File this one away for future reference: an Ananias is a habitual liar.
This, as some of you will undoubtedly know, is a biblical allusion. But if you think this has anything to do with Ananias of Damascus—the disciple who restored Saul’s sight, according to the New Testament—then you’re mistaken. There’s a much more obscure story at the root of this one.
According to chapter 4 of the Acts of the Apostles, members of the early Christian church were encouraged to consider their possessions as communal, so that what they had could be used by all those in need. In the opening of the following chapter, however, the Acts records the curious death of a husband and wife who failed to follow the rules.
Having sold a plot of land, a man named Ananias comes to the apostle Peter and hands him the proceeds of the sale—but secretly withholds some of the proceeds for himself. And he would have got away with it too, if it wasn’t for that pesky Holy Spirit:
“Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? 4While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!”
Acts, 5: 3–4
Confronted with his crimes, Ananias instantly drops dead. Sometime later, his wife Sapphira approaches, and she too comes under Peter’s inquisition:
Peter said to her, “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.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband.
Acts, 5: 8–10
The congregation ultimately disperse having earned themselves a warning not try such underhand behaviour for themselves—while the dictionary earns itself a word for a habitual or devious liar.
Raphael’s The Death of Ananias (1515)