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.)
Gamaliel 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 Gamaliel give this advice to the Council? Is this, as Dunn says, simply “shrewd politics”? Or is there more to this story?