Given the standard features of the Golden Age and its literary ubiquity in the early Empire, Luke’s portrait of a community that marks the dawn of a new age, a “utopian restoration of the unity of the human race,” and that holds its property in common, lives in remarkable peace and harmony and enjoys God’s favor, could not help but bring this myth to the minds of many of his readers. Luke seems to have intentionally crafted his accounts to highlight these utopian associations.
See Also: Common Property, the Golden Age, and Empire in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35 (T&T Clark, 2020).
By Joshua Noble
Liberal Arts & Sciences
Thomas Aquinas College
In the first few chapters of Acts, Luke gives three summaries of the day-to-day life of the Christian community in Jerusalem. In two of these summaries, Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35, Luke includes the striking detail that the believers held their property in common: “All who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:42); “No one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32). Modern discussion of these verses has often been entangled with contemporary debates regarding communism.[i] The more pertinent interpretive issue, however, is what these descriptions of common property would have brought to mind for first- and second-century audiences. A further mystery involves the fate of this community of property: why does Luke never mention this conspicuous practice again?
In this essay, I will explore one of the connections that Luke’s readers would likely have made when reading his depictions of common property: the myth of the Golden Age.[ii] After briefly presenting the myth’s Greek background, I will show how Roman authors developed the Golden Age idea in new ways that made it an important context for understanding the theme of common property in the early Empire. Next, I will review how other Jewish and Christian authors during this period used the Golden Age myth in their own writings. Finally, with this background in view, I will argue that Luke’s account of the lifestyle of the early Jerusalem community alludes to this myth. By doing so, Luke characterizes the coming of the Holy Spirit as beginning a new age in which the human race will be restored and reunited. At the same time, Luke’s use of the Golden Age motif relativizes the power and importance of the Roman emperor in comparison with Christ. Finally, reading these summaries as Golden Age allusions helps to explain why the practice of common property does not reappear in Acts.
Greek and Latin Accounts of the Golden Age Myth
We can observe the basic outline of the Golden Age myth in Hesiod’s Works and Days, where it first appears. Hesiod presents an overview of human history schematized around different metals. The first, “golden” humans enjoyed a utopian existence:
"Golden was the race of articulate humans that the immortals who live on Olympus made first. They lived at the time of Cronus, when he was king in heaven. They lived like gods, having a carefree heart, without toil and misery …. All good things were theirs: the wheat-giving earth bore fruit spontaneously, in abundance and without envy. Contented and at peace, they lived off their lands with many good things, rich in sheep, dear to the blessed gods (Op. 109-120)."[iii]
Hesiod then portrays succeeding generations, associated with silver and bronze, as declining from this ideal state. The descent culminates with a prediction about humanity in Hesiod’s own day, the “Iron Race”:
"They will not cease from toil and misery by day nor from being oppressed at night, and the gods will give them grievous cares …. Father will not be united to children, nor children to father, nor guest to host, and a sibling will not be dear as before …. And shrieking, evil-loving, horrible envy will accompany all miserable humans" (Op. 176-196).
Later Greek authors, such as Plato and the poet Aratus, presented their own versions of the Golden Age myth, but the basic scheme remained the same. The myth begins in an idyllic past “Golden Age,” identified with the reign of Cronus, when humans lived at peace with others and enjoyed the favor of the gods. One or more inferior ages follow, ending with the present “Iron Age,” in which envy, strife, and warfare predominate and the human and divine realms have become estranged.
While the Golden Age myth became a stock tale among Greek authors, it was a Latin writer, Virgil, who transformed and revitalized the myth at the dawn of the Roman Empire. Virgil refers to the Golden Age in all three of his major works, and each time he introduces a major new feature into the myth.
Virgil’s first innovation is the idea of a return of the Golden Age. In his fourth Eclogue, written during the tumultuous power struggle following the death of Julius Caesar, Virgil predicts that the world is on the cusp of a new period of peace and piety, a new Golden Age:
"Now the last age of the Cumaean song has come; the great series of ages is born anew. Now the Virgin also returns, the reign of Saturn returns; now a new race descends from the height of heaven. But you, chaste Lucina, show favor to the boy when he is born; because of him the Iron Race will now at last cease and a Golden Race will arise in the whole world" (Ecl. 4.4-9).
Precisely what will prompt this return is unclear; the poem refers to the birth of a “boy,” but his identity remains uncertain.[iv] Nevertheless, what had previously been a pessimistic tale of decline now carries, under Virgil’s pen, a message of hopeful expectation.
In Virgil’s next major poem, the Georgics, he describes the lifestyle of the first Golden Age and again introduces something entirely new to the myth:
"No farmers used to plow the fields: not even marking or dividing the open field with a boundary was allowed. They used to seek the common good, and the earth itself used to produce all things more freely when no one was demanding it" (Georg. 1.125-128).
Some of Virgil’s details, such as the lack of plowing and the earth’s spontaneous production of food, are traditional. What is unprecedented is the idea that, during the Golden Age, the earth was not divided into private property. This marks the beginning of the idea, which quickly became commonplace, that the Golden Age was a time when property was held in common.
Virgil returns to the idea of a new Golden Age once more in his last poem, the Aeneid. Reflecting Augustus’ now-unchallenged control of Rome, Virgil has Anchises credit the return of the Golden Age to the emperor:
"This man, this is the one whom you have quite often heard promised to you, Augustus Caesar, the child of a god, who will establish the golden ages again in Latium throughout fields formerly ruled by Saturn, who will extend his empire beyond both the Garamantes and the Indians" (Aen. 6.791-795).
The Golden Age myth now has a clear political message: the Roman Empire comprises a new utopia, and it is the emperor who is singularly responsible for this return to peace and prosperity.
What makes Virgil’s innovations so important is that all three were adopted by subsequent authors, quickly becoming standard features of the Golden Age myth in the early Empire. After Virgil, the practice of common property was regularly ascribed to the Golden Age.[v] A return of the Golden Age also continued to be announced and attributed to the emperor; Martin West counts at least sixteen different Roman emperors who were credited with bringing about a return of the Golden Age.[vi] A final point to be noted is just how popular the Golden Age myth became during this period as a literary theme. As the classicist Denis Feeney describes it, the story of the Golden Age became “the great Roman myth” in the years following Virgil.[vii]
Jewish and Christian References to the Golden Age Myth
Before turning to Acts, we should observe that this widespread popularity of the Golden Age myth led Jewish and Christian authors to make use of it in their own writings. The Golden Age motif was sometimes employed merely as a useful literary device. Josephus, for example, borrows standard features of the Iron Age to color his portrait of Cain, making him “the first to place boundaries on land, to build a city, and to fortify it with walls” (A.J. 1.62). The myth’s political associations gave it polemical potential as well, however. Philo describes the joy surrounding the accession of the emperor Gaius as being so great that “the life of Cronus recorded by poets was no longer believed to be a mythical fiction” (Legat. 13). This belief was in line with the regular claim that the Roman emperor would bring about the return of the Golden Age, but Philo points out that this expectation regarding Gaius was completely misguided: “In this case, after a short time the one who had been believed to be the savior … changed to savagery” (Legat. 22). Philo does not say outright that attaching Golden Age hopes to the Roman emperor is always mistaken, but this implication could easily be drawn.
The most explicit polemical use of the Golden Age myth during this period occurs in the Sibylline Oracles, a collection of fourteen books written by both Jewish and Christian authors. These books explicitly invoke the Golden Age tradition, and they depict the eschatological condition of the righteous as a new Golden Age, complete with common property:[viii]
"The earth will be equally shared with all, not divided by walls or fences, and it will then bear more produce spontaneously. Property will be common and wealth undivided. In that place, there will not be poor or rich, tyrant or slave; there will no longer be someone great or small, no kings and no leaders. Everyone will be together in common" (Sib. Or. 2.319–324).
Equally noteworthy is the Oracles’ use of these Golden Age themes to criticize Rome. They predict that Rome will bring about Iron Age conditions, the inverse of the Golden Age of the righteous. Under the “unlawful kingdom of the Italians” (Sib. Or. 8.9),
"The earth will have boundaries, and the whole sea guards, being deceitfully divided between all those who possess gold. As though wanting to possess forever the earth, which feeds many, they will plunder the poor so that they may enslave them and acquire more land by pretense" (Sib. Or. 8.28-32).
Yet the Oracles predict that Rome will ultimately receive its comeuppance in Hades, where it will suffer a mockery of the Golden Age. In Hades, it is darkness and despair that are “common property”:
"Night is equally shared by all together, by those who have wealth and by the poor …. No one is a slave there, no master, no tyrant, no kings, no leaders with great affectation …. The age is common to all" (Sib. Or. 8.107-121).
This brief look at the Golden Age motif in Josephus, Philo, and the Sibylline Oracles suggests a few points to keep in mind when we turn to Acts. First, the idea of a returning Golden Age makes this motif useful for eschatological descriptions. Second, the association of the myth with Rome and the emperor makes sense of why it appears in texts that have some orientation to Rome, either positively or negatively. Third, the Golden Age feature of common property, introduced by Virgil, occurs regularly in Jewish and Christian references to the myth.
The Golden Age and Acts
The fact that references to the Golden Age myth tend to occur in texts that are concerned with Rome is relevant to our consideration of Acts, which pays a good deal of attention to the empire and its officials. Further, Luke draws comparisons between Christ and the Roman emperor on at least a couple of occasions. Jesus’ birth is associated with a decree from “Emperor Augustus” (Luke 2:1), and Jesus is announced as a “savior” and “Lord” whose arrival is associated with “peace” (Luke 2:11, 14). All three of these terms were regularly used in Roman propaganda to describe the emperor.[ix] Similarly, in Acts 10, Peter tells a Roman centurion that it is Jesus who brings “peace” and is “Lord of all” (Acts 10:36), another title ascribed to the emperor.[x]
The Sibylline Oracles’ eschatological use of the Golden Age myth also fits with a possible Golden Age allusion in Acts 2 and 4. The summaries in these chapters portray the lifestyle resulting from outpourings of the Holy Spirit, the first on Pentecost (Acts 2:38) and the second following the release of Peter and John (Acts 4:31). Further, Peter’s Pentecost speech, quoting Joel, makes clear that this gift of the Spirit is an eschatological event: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (Acts 2:17). As F. F. Bruce puts it, the summaries thus present “an ideal picture of the Spirit-endowed community of the new age.”[xi]
As portraits of the new age of the Spirit, in a book concerned with the relationship between the Christian community and Rome, a Golden Age allusion would certainly not be out of place in the summaries. When we turn to the details of their descriptions, this expectation is confirmed by close correspondences with the way of life in the Golden Age. Most striking, of course, is the practice of common property. Luke’s assertions that “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32) and that, therefore, “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34) mirror accounts of the Golden Age, in which “no one … possessed any private property, but all things were common” (Trogus, Ep. 43.1.3), such that “you would not be able to find a poor person” (Seneca, Ep. 90.38).
Other aspects of Acts 2:42-45 and 4:32-35 also show strong similarities with depictions of the Golden Age. Two of the most consistent Golden Age characteristics were unity and divine favor: people were “of the same mind” (Seneca, Ep. 90.40), and “god himself tended and took care of them” (Plato, Pol. 271e). Both themes are clearly present in the Acts summaries. Luke says that the believers had “one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32) and describes them as living homothumadon (Acts 2:46), literally with “one spirit.” God’s care for the community is also manifested as “day by day the Lord added to their number” (Acts 2:47).
Given the standard features of the Golden Age and its literary ubiquity in the early Empire, Luke’s portrait of a community that marks the dawn of a new age, a “utopian restoration of the unity of the human race,” and that holds its property in common, lives in remarkable peace and harmony and enjoys God’s favor, could not help but bring this myth to the minds of many of his readers.[xii] Luke seems to have intentionally crafted his accounts to highlight these utopian associations. The next question to address is why he might have done so. The uses of the Golden Age motif elsewhere suggest three reasons. First, as noted earlier, Peter describes the Spirit’s coming as an event that marks the last days: “‘In the last days it will be,’ God declares, ‘that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh’” (Acts 2:17). Since Peter describes the eschaton as “the time of universal restoration” (Acts 3:21), the Golden Age myth was a fitting vehicle for this idea. Beginning with Virgil, this myth was employed to announce a restoration of the original blessedness of the human race. Luke is showing that this expected restoration is occurring and precisely through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Second, this gift will be given to all peoples: God will pour out his Spirit “upon all flesh” and will bring about a “universal restoration.” Acts traces this expansion, as the gospel is preached “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). With its strong emphasis on unity among people, the Golden Age myth was apt for signifying the renewed harmony of the human race brought about by the universally available gift of the Spirit. Further, by making use of a Gentile myth to depict the early Jewish believers, Luke is implying that the hopes of all people, not only Jewish but also Gentile, have been answered in Christ.
The third reason why Luke might allude to the Golden Age myth is due to its political connotations. As previously noted, Luke seems to have intentionally compared Christ and Caesar, applying titles and claims to Christ that were typically attached to the Roman emperor. One such claim was that the emperor would bring about a return of the Golden Age. By the time that Luke is writing, these hopes have been repeatedly raised — and dashed. We saw Philo’s observation that the Golden Age expectations placed on Gaius were quickly frustrated, and the same phenomenon happened even more markedly with Nero.[xiii] Now, however, Luke is making his own assertion that the Golden Age has arrived, and it has been brought about by Christ, not Caesar. Just as Christ is the true “Lord” and “savior,” so he is also the one who has truly restored human harmony and reconciled God and the human race.
Finally, recognizing that the motif of common property is part of an allusion to the Golden Age myth can help explain the puzzling fact that this practice is never again mentioned in the Bible. While Luke certainly shows deep concern for the proper use of material possessions, the specific practice of common property in Acts 2 and 4 may serve more as a sign than as a paradigm. By bringing to mind the Golden Age motif, the believers’ community of property characterizes the coming of the Spirit as an event marking the beginning of a universal restoration of the human race that is available to all people. Elsewhere in the Bible, the arrival of the Spirit is often accompanied by some notable sign, such as prophesying (Num 11:25; Acts 19:6), speaking in tongues (Acts 2:4; 10:46; 19:6), tongues of fire (Acts 2:3), or an earthquake (Acts 4:31). What is relevant here is that many, if not all, of these signs are temporary. This is explicitly stated in Num 11:25: the seventy elders prophesied when the Spirit was first placed on them, but “they did not do so again.” If the practice of common property similarly functions as a sign of the Spirit, then its disappearance from the pages of Acts does not imply that the practice was misguided or that the community fell into disharmony, but rather that this motif has fulfilled its role as a sign.
[i] Karl Kautsky, known as the “Pope of Marxism,” used these passages to support his claim that early Christianity had a “uniformly communistic character” (Foundations of Christianity: A Study in Christian Origins [New York: International, 1925], 335). George Thomas Stokes agreed that the Jerusalem community had “adopted the principles of communism” but thought that “Christian legislatures of our own age may learn a lesson of warning against perilous experiments in a communistic direction from the disastrous failure in Jerusalem” (The Acts of The Apostles, The Expositor’s Bible 18 [New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1905], 1:199, 206).
[ii] For a more detailed exposition of the Golden Age myth and its relation to the Acts summaries, see my Common Property, the Golden Age, and Empire in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35, LNTS 636 (New York: T&T Clark, 2020).
[iii] All translations of classical texts are my own; biblical quotations are from the NRSV.
[iv] The “boy” of the poem has been suggested to be the child of Pollio, Antony, or Octavian. Just as often, this boy is taken to be nothing more than a symbol of the birth of a new age.
[v] Other attributions of common property to the Golden Age in the late first century BCE and first century CE include Tibullus, El. 1.3.43-44; Trogus, Ep. 43.1.3; Ovid, Am. 3.8.41-42; Metam. 1.135-136; Germanicus, Arat. 118-119; Seneca, Phaed. 528-529; Ep. 90.36, 38, 40; Plutarch, Cim. 10.6-7; Oct. 403.
[vi] Martin L. West, ed., Hesiod: Works and Days (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978), 177.
[vii] Denis C. Feeney, Caesar’s Calendar: Ancient Time and the Beginnings of History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 112.
[viii] The Golden Age myth clearly influences the Oracles’ retelling of the early history of humanity, and it is explicitly referenced in the description of the post-flood generation, which is described as “a new race of humanity … the first golden one, the best” (Sib. Or. 1. 283-284).
[ix] The most frequently cited parallel is the Priene inscription from 9 BCE, which proclaims Augustus as “a savior who brought an end to war and arranged peace” and a “god” whose birth marked “a beginning of good news for the world.” Further examples of this language occur in many other inscriptions.
[x] Epictetus, for example, calls Caesar “the lord of all” at Diatr. 4.1.12-13.
[xi] F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 132.
[xii] Richard I. Pervo, Acts: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 61-62.
[xiii] Nero’s accession is proclaimed as a return of the Golden Age by Seneca (Apoc. 4.1), Calpurnius Siculus (Ecl. 1.42, 64; 4.6-8), and the Einsiedeln Eclogues (2.22-24). Within a decade or two, the Octavia was denigrating his reign as an Iron Age instead.