Science in Christian Perspective
Letter to the Editor
Ananias, Sapphira, & Christian Community
Jerry Bergman, Ph.D.
From: PSCF 41 (June 1989): 127-128.
I have received several letters similar to the one printed in the journal by David F. Siemens, Jr. (Vol. 39, No. 4, Dec. 1987, p. 250) about my Dec. 1986 JASA article on community, but hesitated to respond because it is my perception that my original discussion was not ambiguous in the least. I certainly did not imply, or even mean to imply, that Ananias and Sapphira died because they lacked community, and for this reason withheld part of what they had promised. I had always understood that it was because they, as the Scripture clearly states, lied to the Holy Spirit. I did not discuss this incident extensively, partly so as to fulfill the editor's requirements to reduce the length of my original manuscript. I not only did not state that they were killed because of not expressing community, but clearly stated that I used this passage only to illustrate that "community concern was not a Christian option, but a requirement that was practiced by all of the faithful." My sources for this conclusion were a number of Scriptures as well as the early Christian historical records which discuss extensively this behavior.
The issue is, why did Ananias and Sapphira feel compelled to give such a large amount of money to the church so that it could aid the community? It was obviously because they perceived that this act was a Christian obligation. Where did they get this view? It was due to the teachings of the early church, as recorded both in the Scriptures and in the early church writings penned by the early Christians themselves. They obviously had second thoughts about giving up so much and if it were not for the norms and values as well as the pressure from the Christian community from their sale, they certainly would not have felt so compelled. We cannot assume that the prominent leaders in this church had deceitfully convinced Ananias and Sapphira that they were giving the money to God, but the church leaders were in fact appropriating it for their own use. I concluded that the above was obvious, and needed no elaboration in my article. I am thus rather surprised that one could so greatly misinterpret my discussion to the extent of claiming that I implied that their deaths were due to withholding "part of the sales' proceeds." I consulted a number of commentaries and Bible dictionaries and found that, without exception, all of those that I consulted fully support the interpretation discussed above. For example, The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible states that Ananias was a Christian who noted "the favorable attention bestowed upon those Christians who sold their property" and so brought the receipts of the property that they sold "to the Apostles for distribution among the believers" and with the connivance of his wife, Sapphira "held back a portion of the price, while pretending to give the entire amount to the Apostles for distribution." The act of giving to the poor was thus taught as highly laudatory by the church. Otherwise they certainly would not have felt the compulsion to, not only withhold part of their sale funds. but also to deceive others relative to their doing so.
Some commentators. such as The lnterpreter's Bible vol. 9, p. 74, used this discussion as a basis to discuss the extreme importance of community in Christianity. The aforementioned reference noted that "man pursue their private ways with little or no concern for the rest of mankind" and that many of these "insulated units of humanity. finally break down into lonely fragments of forlorn life." The discussion then notes that many people in the former state eventually come to the realization that community is, indeed, important and crucial. They consequently then "look for a community where private enterprise will be redeemed by a concern for public benefit." As to the Christian church, this commentator concludes that it "can and must affirm the underlining principles which govern sound community life ... but where private enterprise ... monopolizes the fruits of the Earth which are meant to be shared by all men, and where it makes its way without regard to the welfare of the people at large, it must be checked either by the free consent of those concerned or by the legislated will of the people. The incentive for such a self imposed discipline is to be found where the first Christians found it, in Jesus; and the power to practice the discipline is the power of the living Christ."
The classic Matthew Henry Commentary (p. 1651) goes even further, stating relative to this account that the early Christians were '.very liberal" in giving to the poor, adding that every Christian "was ready to distribute" material goods to those in need. The discussion here concludes that the norms of their community required giving for the purpose of helping one's brethren to the degree that "they abounded in charity, [and] they had all things in common" so that "there was not any among them that lacked." This commentary notes that many who had possession of land of houses sold them and the proceeds were distributed "unto every man as he had need." The commentator added that "great care ought to be taken in the distribution of public charity and that it be given to such as that have need. Those who have real need, above all, those who are reduced to want for well doing, ought to be taken care of, and provided for. That it be given to every man according as he has need, without penalty or respect of persons." How many is the "many" that this account refers to, it does not state, but the word "many," or its synonyms, is commonly used when this verse is discussed by both commentators and in the writings of the early Christians.
The italicized words, which Siemens notes I left out, were omitted only for reasons of brevity. These words in no way support the claim that I am trying to state that Ananias and Sapphira died because of a lack of charity. What bothers me most, though, are the totally unfounded accusations in his letter. I am not "revising" the Bible, not inferring that Ananias and Sapphira died because they "withheld part of the proceeds."