Craig Keener points out the people received the apostles’ teaching favorably, but the temple aristocracy is far more aggressive. The power of God on display in the apostles’ preaching invites more persecution (Keener, 2:1205). In Acts 5:17 the High Priest is “filled with jealousy” and arrested the apostles. The High Priest and his associates were Sadducees, so preaching about the messiah or resurrection from the dead would have been troubling. But there is no indication they persecuted Pharisees or other groups for belief in a resurrection or the messiah, so there is more going on here than a simple doctrinal dispute.
This particular High Priest was responsible for killing Jesus in the first place. To claim a man was executed as a false teacher and revolutionary (as Jesus was) was raised form the dead by God is to declare the men behind that execution are not only wrong, but “fighting against God” as Gamaliel will say later in the passage.
Keener discusses jealousy as a motivation for persecution in Acts. There are several other times in the book where enemies of the gospel become jealous and begin to persecute a preacher of the Gospel. In Acts 13:45 the synagogue reacts with jealousy after Paul’s sermon, and the Jews in Thessalonica who oppose Paul are described as jealous (Keener 2:1206). He goes on to examine envy in an honor-shame culture, where good fortune breeds jealousy. In fact, it is a Greco-Roman rhetorical strategy to claim your opponents are motivated by jealousy. Keener concludes by saying the aristocratic Sadducees may have been annoyed by the popular Pharisees, but for a group of uneducated Galileans claim divine author and grow in popularity was too much (1208).
I disagree with using honor-shame as a background for the word jealousy in this context. The noun ζῆλος is often translated “zeal,” a positive characteristic. Paul himself will use the same word to describe his own advancement in Judaism prior to his encounter with the resurrected Jesus (Phil 3:4-6). Paul does not merely claim to be a Pharisee. He modifies this claim with the words “according to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” Paul as “zealous” to keep the law to the point that he was willing to persecute those that did not conform to the Law.
It is possible a Jewish reader would read “filled with jealousy” as a “a zealous keeper of the Law.” None other than Matthias the father of Judas Maccabees was described as zealous in defense of the core of Jewish faith at the beginning of the revolt against Antiochus IV Epiphanes.
1 Maccabees 2:24-29 When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal (ζηλόω) and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him on the altar. At the same time he killed the king’s officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar. Thus he burned with zeal for the law, just as Phinehas did against Zimri son of Salu. Then Mattathias cried out in the town with a loud voice, saying: “Let every one who is zealous (ὁ ζηλῶν) for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!” Then he and his sons fled to the hills and left all that they had in the town. 29 At that time many who were seeking righteousness and justice went down to the wilderness to live there.
Along with Judas, Phineas (Num 25:1-18) and Elijah (1 Kings 19) were examples of Old Testament characters that burned with a zealous commitment to the Lord that expressed itself in a willingness to challenge the evil head on, killing those that practiced idolatry themselves if need be.
The High Priest in Acts 5:17 is not jealous that the apostles are gaining followers nor is he envious of the apostles. He believes the preaching of the apostles is a dangerous idea which could destabilize the core institutions of Judaism in the first century. Even though the apostles are not telling their followers to stop keeping the Law, the High Priest strongly objects to the idea of a suffering messiah who dies and is raised from the dead. He is therefore willing to physically punish those who are preaching the resurrection.
How does this understanding of “zeal” anticipate what happens in Acts 6-7? Does this help understand Rabbi Saul’s passion in Acts 9?