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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