According to Acts 4:32-37, the early Christians pooled all their possessions and had no private ownership. Is there any record of how long this lasted, and why it ended?
There is an excellent written words in this page on "No one that lacked..." section.
Edit: I took down the link above, as it now redirects to a potential scam site. I do apologize for this. For those who know how to access older versions of sites that has robot.txt, here is the link. To the author of this question: I completely understand if you wish to accept another answer.
Acts 4:34 says that “there was not a needy person among them” due to distribution of the proceeds of the sale of houses and land.
Now, as stated above, we don’t know how long this arrangement continued. However, by the end of the eleventh chapter, there were certainly many needy believers, many who lacked. In fact the church in Judea had become so impoverished due to a worldwide famine that the Christians in Antioch took a collection to help them.
If you look at the larger context of that account in Acts, it seems that it is referring to a specific group of Christians, and not necessarily "all Christians, everywhere:"
31 When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness. 32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. -- Acts 4 (NRSV)
At least in the NRSV translation, it seems that verse 31 (and earlier) sets the stage for which group of Christians is being discussed. Then verse 32 and 33 appear to be a continuation of this account, which is discussing the same group of Christians, and not Christians at large. John Darby's commentary on Acts 4 also suggests that these verses are all in reference to a single account.
If this is accurate, then we probably have no way of knowing when this specific group of Christians stopped sharing their possessions.
"According to Acts 4:32-37, the early Christians pooled all their possessions and had no private ownership."
It isn't "the early Christians", but one group of them at a specific time.
Many people had come to Jerusalem (perhaps for business, pleasure, or religious reasons) and had been converted to Christianity while there. They had no jobs or property in Jerusalem, and when the money they had originally brought with them ran out they pooled what few possessions they had and ended up living on the charity of each other and by the goodness of resident Christians.
Many of these "poor" people might actually have been relatively wealthy; they simply hadn't prepared for a long stay and had no access to their money back home. Some of them in fact did have access to some of their property, even land and buildings, and they sold them to help out with the situation that had developed.
"Is there any record of how long this lasted, and why it ended?"
This situation was a very temporary and unexpected event.
Suppose you are on a camping trip and a storm damages several of the tents and destroys some of the food. It would be a natural response, Christian or not, for those that still have food and shelter to share it with the others. It wouldn't make any difference whether some of the people are normally wealthy; all that counts at the moment is that some are in need and some are able to share with them.
What happened to the group in Jerusalem was very similar. People would have eventually either gone back home (spreading the word and converting others), or have found employment and residence in Jerusalem.
Consider what 1Timothy says about one specific kind of charity. Widows that have children or nephews are supposed to be taken care of by those relatives. In particular, verse 5:16 says:
If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed.
We can see that the Church will take care of "true" widows, but those that have close relatives should be helped by those relatives, and not be a burden on the Church's charity.
If Christians were living a communal lifestyle, Timothy's advice wouldn't make any sense. Communism discourages families and treats everyone equally. A widow with no relatives wouldn't be treated any differently than anyone else, widowed or not.
It continues to this day. There are still Christians in various traditions who practice some form of communal ownership. Many members of the Jesus Army, for example, share all their income and salary with the church (although reclaims can be made if individuals decide to leave the Church).
Assuming the sharing of all things was a general response to conversion, the two books of Thessalonians suggest that some were too lazy and mooched off others. Paul told them they had to work with their hands, and also said if someone refuses to work let him also refuse to eat (my own translation from the Textus Receptus).
Most of the Early Church Fathers wrote in the late first century and the early second century. Irenaeus does not mention any such practice (c. 180 AD) and Eusebius (first Church historian 4th century AD) is silent about the practice. An ancient story (possibly late first or very early second century) about St. John, after his release from Patmos, ("Of the Rich Man who could be Saved") does not mention the practice and it is even suggestive that by that time it no longer existed.
So, if a general practice, it probably was still ongoing in 55 AD, but disappeared by the end of the first century, except as monastic practices. A possible theological reason was Micah 4:4, which is part of a Messianic prophecy. Notice that prophecy suggests private ownership of income property (specifically a vineyard and fig-trees).
A likely practical reason was in the reign of Nero, the Roman Empire decided Christianity was not protected as a part of Judaism. The Church was caught in a pincer-move: Leaders in Jerusalem persecuted Christians, and now the Roman Empire persecuted them. This would naturally cause Christians to disperse, making the practice impractical at best and impossible at worst.
All the believers, thousands by then, held their possessions in common, and distributed them according to need. (Acts Chap 2:41 and 44-45, Chap 4:32) Then some people started complaining about not getting their correct shares. So the 12 disciples requested that seven men be chosen who would attend to the distributing. This was so that the 12 would not have to spend their time attending to the distributions, and could instead spend their time spreading the word. The group of believers then chose Stephen and six others. Then certain groups that were connected to the synagogue started to complain about Stephen, accusing him falsely, and Stephen ended up being stoned to death. (Acts, all of Chap 6 and Chap 7:59-60, Chap 8:1-2) And the believers were scattered abroad after the tribulation that came after Stephen. (Acts 11:19) There is no further mention of possessions being held in common. Therefore, one can only speculate how long that lasted.
The original question is a tad leading in that it appears to presuppose that the communal living described in Acts 2 was not ad hoc. I think we should investigate that first before answering the rest.
Evidence that it was ad hoc:
- it is not prescribed anywhere
- Paul describes giving as voluntary
- these were the last days, so a special situation
- this was Jerusalem, where the apostles lived and taught
- they were waiting for the Lord who was going to descend to Jerusalem
Evidence that it was NOT ad hoc:
- Jesus and his disciples were itinerants:
[Luk 9:58 KJV] (58) And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.
- Jesus spoke about "forsaking all" and "letting the dead bury the dead" as requirements for any would be disciple (though there may be "spiritual forsaking" involved):
[Luk 14:33 KJV] (33) So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.
- Acts records Gamaliel's prophecy that if this work is not of the Lord it will disband like similar movements:
[Act 5:33-42 NLT] (33) When they heard this, the high council was furious and decided to kill them. (34) But one member, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, who was an expert in religious law and respected by all the people, stood up and ordered that the men be sent outside the council chamber for a while. (35) Then he said to his colleagues, "Men of Israel, take care what you are planning to do to these men! (36) Some time ago there was that fellow Theudas, who pretended to be someone great. About 400 others joined him, but he was killed, and all his followers went their various ways. The whole movement came to nothing. (37) After him, at the time of the census, there was Judas of Galilee. He got people to follow him, but he was killed, too, and all his followers were scattered. (38) "So my advice is, leave these men alone. Let them go. If they are planning and doing these things merely on their own, it will soon be overthrown. (39) But if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even find yourselves fighting against God!" (40) The others accepted his advice. They called in the apostles and had them flogged. Then they ordered them never again to speak in the name of Jesus, and they let them go. (41) The apostles left the high council rejoicing that God had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus. (42) And every day, in the Temple and from house to house, they continued to teach and preach this message: "Jesus is the Messiah."
Personally, I see this as ad hoc and never to be repeated as it was a unique situation: the soon return of Christ on the day of the Lord:
[1Co 7:29-32 NLT] (29) But let me say this, dear brothers and sisters: The time that remains is very short. So from now on, those with wives should not focus only on their marriage. (30) Those who weep or who rejoice or who buy things should not be absorbed by their weeping or their joy or their possessions. (31) Those who use the things of the world should not become attached to them. For this world as we know it will soon pass away. (32) I want you to be free from the concerns of this life. An unmarried man can spend his time doing the Lord's work and thinking how to please him.
Once Jesus came and snatched them up (along with the dead in Christ) at Christ's second coming there was no more Christian community on earth to be concerned with!
But Luke's purpose in describing this is not to establish an economic model for secular governments or for his followers but rather to bring to mind what was really going on in Jerusalem at that time and that was what was described in the prophets which was the resurrection of Israel from the dead:
[Eze 37:11-14 NLT] (11) Then he said to me, "Son of man, these bones represent the people of Israel. They are saying, 'We have become old, dry bones--all hope is gone. Our nation is finished.' (12) Therefore, prophesy to them and say, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O my people, I will open your graves of exile and cause you to rise again. Then I will bring you back to the land of Israel. (13) When this happens, O my people, you will know that I am the LORD. (14) I will put my Spirit in you, and you will live again and return home to your own land. Then you will know that I, the LORD, have spoken, and I have done what I said. Yes, the LORD has spoken!'"
[Isa 2:2 NLT] (2) In the last days, the mountain of the LORD's house will be the highest of all--the most important place on earth. It will be raised above the other hills, and people from all over the world will stream there to worship.
[Hos 3:5 NLT] (5) But afterward the people will return and devote themselves to the LORD their God and to David's descendant, their king. In the last days, they will tremble in awe of the LORD and of his goodness.
[Mic 4:1 NLT] (1) In the last days, the mountain of the LORD's house will be the highest of all--the most important place on earth. It will be raised above the other hills, and people from all over the world will stream there to worship.
[Act 2:17 NLT] (17) 'In the last days,' God says, 'I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams.
[2Ti 3:1 NLT] (1) You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times.
[2Pe 3:3 NLT] (3) Most importantly, I want to remind you that in the last days scoffers will come, mocking the truth and following their own desires.
[1Pe 1:20 NLT] (20) God chose him as your ransom long before the world began, but he has now revealed him to you in these last days.
[Heb 1:2 NLT] (2) And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he created the universe.
I think the description of the ad hoc housing is also intended to evoke the imagery of the wilderness experience as remembered in the Feast of Booths.
- the fact that the saints in Jerusalem were reduced by the regional drought to serious poverty is not presented in the scriptures as a failure but rather a divinely ordered opportunity for body life. Paul enthusiastically describes how he has been bragging about how delighted the Corinthians are to send relief to the saints in Jerusalem and all the great things that are coming about because of it:
[2Co 9:1-15 NLT] (1) I really don't need to write to you about this ministry of giving for the believers in Jerusalem. (2) For I know how eager you are to help, and I have been boasting to the churches in Macedonia that you in Greece were ready to send an offering a year ago. In fact, it was your enthusiasm that stirred up many of the Macedonian believers to begin giving. (3) But I am sending these brothers to be sure you really are ready, as I have been telling them, and that your money is all collected. I don't want to be wrong in my boasting about you. (4) We would be embarrassed--not to mention your own embarrassment--if some Macedonian believers came with me and found that you weren't ready after all I had told them! (5) So I thought I should send these brothers ahead of me to make sure the gift you promised is ready. But I want it to be a willing gift, not one given grudgingly. (6) Remember this--a farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop. (7) You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don't give reluctantly or in response to pressure. "For God loves a person who gives cheerfully." (8) And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others. (9) As the Scriptures say, "They share freely and give generously to the poor. Their good deeds will be remembered forever." (10) For God is the one who provides seed for the farmer and then bread to eat. In the same way, he will provide and increase your resources and then produce a great harvest of generosity in you. (11) Yes, you will be enriched in every way so that you can always be generous. And when we take your gifts to those who need them, they will thank God. (12) So two good things will result from this ministry of giving--the needs of the believers in Jerusalem will be met, and they will joyfully express their thanks to God. (13) As a result of your ministry, they will give glory to God. For your generosity to them and to all believers will prove that you are obedient to the Good News of Christ. (14) And they will pray for you with deep affection because of the overflowing grace God has given to you. (15) Thank God for this gift too wonderful for words!
This illustrates that while the Corinthians were quite distant from Jerusalem they were in the same "body":
[Heb 13:3 KJV] (3) Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body.
[1Co 12:25-27 KJV] (25) That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. (26) And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. (27) Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.
The following book lays out a good case to show that this way of living continued for several hundred years. The proof of that is long and therefore best covered in this book:
All Things in Common gets behind the "communism of the apostles" passages in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37, using the anthropological categories of "social relationship" espoused by David Graeber and other anthropologists. Looking at sources ranging from the Qumran scrolls to the North African apologist Tertullian to the Roman satirist Lucian, All Things in Common reconstructs the economic practices of the early Christians and argues that what is described in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37 is a long-term, widespread set of practices that were taken seriously by the early Christians, and that differentiated them significantly from the wider world. This book takes into account Judean and Hellenistic parallels to the early Christian community of goods, as well as the socioeconomic context from which it came, and traces its origins back to the very teachings and declarations of Jesus.
This book will be of interest to anyone interested in Christian history, and especially the socioeconomic aspects of early Christianity, as well as anyone interested in Christian ethics and New Testament studies. It would also be of interest to anyone interested in possible alternatives to the ideology of capitalism.