Acts 5:34 – Who was Gamaliel?

Gamaliel is a well known figure in the first century. He was likely the grandson of the famous Hillel and is mentioned in the Mishnah. He was active after A.D. 25 and was reputed to have been a great teacher of the Law. The man had such a great reputation that the Mishnah says “When Rabban Gamaliel the elder died, the glory of the law ceased and purity and abstinence died” (m.Sota 9.15).  (I posted a few comments about his relationship with Paul here.)

Rabbi GamalielGamaliel urges careful deliberation before acting. It may be that they are worthy of death, but one must think about what the ramifications of another execution of a messianic pretender. He refers to two other “messianic pretenders” which gathered some following but eventually came to nothing. Each of these men are known from Josephus as rebels against Rome who had humble origins, developed a bit of a following, and were eventually killed.

Theudas is known from Josephus (Antiq. 20.5.1 §97-98). In this passage, Theudas led a revolt during the reign of Fadus, A.D. 44-46. This is obviously a problem, since Gamaliel is giving this speech at least ten years before Theudas rebelled.  For someone like Bruce Chilton, this makes the account in Acts anachronistic  and unreliable, despite the fact that Gamaliel’s standing in the Council is consistent with other sources (ABD 2:904).

This problem is usually explained by noting that the name Theudas is a common name in first century inscriptions. In addition, the period after the death of Herod the Great saw many rebellions, so it is likely that Gamaliel refers to a leader of one of these earlier rebellions. Judas the Galilean lead a tax-revolt about A.D. 6, described by Josephus (Antiq 18.1.6, §23). Like Theudas, he died and his followers dispersed.

Gamaliel’s  point here is to argue that recent history shows that if God was really behind any of these messianic movements, then their leaders would not have been executed. Perhaps there is a also a warning to Peter and his followers as well: If your leader is really dead, maybe you ought to stop this preaching.  Christians tend to read this warning as directed at the Sadducees in the Sanhedrin: if you are wrong about this, you will be fighting God! To a certain extent, Gamaliel’s advice is “shrewd popular politics” which endorses neither side’s view of who Jesus was (Dunn, Beginning in Jerusalem, 174, n. 14).

Gamaliel’s conclusion is that a messianic movement which is from human origin is doomed to fail; but if it is of divine origin it is destined to succeed. It would be better to let the disciples of Jesus do as they please rather than to “fight against God.” The examples given came to nothing, in both cases the leader was dead. If Jesus is dead, then his followers will disappear as well – but only if they are no longer persecuted. If the Sanhedrin continues to persecute and these men turn out to be from God, then they will be fighting against God.

Why does Gamiliel give this advice to the Council? Is this, as Dunn says, simply “shrewd politics”? Or is there more to this story?

2 thoughts on “Acts 5:34 – Who was Gamaliel?

  1. Theudas was a rare name. It was probably a short form of Theodotus or Theodorus, but in the shortened form it is rare.

    It may be that the later Theudas modeled himself on the earlier Theudas and took his name (meaning “gift of God?”). This is not unlikely because, as I mentioned recently, Jewish prophets needed an appropriate name.

  2. I supposes what Gamaliel does here could be considered “shrewd politics” as Dunn suggests, but I think there is more to his words than political insight. It is true that his suggested course of action left all sides satisfied, and at least temporarily put a halt to their conflicts. With his words he has potential prevented a riot at the temple, and an over zealous course of action from the Sanhedrin, neither of which would probably be well received by their Roman overseers. I think what Gamaliel demonstrates is experiential wisdom that just happens to be politically advantageous. His appeal to history seems to me at least have a notion of “calm down we have seen this all before” to it. Gamaliel is recalling similar incidents in the past and is using his understanding of that history to define his reaction rather than a knee jerk emotional response, and his level headed assessment is well received by his peers for the wisdom that it is. What Gamaliel does here is look to moments outside of the current situation to grant context to what is currently happening, and he then uses this knowledge to chart a course to a wise response. The others are simply responding to the situation that is at hand, they know the Law, they know what they want, and they want to stop being reminded of their guilt in the death of Jesus. Thus they have a strong, emotional response leading to rage. Gamaliel doesn’t do this and in doing so demonstrates more nobility and wisdom than the others. So much so that they are persuaded to see things his way, but not so much so that they let the apostles go without at the very least some humiliation and a good deal of physical pain.

Leave a Reply