Ananias and Sapphira — Acts 5:1-11

Acts 5:1-6 has a famous story of the deceit of Ananias and his wife Sapphira:

A man named Ananias, and Sapphira his wife, sold their property. But they kept back part of the price (his wife having full knowledge of it). He brought just a part of the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the holy spirit, and to keep back part of the money from the land? While you had it, was it not yours? and after it was sold, was it not in your control? why have you thought to do this? You have not lied to men, but to God. On hearing these words, Ananias fell down, and died: and a great fear came on all who heard it.
— Acts 5:1-6 (tr. mine)

Next Sapphira arrives and Peter asks her about the money. She too lies, and she too dies.

Now this passage is interesting because it is one of the few incidents of a negative miracle: a miracle of condemnation, rather than of grace. Peter is the focus of this story; obviously the story is a morality tale about lying to the church, but it is Peter who engineers this situation. He acts pretty shabbily, particularly to Sapphira.

Clearly this is a bizarre account. The theme of being struck dead for lying to God isn’t developed elsewhere. So we have to recognize that this story is an isolate. And that bizarre quality would have been apparent to the early readers too.

Most scholars think that this story is probably an earlier pericope that Luke weaves into Acts after the story of a man (Barnabas) who sells his land and gives all the proceeds to the church. Luke talks about Barnabas and sees the opportunity to weave in another folk-tale from the early church. That seems likely to me too.

So where did the pericope come from?

Well, the fact is we can’t possibly know. Anything is speculation. But sometimes speculation is fun. And this week I came across:

Menoud, Phillipe H., “La mort d’Ananias et de Sapphira, Actes 5, 1-11″ in Aux sources de la tradition chretienne. M. Goguel (ed.), Delachaux & Niestlé, 1950.

And that paper contains some wild speculation that is particularly fun. Menoud suggests that Ananias and Sapphira might have been the first Christians in the Jerusalem church to die. Now we know from elsewhere in the NT (1 Thess is particularly concerned with this) that there was angst in the early church when members started to die, because they believed Jesus would come again in their lifetime (as the gospels clearly portray him teaching).

So Ananias and Sapphira die, and this is a major blow to the church. The way in which they rationalise it (and the way in which some modern churches still rationalise misfortune) is to claim some spiritual dimension. Some deeper, darker (and, of course, unverifiable) reality behind the observable facts. They make the death of these believers into a deserved punishment. Everyone would have known Ananias and Sapphira were generous donors of the church. So the story was started that they could have been more generous, but were skimming their own donations, and God took his divine retribution, through the authority of Peter.

This is fantasy, of course. We simply cannot expect to find evidence to confirm or deny it. And if you search for citations of that article, you get a selection of worthly scholars telling you how unverifiable it is. But it is interesting, feasible with what we know about the early church, and it is psychologically realistic. And, of course, it is 100% more likely than the story of their death by divine fiat after holding back some of their donation!

About these ads

16 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

16 responses to “Ananias and Sapphira — Acts 5:1-11

  1. I like the way speculation like that can provide an “or something like it” option to belief in a literal interpretation of the story. It is fun to speculate, and just the fact that there is a reasonable possibility the scenario could be true encourages further thinking and speculation.

  2. Shouldn’t your last sentence read “infinitely more likely …” — isn’t anything divided by zero considered infinite (even if there are various levels of infinite). :-)

    Excellent interpretation. Even if it is not true, it is certainly imaginable.

    I have a post which has cartoon pics of this story taken from a Christian site. People use it today, I think, to let others really understand that “God is Watching You”. This is a great story to re-enforce that notion to your congregation’s tithers.

    But as we know — the original intent of a passage and how it is used nowadays can be vastly different. Thank Ian.

  3. Ian

    @attr Definitely. I think we can pretty safely say that God didn’t strike down Ananias and Sapphira for keeping back a portion of the proceeds. So the question has to be what kinds of things could have caused the creation and propagation of that story. Answers like this, while completely unverifiable, at least show some honesty about reality – dealing with the way people really are.

    I think it is true to say that, by definition, *any* other explanation is more likely than a miracle.

  4. I think it is true to say that, by definition, *any* other explanation is more likely than a miracle.

    I agree, but in order to discuss with theists who believe in supernatural intervention, it is helpful to leave the possibility of the supernatural open. So the reasonableness of the alternative becomes important, and that’s where the fun of speculating becomes beneficial.

    More on the original topic:
    Everyone would have known Ananias and Sapphira were generous donors of the church. So the story was started that they could have been more generous, but were skimming their own donations, and God took his divine retribution, through the authority of Peter.

    Would the author (or you) add to that hypothesis that people were jealous of Ananias and Sapphira’s wealth? I suppose that doesn’t matter as much if the intent was to explain their passing before Jesus had returned. But even then it seems unlikely a tale with such harsh judgement would be spun about popular folks.

  5. Ian

    @attr Menoud doesn’t say that. Again, on the understanding that it is all unknowable speculation, it seems totally possible to me. Menoud’s point is that the post-hoc rationalisation kicked in. Even if they had been popular and loved by everyone, there would *have* to be an explanation, otherwise the foundations of the burgeoning sect would be undermined. So faced with that, the spiritual answer is the only approach, and something like the story we read had to be found. So I think it is plausible without saying much about their popularity, but certainly doesn’t preclude that being a factor, at all.

  6. Or how about the simple fact that certain churches were hurting for money and something was needed to scare the rich into tithing — they didn’t have Obama, after all.

  7. Ian

    @sabio, could be, could be… Interestingly, a friend of mine (the Catholic ecclesiologist, from a previous post), argues that the fact that the Jerusalem church sold its land and held possessions in common was a major reason it suffered famine. We read that a collection is taken up among the churches of the region to support the brothers in Jerusalem. He argues: what do you expect if all your agrarians sell their land?

  8. ideogenetic

    The story of Ananias and Sapphira only seems like an isolate because people are misinterpreting it.
    Their sin was not lying.
    Their sin was not living communally.
    Peter, the other apostles and God, all could see that Ananias and Sapphira were not in need. The whole concept of the sales in Chapter 4 was to sell what is surplus material possession for redistributing the wealth to those “who had need”. There is a moral imperative that leads into the story of A & S from Chapter 4. It was the only way to save the early Christian community from economic collapse. No society is sustainable if wealth is maldistributed.
    Just imagine the U.S. economy having a sole individual receiving the full annual income from our economic output. Where is the internal economic demand going to come from? That individual’s marginal propensity to consume is NOT infinite. He or she has no need for the millions of cars, homes, clothes, books, or movies needed to keep the economic engine moving forward. The only way the economy would continue to function would be for the sole bread winner to buy all those things and do what with them? That’s right- give them away.
    This fundamental economic truth has been lost in the cliches of modern conservatism. The economic tragedy of this forgetfulness is still unfolding.

  9. Ian

    Nicely socialist reading, ideogenetic – thanks and welcome to the blog!

    “The story of Ananias and Sapphira only seems like an isolate because people are misinterpreting it.”

    Well, in which case can you give more examples of similar stories in the NT?

    “Their sin was not lying.”

    I’d encourage you to read the text again. It is quite explicit. You’ve got a false dichotomy there. It may well be that their sin was significant because it threatened the financial security of the early church, but clearly it was the lie that precipitated their downfall.

    Care to talk about why Paul is gathering up money for the Jerusalem congregation in various bits of the NT? Seems like that would feel interestingly into your thesis.

  10. ideogenetic

    Thanks for having me!
    I wish I had your linguistic abilities. Although I don’t have the skills to read original source material, I think mistranslation is the primary cause of the confusion, and the resulting intra-Christian conflict, modern readers of the Bible face. I’m always looking for those who know source material. That’s a reason why your blog caught my eye.

    “…clearly it was the lie that precipitated their downfall.”

    I shall try to clearly disagree. The subject is actually where I find a multi-level dichotomy in the story.

    {Thou dost not answer against thy neighbour a false testimony.} – Exodus 20:16 (Young’s Literal Translation)

    Of course, that’s the Ninth Commandment. Another site I found (http://www.stjohnadulted.org/cmd_09.htm#Original%20Meaning%20of%20the%20Commandment) indicates the Commandment was a legal admonition in the context of a “false accusation in a court of law”. The original contains the concepts “ed saqer (lying witness)”; “nh (testify)”; “rea” (neighbor, i.e., “full citizen within the covenant”).

    Sapphira bore false witness against herself and her husband.
    She was, after all, the only one who was asked, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
    To which she responded, “Yes, that is the price.”

    I’m not certain whether Ananias, under Jewish law for the purposes of legal testimony, could be considered a neighbor (since he was a “full citizen within the covenant”). If Ananias is not considered a “neighbor”, a defense attorney could’ve defended Sapphira against a charge of violating the Ninth Commandment. She was not in a court of law and engaged in no legal crime. She committed no sin in lying about her or her husband’s own behavior in regard to their property.

    On the other hand, Ananias was NEVER asked the question, NEVER answered, and NEVER lied! By definition, it is not possible that Ananias lied since he didn’t write or speak a word.

    So, the key to decoding the overarching transgression is figuring out what Ananias alone did wrong. But we’re lucky! Even after eons of potential editing to intentionally lose meaning, hide original intent, and scramble the lesson into paradox, Ananias’ sin is stated clearly in the text. It was a behavioral offense that would only be visible to an omniscient being in the absence of no other witnesses.
    {You have not lied to men but to God.} – Acts 5:4

    Here is Young’s literal translation of the misdeed:
    {And a certain man, Ananias by name, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession,
     and did keep back of the price…and having brought a certain part, at the feet of the apostles he laid [it]…Peter said, ‘…while it remained, did it not remain thine? and having been sold, in thy authority was it not?’}
    Peter, briefly giving Ananias the benefit of a doubt, raises the possible scenarios whereby he would not have fully controlled the proceeds from the sale; a) the property was not owned by him free and clear, and b) the money received from the sale was not already paid by the buyer in full.
    {And Peter said, `Ananias, wherefore did the Adversary fill thy heart, for thee to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back of the price of the place?’} – Acts 5:3 (YLT)

    Ananias’ adversarial behavior violated the “Holy Spirit” of what? He violated the spirit of the moral imperative in Chapter 4. Ananias was guilty of not allowing the full amount of the sale in the pooling of their resources for those “who had need”.

    {…They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and were speaking the word of God with freedom, and of the multitude of those who did believe the heart and the soul was one, and not one was saying that anything of the things he had was his own, but all things were to them in common.} – Acts 4:32 (YLT)

    Ananias and Sapphira were being greedy. They wanted to keep more than the others. Their actions violated the principles of their community.

  11. Ian

    Grand, meaty stuff to work with.

    Peter’s questions in 5:4 are counterfactuals. I’ve not seen them interpreted in any other way. So your interpretation of them as slightly corrupted declarative statements is surprising. They are normally understood so that Peter is explicitly making the point that it isn’t the withholding of the money that is the problem, but the lie to God. “If you’d wanted the money, wasn’t it yours all along?”

    She was, after all, the only one who was asked, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” To which she responded, “Yes, that is the price.”

    Yes, she’s the only one who lies to Peter as portrayed in Acts.

    By definition, it is not possible that Ananias lied since he didn’t write or speak a word.

    But the story is very explicit that Ananias lied to God, not to Peter: “you have lied to the Holy Spirit” and “you have not lied to men but to God.”

    I couldn’t follow why you thought Peter was wrong in these statements. Do you think these are part of the corruption you postulated? If so can you say why you think these are corruptions and not the surrounding text?

    Even after eons of potential editing to intentionally lose meaning, hide original intent, and scramble the lesson into paradox

    It is always difficult (though sometimes necessary) to argue that the text we have would have said something else, but has been corrupted. Particularly without evidence of that corruption.

    In this case we have plenty of early witnesses to this story, in manuscripts of the NT and other references. The chances of it having been substantially corrupted over the aeons is pretty slim.

    Ananias’ sin is stated clearly in the text.

    Yes. “you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land”.

    Hence my previous comment. It seems clear to me from Peter’s counterfactuals that if Ananias had only kept some of the money, then the writer wants us to understand that he wouldn’t have received such condemnation. But it is the lie to God that makes the sin heinous.

    So I don’t have a problem with the thrust of your argument, because I think the thread of financial need in the Jerusalem church runs throughout the NT. I suspect however Ananias and Sapphira died, they were reknowned for skimming off their donation and not joining other believers in pooling all their wealth. So I suspect you’re right, that the financial sin is more significant historically. But as portrayed, I can’t follow your argument that the writer of Acts doesn’t want you to think the sin was lying. To God (for Ananias) and to man (for Sapphira).

  12. ideogenetic

    “If you’d wanted the money, wasn’t it yours all along?”

    You’ve landed in the midst of what I feel is the other flaw in the mainstream interpretation of the story. Ananias and Sapphira did not have any discretion whether they, or by how much they, could give. If their contribution was voluntary, Peter had NO AUTHORITY to ask any questions! He would have merely accepted their contribution, thanked them, and moved on. That’s why my interpretation is more logical; that Peter was verifying before he condemned them the property was actually theirs, and the money was available (no down-payments, for example, were made) to be contributed.

    I’m puzzled that you glanced by the fact the original commandment only forbids bearing false witness against a neighbor, not thyself. Yours seems to be a more expansive interpretation of the commandment.
    Anyway, back to Ananias. How can he be accused of “lying” to God when he didn’t speak or write a word in response to God? And if his contribution was truly voluntary, where was the offense? Why is he in any trouble at all if he kept back a portion of his rightful wealth? It can’t literally be true that he “lied” to God. It can only be metaphorically true as applied to his behavior.
    But how does a behavior “lie”? The only way I can think of whereby a behavior lies is in not conforming to what is expected. A magician’s act, for example, “lies” in every performance by not conforming to what we understand to be natural law. Ananias’ true sin was in not conforming to the behavior expected of him.

    And so we’ve come full circle, to where the example set by Barnabas in Chapter 4, leading into and foreshadowing what was to follow in Chapter 5, is found.

    “The chances of it having been substantially corrupted over the aeons is pretty slim.”

    Modern exegesis continues to hide the original, explicit moral of the story. For now we are a capitalist world, that resists being bothered by the economic justice that Jesus of Nazareth preached.

  13. Ian

    If their contribution was voluntary, Peter had NO AUTHORITY to ask any questions!

    Says who?

    I’m puzzled that you glanced by the fact the original commandment only forbids bearing false witness against a neighbor, not thyself.

    I don’t see how a literal interpretation of the 10 commandments help in this case. I don’t see any reason to think Peter thought he was arbitrating the OT law at this point.

    And if his contribution was truly voluntary, where was the offense? Why is he in any trouble at all if he kept back a portion of his rightful wealth?

    Because this follows directly the story of Barnabas giving all his money to the believers. The thought is that full giving was expected, and that by coming and giving only a portion, Ananias is deliberately being duplicitous.

    “The chances of it having been substantially corrupted over the aeons is pretty slim.”

    Modern exegesis continues to hide the original, explicit moral of the story. For now we are a capitalist world, that resists being bothered by the economic justice that Jesus of Nazareth preached.

    Funny that. I assume you’re anti-capitalist yourself. Socialist or maybe communist. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But you’re aware that Jesus is a mirror, right?

    I don’t think your posited meaning is hidden at all. The meaning seems to be quite plain – it was expected that the believers in the Jerusalem congregation shared all their belongings in common. Ananias sold land, pretended to bring the proceeds to the group (as Barnabas did) while stashing part of it away, and was miraculously killed as a result.

  14. Pingback: Ananias and Sapphira « The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

  15. This is the first time I’ve seen your blog. I ran across this entry as I was looking for information on this topic. There was a post over at Vox Nova where in the discussion thread, someone had put forth the Ananias and Sapphira story as an example, essentially, of God not monkeying around. I don’t much like this story, and proposed a view of it that it was in essence a misuse of Divine gifts by Peter. I read this entry, and I have to say I like your theory, fantasy or no. My compliments!

  16. Ian

    Thanks Turmarion, welcome to the blog. I don’t want to take credit for the story though, much as I found it fun!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s