primarily for the benefit of those who had no ownership of same.

Of course this is pretty irrelevant. As I mentioned before similarities to modern “socialist” schemes are interesting but we shouldn’t try to interpret radically different ancient societies through the lens of modern ideologies. And likewise, we shouldn’t build our fiscal policies today – or try to live our lives today – on the basis of a reconstruction of an ancient society’s standards.

But it’s interesting.

7 comments to Bible Socialism

  • An interesting point. Certainly caught my attention. Thanks.

  • RW

    Is this tithing or taxes? Or was tithing the “law” back then, w/penalties for failure to comply?

  • What the English translate as “tithe” was a word that meant tenth. It was a “tax” in the sense that it was a collection of revenue for support of the civil order, and in the sense that it was the law. As far as I can discern no civil penalties are specified for non-payment – so it lacked that feature of the idea of “tax”. As I said, it’s tricky projecting modern notions of civil finance onto an ancient society. The interesting thing to me is that it is the only “tax” or “tax-like collection” specified under Mosaic law.

  • RW

    I asked not to be a nit-picky contrarian, but because a voluntary gift (10%) towards an entity that you endorse enough to hand over your money is a bit different than having 10% taken away from you by the government or church.

    I don’t think my donations to charity & my gifts to my church (much of which goes towards helping the poor in our area & church attendees who are in need of assistance) are examples of socialism in any form. [BTW, the guidelines in the bible for who was to tithe prolly came about because it's tough for a slave to hand over that which they don't own. :) ]

    I understand the sentiment, but don’t agree with the premise. The entire context of the bible is VOLUNTARY servitude (OT and NT, but especially NT). God is pretty big on free will, to the point of allowing us to screw things up royally (darn you, Adam & Eve!).

  • Yeah, RW… modern notions of “tithing” aren’t exactly a tax either (though amongst the Mormons and some other sects there is enough institutional pressure that “voluntary” might not be the right word).

    Your voluntary giving, which you may call “tithing” wouldn’t be a tax, and would be further removed from “socialism” than the the real tithe required under Mosaic law. It would be closer to Paul’s conception of “cheerful giving’.

    Mosaic law, from which the 10% figure many people go by today is traditionally derived, was law. As such, I wouldn’t count it as voluntary. In Deut & Leviticus there was no civil penalty specified for failure to comply so it may have been optional in the sense that one could get away with breaking that law. Malachi was a prophet and came long after Mosaic law was instituted, but he compared failure to robbery of God and implied that those who failed to pay would be cursed. In that sense, I wouldn’t count it as “voluntary” either. But, again – that doesn’t make ancient Israel socialist or progressive. It just means that there were some elements of tax policy that bear a similarity.

  • jlue

    It would seem to me that if you voluntarily become a Mormon, the tithe is voluntary as well, even if pressure is exerted on the individual.

    You can opt out of local church membership, but you cannot opt out of paying your taxes to the state. (Unless you are Timothy Geithner or someone who has the same political friends as Timothy.)

    Now if we had a state supported church, this argument might make a little sense to me, but we don’t. The church is actually a body made up of Christians which is the body of Christ. We are to do the work of Christ which means that if we in the body of Christ did what the Lord expects us to do, there would be no need for state welfare.

  • This wasn’t meant to be a discussion about modern giving practices that sometimes go under the name of “tithing” – it was meant to highlight some features of ancient Mosaic law on tithing. I’m afraid I couldn’t find much interesting to say about modern giving that relates to the subject of the post.

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