Mikhail Rostovtzeff is barely remembered in our time. Yet the paradox he embodied – a staunch anti-communist who championed economic analysis of classical Greece and Rome – is worth reconsideration. To his great credit, Rostovtzeff set out to shift the focus of ancient historiography on politics and military matters to economic concerns. Classically trained, a man of prodigious learning and without fear of grand narratives, Rostovtzeff boldly reconstructed the economies of ancient Greece and Rome in terms familiar from capitalism, that is, in terms of neoclassical economic theory.
As on so many issues that divide left-wing and right-wing Christians, the Bible seems frustratingly pliable when it comes to the issue of property rights. Conservative Christians like to assert that the Bible takes private property for granted, that the Eighth Commandment demonstrates it to be a “divine institution” or a “sacred right,” and that the many examples of wealthy patriarchs prove not only private property, but large accumulations of it, have divine sanction. Those more inclined toward some kind of Christian socialism like to point out Jesus’s very harsh strictures on the accumulation of wealth and the assertion of private property rights, and the early Jerusalem community’s practice of “having all things in common.” As so often happens, we seem to be faced with something of an Old Testament/New Testament divide, in which the Old Testament bolsters a conservative agenda, and the New Testament a liberal one. Is the Bible thus divided against itself?