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Criminal Cults, Ananias and Sapphira
November 12, 2023
by William P. Meyers

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Lies, Greed, and Murder

When I was a child, from first grade to eighth grade, I typically went to Roman Catholic mass six of the seven days of each week. Going to Catholic school, each day began with mass. Summers meant a vacation from weekday mass as well as from school. But I never missed a Sunday mass, unless I was sick, until I was 17 years old.

Once a year the subject of the sermon was Ananias and Sapphira. The point of the lecture was for people to put more money in the collection basket. If you wanted God to treat you well, you had better tithe (give 10% of your income to the Church). But I guess most people realized it was an idle threat.

In Acts of the Apostles, ascribed to Saint Paul, Chapter 5 begins with their simple story. The couple sold a possession, and did not give the entirety of the proceeds to the 12 Apostles. God struck them dead, one at a time. Right. You are really a chump if you believe that. Saint Peter and "young men" were present at the deaths, and were certainly their murderers. In fact Sapphira seems to have been alone with Peter when she was murdered. "And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things."

The early Christian cult (or cults, since many branches quickly sprang up) was very successful. A few centuries later it became the only legal religion in the Roman Empire. Here I want to use this particular crime cult to look at crime cults more generally. To help with that, I am going to put this scene in a slightly broader context within Acts and the New Testament in general. Then I will take a look at present-day cons and cults.

Recall that Acts is generally believed by scholars to be more or less history, and written within memory of when the described events occurred. That distinguishes it from the Gospels, which are believed to have been written at least decades and perhaps over a century after the presumed life of Jesus. Of course there were likely writings that led to the Gospels. They are not entirely fiction. I believe Jesus was crucified, condemned by the legal authorities of his era.

Starting in Acts Chapter 4, we have Peter preaching that Jesus was resurrected, and that people who joined his cult could be resurrected from the dead. The Jewish authorities arrested some or all of the Christians, who numbered about 5,000 men. It is noted that the Jewish leaders realized Peter and (the apostle) John "were unlearned and ignorant men." But the Jews let Peter and John go, who proclaimed this as proof of their divine powers. Then Christian socialism is described: they owned all things in common. "For as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of things that were sold."

It is hard to imagine one of today's American mega churches keeping much of a congregation if everyone had to sell their houses and give the money to the preacher. Nope, over time, probably by the year 200 A.D. or so, giving 10% of one's income was enough to satisfy the greedy church leaders. Apparently, at least on occasion, when people died they did leave their property to the church.

Let us take a closer look at the Apostle Peter, usually shown as the leader of the early Christians (though there is some evidence that at first Jesus's brother John led). Most people know the story of Peter denying Jesus three times during the crucifixion. But apparently different writers had different takes on Peter. In Matthew chapter 16, Jesus turns on Peter and says, "Get thee behind me Satan, you are offensive to me; for you don't savor the things that be of God, but those that be of men." In other words Jesus points to Peter as the greediest of the apostles. Hardly a recommendation for being head of a new cult. Later someone inserted line 18 and 19, the famous lines about Peter being a rock upon which the church would be built.

A reminder that Jesus was most likely a violent con artist can be found in Luke 19, lines 26 and 27. Jesus orders the disciples to bring him his enemies, and slay them before him. So there is a precedent for Peter slaying Ananias and Sapphira.

In the Gospel of Luke, in Chapter 22, the night of the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples to use their money to buy swords. But then they say they already have two swords, and he says that is enough. Later that night, when a multitude comes to arrest Jesus, an unnamed disciple cuts off the ear of a servant of the High Priest with one of the swords. Given the naming of disciples in the gospels, it is remarkable that this disciple is not named. Luke is generally believed to be the last of the gospels written, so there is plenty of time to add this tale, with the final miracle of the healing or reattachment of the ear.

While anyone can select sections of the New Testament to suit a variety of pictures of the formation of the early Christian church, I think it is certainly plausible that Jesus and leaders of his followers, like Peter, were typical of criminals who realized that religion pays. By modern standards it did not pay well at first, when the pyramid of victims had a small base. Conning someone out of money, and then sometimes having to kill someone who realizes they have been conned, is common in cult groups. Many of the groups disappear pretty quickly, as we saw during the 1960s. The Manson Family, for instance, never got beyond the small group stage. The smarter, less greedy cult leaders, usually narcissists who believe their own bs, may never murder anyone. It does not pay to get too many angry relatives or law enforcement officials gunning for you, as Charlie Manson found out.

Sometimes businesses take on cult like attributes. It can be lucrative. Multi-level marketing schemes require no murder, just the latest set of victims, who desperately try to enrich themselves while actually just enriching the higher ups.

Often particular ministers within a cult can be a positive for a community. Since cults take control of the lives of their followers, they can be a force for good at the bottom even as their leaders enrich themselves (or practice polygamy, like the leaders of the most famous American cult, the Latter Day Saints). Any organization can have such a mix of attributes. A town government might provide police and fire services even as one or more of its corrupt administrators or elected officials enrich themselves, embezzling or taking bribes to act against the public interest. Same of state and national governments.

The cult of Donald Trump is of particular interest right now. His cult is somewhat informal, but is characterized by believing whatever Donald says, even when it should be obvious that he is lying. He gets caught doing bad things, from raping women to trying to steal elections, and claims he is the victim (the suffering Christ). People send him tens of millions of dollars so he can keep campaigning and enjoying the good life.

Lefties can form cults too. Any Leninist party tends to be a cult, though a lefty group does not need to be Leninist to have some cultish characteristics. [Disclaimer: I once was a member of a Leninist group, and later was active in the Green Party, and have been an active Democrat in my old age.]

Obviously there is a human need to join cults. Otherwise we would not have so many successful ones. Often we see people leave one cult (as I left the Catholic Church) only to join some other cult. [disclaimer: I once was in a Buddhist cult for about a year.]

Most people are social to some degree. They want to be, at least part of the time, with other people. They want those people to be more or less of a like mind. Cult leaders take advantage of that, often luring people in stages. You can start off thinking that you finally met some people that like you, and the next thing you know you can be burning to death at Waco (with the Branch Davidians).

The historical Jesus is an enigma. There are no known contemporary records of his existence. It would not be surprising if he thought he was the Jewish Messiah, or even a son of god like Hercules. Perhaps he had political aims: to be king of the Jews. Perhaps he had some first aid skills. Perhaps he was a bit better educated than Peter and the original disciples. Perhaps Judas was a good guy who worked to expose a bad cult leader, and as a result was killed by the disciples. We cannot know for sure. But we do know that in mythologizing cult leaders their good side is usually emphasized, and their bad side is erased. We certainly know from the story of Ananias and Sapphira that Peter was willing to murder his own follows for money. But over time Christianity evolved to emphasize the usual moral imperatives: don't kill, work hard, and tithe the leadership. New crooked leaders evolved repeatedly within the Christian movement, but that is the case for all movements. Not all leaders are crooked, but the crooked often triumph.

What is next for humanity? I don't know. I suspect we will return to the long-term human carrying capacity of earth (about 1 billion people) in a relatively short time. How people will organize themselves after that magnitude of event, I don't know. It will be traumatic. I do know that where these is human trauma, there will be con artists who take what advantage they can of the traumatized.

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