There are a wide variety of attempts to explain the very unusual story of Ananias and Sapphira. In his article on this chapter F. Scott Spencer lists a few of the many suggestions scholars have offered for “unlocking the mystery of this shocking episode” (63). I am taking Spencer’s list, rearranging it and adding a few comments.
For some scholars, the harsh judgment can be explained in the light of Greco-Roman rules for benefactors. This is often overlooked because New Testament scholars have been slow to read Greco Roman literature has a light on the early part of Acts. The community described in Acts is in many ways like a Greco-Roman family, so material wealth should be shared and to hold back one’s sharing would be shameful to the whole family. To promise to share and then not fulfill the promise would have been shameful. The problem is that this is a Jewish Christian community and Roman benefaction rules may not have influenced how gifts were given. Even if someone has shamed themselves, is “striking them dead” deal an option?
It is possible to read the community of Acts 5 in the light of the community rules of Qumran. Again this is a tempting option since the Community Rule for the Essenes did require members to sell their property in order to support the group. This is the same thing that we see in the Christian community in the first part of the book of Acts. There are some very real differences however. Luke does not imply the sale of property was required. As needs arose, individuals voluntarily sold their property and donated it to the community. There is nothing in Acts that can be called an “entrance requirement.” Keener reports followers of Pythagoras also sold property when they joined the community, although if they failed to become full disciples they would receive a refund (Keener, 2:1187).
Occasionally commentators will point to parallels between Judas and Ananias. Both are prompted by Satan to betray the community, and both appear to be greedy/ Keener points out both stories involve real estate: Judas’ money purchases property, Ananias sold property (1:1185). These are interesting parallels, but I am not sure Luke makes much of them in Acts.
The most fruitful comparisons of this chapter come from the Old Testament. Some suggest Luke is making an intertextual allusion to an Old Testament story or perhaps even to his own work in the Gospel. For example, Luke may be retelling the fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis. If the Christian community is a kind of New Age or a kingdom modeled after Eden. The story does concern a man who rebels against God (the Holy Spirit) at the prompting of Satan. Like Adam and Eve, the wife is complicit. There are however more differences than parallels, and Luke does not really make much of the parallel if it exists.
Another story from the Hebrew Bible which is potential background for Acts 5 is Aachen’s theft for the plunder of Jericho (Josh 6). As I mentioned in a previous post, Luke describes the “holding back” as an economic crime. If this Christian community is to be like a new Israel then any theft from the community would be akin to Aachen’s sin. As Keener says, “Sin can disrupt kononia (fellowship) even in the primitive, idyllic community” (2:1184).
This disruption of the ideal community is perhaps why scholars point to Eden, Joshua 6 and Jesus’ disciples as potential background for the story. In each case, there is an ideal community which is devastated by sin. In each case the result of that sin is death. Not all those who call on the name of Jesus are really committed to what God is doing through the Holy Spirit.
Are there other indications in this story of “cracks” in the community in Jerusalem? Maybe this is not an idyllic community after all.
Bibliography: F. Scott Spencer, “Scared to Death: The Rhetoric of Fear in the ‘Tragedy’ of Ananias and Sapphira.” Pages 63-80 in Reading Acts Today. London: T&T Clark, 2011.