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Marshak, Adam Kolman. The Many Faces of Herod the Great. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015. 432 pp. Pb; $35.  Link to Eerdmans  

Herod the Great took the minor Hellenistic kingdom of Judea and successfully transformed it to a major kingdom with international influence and prestige. Although known to most Christians primarily for his pursuit of Jesus in Matthew 2, Herod was a masterful politician in the Roman world. Adam Marshak argues in this fascinating book that Herod succeeded as the King of Judea despite his dubious lineage and weak claim to the throne because of his political skill and flexibility (335). Adam Marshak wants to get beyond the popular view of Herod as an evil monster perpetuated in popular preaching and see Herod as an example of an ideal Roman client king.

Herod-The-GreatHerod appeared to the Romans as an ideal client king yet also claimed to be a successor to David and Solomon. Marshak offers an example of how Herod could be both a Roman and Jewish king. During the procuratorship of Felix there was a dispute over Caesarea—was it a Greek or Jewish city? Both sides appealed to Herod as the founder to support their claim (254). This illustrates something important about Herod, he was able to play to the interests of Roman, Greek, and Jewish constituencies in order to increase his own power and prestige. Marshak’s title, The Many Faces, alludes to Herod’s uncanny ability to appeal to all three of these cultures.

In order to study Herod within the proper cultural and intellectual milieu, Marshak begins with three chapters explaining why Rome used client kings and the ideal Hellenistic monarchy. As Rome expanded, it was expedient to use local kings to support Roman interests in newly acquired territories. Client kings were supported by the Roman army and were part of the Roman patronage system, often receiving citizenship and other honors. Since the client king relied on Roman patronage, the client king would honor patrons with gifts and other support. Although Rome allowed some autonomy for client kings, they had access to Roman culture and technology. Herod took advantage of advanced Roman engineering to build Caesarea and the Temple in Jerusalem. Hellenistic kings were expected to be virtuous lawgivers who were generous with their great wealth. In addition, Hellenistic kings were to protect their people and piously honor the gods.

The third chapter in this section is an overview of history from the Maccabees to Herod. Although this history is well known to most readers of the book, Marshak is interested in demonstrating the fact the Hasmoneans were already Hellenistic kings, despite their origins in the Maccabean revolt. By examining inscriptions and coinage, he describes the tension between the duties of a Hellenistic king and being a king of the Jews.

In the second section of the book, Marshak traces Herod’s rise to power. Herod began his career as a governor of Galilee in 47 BCE. Despite being an outsider in the Judean court, during this period Herod proved himself to be loyal to Hyrcanus II, but he was clearly ambitious (90). From 42-30 BCE Herod managed the difficult political waters of the Roman civil war first by supporting Anthony then Augustus in order to prove himself to be “a useful but unassertive client king.” After he was appointed as king by the Romans, Herod needed to present himself to the Jews as a “new Hasmonean.” This would be difficult since he was Idumean who ruled by the power of Rome. Herod married the granddaughter of Hyrcanus II, Mariamme, in order to have a claim to the Hasmonean throne. Herod also built or re-built several desert fortresses and palaces in order to defend Judea but also to connect his reign to the Hasmoneans. Marshak also examines Herod’s early coinage and argues the symbolism of these coins was intended to connect Herod to Jannaeus and the other Hasmonean kings (129).

The third section of the book describes Herod’s self-presentation as an ideal client king in an Augustan world. As Marshak showed in the first early chapters, a good Roman client king provided military support to Rome and sought Rome’s advice for major decisions. In addition, the client king publically honored his Roman patron and actively Romanized their kingdom (141). Herod was able to support Rome both militarily and financially. By sending gifts to Augustus, Herod bought the trust of the Emperor and demonstrated he was an important and powerful man in the Mediterranean world (145). He built Sebaste and Caesarea to honor the Emperor and publically honored the Emperor in other Hellenistic cities. For example, two inscriptions were found at the Acropolis in Athens describing Herod as a “friend of the Romans” and another as “Pious, Friend of Caesar” (155).

Since a good client king Romanizes his territory, Herod slowly brings Judea into the Roman sphere. Marshak devotes two chapters to this issue. First, he lists a series of practices Herod introduced to make Judea a part of the larger Roman world. First, he sent eight of his sons to Rome for their education. Second, Herod imported luxury goods from Rome. At Masada sixty-five amphorae were discovered with Latin commercial inscriptions. These contained imported wine, honey, apples and Garum, a Roman fish sauce (178). These imports are evidence of economic trade relations with the west. Third, Herod may have Romanized the army, although there is no irrefutable evidence for this (190). Fourth, Herod built Roman style buildings throughout his kingdom, including baths, villas, amphitheaters and theaters, hippostadiums. Perhaps the most significant Roman buildings were temples at Sebaste and Caesarea (Augusteum). These temples included cult statues to Roma and Augustus (212). Fifth, Herod took advantage of advanced Roman engineering to build the artificial harbor at Caesarea and in his expansion of the Temple Mount. Last, Herod used Roman decorative techniques in al of his buildings (opus reticulatum and opus sectile).

Marshak also demonstrates Herod was an ideal Hellenistic king. He lists a number of examples of Herod’s many benefactions (euergetism) divided into four categories: buildings and urban structures, endowments, tax assistance and monetary gifts, and personal intercession (232). Since Herod was an extremely wealthy king, he would be expected to do “good works” with that wealth. Herod gave money and assistance to cities outside his control (including Athens and Antioch). Although Herod’s benefactions were gifts, they were calculated to create friendship and good will with Rome and its leaders (247). Within Judea, Herod spent huge sums on buildings designed to bring honor and prestige to Judea, increasing his own honor. The best example of this is the Herodium, which Marshak accepts as Herod’s tomb (264).

Of the characteristics of a Hellenisitic king, piety toward the gods was the most difficult for Herod since offering proper respect to the gods of Rome at Sebaste or Caesarea would offend his Jewish population. Marshak describes Herod’s “careful political triangulation” of three cultures (273). With respect to Imperial worship, for Herod what happens in Caesarea stays in Caesarea. Although the detail are held until the final chapter of the book, Herod’s efforts to expand the Temple to largest in the ancient world made Jerusalem a pilgrimage destination for Diaspora Jews and demonstrated is piety toward the God of Israel.

The final two chapters of the book deal with Herod as the king of the Jews, Melekh HaYehudim. Just as he intentionally styled himself as an ideal Hellenistic king, Herod wanted to be seen as a legitimate successor to David and Solomon. Because he was Idumean this was impossible and it was equally impossible for him to be seen as the founder of Jerusalem. For this reason he sought to build in and around Jerusalem. According to Marshak, Herod “is engaging with his Jewish past by using a Hellenistic vocabulary” (281). The Temple is the key example of Herod’s piety, but also an indication Herod wanted to be seen as a new Solomon.

Marshak concludes that Herod was not a Hellenized Jewish king who was enamored with Rome. He was “a fully Hellenistic, Romanized Jewish king, the first of a new breed of Jewish rulers who felt at home in each of these worlds” (285).Was Herod successful? As Marshak observes, he had a long peaceful reign and died at an old age, leaving his kingdom to his sons for several generations (311).

Conclusion. Marshak contributes a scholarly yet readable introduction to Herod the Great. Yet the book is also valuable for understanding the client kings in the Roman world. Marshak provides rich footnotes on virtually every topic in the book, making this book a valuable resource for future research. This book is a welcome addition to Nikos Kokkinos The Herodian Dynasty (Sheffield, 1998) and his more recent The World of the Herods (Franz Steiner, 2007). Although Marshak includes many architectural details, his books should be supplemented with Ehud Netzer’s Architecture of Herod, the Great Builder (Baker, 2008).

It is possible most readers will approach this book as “background” for the New Testament, but that is not the purpose of the book. There are only nine references to the New Testament listed in the index, all in footnotes. Certainly a better understanding how Herod controlled Judea prior to the events of the Gospels and Acts will illuminate biblical texts, but that is not Marshak’s immediate goal. Herod’s “careful political triangulation” of Roman, Greek and Jewish cultures is exactly the kind of world in which Jesus lived. Paul’s mission also was a “careful triangulation” of these three cultures. This book contributes to our growing understanding of the tensions Jewish people experienced in the Second Temple period.

Bonus: Watch a short book teaser from Eerdmans:

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Clint Arnold has a nice sidebar in his commentary on Acts entitled “Jerusalem: Nine Years Before the War.”  I have long thought that the political situation in Jerusalem is the key to understanding James and his chilly reception of Paul.  James was faced pressure from Jews who were Christians to be spiritual prepared for the coming Messiah and Jews who rejected Jesus as messiah but were every bit as much zealous for the Law.  Likely there were many who were unhappy with James’ decision to side with Paul and not require Gentile conversion to Judaism as a requirement of salvation.  If the political climate of Jerusalem made James’ position dangerous, it made Paul’s position on Gentiles lethal.

Fall of JersualemNews of Paul’s activities would have been well known in Jerusalem.  Paul has been creating islands of Gentile Christianity in the Roman world for years now, and it is undoubtedly true that the Gentiles outnumber the Jews in many of his congregations.  Paul has confronted Peter over table fellowship with Gentiles (Gal 2) and made it clear that Gentiles are saved apart from the Law.  Perhaps the theology of Romans 9-11 was known in Jerusalem – the Jews have “stumbled” and the Gentiles have been grafted in.

To what extent is James part of the problems which face Paul in Jerusalem?   On the one hand, Luke does not explicitly state that James believed these rumors, although he also does not show James as rejecting them either.  When Paul arrived, Jerusalem itself was a hotbed of nationalistic fever is a fact, and the Jewish church was very much a part the messianic nationalism which caused the revolt of A.D. 66.  Arriving in Jerusalem with an entourage of Gentiles who were not at all converts to Judaism was dangerous at the very least (Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, 961-2).

Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem probably was in spring of A.D. 56 or 57 during the procuratorship of Felix. Josephus described this period of the mid-50s as a time of intense Jewish nationalism and political unrest. One insurrection after another rose to challenge the Roman overlords, and Felix brutally suppressed them all. This only increased the Jewish hatred for Rome and inflamed anti-Gentile sentiments. It was a time when pro-Jewish sentiment was at its height, and friendliness with outsiders was viewed askance. Considering public relations, Paul’s mission to the Gentiles would not have been well received. (Polhill, Acts, 447).

For fifteen years prior to the war, Judea was ruled by mediocre Roman governors who managed Jewish affairs poorly, exacerbating the problems which eventually led to the revolt.  Judea was not a particularly important to Rome, and as a result they sent some particularly poor officials to govern the region.  Felix, for example, is described by Tacitucs as “wielding royal power with the instincts of a slave” (Hist 5.9).  Felix was recalled by Nero in A.D. 60, and while Festus was an improvement, he died in office .  Schürer described the Roman government as having “deliberately set out to drive the people to revolt” (Schürer, History of the Jewish People, 1.455).  Josephus covers the chaos of this period in Antiq. 20.16–172 and  JW 2.254-265.

It is of course impossible to know the mind of James, but it appears he is trying very hard to keep the more conservative elements of his church in fellowship with the less conservative elements – but from Paul’s perspective, the Jerusalem church was entirely conservative.  By coming to Jerusalem Paul was stepping into a situation which can only end badly for him.

Acts 6-8 describe the activities of two non-apostles, Stephen and Philip. Both are Hellenistic Jews, and neither is numbered among the Twelve. It is possible these men were not followers of Jesus prior to Pentecost. Perhaps they were among the crowd who hear Yet Stephen is the first martyr and his speech summarizing some important theological points in the transition between Peter’s ministry in Jerusalem and Paul’s mission in Acts 13.  Philip is the evangelist who brings the Gospel to Samaria and to an Ethiopian, perhaps fulfilling the commission in Acts 1 to go to Samaria and the “ends of the earth.”

This section is sometimes cited as an example of Luke creating a story in order to describe a smooth transfer of leadership from the Jewish followers of Jesus to the Hellenistic Jewish followers. But things are not as smooth as they appear. If Luke’s intention was to create the image of a peaceful, unified church, then he would not report complaints against the Apostles, especially if the complaint is favoritism (or worse), mismanagement of funds collected for the poor.

Hebrew and GreekActs 6:1 says that there was a problem between “Hebraic” and “Hellenistic” Jews. This needs to be explained carefully, since the word “Jew” does not appear in the text (although English translations regularly include it). Obviously these are all Jews, but there seems to be problem between the Jews who are in Jerusalem from “outside” and those Jews who remained on “the inside.” Chapters 6-8 concern the activities of two Hellenistic Jews and their ministry outside of the circle of the apostles in Jerusalem. I would suggest here that Luke has intentionally arranged several stories concerning Peter and John in chapters 2-4, and several stories concerning Stephen and Philip in chapters 6-8.

This is not necessarily a geographical division, although doubtless it often was. To be a “Hellenist” was to adopt the language and culture of the Greeks, while to be a “Hebrew” was to adopt a more tradition Jewish language and lifestyle. For Ben Witherington, language is the main issue (see Acts 240-247, for an excellent excursus on the Hellenists). Bock, on the other hand, agrees more with my sketch of the Hellenists (Acts, 258-9). Language is an important issue, but it is not the only issue separating the Greek from Judean Jew.

Aside from historical accuracy, does this matter for reading Acts?  I think it helps understand that the community of earliest believers were far more diverse than Acts 2-5 would imply. If Peter and John represent the only form of the early followers of Jesus, then it is hard to explain the violent suppression of Stephen. This diversity is less a “development” in the earliest church, but a factor present from the beginning.

One of the frustrations of studying Acts is Luke’s tendency to offer only a few chronological clues for the events after the resurrection until the death of Herod in Acts 12. To complicate matters, Luke presents the story thematically in the early chapters, creating an overlapping chronology. The events of chapters 2-5 are a unit with a clear conclusion. Chapters 6-8 probably do not following immediately, but take place at about the same time. The difference is in the social and cultural location of the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Luke does not say there is a shift from the Aramaic speaking Apostles to the Greek-speaking Hellenists. As I read Acts, the activities of Peter and John are more or less parallel to that of Steph and Philip in the months after Pentecost.

Deacons Acts 6 Angelico,_niccolina_17The situation in Acts 6:1 occurs after Pentecost, although there is nothing to indicate how long. The Jesus movement is “living in common,” selling property and distributing food to the poor members of the community. The phrase “In these days” is used by Luke occasionally to signal significant stages in the story. In Luke 6:12 the phrase appears before the appointment of the 12, and in Acts 11:27 it appears as a reference to the prophets going from Jerusalem to Antioch.

The preaching of Stephen at least must pre-date Paul’s conversion since he is instrumental in the death of Stephen. Luke places his section on Philip between the introduction of Saul / Paul in 8:1 and his conversion story in chapter 9 in order to create narrative tension. The reader only knows there is a great persecution and the Hellenistic Jews have been forced out of Jerusalem.

Given these factors, James Dunn suggests that Stephen’s ministry began no less that 18 months after the resurrection (Beginning at Jerusalem, 257).  Perhaps this range can be narrowed a bit.  I am inclined to think that the appointment of the Deacons must have taken place fairly early since there are thousands of followers of Jesus after the two sermons Acts 2 and 3.  Luke tells us that the initial crowd included Diaspora Jews from every part of the Empire.  This means the group which turns to Jesus as the Messiah in Acts 2 and 3 undoubtedly included people from the Diaspora who were visiting Jerusalem for Passover and Pentecost. Some of these people chose to remain in Jerusalem rather than return home after accepting Jesus. This explains the need for believers live in common almost immediately (2:42-47).

How does this compressed chronology effect the way you read Acts? What changes in your perception of the persecution if there is only a matter of months between Pentecost and Stephen?

Gamaliel is a well known figure in the first century. He was likely the grandson of the famous Hillel and is mentioned in the Mishnah. He was active after A.D. 25 and was reputed to have been a great teacher of the Law. The man had such a great reputation that the Mishnah says “When Rabban Gamaliel the elder died, the glory of the law ceased and purity and abstinence died” (m.Sota 9.15).  (I posted a few comments about his relationship with Paul here.)

Rabbi GamalielGamaliel urges careful deliberation before acting. It may be that they are worthy of death, but one must think about what the ramifications of another execution of a messianic pretender. He refers to two other “messianic pretenders” which gathered some following but eventually came to nothing. Each of these men are known from Josephus as rebels against Rome who had humble origins, developed a bit of a following, and were eventually killed.

Theudas is known from Josephus (Antiq. 20.5.1 §97-98). In this passage, Theudas led a revolt during the reign of Fadus, A.D. 44-46. This is obviously a problem, since Gamaliel is giving this speech at least ten years before Theudas rebelled.  For someone like Bruce Chilton, this makes the account in Acts anachronistic  and unreliable, despite the fact that Gamaliel’s standing in the Council is consistent with other sources (ABD 2:904).

This problem is usually explained by noting that the name Theudas is a common name in first century inscriptions. In addition, the period after the death of Herod the Great saw many rebellions, so it is likely that Gamaliel refers to a leader of one of these earlier rebellions. Judas the Galilean lead a tax-revolt about A.D. 6, described by Josephus (Antiq 18.1.6, §23). Like Theudas, he died and his followers dispersed.

Gamaliel’s  point here is to argue that recent history shows that if God was really behind any of these messianic movements, then their leaders would not have been executed. Perhaps there is a also a warning to Peter and his followers as well: If your leader is really dead, maybe you ought to stop this preaching.  Christians tend to read this warning as directed at the Sadducees in the Sanhedrin: if you are wrong about this, you will be fighting God! To a certain extent, Gamaliel’s advice is “shrewd popular politics” which endorses neither side’s view of who Jesus was (Dunn, Beginning in Jerusalem, 174, n. 14).

Gamaliel’s conclusion is that a messianic movement which is from human origin is doomed to fail; but if it is of divine origin it is destined to succeed. It would be better to let the disciples of Jesus do as they please rather than to “fight against God.” The examples given came to nothing, in both cases the leader was dead. If Jesus is dead, then his followers will disappear as well – but only if they are no longer persecuted. If the Sanhedrin continues to persecute and these men turn out to be from God, then they will be fighting against God.

Why does Gamaliel give this advice to the Council? Is this, as Dunn says, simply “shrewd politics”? Or is there more to this story?

In Acts 3:11 and 5:13 Luke reports Peter regularly taught at Solomon’s Portico. The word στοά (stoa) is often translated “colonnade,” columned- porch, usually enclosed on one side covered with a roof. According to Josephus, Solomon’s Portico was a double-columned porch on the east side of the Temple near the court of the Gentiles. It was about 23 feet wide (15 cubits) and the columns were about 40 feet tall (25 cubits). Josephus claimed they were white marble with cedar-panels for a ceiling (Antiq. 15.11.3-5, §391-420; JW 5.5.1 §184-185). Josephus may have exaggerated on the marble; Ehud Netzer suggests they were stucco over stone drums, based on columns found at Masada (Netzer, 165). In either case the Portico would have been impressive, although not as monumental as the Royal Colonnade at the southern end of the Temple Mount.

Solomon's Porch

Most Greek temples had porches to provide shelter for people gathering to worship. Keener points out a portico would one way a city could display wealth, although often they were built through the generosity of a benefactor’s gift (1:1074). In this case, Herod the Great likely rebuilt an existing colonnade from the Hasmonean temple. People assumed the area had been a part of Solomon’s original temple, as the name indicates. But nothing of Solomon’s Temple survived the destruction of the city in 586 B.C., just as nothing remains of Solomon’s Portico today.

The Herodians spent a great deal of money on the Temple courts in order to demonstrate their wealth and power. Since Jerusalem had only one God, all funds could be spent improving the buildings around the Temple. Solomon’s Portico was therefore a beautiful public area for Jewish people to gather in sight of the Temple.

Why did Peter and the other disciples return to this location? On the one hand, it is a likely location for teachers to gather with their disciples to discuss the Scripture.  According to John 10:23 Jesus taught his disciples there, so Peter and the disciples are continuing the practice of Jesus by gathering on the Temple Mount. Perhaps that is the reason Jesus went there – it was simply a great place to find religiously inclined people!

Bibliography. Netzer, Ehud. Herod the Builder (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker 2006); Smith, Robert W. “Solomon’s Portico (Place),” ABD 6:113.

The first few chapters indicates that there was remarkable growth in Jerusalem after Pentecost.  But in Acts 5:13, Luke tells us “none of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem.” Even those within the church were greatly afraid.

AnaniasFor insiders, Spencer points out two factors which may have enhanced the fear of the church. Ananias and Sapphira were not outsiders who joined the church without fully understanding what they were getting into. These were part of the group who were “of one mind” in 4:32 and had decided to sell property to help the community. If these full members of the community were caught in a sin worthy of death, what of the rest of the group?

Second Spencer, draws a parallel to the shame of Adam and Eve. Ananias and Sapphira are the first of the new community to sin and be judged with death (75). While we know Jesus’ death atoned for sin, the earliest community had not worked out all of the implications of the death and resurrection and were quite seriously living with expectant hope in the return of the Lord almost immediately. They are the first “new covenant believers” to die, therefore any member of the community is in danger of not surviving to the return of Jesus.

Perhaps this is a result of the death of Ananias and Sapphira. Acts 5:11 says not only was the whole church greatly afraid, but anyone who heard about the deaths was also afraid. For outsiders, the deaths meant the Jesus movement dealt with infractions quite seriously indeed! It is likely the rumors of the untimely deaths of Ananias and Sapphira but a damper on evangelism, and no outsiders dared join them, although v. 14 says “more believers were added.”

Craig Keener understands the fear in 5:11 more positively, since fear is often a response to God’s work in Luke and Acts. He gives several examples both in Acts and other literature of the positive nature of “fear falling” on a person. But not all his data supports a positive response: Acts 19:17 indicates fear came on both Jews and Greeks in Ephesus as a result of the beating of the Sons of Sceva and the name of Jesus was extolled (μεγαλύνω, the same word as Acts 5:13). The people who were afraid were outsiders and the result is they spoke highly of God, but the text does not say they became disciples.

In fact, in Acts 5:13, Luke chooses a verb (κολλάω, kollao) which as the sense of clinging to something very closely. For example, dust clings to a cloak (Luke 10:11) or a man to his wife (Matt 19:5) or a man to a prostitute (1 Cor 6:9). The connection is of a very close, intimate relationship.  Luke uses the term in Acts 17:34 to describe individuals who become disciples of Paul. The word appears in 1 Macc 3:2 with the same sense as the brothers of Judas Maccabees join their father to fight for Israel.

In Acts, it seems to me people outside of the apostolic community respected the apostles, but they were increasingly less likely to join in their community. Why? Perhaps they did not want to suffer the fate of Ananias and Sapphira, but it is also possible the growing popularity of the apostles inevitably would lead to confrontation with the Temple aristocracy. Keener suggests this fear may have even prevented other Christians from joining the apostolic community (2:1199).

There were other followers of Jesus who did not sell possessions to support the poor or go up to Solomon’s Portico to preach and teach. These were respectful but afraid of the community led by Peter and John and may have wanted to avoid confrontation with the authorities. Could one “accept Jesus as Messiah and Savior” without joining Peter’s community? Possibly, since Stephen and Philip seem to consciously expand the movement away from the Temple to the Hellenistic synagogue and later to the Samaritans.

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.

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.

AnaniasLuke 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 principle might we draw from the story?

Luke gives an ideal example of a member of the early Christian community in Jerusalem: 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. The introduction of Barnabas at this point in the book is a typical Lukan literary style. He often introduces a character who will become significant later in the story (Saul in 8:1, John Mark and James, Jesus’ brother in chapter 12).

BarnabasJoseph 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” although this derivation is not particular obvious. The phrase “son of ” can mean “characterized by, such as calling James and John “sons of thunder.” The name may be related to Bar-nabi, which would mean “son of a prophet.”

While this seems the most likely explanation for the name, it is not exactly what Luke says the name means. The role of the prophet is not limited to future-telling or condemnation of sin. For example, the second half of Isaiah has been rightly described as a “book of comfort” or “consolation.” Perhaps Barnabas had a personality which could speak the truth with strength and clarity, but in such a way as to bring comfort and encouragement to people as well.

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.

Luke calls him a Levite. Not all Levites were priests, but typically they were wealthy and well educated regardless of their role in the Temple. Levites could be anything from priests to doorkeepers in the Temple, but they also might be scribes or teachers of the Law. We are not told that Barnabas actually functioned as a Levite in the Temple, he may have simply been from a Levitical family. On the other hand, it is possible that he had worked in the Temple and was quite “traditional” within the spectrum of Second Temple Period Judaism. What matters here is that Barnabas was from the Diaspora, but had deep roots in Jerusalem and perhaps the Temple.

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. We are not told what the property is, although he may have owned some property around Jerusalem which was a source of income for his family while he worked in the Temple.

I think that it is important to observe here that Jews living living outside of Judea are not automatically “more liberal” on matters of Law. In fact, it seems to me that the violent resistance to the preaching of the Gospel in Acts comes first from Diaspora Jews, not the Aramaic-speaking Jews. That Barnabas has two Hebrew names, hast the title of Levite, and had some property in Jerusalem implies that he was less Hellenized and more traditional with respect to his religion.

E. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, 1:788-790 for detailed information on Barnabas.


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