Paul and Gamaliel

I wrote a short note on Paul’s relationship with Gamaliel two years ago and it has been one of the more popular posts on Reading Acts.  It generated a great deal of discussion, some of which was more heat than light. Several people objected that it does not really matter who Paul’s human teachers were, after his conversion experience he was taught by the Holy Spirit.  Human teachers and influences, for some at least, did not matter. Since I am teaching through Paul and his Letters again this fall, I thought I would revisit that older post and provide some additional thoughts on Gamaliel as background for reading Paul.

Rabbi GamalielThere are some good reasons to investigate Paul’s claim to have been educated by Gamaliel.  First, Gamaliel was one of the premier teachers of the Law in the first century. By claiming to have been under the teaching of this particular rabbi, Paul is claiming to have been educated in a most impressive way.  In fact, it almost sounds as if he is name-dropping in order to impress people!  Second, Gamaliel taught between A.D. 22-55, so we can get an approximate early date for Paul’s education. If Paul began study at the latest age of 16, we can guess a birth year of about A.D. 6 at the earliest.  Third, as John Polhill observes, several rulings from Gamaliel appear in the Mishnah, the Jewish commentary on the Law. These mostly have something to do with marriage and divorce. For example, Giṭ. 4:2 Gamaliel forbade husbands from divorcing their wives without their knowledge. Perhaps Gamiliel’s views influenced Paul’s personal comments on marriage in 1 Cor 7 (Polhill, Paul and his Letters, 30).

The rabbi Gamaliel was a Pharisee in the tradition of the great Hillel. A generation before Christ there were two great rabbis, Hillel and Shammai.  While this is a generalization, many of the rabbinic debates of the first century come down to the opinion of Hillel versus Shammai.  With respect to Hellenism, Hillel was more open to Hellenism than Shammai and was therefore more open to cooperation with the Romans.

Evidence for this more accommodating opinion is found in the book of Acts, although some (like Chilton) are not completely convinced Acts portrays Gamaliel accurately. Gamaliel is reported to have offered somewhat lenient advice concerning the early preaching of the apostles (Acts 5:34-39). He states that if the apostolic movement is from God then it cannot be stopped, if it is not form God then it cannot succeed. Gamaliel is reflecting the Hillel tradition of non-violence and allowing God to deal with parties that against the Jews (Polhill, Paul and His Letters, 31).

If Saul is in fact a disciple of Gamaliel, then he seems to have a considerably different opinion on how to handle the apostolic witness when we meet him in Acts 9.  In fact, Paul describes himself as a ruthless persecutor who sought to stop what he saw as an aberration within Judaism.  The people who Paul persecuted were Diaspora Jews who accepted Jesus as Messiah and claimed that God raised Jesus from the dead.  How can we account for this violent reaction in a man trained by Gamaliel?

One possibility is that Paul was not of the Hillel form of Pharasism, but rather the more conservative Shammaite party. N. T. Wright describes the Shammaite Pharisee as a militant “hard-liner” that was not willing to work with Rome as long as they could study the Torah, as Hillel had said (What Saint Paul Really Said, 26).  In Philippians Paul describes himself as a Diaspora Jew who claimed to have been raised in a family which kept the Jewish traditions faultlessly.  But is it correct to characterize Paul as an ultra-conservative reacting to what he perceived as a dangerous liberal view, namely, that Jesus was the Messiah and the High Priest killed him. For Chilton, it was the speech of Stephen that forced Paul to openly break from his teacher by participating in the stoning of Stephen (Rabbi Jesus, 43).

To what extent should we use Paul’s training “at the feet of Gamaliel” as background to understanding his later theology? Is Paul a “Christian Pharisee” who believes in Jesus? Or does he break away from Gamaliel and the Pharisees in other ways?

Bibliography: Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Jesus 28-47; “Gamaliel” in ABD 2:904

8 thoughts on “Paul and Gamaliel

  1. Gamaliel and his beliefs seem to have a fairly large impact on Paul and his theology. I think there is some sort of progression, however, in Paul’s theology. Paul, before his conversion, tended to be more like the Shammaites in that he was fairly violent and full of persecution. However, as he got farther along in his faith and was eventually converted to Christianity, he became more like a Hillelite – which was what Gamaliel was. I say that Paul became more like a Hillelite and was largely impacted by Gamaliel’s theology because there are a few instances noted in the Bible where Paul’s beliefs line up very closely with Gamaliel’s. For example, Polhill says, “The most interesting ruling preserved from Rabban Gamaliel was his insistence that a woman had the right to remarry upon the testimony of a single witness that her husband had died. Paul enunciated precisely the same principle in Romans 7:2” (Polhill 30).
    I think in certain ways, Paul can be described as a ‘Christian Pharisee’ who believes in Jesus because there are times when Paul goes very much ‘by the books’ and follows certain rules. However, there are other times when Paul puts his Christian beliefs and what Jesus has to say before the Pharisaical rules and is willing to break a rule or be mocked for something and instead, do something Jesus’ ‘way’.

  2. First off reading the first paragraph, his human teachers and influences matter almost as much as guidance by the Holy Spirit did. If it wasn’t for his prior teaching and influence, then he would not of had the zeal and passion. If he didn’t have the teaching and influence then he wouldn’t of had such a bold and confidence approach when speaking to other people. And most of all, he wouldn’t of been able to defend the Gospel in such a way as if he did not have the correct teaching. Paul learned from Gamaliel in many ways that helped him in his ministry such as interpretation. I think that we should use Paul’s training from Gamaliel as a background to understanding his theology because most of his theology is based off of his human teacher and was added on by the Holy Spirit. Which is why the Holy Spirit and Jesus chose to use Paul I believe because he had all the good and needed training before his conversion. I don’t think that he is a Christian pharisee however, I believe that he just holds close to the teachings that he received for over half of his life before his conversion.

  3. It seems that Paul’s upbringing and learning under Gamaliel would have to play some role in the way that he thought, taught, and formed his theology. Yes the Holy Spirit guided him in his writings, but part of being human is how we are shaped from our teachers and mentors. God led Paul to write what what was necessary to be included in scripture, but at the same time God does not use men as mindless puppets, but he uses our personalities, ideas, and who we are to accomplish what he wants. I do not think, however, that Paul was a “Christian Pharisee”. There is a fine line to be drawn, sure God uses who we are to accomplish his will, but Paul was changed at his conversion. Romans 10:4 states “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes”. These would be lofty words for a law abiding Pharisee to be speaking and Paul obviously saw Christ as the law’s fulfillment. Yes I believe that Paul was influenced by his teacher Gamaliel and his experience of being a Pharisee, but I do not think these were the only factors shaping how and what Paul taught and wrote.

  4. It seems that people want to limit the intervention of God in the lives of people he intends to use. Maybe God was preparing Paul under those great teachers for the work He had in store for him He became one of the most intense teachers of the gospel in the bible. Paul would never have slowed down on his preaching to write the books in the bible we have to learn from, so God put him in prison.

    • I would not “limit the intervention of God” in the light of Paul’s claim in Galatians 1 that God had prepared him before he was born for the grace he has received (Gal 1:15). This post is about how God continued to prepare Paul for his mission through his studies “at the feet of Gamaliel.”

      Paul would say his success came from the power of the Gospel and the Holy Spirit. But he also gave the Holy Spirit something to work with!

  5. As a novice here, I have a question: Why was Gamaliel not as tolerant with Jesus as he was with Paul? Was he not in the Sanhedrin when Jesus came before them?

    • Good question, although in Acts Gamaliel is more lenient than Paul with respect to the followers of Jesus.

      We do not know if either Gamaliel or Paul heard Jesus preach or were part of any of the meetings which led to his death. Some of the “trials” were limited to the high priest and his inner circle, it is likely the entire 70 member Sanhedrin met to dal with Jesus. So it is possible they left out the respected Pharisee Gamaliel so that he would not oppose crucifixion.

      But i am just speculating here. Makes sense, but I could not prove this.

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