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Published Date: January 27, 2010

Published Date: January 27, 2010

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Gender Egalitarianism in Marriage

Those supporting gender egalitarianism in marriage have rightly highlighted biblical passages which focus on the parity between husband and wife, such as 1 Cor. 7:3-4. Although the New Testament has several sections on marriage in general (see 1 Cor. 7:1-40; Eph. 5:21-33; Col. 3:18-19; 1 Pet. 3:1-7), we have hardly any historical couples who live out their marriages on its pages. The few who often come to mind are Elizabeth and Zechariah (Luke 1:5-25, 39-45) and Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:1-4, 18, 26; 1 Cor. 16:19; Rom. 16:3; 2 Tim. 4:19). One pair which gets little attention is Ananias and Sapphira, the couple who deceives the church and thus lies to the Holy Spirit, as explained by Peter (Acts 5:1-11). The details in this story about the interaction between the husband and wife highlight some general characteristics of marriage in the wider Greco-Roman world.

For instance, Ananias sells the property he owns, and then tells Sapphira about his plan: he will only give a portion to the church but will say that he is giving all the money he received in the sale. It was not uncommon for husbands to inform their wives about their business plans. Cicero, a first century B.C. orator and statesman speaks often of financial matters concerning the home in his letters to his wife. Also, according to Roman law, a wife’s property was not owned by or deeded to her husband when they married; it remained hers to dispose of as she saw fit (in line with her family’s consent, usually). The assumption underlying the Acts’ story is that Sapphira would be aware of her husband’s dealings, and she confirmed as much when questioned by Peter.

Another interesting detail is the comment that the two were buried side by side. We do not have clear evidence as to whether this was standard practice with either Gentiles or Jews, but what we find is that the husband is generally responsible for his wife’s burial and epitaph. Widows seem to be buried most frequently by their children, and divorced women by their children or their parents or other relatives. In Acts 5, it is “young men” who take care of the burials. This corresponds to the service offered by many ancient associations and trade guilds. It may be that the early church provided burial service, especially to its poorer members. Clearly Ananias and Sapphira had money, but perhaps they had no children or family who could take care of their burials. Both Jews and Gentiles felt it was very important to bury someone properly; to not bury a member of your family or group brought dishonor not only on the dead person but on the group as well. In the situation of Ananias and Sapphira, the church gave them the dignity of a burial, which reflected well on the church at large.

Ananias and Sapphira were of one mind as a couple, but unfortunately that single purpose went against God’s teachings. Priscilla and Aquila offer a better model of a couple who worked together and taught together (Acts 18:26). They traveled as a missionary couple, a practice followed by other Christian couples (1 Cor. 9:5), including Andronicus and Junia, who together endured prison for the sake of the gospel. Paul declares they are outstanding among the apostles (Rom. 16:7).

For further study, my book, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life, explores the functional equality of spouses like Ananias and Sapphira who are often overlooked in Scripture.

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