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The Biblical account found in Acts 5, detailing the story of Ananias and Sapphira, is undeniably troubling, sparking a multitude of questions without clear-cut answers.
The narrative unfolds with Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, who chose to sell a piece of their property but decided to withhold a portion of the proceeds for themselves. Subsequently, Ananias presented what remained as an offering to the Church. However, the Apostle Peter, gifted with some kind of divine insight, discerned that this was not the full amount and confronted him with the grave accusation of falsehood before God. In a startling turn of events, Ananias fell lifeless upon hearing these charges. Swiftly, his lifeless body was removed for burial.
Several hours later, Sapphira, unaware of her husband’s fate, arrived, only to find herself subjected to Peter’s probing inquiry. She affirmed the price they had received for the land, but Peter accused her of complicity in the falsehood. Mirroring the tragic fate of her spouse, Sapphira, too, succumbed to the same fate as her husband, dying on the spot.
That’s Messed Up.
This story leaves us with many questions:
1. What exactly was their sin and how it could possibly be deserving of death?
2. If they did sin, why were they given no chance to repent?
3. Was Peter planning this? Why would he not tell Sapphira that her husband a had just died?
Those are the questions we’re going to explore.
While this story may seem straightforward to some, delving deeper into the text reveals a diversity of interpretations. It serves as a compelling case study in the vast array of conclusions drawn by interpreters across history. This diversity of perspectives underscores the captivating complexity of biblical narratives and their capacity to invite diverse readings.
How did they Die?
Let’s begin by delving into the mysterious demise of both Ananias and Sapphira. How did their lives come to an abrupt and perplexing end? The text doesn’t tell us exactly, it just says in Acts 5:5:
"They fell down and died, and a great fear seized all who heard it."
One interpretation suggests that their deaths were a divine act of judgment, attributable to God’s intervention. However, it’s worth noting that among the early interpreters, this was not unanimous; some posited an alternative hypothesis, proposing that Peter might have played a role in their demise.
Did Peter Kill Ananias and Sapphira?
In the 4th Century John Chrysostom wrote that Peter had them killed, in order to teach others a lesson.
And Peter too wrought a twofold slaughter, nevertheless what he did was of the Spirit.Chrysostom, Homily 17 on Matthew
Notably, Chrysostom deemed Peter’s actions as justified. He even acknoweldges and rejects the idea that Peter could be guilty of homocide.1“Peter may likewise, on account of Annanias and Sapphira, be called a homicide; but as it would be wildness to do so in that case, much more in this.” Commentary on Galatians, 3, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf113.iii.iii.iii.html However, what remains uncertain is whether Chrysostom believed Peter’s execution of the couple was by natural or supernatural means. Another who thought Peter was responsible was not so willing to defend him. A couple of centuries earlier Porphyry of Tyre wrote: “Peter put them to death, although they had done no wrong.”
This Peter is convicted of doing wrong in other cases also. For in the case of a certain man called Ananias, and his wife Sapphira, because they did not deposit the whole price of their land, but kept back a little for their own necessary use, Peter put them to death, although they had done no wrong. For how did they do wrong, if they did not wish to make a present of all that was their own? But even if he did consider their act to be one of wrongdoing, he ought to have remembered the commands of Jesus, who had taught him to endure as many as four hundred and ninety sins against him ; he would then at least have pardoned one, if indeed what had occurred could really in any sense be called a sin. And there is another thing which he ought to have borne in mind in dealing with others---namely, how he himself, by swearing that he did not know Jesus, had not only told a lie, but had foresworn himself, in contempt of the judgment and resurrection to come Porphyry of Tyre, Fragment 25, Contra Christianos
He argued there was no law that Ananias and Sapphira broke, and Peter acted too harshly, ignoring Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness. Most of what we know about Porphyry stems from later critics like Augustine, who considered him an enemy of Christians.
Let’s consider a few points. Firstly, the burial of Ananias certainly deviated from customary burial practices, raising eyebrows about the circumstances of his death.2While same-day burials were common in ancient Syria, the speed at which the episode in Acts 5 takes place does not allow for other important customs such as proper preparation of the body and family mourning. See https://www.bibleodyssey.org/people/related-articles/burial-practices-in-first-century-palestine/ Secondly, when Sapphira arrived on the scene, Peter conspicuously omitted the fact that her husband had just passed away—a glaring omission. Lastly, Peter’s ominous pronouncement to Sapphira that she, too, would meet a similar fate implies a readiness to take her life.
Under this interpretation, the narrative transforms from a tale of divine judgment into a narrative spotlighting the imperfections within the early church and its leadership.
The Heart Attack Theory
There is one more theory about how they died. There is a very real editorial published in response to a medical journal that argues Ananias and Sapphira both suffered a stress-induced heart attack.3https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10286-018-0575-2 This would have to be one hell of a coincidence and is not a particularly convincing interpretation of this literary text.
What crime did Ananias and Sapphira commit?
We’ve delved into the intriguing possibility that Ananias and Sapphira might have been unjustly met with a tragic end. It’s noteworthy that the text doesn’t explicitly state that they had pledged to contribute all of their funds. Nonetheless, the prevailing interpretation hinges on their deceit, as explicitly articulated by Peter in Acts 5:4. Peter underscored that the money belonged to them, underscoring that the crux of the matter lay in their deception rather than a commitment to give all. However, other early church interpretations emphasised the incompleteness of their offering and some later interpreters even believed they stole their possessions and were motivated by greed.
Even those who felt Ananias and Sapphira had sinned still struggled with the cruel and unexpected nature of their death. Early church fathers Basil of Caesarea and John Cassian noted how they were given no chance to repent.4“He was not deemed worthy to learn of any terms of penance for his sin, not did he even obtain an opportunity for remorse.” Basil of Ceasarea, Prologus De Iudigio Dei 7. See A Thematic and Chronological Analysis of the Reception of Ananias and Sapphira for more primary sources.
On the other hand Origen and Chrysostom argued that their sudden death was for their own benefit, to somehow purify them into salvation.5“He wished them to depart from the body purified by their sudden and unexpected death.” The Philogalia of oriden XXVII It appears they though God was doing Ananias and Sapphira a favor.
What troubles many readers is not only is the story a violent act from God, the application of judgement appears arbitrary and inconsistent. Even Peter himself lied when he denied knowing Jesus 3 times – yet he wasn’t struck down dead. So why was it different in this story?
What’s the Point of the Story?
The most obvious answer is that the story was written as a warning against a certain type of behaviour. If Peter was responsible for their deaths then perhaps it was a critique of his actions. Prominent French theologian Marc Pernot suggests that:
“Jesus never instituted a system requiring people to liquidate all their capital… This is compulsory morality… Luke, the author of the book of Acts thus presents Peter and his first church rather critically.”M. Pernot, Il est parfois criminel de confondre son église et le Saint-Esprit (2011)
This is plausible, during the early days of Christianity there were tensions between the teachings of the Apostles and that of Paul. The author of Luke and Acts, being aligned more with Paul, may have been presenting Peter in a more critical, negative light.
However, the more traditional reading is that the text served as a warning against imitating Ananias and Sapphira’s actions. In fact, scholars have noted the similarities this story has to another Biblical story about lying to God and the faith community.
Links to other literature?
In Joshua 7 there is the story of Achan who lies about keeping some of the spoils of war that were supposed to be devoted to God.
- Both stories used the same Greek word (enosphisato) to describe dishonestly holding on to goods they had devoted to God.
- Both stories saw the leader interrogate the guilty parties in a similar way.
- Both stories had the guilty parties fall dead immediately. In the case of Achan he was stoned to death by the Israelites.
The similarities between the two stories have led some scholars to argue that Luke had constructed his story in a way that would remind his readers of the older story in Joshua. In this way, the story like that of Joshua, is a warning against imitating the behaviour of the character that befalls death, not too dissimilar to a brothers grimm tale.
However, Luke may have also drawn from other sources, such as Greco-Roman narratives and plays. Swearing an oath to a deity and failing to keep it was a common plot device in Luke’s day. For example, one finds this idea in the tragedy of Euripides. It has been suggested that Luke was drawing on these motifs to make a point about how the early church did not tolerate impiety and was made up of trustworthy individuals.6See H. Havelaar, Hellenistic Parallels to Acts 5:1–11 (1997)
A Dark Comedy?
There is one final interpretation that is worth exploring, that the story might actually be a comedy. Certainly not something like Mean Girls, more like Death at a Funeral. New Testament professor Matthew Skinner writes:
“The story aims for gallows humor, but we read Acts in a different place today. Our familiarity with religiously sanctioned violence makes it difficult to laugh”M. Skinner, Why People do NOT Give Money to Their Church (2015)
So it could be a dark comedy, the Burn After Reading of the New Testament. The fledgling church was in a fragile state, it was vulnerable. The previous chapter, Acts 4, saw the church looking after its vulnerable by sharing everything. Ananias and Sapphira are placed in contrast to Barnabas who sold his possessions and gave it all to the church community. Perhaps they wanted to appear to be like him. The chapters afterward (Acts 6:8-15) describe the increasing persecution the community faced. The whole picture is of a vulnerable community.
Holding back money was not the main problem; the problem was creating the false impression of commitment to this vulnerable community, particularly when the fledgling church was under threat. It’s unlikely the warning was ever about giving God all one’s money, it was about not betraying the trust of one’s faith community.
Did it happen?
The scholarly perspective is that this episode is likely entirely a literary fiction. Ananias and Sapphira may not have even existed, and if they did, they did not die in the way the story describes. It’s certainly plausible that the tragic death of a couple in the early church was interpreted as divine judgement. However, it is wholly implausible that it occurred in the way it is described. This is a piece of writing that was constructed and moulded for this purpose. For traditionalists who hold the Bible to be entirely true, this an uncomfortable idea, but even beloved Christian theologian C. S. Lewis once wrote concerning the Gospels and Acts:
“It seems to me that [certain passages] rule out the view that every statement in Scripture must be historical truth.”C. S. Lewis, From a letter to Clyde S. Kilby, May 7, 1959
There are many different ways of interpreting this story, by filling in the gaps and attempting to solve the moral problems that the story creates. This story is a reminder that biblical Interpretation is more art than science and even the story’s earliest interpreters didn’t always agree on an episode’s interpretation. Texts invite interpretation and reinterpretation from the communities that read them in different contexts, there is no fixed meaning to an episode.
It seems likely that this tale was a warning of some kind, but what exactly it warned against is debatable. This is a story that leaves us with more questions than answers. But it’s okay to not have all the answers.
- M. Pernot, Il est parfois criminel de confondre son église et le Saint-Esprit (2011)
- R. Van der Bergh, A Thematic and Chronological Analysis of the Reception of Ananias and Sapphira (2017)
- A Le Donne, The Improper Temple Offering of Ananias and Sapphira (2013)
- M. Skinner, Why People do NOT Give Money to Their Church (2015)
- M. Henning, Stretched out and destroyed: punitive miracles and their educational function (2017)
- B. Kent, Curses in Acts (2017)
- J. A. Harril, Divine Judgement against Ananias and Sapphira (2011)
- H. Havelaar, Hellenistic Parallels to Acts 5:1–11 (1997)
- 1“Peter may likewise, on account of Annanias and Sapphira, be called a homicide; but as it would be wildness to do so in that case, much more in this.” Commentary on Galatians, 3, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf113.iii.iii.iii.html
- 2While same-day burials were common in ancient Syria, the speed at which the episode in Acts 5 takes place does not allow for other important customs such as proper preparation of the body and family mourning. See https://www.bibleodyssey.org/people/related-articles/burial-practices-in-first-century-palestine/
- 4“He was not deemed worthy to learn of any terms of penance for his sin, not did he even obtain an opportunity for remorse.” Basil of Ceasarea, Prologus De Iudigio Dei 7. See A Thematic and Chronological Analysis of the Reception of Ananias and Sapphira for more primary sources.
- 5“He wished them to depart from the body purified by their sudden and unexpected death.” The Philogalia of oriden XXVII
- 6See H. Havelaar, Hellenistic Parallels to Acts 5:1–11 (1997)