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.

Acts 5 – The Death of Ananias and Sapphira

Luke gives an ideal example: Joseph the Levite, also known as Barnabas (4:36) Barnabas is a significant figure in the book of Acts, introduced here as a member of the community at Jerusalem. Barnabas sold some property and turns the proceeds over to the apostles. This stands in contrast to Ananias in the next paragraph, who claims to do the same thing but is not telling the truth. Ananias also participated in communal living, but not fully (5:1-2) Taking the end of chapter four together with the beginning of chapter 5, it looks as though Barnabas and Ananias are intentionally place in contrast with each other.

Since the sale of property is voluntary, there is no reason for Ananias to lie about the price of the property – what is his motivation? Possibly he is simply motivated by greed, he did not want to give as much as the price of the property but when others gave the whole amount, he claimed a larger amount that he actually gave. Since Peter describes him as “filled with Satan” many scholars see him as parallel to Judas, another man who was filled with Satan, whose sin also include money (eventually) used to buy some land.

Ananias “held back” some of the money from the sale. The word Luke uses here (νοσφίζω) refers to financial fraud, such as embezzlement or “a type of skimming operation” (BDAG). The word is used for people who hold back some of their crops which are to be used for the public good (Diodorus Scourus, 5, 34, 3). A more surprising use of this word is in LXX Joshua 7:1, 19-26 to describe the sin of Aachen. In that text, Aachen holds back some property which was supposed to be devoted to the Lord. His theft is therefore described as stealing from the Lord.

Peter confronts Ananias and his judgment is immediate (5:3-6) Peter tells Ananias that Satan has filled his heart. How is this possible, if the Jerusalem community is was filled with the Holy Spirit? Was Ananias possessed, or does this language simply describe temptation? This must be parallel to the experience of Judas, who was the only other person in the gospels described as “filled by Satan.” Peter makes it clear that Ananias’ sin is against the Holy Spirit – his lie is not told to the apostles or the apostolic community, but to the Holy Spirit. His wife Sapphira also lies, and is likewise judged (5:7-11) Luke tells us about three hours have passed since Ananias died before Sapphira came to Peter. We know that Ananias acted with the full support of his wife. Just as the apostolic community is of “one mind and heart,” so too this couple was of one mind in heart.

The community in Jerusalem was like a new Israel. Like the original Israel, there is no room for the double-minded. Ananias is a negative example of someone not fully committed to the new community. Barnabas is fully committed, and will be a significant player in the missionary efforts of the earliest church.

The problem is how we “apply” this story to a present day church situation. I doubt very many churches use this text to prod people to “catch up” on their tithe or faith promise, but what reasons do we have for ignoring that aspect of the story? Usually we have to add a great deal to the story in order to make the story more applicable. Go watch this well done video on YouTube. The application is fine, but is this application what Luke intended?

Does God “strike people down” who lie/steal from the Church? (At least in my experience this does not happen, some televangelists would be in big trouble!)

What principles should we draw from the story?

Acts 5:1-16 – Barnabas and Ananias

OK, I was a sluggard and did not get this post done.  My apologies!  The audio for this week’s evening service will be available at Sermon.net, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service.  You should be able to download the audio directly with this link, if you prefer.

Luke gives an ideal example: Joseph the Levite, also known as Barnabas (4:36) Barnabas is a significant figure int eh book of Acts, introduced here as a member of the community at Jerusalem. Joseph is a common name in the first century, so his second name might be a nickname. Luke tells us the name means “son of encouragement.”

Barnabas was from Cyprus. We know a community of Jews was present on Cyprus as early as 330 B.C., but they were expelled in A.D. 117. It is possible that Barnabas was in Jerusalem to serve his time in the Temple, or he may have been living in the city more or less full time. If he was wealthy, then he may have owned property in Jerusalem and Cyprus. When he accompanies Paul on the first missionary journey, the first location they travel to is Cyprus, perhaps to people who knew Barnabas quite well.

Barnabas sells some property and turns the proceeds over to the apostles. This stands in contrast to Ananias in the next paragraph, who claims to do the same thing but is not telling the truth.

Ananias also participated in communal living, but not fully (5:1-2) Taking the end of chapter four together with the beginning of chapter 5, it looks as though Barnabas and Ananias are intentionally place in contrast with each other.

Since the sale of property is voluntary, there is no reason for Ananias to lie about the price of the property – what is his motivation? Possibly he is simply motivated by greed, he did not want to give as much as the price of the property but when others gave the whole amount, he claimed a larger amount that he actually gave. Since Peter describes him as “filled with Satan” many scholars see him as parallel to Judas, another man who was filled with Satan, whose sin also include money (eventually) used to buy some land.

The word used to describe the sin (“kept back” in verse 2-4) includes the idea of financial fraud, such as embezzlement. BDAG describe it as “a type of skimming operation.” The word is used for people who hold back some of their crops which are to be used for the public good (Diodorus Scourus, 5, 34, 3). A more surprising use of this word is in LXX Joshua 7:1, 19-26 to describe the sin of Aachen. In that text, Aachen holds back some property which was supposed to be devoted to the Lord. His theft is therefore described as stealing from the Lord.

Peter confronts Ananias and his judgment is immediate (5:3-6) Peter tells Ananias that Satan has filled his heart. How is this possible, if the Jerusalem community was filled with the Holy Spirit? Was Ananias possessed, or does this language simply describe temptation? This must be parallel to the experience of Judas, who was the only other person in the gospels described as “filled by Satan.” Peter makes it clear that Ananias’ sin is against the Holy Spirit – his lie is not told to the apostles or the apostolic community, but to the Holy Spirit.

His wife Sapphira also lies, and is likewise judged (5:7-11) Luke tells us about three hours have passed since Ananias died before Sapphira came to Peter. We know that Ananias acted with the full support of his wife. Just ast the apostolic community is of “one mind and heart,” so too this couple was of one mind in heart.

Remember that the community in Jerusalem is a new Israel, and like the original founding of Israel, there is no room for the double-minded. Ananias is a negative example of someone not fully committed to the new community. Barnabas is fully committed, and will be a significant player in the missionary efforts of the earliest church.