Last days in Jerusalem: The unfortunate eschatological sin of Ananias and Sapphira

Most readers have little trouble identifying the deceptive deed committed by Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). According to the popular reading, this Christian couple sought to obtain prestige among the apostles through an act of extraordinary and costly generosity—freely relinquishing the entirety of their property and its value for the good of the church—while at the same time secretly retaining most of the yield for themselves. Thus, attempting to appear righteous—falsely putting on the form of downward mobility or κένωσις (cf. Philippians 2:5-8)—Ananias and Sapphira were struck down by the God who sees into the heart. Had these villains been honest about the extent of their act of charity, they would have been praised rather than buried.

Communion of the saints

For all its commonsense ethical appeal, this reading lacks a strong textual basis. Ananias and Sapphira never claim to donate the total value of their property and Peter never implies that they made such an oath. It seems, rather, that all parties involved assume propriety demands the complete disposal of land on the part of believing Jerusalemite property-owners. This is to say that Ananias and Sapphira attempt to deceive the apostles concerning “such and such a price” not in order to accrue sacred honor within the community but rather in order to abide by the sacred rule of the community—a subtle difference with important ramifications.

Two lines of reasoning support this conclusion.

First, Luke has already prompted expectations—once in Acts 2:43-47 and again in Acts 4:32-37. He writes that “all” the believers in Jerusalem “shared all things in common,” selling their “properties” (κτήματα) and “possessions” or “wealth” (ὑπάρξεις). “Everyone” (ὅσοι) who owned “lands” or “estates” sold them and offered up the proceeds so that no believer lacked necessities. Luke indicates further that the poor and those recently dispossessed of property dwelled together on the apostolic estate: “all who believed were together” (Acts 2:44, cf. 2:1, 4:31). So whereas in the Greek world wealthy Christians retained their properties but were commanded to ensure that no believer lacked food, shelter, or clothing (cf. James 2:15-16, 1 John 3:17, Galatians 6:10), among the Jerusalem brethren property itself was liquidated and the profit redistributed. It was surely within this earliest Christian community that the most radical sayings of Jesus regarding money were preserved and developed (cf. Luke 6:24, 12:33, 18:22; 25): “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:33).

Second, as most interpreters agree, Luke narrates the sin of Ananias and Sapphira at the founding of the church in such a way as to bring to mind the sin of Achan at the founding of Israel. Achan’s deceit, like that of Ananias and Sapphira, is an act of “stealing away” or “purloining” (νοσφίζω) what belonged to God by divine decree (ἀπὸ τοῦ ἀναθέματος) (LXX Joshua 7:1, cf. Acts 5:2). Just as Achan took from Jericho what he had no right to possess, the Christian couple took for themselves what belonged to God for the people of God.1 Ananias had the capacity to hand over the devoted goods (Acts 5:4) but regarded his wealth as “something to cling to” (ἁρπαγμός) (Philippians 2:6). He desired admittance into the holy community but could not reckon with the terrible cost (cf. Luke 14:25-33).

Unworthy initiates

This apostolic rule (or, if we prefer, normative praxis) concerning the sale of property has long puzzled readers. For some, the early church’s communal living is understood as an economic end in itself—a primitive communism that ought to be replicated today. Others stress the voluntary and spontaneous nature of this strange and supposedly unrepeatable practice.

For Luke, memories of such communal conduct surely serve as important rhetorical assets toward his larger apologetic project. Such extravagant displays of loyalty among the first members of the Christian guild confirmed, so Luke thought, the veracity of their religious convictions. Luke is thus at pains to highlight the role of Christ’s resurrection and subsequent spiritual deluge in generating the genuine benevolence that fostered impromptu dispossession of land.

What Luke fails to convey adequately, however—for obvious reasons—is that these nascent religious convictions looked toward an imminent apocalypse. For these first believers, resurrection appearances of Jesus and episodes of spirit-possession constituted signs of the impending termination of the present evil age (cf. Acts 4:33).2 As Peter claims at Pentecost, these were their “last days” in Jerusalem (Acts 2:17). By pouring out various signs by the hand of the exalted Christ, God had proven that he would very soon shake the nations and rulers of this world—rattling the dwelling of the believers as a foretaste, for instance (Act 4:23-31). Gripped by this apocalytpic spirit the holding of soon-to-be-useless property was an impediment to spiritual readiness (cf. Luke 16:9).

The apocalypse, of course, proved farther out than these earliest Christians anticipated and Luke appropriated this material relating to the early church in Jerusalem accordingly—deleting, for the most part, its distinctly apocalyptic impetus. While Luke was happy to imply that the disposal of property was voluntary—based chiefly upon love among committed religious comrades—it seems plausible that initiates into the Jerusalem community were expected to turn over their possessions as evidence that they too believed in the coming catastrophe, that they too believed in Jesus as the first-fruits of the resurrection of the dead. Such was the apocalyptic logic that stood behind the sale of property and communal living at Qumran (cf. 1QS 6:19-22). The end of the present world-order was at hand.

A wise historian

Returning at last to the case of Ananias and Sapphira, it seems Luke narrates their sin in an intentionally ambiguous way, implying but hesitating to say outright that full communion with the Jerusalem church at this early stage presupposed the sale of lands and houses. Luke is aware that as Christianity penetrated the empire most churches did not emulate Jerusalem’s particularly extreme economic regimen. Our judicious historian did not want to impose on his wealthy readers (e.g. Theophilus) the expectation that they too must cede their property as they await the apocalypse—which now, admittedly, sat a bit farther along.

History, I think, vindicates Luke’s tact: The churches would come to inherit the οἰκουμένη through the blood of distressed and distressing prophet-martyrs—”spectacles to the world” (1 Corinthians 4:9)—but also, as Luke knew, through the more comfortable faith of those already embedded within elite Roman society—those who funded the apostles by means of the lands, properties, and businesses they owned.

1—Has Jerusalem been devoted to destruction and therefore must be disposed of by the believing community? Luke does not press the point.

2—Consider the role of 4:33 as it stands between verses 32 and 34. Deeds of power gave rise to (pious) prodigal behavior because such deeds demonstrated that the end of the age was near.

6 thoughts on “Last days in Jerusalem: The unfortunate eschatological sin of Ananias and Sapphira

  1. I can understand why Luke and other disciples around the time of Jerusalem’s destruction would have been puzzled by the fact that Jesus still hadn’t returned, but is there any reason to think Luke did not expect Jesus to return in his lifetime?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I would like to add the following idea. Suppose that Ananias and Sapphira died suddenly while they were such great benefactors of the early church. So people might start to wonder, what did they wrong? And perhaps, they found something insignificant, but that was all, so that must be it. You know how the religious mind works.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. The couple dying on the same day is remarkable unless it is the consequence of an infectious disease, which the account does not indicate. The idea that God has a peculiar sense of humour is hard to fathom for religious people and atheists alike.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.