Lesser-Known Women: Sapphira

Headstone sculpture of a First-Century Roman couple
Funeral Portrait of Priscilla Gratidia and Gratidius Libanus (First-Century Romans), from the Vatican Museum. Photo from https://www.bible-archaeology.info/clothes.htm

Where do we find her in the Bible?

Who was she?

  • A member (with her husband, Ananias) of the Early Church at Jerusalem (soon after Pentecost)
  • Ananias and Sapphira were (probably fairly wealthy) landowners.
  • Their names are Greek, so they may have been diaspora Jews (like Joseph Barnabas of Cyprus [4:36]), or they were Hellenistic Jews whose families had used Greek names, perhaps for generations.
  • Following the practice of the Early Church, they sold their property to give a large donation to the Church (to lay “at the apostles’ feet” [4:35]).
  • In contrast to others’ donations, Ananias and Sapphira conspired to withhold part of the proceeds for themselves, rather than donating it all.
  • Ananias presented the gift to the Apostles. He lied about the sale price of their land, claiming that their gift represented the entire amount. As a result of his lie, he dropped dead immediately.
  • Unaware of what had happened to her husband, Sapphira came to the Apostles and repeated the lie about the value of the property. She, too, died as a result of her continuing the lie.

What lessons do we learn from her story?

  • The background of this story (found in Acts 2:42-47) shows that the selling of land by the wealthy for the benefit of all members of the Christian Community was quite common. The commonality of goods shows their mutual care and support for one another as members of the Body of Christ. “The language Luke uses, ‘all who believed . . . had all things in common’ (2:44), is reminiscent of Greco-Roman thought about ideal friendship, and has parallels among the Jewish sect known as the Essenes as well. In this way, the early church is represented as putting into practice the highest ideals.” ((The New Interpreter’s Bible One Volume Commentary, ©2010 Abingdon Press.))
  • We need to make sure that we are clear that this sharing of goods (and the selling of property to give the proceeds to the Church) was expected behavior, but it was not required. Peter makes this clear in 5:4.
  • Sapphira had full knowledge of what Ananias was about to do. They colluded with each other, and both suffered the same consequence of the lie. While not the source of it, they are a prime example of the old saying, “One lies, and the other swears to it.”
  • Peter’s assertion that they had lied not “to men, but to God” (5:4) shows that the early believers held the Apostles in extremely high regard. As the heads of the Church, they were truly Christ-in-the-flesh.
  • The story of Sapphira and Ananias raises more questions than it answers:
    • How do Twenty-First Century Christians react to the idea of holding all things (money and property included) in common as a community? The concept can be especially difficult for those of us who are middle-class and up.
    • What motivated their lie? Were they perhaps hoping to have both the praise of the community, as well as some of their own money? But why lie, if the sharing of goods and gifts was entirely voluntary?
    • Why doesn’t Peter give them an opportunity to repent? ((The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, ©2003 Abingdon Press.))
    • How do we react to God’s punishing them in such a drastic manner?
    • Imagine trying to choose between betraying your spouse and lying to God. Is this part of what was happening in Sapphira’s mind?
  • If you were to summarize Sapphira’s story into a learning or moral, what might that be?