The Rhetoric of Fear and Pity in the “Tragedy” of Ananias and Sapphira

In recent years, the study of emotion (passion) as a vital part of human understanding has emerged with new vigor in the fields of classical literature, moral philosophy, cognitive psychology and neurobiology. This paper takes a fresh look at emotion as a potentially fruitful area of NT study, focusing on feelings of “great fear” generated by both text and reader regarding the “tragic” deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:5, 11). Engaging with (among other classical sources) Aristotle's treatment of the central emotional tandem of fear and pity in his Poetics, Rhetoric and ethical treatises, this study seeks to understand: What is the specific object of fear in the Ananias/Sapphira story (sudden death? severe punishment? public exposure? shameful disgrace)? What kinds of readers/auditors are being targeted? Who, in this culture, is especially susceptible to fearful responses, and why? Does the universal (“all”) fear reported in the text apply equally across social, political and religious contexts? Do ancients and moderns feel fear in the same ways for the same reasons? Is there any room for “pitying” (having compassion for) the victims from an ancient moral perspective? How might the experience of “great fear” (phobos megas) following Ananias and Sapphira's deaths relate to “God-fearing” (phobeomai) in the rest of Acts?