St. Peter Flunks Anger Management

His private versus public persona

How bad does the Bible have to get before you toss it? “That’s quite enough of that!” The Bible has been so well sold that laypeople usually are unprepared to be that brazen. But theologians and laity alike—were they to be honest about it—would admit that they embrace or disown Bible texts based on their own moral sensibilities. Yes, indeed, they do judge the Bible.

For example, just to grab some low-hanging fruit: God—in the guise of old Yahweh—rendered no judgment whatever on Lot’s daughters for getting their father drunk and having sex with him (Genesis 19). This is not one of the Bible’s finest moments, especially since we realize it’s a fragment of vindictive folklore. We’re told that the sons issuing from these sister-acts of incest were the ancestors of the Moabites and Ammonites, Israel’s traditional enemies. The author of Genesis was having a good laugh.

Is the coast clear when we move over to the New Testament? Since it’s “all about Christ,” isn’t this supposed to be the better Testament? A year ago I published an article here titled, “Six Bible Texts to Help You Leave Christianity,” all of which are in the New Testament, and might (should!) prompt thoughtful readers to rebel: “That’s quite enough of that!” The last text on the list is from Acts 5, and this article in another in my series on each chapter of the Book of Acts. The Introductory article is here; the article on chapter 4 is here.

Near the end of chapter 4, we find this verse (32): “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” One such act of community spirit is mentioned in the last verse; Joseph from Cyprus, “…sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (v. 37).

This is the setup for what we find at the opening of chapter 5. The author of Acts—apparently the same guy who wrote the gospel of Luke—was a zealot for the Jesus cult, hence mixed allegiance or half-hearted commitment could not be tolerated. Remember that Acts was written for second or third generation Christians; these folks had to be reminded that, in the early days (the idealized past), total devotion was expected, required.

Thus we find the tragic story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11. Unlike Joseph of Cyprus, Ananias sold a field, with his wife’s knowledge, but “… he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (v.2). As is the case with most cults, then and now—they are fierce about God’s demands—Peter put a severe religious spin on Ananias’ deed: “…why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? …How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!” This is one of the oldest tricks in the book.

Ananias dropped dead on the spot: “…he fell down and died.” Now if Peter had been any sort of decent pastor—or human being—why didn’t he freak out? “Oh my God, what have I done? Me and my big mouth! What am I going to tell Sapphira?” But that’s not how cult fanatics respond to those who break the rules. Peter just wanted to get rid of the disobedient creep: “And great fear seized all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him” (vv. 5-6).

Three hours later Sapphira happened to come by, unaware of that Ananias was dead. Here again Peter showed his skill as a caring pastor: “Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price. And she said, ‘Yes, that was the price.’ Then Peter said to her, ‘How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’” Whereupon she too dropped dead.

From the perspective of our morality, the story is abhorrent. Father Joseph Fitzmyer: “Why does Peter not give the two a chance to repent…or to do something in reparation? Were not Ananias and Sapphira merely 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?” (Anchor Bible, Volume 31, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 317)

How in the world did Peter get a basilica named after him?

I suggest that the key to understanding this story is the final verse: “And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things” (v. 11). The author’s target market was the Jesus cult; he wanted to reinforce the message of total sacrifice for the group, and fear was the tool.

Of course, for those who are committed to belief that the Bible stories really happened, it’s a lot to swallow that this Peter—skilled at intimidation and annihilation—was the Rock upon whom Christ would build his church. Some apologists may say, “Well, both of them had heart attacks,” but that’s not the thrust of the story. As Fitzmyer notes, “The instant death of the two of them occurs at the words of Peter, so it is a sort of miracle…” (p. 316) Or as Derek Murphy has put it, this was “a miraculous execution,” (Jesus Potter Harry Christ, p. 130)—with “fear seizing the whole church” as the goal.

Just as there was no hint of God’s disapproval following the incident with Lot’s daughters, there is no hint at all that God was displeased by the calamity that befell Ananias and Sapphira. They got what they deserved. Then the author simply moves smoothly into his next episode, vv. 12-16, “Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles.” We read that the people “held them in high esteem,” and the sick were carried into the streets, “…in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by.”

We have no way of telling if there is a shred of history in any of this—anything in Acts 5 so far—because this book was written long after the events depicted, perhaps 50 to 70 years. So this point has to be pounded home relentlessly: the author of Acts never mentions his sources, and there is so much fantasy included (which we’ll come to shortly) we suspect his imagination as a novelist served him well. But as told by the author, the story encourages skepticism—and cynicism. There’s the private persona of Peter, whose actions inspired the “great fear that seized the whole church,” but then his public persona: people were happy to have even his shadow fall upon them. The Book of Acts is a PR piece.

So the miraculous executions are followed by miraculous healings. The implication seems to be that Peter’s shadow had healing properties, and in Acts 19:12 we find similar superstition: “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them.” This is akin to the story in Mark 5:25-34 that a woman’s twelve year issue of blood was cured by touching Jesus’ garment: he was “aware that power had gone forth from him.”

Hence we know we’re in the realm of fantasy literature; such healings are common in religious folklore. Is that where we want to be? Just consider which is more probable: that such healings actually happened, OR that our author is indulging in tall tales to enhance his heroes, as was commonly done in religious epics? It’s not really a tough call, and “well, it could have happened through God’s power” is special pleading: “…our religion entitles us to break the rules of logic and common sense.”

The next episode in Acts 5 pulls in more fantasy: a mythological creature is given a speaking role. The religious authorities had the apostles arrested, “But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out, and said, ‘Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.’” (vv.19-20)

“That’s quite enough of that!” In a recent article on the Rational Doubt blog, ex-preacher Paul Adams reflected on a letter he received from his alma mater, Lutheran Seminary, which included the lament that “…too many of our congregations struggle to help members form deep Christian identity, practice, and faith.” We can only hope that this is true, but Mr. Adams identified the primary problem: “They cannot consider the most obvious and likely cause of the decline of religion: People are finding it harder and harder to believe this stuff anymore.” The fantasy elements in the New Testament drag it down, and the faith along with it.

Naturally the authorities were surprised to find the apostles out of prison and preaching in the Temple. They were taken back into custody, and scolded again by the council and the high priest for doing what they had been forbidden to do so. But cult fanatics are confident that their message is God-authorized; Peter voiced the party line, as created by the author of Acts, again for the benefit of his audience decades later:

“We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

Peter doesn’t get much credit for tact, and the reaction was swift: “When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them.” But there was a voice of moderation. One of the members of the council, Gamaliel, urged caution: what if, just in case, this new sect is on the right track, i.e. is authorized by God? “…if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” Which meshes so nicely with the message of the Jesus cult. Gamaliel had this bit of advice: “…keep away from these men and let them alone.”

One of the intriguing aspects of this episode, verses 33 to 39, is Gamaliel’s mention of two other recent upstarts, Theudas and Judas the Galilean, whose movements had been crushed by the authorities. The author of Acts, perhaps unwittingly, confirms what we know from other sources: the Jesus cult had competition. A crucial paragraph in Richard Carrier’s major work on Jesus bears repeating often; Christians, please pay attention:

“Palestine in the early first century CE was experiencing a rash of messianism. There was an evident clamoring of sects and individuals to announce that they had found the messiah. It is therefore no oddity or accident that this is exactly when Christianity arose. It was yet another messiah cult in the midst of a fad for just such cults. That it among them would alone survive and spread can therefore be the product of natural selection: so many variations of the same theme were being tried, odds are one of them would by chance be successful, hitting all the right notes and dodging all the right bullets. The luck winner in that contest just happened to be Christianity.” (p. 67, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt)

See also Carrier’s essay, “Christianity’s Success Was Not Incredible,” in John Loftus’ 2011 anthology, The End of Christianity; and Carrier’s book, Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed.

We’re told that calmer heads prevailed, that is, the apostles were not killed: “…they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go” (v. 40). Of course, cults know that enduring pain for God is a good thing—and not for a moment do they consider shutting up and going home. The last verse of chapter 5: “…they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the Name. And every day in the temple and from house to house they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.”

“…they did not cease to proclaim…” This has been their obsession for centuries, and they resist the participation of others in the marketplace of ideas, especially these days: “Why do you have to be in our faces about your atheism? Nobody wants to hear it. Just keep it to yourself.” Sorry, the time for that is past; too many people now are tuned in to the harm done by religion. The cult foolishness on display in Acts 5 helps make the case against Christianity specifically. Paul Adams is right: People are finding it harder and harder to believe this stuff anymore.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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