Acts 5 – Potential Background to Ananias and Sapphira

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?

Ananias-FraudIt 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.

7 thoughts on “Acts 5 – Potential Background to Ananias and Sapphira

  1. In verse 13 of chapter five, the English Standard Version Study Bible, suggests two different interpretations for which “the rest” joining “them” could mean. Maybe it is suggesting that “the rest” is referring to unbelievers and “them” is referring to the whole church. It states that the unbelievers felt afraid to commit themselves to the church and that is what this passage is talking about. In answering the question at the end of the post, this may appear to be a crack in the community of believers. I understand how, even in today’s society, unbelievers may feel afraid to join a church and would not count themselves worthy to stand before God based on what they have done (if they do not understand his grace). Is the church supposed to draw people in or should people think “How dare I enter the church?” Are we meant to be seen as a community of love and acceptance? If so, it seems weird that anyone would be afraid during the time of the passage to join these believers. Maybe the Spirit was lavished on people with such power it was almost scary to think of being associated with them. Or maybe the apostles were held in such high esteem (v. 13) that people felt inadequate or unwelcome to join their group… and maybe people weren’t supposed to. God knows.
    The other interpretation the ESVB suggests of this verse could be that “the rest” is referring to the followers of Christ and “them” is referring to the apostles, therefore intending to shed light on how truly powerful the spirit was working through the apostles. Even in this interpretation, it seems weird to me that others would be excluded from joining. I understand that the apostles were set apart out of their witness and personal testimony to the Lord Jesus’ earthly ministry…but there would have been changes once they all died off. Maybe God just used them to confirm and jump start the church and give it a foundation from which to grow on. It makes more sense that the followers of the apostles and Christ would have felt afraid to join such an elite group of men who were doing incredible sign and wonders through the power of Spirit.

  2. “You have not deceived us, but God.”- Acts 5:4b

    Ananias and Sapphira is one of those stories that seems to fit more into a murder mystery, dramatic story type of chapter than a piece of history. However, after the discussion on Luke’s writings being understood as history or allegorical, I am in the camp that believes Luke wrote as historical – but this story does seem to also include more than a surface level lesson. I do agree that Luke does not make a specific parallel to an Old Testament story, but as he writes, it does seem to me that the Holy Spirit is guiding exactly how to tell the story – for the impact of the reader.

    The deception to their church is a big deal for the time and traditions, but seriously, death? This is really where the impact of the story moves to more of a full betrayal, instead of a “simple” lie. The descriptions in the above post relate different theories about what Luke really meant through writing this story. To me, this seems to indicate that this was a bandwagon for Ananias and Sapphire – and they were planning ahead to have some money set aside, for when Christianity no longer fit their fancy. In my mind, this really may approach a deeper issue of deception, showing an intent not just to deceive the church, but the apostles – God’s Ambassadors. Maybe others knew of a deeper issue, or maybe others would be following closely to see if they got away with it…

    So many questions left unanswered. Surely we as the Church have intended to deceive the Holy Spirit, and yet God has not struck us dead. So what is the difference in this? In my mind, what we know of the disruption of fellowship with man and God was more than enough – any sin deserves death. God used their story (probably many different ways, throughout the history of the church), hopefully not in exactly the same way He plans to use mine – but all together playing a part as an ultimate defeat to Satan

  3. I remember this story impressing (?) and standing out to me as a kid, probably from a fairly young age…. My church had quite of bit of Bible exposition and Acts was definitely covered for some period. But I’ve never examined the story in great depth, even as I’ve studied Acts and the work of Luke in fair depth in recent years, in more detail than in my college Bible classes or Seminary.

    I certainly respect “historical-critical” methods in general, but not with reductionist (pure naturalism) assumptions. So I would not rule out the possibility of an Apostle “speaking to death” someone. (But even if so, I wouldn’t see that as divine judgment, such as human delivery of the action of God.) That interpretation (a literal one) is quite serious and dangerous in its implications. If the better interpretation is symbolic, that presents serious problems for those who tend to take Luke as writing reliable history throughout… there is no indicator (of which I’m aware… point out, please, if I’m missing something) of a switch to a different genre or use of a literary device that contemporary readers would take as non-literal. And the fear noted as coming on the community would seem to reinforce the actuality of two sudden “judgment” deaths as Luke’s intention.

    I don’t know if this is much suggested by scholars, but since I believe Luke was relying on relatively old tradition for this period (almost certainly over 40 years, perhaps over 60), he might have been taking an embellished tale as factual himself. It is quite doubtful he had written records about the very early period, or even the bit-later period of the Church to work from… nothing pre-fall-of-Jerusalem. (And I don’t believe he was ever in touch with any of the Apostles.)

    For Luke the great opportunity of such a lack of records was that he was able to write, without existing counter-evidence, a “history” that incorporated accurate names and places, within proper time frames but molded and “spun” to fit his theological beliefs and apologetic purposes. The Ananias and Sapphira “incident” would seem to be one of the things he could include to enhance his point of direct Holy Spirit involvement in the development of the Church.

  4. It is certainly an interesting dynamic that happens with Ananias and Sapphira. I honestly never thought of the connection between Ananias and Judas. Both have a covetousness for money and allowed such desire to fill them more with Satan’s thoughts. I wanted to fact check the “entering” and “filling” of the two cases and of the Bible translations I checked out none said that Satan entered Ananias but “filled” it, this is a contrast to that of Judas (Luke 22:3). However, it is worth noting that in order to fill one’s heart there must have been some sort of access granted for Satan to enter your heart. In this case, all three parallel examples (Achan, Judas and Ananias) fit together.

    So what’s the big deal? Why does God so harshly punish death for those who steal from Him?

    In Achan’s case herem was declared, herem being “holy war” part of the regulation for holy war was for the Israelites to take out a city and dedicated all the livestock and riches to God. It was not theirs to have, but God’s. Instantly, God was angered with Israel:

    But Israel violated the instructions about the things set apart for the Lord. A man named Achan had stolen some of these dedicated things, so the Lord was very angry with the Israelites” (Josh. 7:1 NLT).

    I think it is worth mentioning that Scripture says, “Israel violated the instructions” and, in another place, “Israel sinned” (v. 1, 11). Israel did? I thought it was just Achan who sinned? This points to the unity God expects of His people. Ananias was not that much different. Surely the community suffered, but it was ultimately Ananias punishment to take. They had both embezzled from the Lord.

    Polhill says of Ananias’ incident, “One does not embezzle one’s own funds but those of another, in this instance those that rightfully belonged to the common Christian fund ” (Polhill. Acts.(Vol. 26. p. 156)

    In my own opinion, I think Ananias saw Barnabas lay everything down before the apostles and he got jealous and wanted to do the same thing but for praise and good reputation. Scripture states, “Ananias…sold some property. He brought part of the money to the apostles, claiming it was the full amount.” (Acts 5:1-2).

    So, I am left asking, because Ananias said it was the full amount does that give the Christian community the full rights to the actual amount? If Ananias had just said I sold some of my property here you go” then I do not think it would be a big deal based on Acts 5:4. Peter said it was yours to sell or not sell as you wished but you lied to the Holy Spirit (Author’s Paraphrase).
    I am unsure if it was required or expected that everyone sell their own property to support the cause in Acts 4 it to me communicates the community really wanted to sell what they had to put into a unified account for those in need of it. Ananias only proves that he could have had the same attitude, but he faked it.

    Polhill gives two options in what the text seems to imply, he says, “One must assume either that the practice of the community was always to pledge the full proceeds of a sale or that Ananias and Sapphira had made such a pledge regarding the sale of the field. (p.156)

    As stated before, with the witness of Peters statement in verse 4 it would seem the latter is the truth.

    Why the harsh death though? Did Achan have to die along with his family? Why did Ananias and Saphira not get a chance to be corrected and choose repentance? Some may argue that Peter did give them a chance to come out with it and maybe that was there one shot at repentance. I am unsure.
    As far as the quickness of there death. I have an unpopular view that when divine order is established the Glory of the Lord appears such is the case with Israel receiving and executing the Law given to them in Leviticus 9, specifically verses 23-24. The fire of God came bursting forth onto their offering and the people of Israel shouted with joy and fell face down on the ground.

    Yet, the next couple verses going into the next chapter Nadab and Abihu burned an incense that was profane to the Lord and they were instantly killed.

    God said afterwards, “By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; and before all the people I must be glorified” (Lev. 10:3).
    I believe divine order was established in the Christian community and the Lord’s presence was so evident that to have sinned like this brought instant judgement on Ananias and Sapphira upon being confronted about it. That is just my thoughts though, I would not take that as fact without doing more research. I do think there is a connection here to be looked into.

  5. It can be hard to understand the ways of the Jewish community and what is considered to be okay and sinful in light of our own American culture. Upon reading the story of Ananias and Sapphira, the one element of the story that keeps sticking out to me is that it was not required of them to give everything away. So why was it wrong to give some and keep the rest for themselves and why is this considered to be a betrayal to the community? In today’s culture, no one would bat an eye at the idea of selling a piece of land and only giving some of the proceeds to the community. Polhill gives some good insights into these questions, mentioning that Ananias and Sapphira’s actions were a sin because scripture indicates that they had said they would give the whole sum and then did not (2090). Understanding that not only was a part of that community to give but then that this couple has lied about their giving on top of that, is indeed a smack to the face for the other people around them. These actions of lying not only threatened to pull the newly formed community apart, but also showed that if they were willing to lie before God himself, they would do it again.

    I never considered Adam and Eve to be a story that lined up with that of Ananias and Sapphira but the parallels between the two seem to fit together rather well. In both stories, it also seems that both couples are wanting more. In Genesis 3:6, it seems that Adam and Eve both desired more than what God had provided for them, and the same seems to go for Ananias and Sapphira. They do not seem to fully trust that God is going to take care of them through the communal giving, so they “keep back” some of the money that they had agreed to give to the rest of the community. However, as the article states, the result of each sin is death. While it seems harsh, it is the honest reality of each person on earth and a reminder of why we need Christ.

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