This is the thirteenth entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. The first entry covered some of the major critical, technical and background issues that will concern us as we read through and comment on the Acts. The second post, found here, considered the prologue to the Acts of the Apostles. In the third column, we began to examine the founding of the Jerusalem Church.
In the fourth blog post, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the beginning of Peter’s speech was discussed. In the fifth post, the bulk of Peter’s speech was examined. In the sixth entry, Peter’s speech concludes with a successful response according to Acts. The seventh blog post deals with the formation of the apostles and other disciples into a community and the practices of the earliest community.
In the eighth column Peter and John heal a man who was lame. In the ninth entry, Peter explains how the lame man was healed and what this means about Jesus and his salvific power. The tenth blog post explored Peter and John before the Council in Jerusalem. In the eleventh chapter, their trial on the Temple concluded. In the twelfth entry, Peter and John speak to their friends in the aftermath of their release.
The thirteenth blog post, found below, outlines the common life of the Jesus’ believers and their possessions shared in common, with one major exception.
C) Work of Peter and the Apostles (3:1-5:42): The Believers Share Everything In Common, with One Major Exception (4:32-5:11):
32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. 34 There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. 36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles' feet.
1 Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2 With his wife's full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles' feet. 3 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? 4 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." 5 When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6 Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him. 7 About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 Peter asked her, "Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?" "Yes," she said, "that is the price." 9 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." 10 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. 11 Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events. (NRSV)
The section from 4:32-35 is seen by Fitzmyer (Acts, 312) and Robert J. Dillon (NJBC, 738) – as by the majority of commentators - as the second major summary in Acts, the first being Acts 2:42-47. Fitzmyer’s comments on the composition are worth examining, for he says that “the summary is again composite or conflated…its main theme stresses common ownership (4:32, 34-35), but the insert (4:33) expresses their testimony to the risen Christ” (312). One can certainly see 4:33 as an insert, but testimony to the risen Christ is central throughout Acts as their main task and the means by which a twelfth apostle was chosen to replace Judas. Nevertheless, in general there is no reason to question Fitzmyer’s contention that “the summary is a Lucan composition…it is really impossible in this instance to distinguish Lucan and pre-Lucan material” (312-13). Luke has put this summary together one way or another.
Fitzmyer sees this section joined to 4:36-5:11, as does Luke Timothy Johnson, while Richard Pervo believes the whole section goes to Acts 5:16. Pervo says that Luke’s summary in 4:32-35 – with 4:33 inserted – offers detailed reports on community life in 4:34-35 and then again an extended report in 4:36-5:11, followed by a general summary (5:12), comments on the popularity of the movement (5:13-14) and the climactic report about Peter’s healings (5:15-16) (Acts, 126). I follow Johnson and Fitzmyer in this regard and see the natural break in this section at the end of the story of Sapphira, which is connected to that of Barnabas and, of course, Ananias. The chapter break which divides the story of Barnabas and Ananias and Sapphira is artificial. As well, the summary of Acts 4:32-35 which brings us to the stories of Barnabas and Ananias and Sapphira is intimately connected to their accounts since it shows us the right and the wrong way to enact communal living and to engage the Spirit of God.
For, “all the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had” (Acts 4:32). The language of “one in heart and mind” is a “classic topos” of Greek friendship (Johnson, 91; see also NJBC, 738) and here Luke shows us the community of believers living this reality out among themselves. At least as this communal reality concerns possessions, for in this summary there is no reference to common meals or the worship life of the community, except to mention that “with great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33).
Luke stresses that “here were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need” (Acts 4:34-35). As Fitzmyer notes, we are not told whether common ownership was obligatory or voluntary (Fitzmyer, 313). We might tend to think, though, that it was voluntary, since as Pervo states the ideal was that all was held in common, but the reality was that the needy required and received support (Pervo, 127).
Although the friendship of communal possessions has Greek precedents, it is also possible to see the focus on aiding the needy as arising from the Jewish Scriptures. To say there was never a needy person among them is to see Deuteronomy 15:4, 11 in action:
4 However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you
11 There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.
The use of “needy” (Greek endeês) in Acts 4:34 makes this a clear allusion to Deuteronomy 15:4 and 11 in the Septuagint, which both have the Greek endeês for poor and needy (Johnson, 86). In the midst of the apostles, Luke wants to stress that Greek friendship is being realized and so, too, are the laws of the Jewish people being realized.
We then move to the stories of Barnabas on the one hand and Ananias and Sapphira on the other hand; Fitzmyer says pithily that the first example is edifying and the second one is not (315)! The story of Barnabas is straightforward, short, and enriching:
36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles' feet.
The straightforward account, however, demands a couple of comments. As every commentator notes, Barnabas does not mean “son of consolation” in Aramaic (see Fitzmyer, 320-21; Johnson, 87). There is no way to make this name “work” and so Pervo’s contention that the interpretation of Barnabas is “folk” etymology is a powerful suggestion, which I see as perhaps drawing on Barnabas’ own prominent role and personality among the apostles and other missionaries (Pervo, 129). The Levite from Cyprus is a significant figure for he combines “excellent Jewish credentials with a diaspora background” like Paul and it could be that Barnabas is introduced here as the link between Jesus’ original apostles and Paul (Pervo, 128-29).
The other comment has to do with the fact that Levites could not own land in Israel, but Fitzmyer points that this seems not to be the case in Jeremiah 1:1 and 32:7-9 (Fitzmyer, 322) and Johnson points to Joshua 21:1-41 which traces lands given to the Levites by other tribes (Johnson, 87). It should also be said, of course, that Cyprus is not in the land of Israel and Josephus (Antiquities 13:285-88) reports a large Jewish population of Cyprus (Johnson, 87). There is no reason to doubt the historicity (or historical possibility at least) that Barnabas the Levite had land in Cyprus at his disposal to sell.
So much for the edification. The next story has two parts and they are both a little depressing. The first part tells the story of the husband named Ananias and his wife Sapphira who “also sold a piece of property” (Acts 5:1). After he had sold it, though, “with his wife's full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles' feet” (Acts 5:2). The verb for “kept back part of the money for himself” is nosphizein, which has a sense of “misappropriate” (Fitzmyer, 322) or even fraud (Johnson, 88, referring to the use of the verb in 2 Maccabees 2:42). Pervo believes also that the issue is deceit, namely, if Ananias and Sapphira had decided to openly and honestly save something for a rainy day that would have been tolerable, as is suggested by Peter’s comments in the following verses (Pervo, 129).
Peter challenges Ananias, attributing his behavior to Satan and saying, “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” (Acts 5:3-4). This is the issue: Ananias has lied to God. “The Spirit of God is directing this scene,” not Peter (Pervo, 129).
“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” (Acts 5:5-6). “In this instance, the Spirit serves as both financial auditor and executioner” (Pervo, 129) and the young men just come in and wrap up his body for burial as the fitting conclusion to God’s judgment on Ananias. Fitzmyer calls it “a sort of miracle” since it happens at the words of Peter, but I think he is correct to be cautious in calling it a miracle as some do (Fitzmyer, 316). While one could argue every miracle is simply God working through someone or something, there is nothing genuinely miraculous about death.
This, however, is only the first part of this scene. The story of Sapphira is the second part. The first is Acts 5:1-6, the second Acts 5:7-11; each part has a response (Acts 5:5 and 5:11) and correspondences between verses, such as in 2/8, 3/9a, 5a/10a, and 5b/11 (Pervo, 130). The story of Sapphira mimics closely that of her husband. Three hours after Ananias, Sapphira arrived and
8 Peter asked her, "Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?" "Yes," she said, "that is the price." 9 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." 10 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. 11 Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events. (Acts 5:8-11)
Sapphira has colluded with her dead husband in lying to the Holy Spirit and she has now paid the same price as he did: death. Sapphira falls at Peter’s feet in ironic fulfillment of all the other times possessions have been placed at the feet of Peter for good or bad in Acts 4:35, 37, and 5:2. All the believers, it seems Luke is saying, are truly possessions of God and they cannot escape God’s judgment of what they have done. As T.E. Page notes, the first use of ekklêsia in Acts for the assembly of believers in Jesus occurs here in Acts 5:11 (Page, 111; see also NJBC, 738). The ekklêsia has certain standards it must achieve and truthfulness to God is first among them.
But there are issues still to discuss, some minor and some significant. The story of Ananias and Sapphira clearly comes from pre-Lucan tradition, that is, whatever role Luke has in shaping it, it is an account that must have emerged from the earliest Jerusalem Church (Fitzmyer, 316). The names themselves, unlike Barnabas, have precedents in other biblical or Aramaic sources: Ananias in Nehemiah 3:23 (Ananyah) or 1 Chronicles 25:4 (Hananyah) and Sappirah means “beautiful one” in Aramaic (Fitzmyer, 322).
But “whether one can determine anything about the historicity of the incident, whether it be folkloric or legendary” is another matter; Fitzmyer ultimately stresses that “it effectively teaches the lesson that Luke wants to achieve by incorporating it into his account of the early days of the Christian community” (Fitzmyer, 320). What is that lesson? Sin will destroy koinonia (“community”) and you should be afraid of the Holy Spirit which is working through the community.
Fitzmyer says that “the Lucan emphasis is not on the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, but rather on how God works through the apostles,” but while that is clearly a key issue, the deaths seem awfully important to make the case about the power of the apostles (Fitzmyer, 316-17). It is the deaths that lead to “great fear” throughout the Church.
Gary Gilbert (JANT, 207) states that “a narrative concerning withholding what is devoted to God’s purpose, resulting in the death of the offender, is in Josh 7:3-4.” And the story of Achan from Joshua 7:1, 6-26 lies behind much of the language in this passage (Pervo, 130). For instance, Luke Timothy Johnson speaks of the neôteroi in v. 5 and the neaniskoi in v.10, both of which describe young men or teenagers. Are these technical terms or just the young men capable of doing the heavy lifting of dead bodies? Johnson believes that even here there may be another echo of the Achan story in Joshua for “when Joshua decrees the ban, those who take out the family of Rahab and “set them outside the camp of Israel” are called neaniskoi (Josh 6:23) (Johnson, 88-89). If these connections to Achan are important, then the deaths do matter particularly as a sign of God’s power when withholding what belongs to God and it seems clear Luke emphasizes these deaths.
Richard Pervo also makes the fascinating comparison of Ananias and Sapphira to the story of Susanna (LXX Daniel 13), who is spied upon while she bathes by two lying elders who want to sleep with her. What are the shared themes? Both Acts and Susanna have a deadly sin (lust, greed), the separation of the offending pair for trial, exposure of the truth by questioning them separately and God’s ultimate responsibility for the deaths in both cases (Pervo, 130).
These are compelling parallels, but even given these, a theological questions or problem remains. Robert W. Wall says that their “tragic deaths underscore the vital importance of this practice as social marker and spiritual barometer for this community” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, 95), but does everybody who lies to God die immediately? Why does Peter not give the two a chance to repent (Fitzmyer, 317; see Luke 17:3-4)? Fitzmyer goes on to ask whether they are not simply “moral weaklings, not transgressors worthy of death and eternal damnation? What sort of Church does Luke envisage here, the purity of which has to be preserved by the removal of sinners by death?” (Fitzmyer, 317). “For these and other reasons the account has been regarded as legendary,” states Fitzmyer (317), but that hardly clears up the problem.
Even if legendary, the account was included. Richard Pervo quotes John Polhill who says, “When all is said and done there is no ‘comfortable’ solution to the passage” (Pervo, 132), for It seems to depict the Deity as executing a cheating couple to encourage others to hold fast to the Church’s teachings (Pervo, 132). “Peter kills the pair with words just as he heals others with words” (Pervo, 134), though God is the ultimate cause and Peter his agent. Is that, finally, the ultimate answer? God’s power is active in the followers of Jesus and it is God who has the true power of life and death, not only in this life but the world to come, so be honest with God because you cannot lie to the Holy Spirit.
Next entry, the disciples of Jesus heal people and are arrested again.
John W. Martens
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This entry is cross-posted at America Magazine The Good Word
 Relating the story of Barnabas to Ananias and Stephen rejects the “conventional chapter division” says Fitzmyer, but he is right to do this as “one is clearly the foil to the other” (316).
 See NJBC, 738 for claims that this is a “rule-miracle,” a miracle that “reinforces divine ordinances.” This is dependent upon Gerd Theissen’s categorization in The Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition.