Reading the legal codes in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, it is clear that private property was taken for granted. One of the Ten Commandments was “Thou shall not steal.” There are numerous references about appropriate restitution when someone’s property has been taken or damaged. Private property was central to Old Testament economic life.
However, ownership of private property was not absolute.
Deut 15:4-5 NRSV
4 There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the LORD is sure to bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, 5 if only you will obey the LORD your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today.
The law required that farmers not harvest all the way to the edge of the field. (Leviticus 23:22) The Jubilee placed restrictions on the permanent transfer of land. (Leviticus 25) Also, the Israelites were required to make contributions for care of the Levites and certain governmental activities. There were communal issues that took precedence over property rights.
No where in Scripture do we see a mandate for an equal distribution of income. Some argue that the jubilee code in Leviticus 25 was wealth redistribution. It was not. The jubilee put measures in place that prevented the permanent sale of agricultural land or permanent servitude. Debt was tightly constrained.
Some have used Acts 2:45 to suggest that the Early church intended communal ownership of property:
Acts 2:44-45 NRSV
44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
These actions were done under extraordinary circumstances. The church was exploding. Many new believers would have been disowned by their families. Christians voluntarily pooled their resources to meet the need. This was not a model for ongoing church community.
The ideal world envisioned by peasants of Palestine in Jesus' day, as well as in the Old Testament era, was each peasant with his own land, free to enjoy the fruits of his labor. The common reality was domination by one political force or another.
Taxation and fees could amount to more than half of what peasants produced. The produce was hoarded in vast storehouses and either traded for other goods (enjoyed only by the wealthy) with distant nations or sold back to peasants and urban workers. Governments worked hard to replace barter exchange with monetary exchange, thus improving their ability to tax transactions. Wealthy landowners would find opportunities to loan peasants money when they hit hard times. But the peasants lived on such a razor-thin margins of production that they rarely had any surplus to repay. One more hard time and they would loose their lands to the wealthy landowners and become their serfs. Revolts were generally led by revolutionaries and new empires who promised cancellation of debts and land redistribution but once in power they would resort to the same old tactics.
In this context, where increase in productivity through technological innovation was unheard of, the economy was a zero-sum game. Someone's significant excess in wealth was understood to come at the expense of others. Unlike today, where most wealth exists in the form of productive assets like stock ownership or money made available for loans by placing it on deposit at the bank, wealth generally meant acquiring land (thus depriving someone else of land) and warehousing things like grain (thus depriving others of food.) Thus, the concerns for distribution of goods do not easily translate into a modern economy.
Seemingly, God desires to have billions of Adams working their own “gardens.” He created all of us to be stewards of his resources. When all goods are held in common, the productivity and creativity tends to drop to the level of the laziest and most incompetent. There is no incentive to work harder. Any increased productivity merely accrues to the slackers. Private property encourages conscientious use of resources to their maximum benefit. Therefore, the most economically productive arraignment is private property. Still, God’s mandate that there “be no one in need among you” checks productivity as our only value.