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!