Ananias and Sapphira: tradition or borrowing?

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by Neil Godfrey

It can be said that the author of Acts knew the story of Ananias and Sapphira as “a piece of floating tradition” and so added it to his novelistic history of the church. But we have no evidence for any such “floating tradition” — this is an assumption based on particular model or hypothesis about the origins of the canonical texts.

It can also be said that the author of Acts got the idea for the story from 1 Corinthians and shaped it to be like a similar story in Joshua. If there is textual evidence for a such a relationship between these accounts, then we have a more economical and preferable explanation for the origin of this story in Acts than the one that assumes a “floating tradition”.

The following is (again) from Pervo:

From Acts 5:1-11

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back (enosphisato) part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.”

When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened.

Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband.

Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

The shape of the story: Joshua 7

The opening verb for kept back (enosphisato) is a flag for the reader to recall the story of Achan in Joshua 7:1 (in the Greek or Septuagint translation):

But the Israelites acted unfaithfully (enosphisanto) in regard to the devoted things; Achan son of Carmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them. . . .

The questions Peter asks Ananias and Sapphira are similar to the one Joshua asked Achan, Joshua 7:25

Joshua said, “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The LORD will bring trouble on you today.”

The question is followed immediately by the death of the guilty party:

Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them.

The shape of the story is undoubtedly similar to the Achan story in Joshua:

  • Both begin with dishonestly holding on to (same Greek word) portions of goods they had dedicated to God
  • Both stories see the leader interrogate the guilty parties in a similar way
  • Both stories have the guilty parties fall dead immediately

In Acts we have a doubling of the miracle story with the death of Sapphira. This is a familiar technique used by the author of Acts (compare the double-dream stories) and it is used to reinforce the message that the events are not coincidence but are the result of divine intervention.

The inspiration for the story: 1 Corinthians 5:3-5

Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.

Both Acts 5 and 1 Corinthians 5

  • “represent a ‘magical’ means for maintaining discipline” (p.73)
  • both require a formal assembly as witnesses
  • the apostle or leader has the active role
  • the curse will lead to the guilty party’s death

Compare 1 Timothy 1:20

Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.

1 Timothy uses the same expression as found in 1 Corinthians 5:5 for “turning one over to Satan”, and like the author of Acts, speaks of the a curse pronounced by the apostle, not a judgment by the community. It appears that the author of 1 Timothy has also used 1 Corinthians 5 in a similar way as the author of Acts.

Some will not be happy with this either/or approach and will want to argue that there could be a bit of both: there was a floating tradition that was retold in the language and ideas found in Joshua and 1 Corinthians. But if the textual explanation is sufficient to account for the story then there is no need to add further hypotheses. Why insist on a less economical explanation? Besides, it is far more likely that a story of two people dropping down dead on having a curse pronounced upon them is the stuff of imaginative fiction than it is of historical origin.

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Ananias and Sapphira: tradition or borrowing?”

  1. I appreciate you tackling this topic. I feel the story is strikingly uncharacteristic of everything Jesus taught and revealed God to be. I am highly suspicious of the stories origin as potentially a later addition made by catholic authority to serve papal power and wealth. When you do a critical comparison between this story and the following passages, you have a very incongruent message.
    Luke 9:51-56 Jesus specifically rebuked death dealing to those who dishonor God.
    Galations 6:1 Paul specifically instructs gentle instruction as first resort when someone is caught in a sin
    Luke 22:25-27 Jesus specifically forbids the Apostles from ruling over others the way Gentiles rulers do. He establishes servanthood not fear and power.
    Matt 6:1-4 Jesus forbade showy offerings, yet Peter allowed people to lay money at his feet as if giving it to him was the same as giving it to God?. We see pastors do that in services today and it is deemed very unsavory.
    Most jarring of all, Peter sits in judgement on two people who get killed for lying about an offering, while he is the very one who denied Jesus three times, lying that he did not even know him and yet was forgiven and restored by Jesus. Peter looks like the unmerciful servant who was forgiven much but condemned little.
    This passage is far too convenient for sheering sheep and abusing flocks, as well as way too similar to the violent mideval church or the violent and crucified Old Testment for me to beleive it really happened.

      1. Apologies. I lost track of this post. As well apologies if I engaged in too much theological commentary. I hope I don’t do more of it attempting to address your question.
        I find the parallel with Achan in Joshua to be unavoidable. I would add that another conspicuous parallel is the fact that both stories are placed in an almost inaugeral position in the histories of Israel and the church. Achans sin happened at the very first city they attacked when entering the promise land. This city was supposed to be fully dedicated to God with no personal spoil – a “tithe” as it were.
        Annanias and Sapphira happened quite early after the birth of the church. In fact this is a point many inerrantists commentators make in justifying the neccesity of the incident. Again they were expected to give the entire price of the property sale per thier own promise. Yet they like Achan secretly held back some for themselves.
        Note also that Achans family suffered as well under his “headship” in the home just as Sapphira also died along with her husband. What better way to strike fear into the hearts of the community than to infer thier families will also pay for thier financial sins?
        The connection with the Corinthian passage seems a bit more tenuous in my mind but I see why you would find it plausible. It fits into a larger sense of the church authority being backed up by divine powers to destroy. Yet we really don’t know what Paul meant when he envisioned the destruction of the flesh. I suppose this may open a new door of speculation about who actually killed Anannias and bride. For Paul seemed to indicate that the turning over of a person made them fair game for Satan himself to harm them or even take thier life. Perhaps Satan killed A&S?

        But we might be constrained from taking Pauls words so far as inferring actual death in as much as he seemed to indicate that the Satanic discipline was being used by God towards a redemptive end. They would be “taught” not to blaspheme. The idea of a lesson seems to maintain hope for a persons change of heart. In fact Paul seems to indicate he himself was allowed to be taught a lesson in grace when a “messenger from Satan” was sent to torment him in 2 Cor 12:7. He said it was to teach him humility because of his surpassing revelations.

        For me the Achan parallel makes it nearly a closed case.

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