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.
There 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