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Jesus and the Pernicious Roots of Private Property

The scathing criticisms of private property that we find in the mouth of Jesus are well-known. “Go, sell what you have,” he tells the rich man who asks for the secret of eternal life (Mark 10:21; Matthew 19:21; see also Luke 12:33). Again and again, we encounter the polemic against property, the possession of which is regarded as an evil and as a massive hindrance to joining the kingdom of God. Jesus valorises simplicity over luxury and forgoes the influence and power that comes with wealth. In short, everything about him stands against the deep values of the Hellenistic propertied classes. In the words of G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, “I am tempted to say that in this respect the opinions of Jesus were nearer to those of Bertholt Brecht than to those held by some of the Fathers of the Church and by some Christians today” (Ste. Croix 1981: 433).

I am less interested here in the twisting and turning by later exegetes to ameliorate these embarrassing texts, and my concern for now is not the Christian communist tradition that finds inspiration in these and other texts (Acts 2:44-5; 4:32-5). Instead, I suggest that this implacable opposition to property has a far deeper reason. Simply put, the very definition of private property, invented by the Romans a little over a century before the time of Jesus, is based upon slavery. That is, private property relies on the reduction of one human being to the status of thing (res) that is “owned” by another human being. Let me explain.

Private property was an invention of the Romans in the second century BCE. In Roman law, property or dominium, is a relation between an individual person and a thing, characterised by absolute, inalienable power of that person over that thing. Although it is too easily ignored in dealings with the ancient world, this point is a commonplace in histories of jurisprudence and economics (Anderson 1974: 65-7; Jolowicz 1952: 142-3, 426; Linklater 2000: 1432; Patterson 1982: 31; Graeber 2011: 199-201, 205, 290).

What did the Romans mean by private property? The legal and economic category is “absolute property,” or what is known as dominium ex jure Quiritium – the right of absolute ownership for any individual Roman citizen.[1] The crucial distinction is between “possession” and “property”: the former refers to the control of goods, while the latter entails full legal title to those goods. While possession is subject to qualification and external constraint, property refers to the unqualified and absolute legal title to something. And if one has absolute rights to a piece of property, one is able to alienate it, to dispose of it. The Roman jurors defined absolute ownership as the right to dispose perfectly of a material thing insofar as it not forbidden by law: jus perfecte disponendi de re corporali nisi lege prohibeatur.

This definition presents at least two problems. First, is it really possible to have utterly inalienable property? It would be easy to find an objection to the exercise of absolute power over a thing I own, whether – to suggest some items in view – the small binoculars with which I watch the coal ships entering and leaving the harbour, my wok, or my copy of the book On Farting (Allen 2007). A neighbour may object if I use the binoculars to peer into her bathroom, or if I were to bang my wok loudly at 3.00 am and sing bawdy songs, or my children may ask me to desist from reading from the book in question at a birthday party. Indeed, the qualifier, nisi lege prohibebatur, suggests precisely such limitations. Yet that qualifier also recognises that the basic form of property is private property and that private property is the owner’s absolute power to do anything he or she wants with it.

The second problem leads us on a fascinating path: how is it possible for a human being to have a relationship with a thing? Surely the issue is the way people relate to one another concerning things. On Farting is mine only insofar as everyone else in the world recognises it to be so, or rather recognises the validity of the law that states it is mine. Yet these Roman jurors did not frame their law in such a fashion; they insisted that the relationship is between a human being and a thing. Now matters become interesting, but they also indicate the specificity of the history and nature of private property. The key is that these Roman jurors were actually thinking about relationships between human beings, except that one of those human beings was a slave. Or rather, the slave may once have been a human being, but now he or she was a thing, a res.

This unique legal and economic development was the product of specialised jurists who were neither practising lawyers nor state functionaries. They offered opinions, when requested, on problems of legal principle, but never made decisions concerning specific court cases. And their focus was civil law, rather than the treacherous territory of public law (the relations of citizen to state, patron to clients, and patriarch to his familial dependants) or that of criminal law. Specifically, they were concerned with disputes over property, over contracts and exchange between Roman citizens, that is, economic transactions such as sale, purchase, hire, lease, inheritance, and property in marriage. They were, then, legal theorists rather than judges, devoted to analytic and theoretical reflection on civil and economic law.

For these theorists, the question of private property – as the relation between a human being and a thing – had arisen due to the extensive development of a slave-based economic system. With the conquest of the Mediterranean from 300 BCE onwards, the vast influx of conquered peoples who became slaves, the huge increase in economic transactions, and the reliance on slaves for those transactions, the question of the relation between slaves and masters became ever more pressing. In this context, two developments enabled the discovery of private property by the Romans. First, the word for property became dominium, which derives from dominus, master or slave-owner. The dominus was, of course, the paterfamilias of the domus, over which he had absolute power. Dominium appears late in the second century, soon after dominus (111 BCE). Second, slaves were simultaneously devalued. In early Roman law, in the fifth century BCE, slaves were still regarded as human beings, albeit of lesser status since injuries against slaves required only 50 per cent of the recompense paid to a free person. However, by the late Republic, when the concept of dominium emerged, a slave had been redefined as a res, a thing, and injuries against them had the same status as those against farm animals (Watson 1987: 46).

In this situation, that of a slave economy, did the huge theoretical and practical breakthrough of private property emerge. As Graeber sums up: “In creating a notion of dominium, then, and thus creating the modern principle of absolute private property, what Roman jurists were doing first of all was taking a principle of domestic authority, of absolute power over people, defining some of those people (slaves) as things, and then extending the logic that originally applied to slaves to geese, to chariots, barns, jewellery boxes, and so forth – that is, to every other sort of thing that the law had anything to do with” (Graeber 2011: 201).

Did this new idea spread rapidly across the globe at the time, thereby providing the basis for private property as we know it? The answer is no. With the fading of the Roman Empire, private property as so defined was lost for centuries, only to be rediscovered in the high Middle Ages under the “lawyer popes” of the “Papal Revolution” and in Italian universities. By adapting Roman law to feudalism, the murky area of property was clarified. The popes of the eleventh to thirteenth centuries developed a system under which everyone sought the opinion of the papal courts. Land claims were cleared up, due process for every minute aspect of daily life was established, litigants streamed to Rome for decisions, the pope’s legal representatives (legates) were everywhere, and papal power spread. This rediscovery fed into myriad strands, including the Enlightenment, the French civil code of Napoleon, and above all the growth and establishment of capitalism in the sixteenth century.[2]

What are the implications for the resolute opposition to private property in the Gospels? It is due neither to some counter-cultural stance by a hairy group of proto-hippies, nor to an anti-imperial strain germane to these texts. Rather, the denunciation goes right to the core of the definition of private property: the reduction of a human being to the status of a thing and the assertion that one may have absolute power over that person. Given the history of private property, its crucial recovery by the lawyer popes and its subsequent enshrinement as a corner-stone of capitalism, this polemic has a distinct pertinence today.


Allen, Valerie. 2007. On Farting: Language and Laughter in the Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Anderson, Perry. 1974. Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism. London: Verso.

Gianaris, Nicholas V. 1996. Modern Capitalism: Privatization, Employee Ownership, and Industrial Democracy. Westport: Greenwood Publishing.

Graeber, David. 2011. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. New York: Melville House.

Jolowicz, H. F. 1952. Historical Introduction to the Study of Roman Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Linklater, Andrew. 2000. International Relations: Critical Concepts in Political Science. New York: Routledge.

Miéville, China. 2004. Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory Of International Law. Leiden: Brill.

Patterson, Orlando. 1982. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Proudhon, Peirre-Joseph. 1840. Qu’est-ce que le propriété? Recherche sur le principe du droit et du gouvernement. Premier mémoire. Paris: J.-F. Brocard.

Ste. Croix, G. E. M. de. 1981. The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquest. London: Duckworth.

Watson, Alan. 1987. Roman Slave Law. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[1] Quirites is the common name used for Roman citizens after the Romans and Sabines were united (Romani was reserved for warriors and rulers). Thus, quiritary ownership applies to citizens.

[2] This development was first noted by none other than Proudhon (Proudhon 1840; Gianaris 1996: 20; Miéville 2004: 190-1, 195-7).

(3) Comments

  1. Pingback: Jesus and the pernicious, slave-based roots of private property « Stalin's Moustache

  2. I don’t really see that. The gospels never speak against slavery, and Paul even condones it by returning a slave to his master and using the analogy of slavery to explain one’s relationship to Yahweh. It seems more likely that the position of the New Testament is pro-Roman (and thus pro-slavery) in opposition to 1st Century Judaism which no longer supported slavery as moral.

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