Saturday, April 16, 2011

Murder in the New Testament

Who doesn’t love a good unsolved murder? This is an attempt to re-examine a small story in the New Testament which I believe has been long misinterpreted. Long have I pondered the mystery of Acts 5:1-11, an event so cloaked in the mist of time and biblical interpretation that I am one of the few who thinks there is a mystery at all. In my opinion there is strong circumstantial evidence that there is more to this little tale of the apostles than the text shows on the surface or theologians are willing to say. It was, in fact - cue creepy organ music – murder most foul, unsolved and largely uninvestigated for almost 2000 years.

It is, of course, only with the greatest difficulty that the words of the Bible, even the relatively more recent New Testament, are looked at from a historical perspective, and we feel most comfortable when evidence comes from extra-Biblical material, like Josephus. We don't have that here. But, obviously, there are Christians among us, and they started somewhere. I don't know any historian who doubts the existence of the early church in the first century and the basic facts about the New Testament, even if Jesus' existence is still doubted by some (although, of course, there is always someone who doubts any thing). As this is the Bible, for the sake of the post I accept the possibility that a deity can will someone's death or give the power to someone to do it. The Biblical references I give are for anyone who wants to read the text itself.

For those who think the following this may be blasphemous or belittling of the gospels, I would suggest you should read this first, and like a good juror, keep your mind open as I suggest that the traditional view is the one completely contradictory to the spirit of the gospels. Follow.


Acts, the book of the New Testament immediately following the four gospels, may have been written by Luke, the 1st century A.D. physican who probably also wrote the Gospel of Luke and was a companion of St. Paul, who referred to him by name. The main reason for that is both works have a preface addressed to Theophilos (“God lover”) and in Acts he even refers to his earlier work on Jesus, presumably the gospel. It might be someone else, of course, but it seems unlikely to me, and it is the traditional and probably still the majority view. However, some scholars believe that it was an anonymous person who did not witness the apostle's acts or someone, maybe even Luke, who compiled it from works others had written before him. Of course, there are even a few who even think it was a woman, a theory that sees to pop up whenever an author's identity is unknown, as with with Genesis and Homer.

Like just about everything about the Bible, nothing else is very certain about Acts either. There are variations among the earliest preserved  transcripts (it would be odder were there not). It is argued whether the word "acts" refers to the acts of the apostles, as is traditional (and logical), or to the acts of Jesus or the Holy Spirit. It is argued what sources the author referred to in writing this and even whether he might have plagiarized Euripides or Josephus (which would hardly be frowned on back then). It is argued whether the author of Acts had read Paul’s letters, and whether his facts are consistent with Paul's. And, of course, it is debated when it was written, the primary theories being around 65 A.D (some 30-35 years after Jesus’ probable death) or around 100 A.D., based on a supposition that it borrows from Josephus’ later work, Antiquities. For the purposes of this post, I treat it as historical, though that does not require me to accept Luke's belief.

The following, from Acts 5:1-11, is taken from the New International Version (NIV):

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 part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

The 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.

Abour 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."

It seems like your typical miraculous biblical event on one hand. I disagree. I think it was murder and I have a prime suspect. Like any good juror, you are encouraged to wait until you read all the facts and hear my argument before you make up your mind.


The early proto-Christians numbered about 120 persons at the beginning of the time referred to in Acts 1, but they grew quickly according to Acts 2 and 3, and we can reasonably speculate at the point in time we are going to discuss, there were probably a few thousand of them (on one day they added 3,000 along – Acts 3:41) when the story we are speaking of occurred. They were a quasi-communist society where all donated their property for the good of all. Acts 4:32-35 states: “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. . . 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 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.”

While this type of economy is not unknown among the ancient Israeli religious sects (many speculate the Jesus had lived among the Essenes, which sect we know from Josephus and less certainly from the Dead Sea Scrolls also shared property among themselves), the general economy in Israel at the time was capitalistic. Were it not, Jesus would not have had to throw the merchants out of the temple. This much at least does not seem debatable, as the land was part of the Roman Empire at the time, and their system was basically mercantile or capitalistic, with merchants, banks, private property, interest, profit motive, rich and poor, all playing a role.

Given human nature and the attachment of people to their property, in order to maintain a communist system, coercion is needed. Even Marx, who mistakenly believed that communism would eventually bring about the end of coercive government, held that at least a temporary dictatorship of the proletariat was necessary to distribute property until the end of the bourgeois, a position which Lenin (among others) used to justify his totalitarianism.

The reluctance of Ananaias and Sapphira to give up all they had to the apostles is a given we accept as true for our hypothesis. We have no reason to dispute it from scripture and Peter could have gained his knowledge from any number of witnesses, including the purchaser of the property. It is likely that Peter, who performed miracles through the power of the Holy Spirit, probably learned what they had done from ordinary, non-mystical means. I feel fairly certain of this as when Peter does something attributable to a higher power such as Jesus, we are told so by him or the text, such as in Acts 4:8 when he and John cure a crippled beggar and it was acknowledged that it occurred through the power of Jesus. Similarly, in Acts 2:1-4, the speaking in tongues is attributed to the Holy Spirit. This is the whole purpose of the New Testament - to convince us that Jesus was the son of God, or one with God and the Holy Spirit - take your pick. So, of course we are told.

We have some reason to believe that these donations by Ananaias and Sapphira were among the first large donations. In fact, although arguable, the evidence lends itself to the conclusion that this was the second large donation made by a follower. Acts specifically mentions a donation by a man named Joseph, in Acts 4:36-37. Then immediately after comes the donation by our doomed couple, Ananaias and Sapphira in Acts 5.

Following the idea that the apostle’s system required coercion, even among volunteers, and that this occurred at an early point in the system, it would not be surprising that the apostles wanted to make an example of them. That is, in fact, what happened, whether intentional or not.

Blaming it all on God

Now, we have seen that when Ananaias heard Peter’s accusations, he fell down and died. Traditional exegesis (why can't they just say interpretation?) of this chapter has it that God caused him to die. That does not seem likely. In fact, as I will show you, it would be all but unbelievable. While I could speculate that he had a heart attack or stroke, which seems likely in the real world to me, that does not work in the context of the chapter. Peter was clearly angry with Ananaias as he is chastising him when he drops dead. Peter does not seem surprised or displeased in any way. Natural causes would not explain why Sapphira also died. This is expressed to us as an intentional act by someone.

One reason to believe that this was not an act of God is the fact that all of the people who heard of what happened to Ananaias were afraid (Acts 5:5). But, remember, normally, if God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit is responsible for something, Peter tells them (as in Acts 3:12-23) and they marvel at it. And, given the fear of the people that we are told occurs upon his death it would seem incredible that he would not have told them so if it were, in fact, true. It cannot be that Peter has suddenly forgotten the higher powers. Not only is God’s existence second nature to him, and comes readily to his lips, but, he had just finished telling Ananaias that he has lied to God. So, the deity was on his mind. But, at no time before or after does he suggest that God will or has killed Ananaias. To suggest he did is to add something to the text that is simply not there.

Undoubtedly, some might think that this is stretching a bit, turning Peter’s non-attribution to God into some type of proof of murder. That might be a fair response without investigation, but I do not think the evidence supports it at all. Just as we are told when someone acts through the power of God in the Bible, we are similarly told when God or an angel kills someone. For example, in 1 Samuel 6:19, it is God who kills 70 men that looked into the ark of the covenant (for a more recent example, See, Raiders of the Lost Ark). When the oxen stumbled while the ark is being transported and Uzzah put his hand on it to steady it, we are told that God struck him dead as well (2 Samuel 6:2-7). There are many similar scenes in the Old Testament of people being struck down, sometimes in mass (once almost everyone in the world), by God or his angels. We know it because we are told.

Yet, such an act by God is almost unheard of in the New Testament. The only instance I am aware of is also found in Acts at 12:23, where an angel of God strikes Herod down, he is eaten by worms and he dies. But, remember, in New Testament terms, Herod was at least a major villain. I submit, had God killed Ananaias and Sapphira, Luke would have told us so just as he did with Herod.
We don’t learn at all in Acts the cause of Ananaias’ death. All we know is that he heard what Peter had to say and he died. We are not told he was frightened either, as we immediately learned about the people who heard about his death.

So, we know he died while being accused of impiety by the leader of his sect, and it is clear that God has not done it. We also know beyond any doubt that Peter intended Ananaias to die, which becomes clear when he then confronts Sapphira. When she lies to him, he points out that the men who carried away her husband have returned and she will be carried out next. Clearly his expectation - I don't think it is too much to say his desire - is that she die.

Now, as I have said, as with her husband, it is traditionally held that it is God or the Holy Spirit who killed her. The so-called proof is merely that he asks her “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord?” That doesn’t assert that God killed her, only that Peter said she has agreed (with her husband) to test the Lord.

Death and the New Testament

So, for the second time in short succession the person Peter is mad at, Sapphira, and who he actually states will die, dies right in front of him and again without a reference to God being responsible that would normally accompany a divine event. And, as with her husband's death, we are told that great fear seized all who heard of it (Acts 5:11). Why? Not because a miracle occurred. There is no evidence of that. But, because it became known – if you hold out on the apostles, you will die. Clearly, even if God was responsibility, as is usually suggested, that then was his intent and it cannot be denied.

But, once again, I suggest it would be remarkable if Peter killed her through a power given him by the Holy Spirit or Jesus or God, for, in all of the rest of the New Testament, there is not one single instance I am aware of any human using the power of God to take a life. And, as we have seen, only one man, Herod, was killed by a messenger of God. If it were the case here that God was responsible, it would be very strange indeed, as it would be completely out of character for Jesus or the New Testament God. I’ll return to this later. First, let’s mess with Peter.

Peter’s character flaws

When you think of it – was not Peter himself guilty of a much greater lie than either of the unlucky couple? For when asked if he was the same guy who was with Jesus, we know he denied it – three times! Jesus was well aware of Peter's character as he predicted himself that Peter would deny him to save his own life. And, though Peter is “the rock” upon which the church would be built, he was not Jesus’s favorite (which, traditionally, was John).

In Galatians 2:11-14, the future St. Paul even chastises the future St. Peter for hypocritical behavior. If  Paul had fairly chastised Peter, it speaks poorly of Peter’s character. However, I must mention that although Peter’s actions were not defended by him, it was later defended by St. Jerome, one of the four doctors of the church. I am not going into detail about Paul’s charge and Jerome’s defense, because it isn’t really relevant to my topic, but, the defense may speak poorer of Peter than the charge. For where Paul charges hypocrisy, Jerome's defense is that Peter acted as he did out of fear. This shouldn’t be a surprise as it is reminiscent of his denials of knowing Jesus, also motivated by fear. Jerome, about as authoritative a church figure as there is, was writing long after the fact, but he claims he got his information from the “fathers of the church”. Whoever he is referring to, it is clear he means they would have been closer in time to the apostles than he was.

But, to bring this back to our subject, are these piddling charges of Peter's poor character sufficient to suggest that he might have killed someone? Clearly not. Any of us might show far more timidly than Peter did and not be suspected of murder, or even considered cowardly. Both times he was avoiding a potentially dangerous situation. I would prefer to say that he may not have showed great courage, but he did not act so differently than most people would have. Perhaps we just expect a lot is expected of an apostle.
What would make him think it was okay

I think I have set forth some good reasons why we should not readily believe that Mr. and Mrs. Ananaias were murdered by a divine power, both scripturally and linguistically. But, in order to tie this together, and validly accuse Peter or the apostles of murder, I will have to set forth some reason that Peter might have engaged in such drastic act over such a small thing as a little lie. Where would Peter get an idea that this would be okay? Certainly not from Jesus.

Actually, I'm just playing. He did get the idea from Jesus.

Relax, I’m not suggesting that Jesus intended that any of his followers would commit murder. That would be completely out of character for him, as I argued above. In fact, when Jesus was betrayed and taken, he stopped his followers from defending him by violent means, and did an E.T. on a servant of the high priest, when one of his followers cut the man's ear off, healing him (Luke, 22:49-51).

But, remember, the apostles were not saints yet, but real mortals, and had their faults. Jesus himself complained that they did not understand his parables (e.g., Mark 4:13). So, did Jesus say something that Peter could have misunderstood in such a disastrous way?

We find the answer not in Acts, but likely from Luke himself in Luke 19:11. On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus tells a lengthy parable when he realizes that his followers seem to think that the kingdom of God was imminent. I am only interested in the beginning and end of it. A noble was traveling to a far land to have himself made king before returning home. His subjects hated him and sent a delegation to complain that they did not want him for king. He is made king anyway, and at the end of the parable, he says “But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.”

Quite a strange parable for Jesus to tell, don’t you think? Of course, it is a parable, a fictitious story told to make a point, and the real purpose of it was much different than the plot line, at least according to most interpretations. But, Jesus’ parables were not easy to understand, and as I said, he himself knew his apostles did not understand him. Would it be surprising that one the chosen, finding himself in a position of authority might have understood him to mean it is all right for a lord to take the life of those who displeased him? That would be an accurate interpretation of what Jesus actually said, if someone missed the deeper meaning.

Not much later, after he had entered Jerusalem, Jesus made a prophecy that a literal minded apostle might also have taken too seriously. Let me quote:

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace-but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave on stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.’”

One view of this is that if you are disrespectful of God’s will, as Peter clearly believed the unlucky couple to be, you are deserving of death.

Talk about cruel and unusual punishment

When you think about it – what was the terrible crime of Ananaias and Sapphira, who after all did donate some of their property to the sect, that justified their death? Lying about money? Are we to believe that Jesus, who said “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the one to cast a stone at her,” was responsible? That would be so completely out of character for Jesus or the New Testament God (not, the Old Testament God though) that it would require quite an explanation.

There is one last problem. So far I've tried to show:

There is no text indicating that God or Jesus killed the couple and there would be if that was the case.

The only person killed in the New Testament by a spiritual being was a major Biblical villain.

There are no examples in the New Testament of any person killing someone through a divine power.

There was motivation (the need to coerce followers and to set an example when they hold back).

Peter did not have a blameless character.

He could have misunderstood Jesus' parables to mean killing followers was okay if they displease you.

But, is there any evidence at all that Peter would kill a married couple over a lie involving their own property? Is there any scriptural justification for Jesus to have said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men”? Is there the slightest suggestion that an angry Peter might strike anyone with a sword?

Yes, there is. Remember the apostle who cut off the servant’s ear when they came for Jesus? Cue the scary organ music again - that apostle was, in fact, Peter (John 18:10-11).

I rest my case here. As I said, it is all circumstantial, but I think fairly powerful.

Some afterthoughts.

1. As a side note for language lovers, Ananaias name could be an epithet or pseudonym. In Greek, the language of the New Testament, Ananaias’ name might derive from Anaid- (shameless) or Avaiv- (to reject with contempt, spurn, turn one’s back on, and the like). Both of those work with the story. But, guessing the meaning of ancient names is problematic, to say the least. Mirriam Webster says Ananaiaas means "liar," but it seems most likely that the meaning is taken from the story, rather than being the meaning of the name originally - as there is no evidence of that being an actual Greek word. Mirriam Webster also says that it might be derived from the Hebrew Hananayah, which I elsewhere learned might mean "God is gracious" or "compassion of God," or something along those lines. Sapphira’s name, it won’t surprise you, comes from a gemstone, maybe what we know as sapphire, but many scholars believe back in Biblical times it referred to what we know as lapis lazuli. In any event, it means “blue stone.” I cannot find a metaphorical reason for that to be an epithet or pseudonym for Ananaias’s wife, if it was not her real name, as all the connotations of lapis lazuli are positive, if sometimes mystical.

2. I also have a problem with Herod's death being attributed to God. Scripture does not say the angel killed him. He strikes him down and then Herod is eaten by worms and dies. That sounds like a disease to me with the angel being a metaphor.

3. When you think you have an idea in the internet age you often find out that a bunch of other people have thought of it too. I decided to wait until I finished this to do the Google thing so I could feel pure, but sure enough, I am not the only one who has thought of this before. But, I'm happy to say I couldn't find a single real analysis like this - just a few random thoughts and videos. I did find on Google scholar a 2008 doctoral thesis by David R. McCabe, analyzing it from some wacky thing called the Speech-Act Theory, which I'm betting has all the real world application of the Vulcan mind meld. Just for fun, here's a sentence from it: "This thesis is argued by appealing to the social processes and conventions of language-use within the context of community-of-goods discourse as manifest in the Lukan narrative. Appeal is made to the socio-cultural repertoire of community-of-goods discourse in contemporary traditions sharing the socio-cultural milieu of Luke-Acts."  No disrespect to (presumably) Dr. McCabe, but, good Lord, the pretentious babble that academia requires of doctoral candidates is truly astonishing. Anyway, it is a completely different analysis, far as I can tell from reading the abstract, and he ultimately blames it on God. Wrong!


  1. It takes balls to write 700 paragraphs on ths crappy idea and then call someone else's work on the same thing pretentious babble. Rock on, Hippocrites.

  2. Ladies and gentlemen, lets hear it for Bear, my public relations agent.

  3. ya' gotta love someone to tell them the truth (Bob Dylan)

  4. This article seems like a good explanation. What I know is true:

    1.70 weeks prophecy
    2.Israel restored 2520 biblical years from 537BC(Same maths as 70 weeks prophecy which starts in 444BC. Daniel 9:24-27 has 360 letters and 86 words(86 is Hebrew value for God).
    3.There are other signs to confirm this such as in the star of bethlehem(
    4.God introduces himself in Genesis 1. Man is 666 because we were made on the 6th day. Evening Count =6, Morning Count =6 and Day Count = 6.
    5.The purpose of jesus was he showed us the perfect 777 that we cannot achieve on our own and achieve it in his image. I'm still trying to work out what the 7 attributes are but we accept Christ and also try to improve in 7 areas. Greed becomes the opposite etc.

    666 = Ape
    777 = Born of water and the spirit

    I believe God weaved this code through fallible writing of men. The bible is inerrant as what is written was meant to be written and there is alot of mathematical symmetry in the book. The answer is 777 achieved through the image of Christ that he purchased on the cross. The rest is history!

    Jesus washed his disciples feet and he was God incarnate. God does not think like man but he meets man where he is at through history and encodes the truth.

  5. Okay. Thanks for the message.


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

My photo
I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .