- Divine Judgment against Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5: 1–11): A Stock Scene of Perjury and Death
The story of Ananias and Sapphira begins with a utopian scene of the earliest believers sharing all goods in common. A Levite named Joseph (alias Barnabas) sells his field and lays all the proceeds at the feet of the apostles for distribution to the community’s needy (Acts 4:32–37). Ananias then, “with the consent of his wife Sapphira,” sells a piece of property and appears to follow suit. Ananias, however, lays “only a part” of the sale’s proceeds before the apostles (5:1–2). The apostle Peter berates Ananias for “lying not to humans but to the Holy Spirit” (5:3), and Sapphira for “putting the Spirit of the Lord to the test” (5:9). Upon hearing the apostle’s rebuke, Ananias and Sapphira each die in turn, suddenly and on the spot. The story ends with “great fear” (φόβος μέγας) seizing “all who heard these things” and especially the whole “church”—the first occurrence of ἐκκλησία in the narrative (5:11).
The story’s apparent moral injustice has long offended biblical interpreters. In the third century, a Greek “philosopher,” most likely Porphyry, condemned Peter’s rebuke as hypocritical and irrational: the apostle, who perjured himself by denying Jesus three times (Luke 22:31–34, 54–62), ritually murders the couple for [End Page 351] doing a much lesser sin, if indeed the couple’s action was a sin.1 More recent commentators have shared Porphyry’s shock at the story and its theological implications.2
To resolve the story’s apparent moral injustice, scholars have proposed various exegetical solutions. A typological reading, the most common, argues that the sin and punishment of Ananias and Sapphira conform to an OT archetype of the bad Israelite—namely, Achan, who was executed by a protracted burning and stoning because he stole part of the Jericho battle spoils devoted to the Lord (Josh 7:1–26).3 An etiological approach argues that the story originates from early Christian oral traditions of untimely deaths of believers, before the parousia of the Lord (e.g., 1 Thess 4:13–17). A third reading considers the social situation in light of ancient Judaism. This interpretation points to prescriptions of similar disciplinary expulsions in the Dead Sea Scrolls for candidates who try to keep back some of their private possessions from the Qumran community (1QS 6:24b–25; CD 14:20–21). A fourth reading emphasizes the story’s function, which is said to legitimate the practice of excommunication in the institutionalization of the early church (cf. Matt 18:15–17; 1 Cor 5:13). A fifth reading, from a “salvation-history” perspective, identifies the sin of Ananias and Sapphira as blocking the free activity of the Holy Spirit in human history, announced in Acts 1:8. A sixth, “original sin” reading, argues that the episode recounts sins at “beginnings,” a narrative form familiar from the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Genesis 3; 6:1–4; Exodus 32; 2 Samuel 11).4 There is an over-arching [End Page 352] problem with each of these proposals. The debates over the “meaning” of the story have become mired in the questionable assumption that antecedents determine meaning.
Instead, I examine the story of Ananias and Sapphira in the broader cultural context of ancient oaths, vows, and promises. After all, breaking a promise—“lying to the Holy Spirit”—drives the story’s plot and theme. I argue that the episode depicts divine judgment for perjury, a stock scene familiar in ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures.5 This thesis offers a plausible context in which ancient readers would have made sense of the story of Ananias and Sapphira. I do not deny that ancient Christian readers could also have seen in the story an allusion to paradigmatic texts in Jewish Scripture, such as that of Achan, or biblical injunctions about oaths. Such biblical precedents do not, however, exhaust the story’s resonances within Greco-Roman culture. I propose one such resonance, for example, to be the form or structure of a comedy.6