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Paul claims to have been educated by Gamaliel, one of the premier teachers of the Law in the first century. Gamaliel taught between A.D. 22-55, giving us 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 6 at the earliest.  Polhill observes that several rulings of Gamaliel appear in the Mishnah, mostly having to do with marriage and divorce.  Perhaps Gamiliel’s views influenced Paul’s personal comments on marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 (Polhill, Paul and his Letters, 30).

Gamaliel was himself 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.  Gamaliel is reported to have offered somewhat lenient advice concerning the early preaching of the apostles in Acts 5:34-39.  Basically, he said that if the movement is from God then it cannot be stopped, if it is not then it will not 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).

This is certainly not the opinion of his young disciple Saul when we meet him in Acts 9 and according to Paul’s own self-description.  He was 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 he was raised from the dead.  How can we account for this violent reaction in a man trained by Gamaliel?

It is possible that Paul was not of the Hillel form of Pharasism, but rather the more radical 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). Paul was a Diaspora Jew who claimed to have been raised in a family which kept the Jewish traditions without fault.  He was an ultra-conservative reacting to what he perceived as a dangerous liberal view (Jesus was the Messiah and the High Priest killed him!)

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.  One problem is that he is often confused with Gamaliel II, who lived after the fall of Jerusalem.

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.  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 in Antiq 18.1.6, §23.  Like Theudas, he died and his followers dispersed.

His point in referring to this recent history is that if God was really behind any of these messianic movements, then their leaders would not have been executed.  Perhaps there is a backwards warning to Peter and his followers as well: If your leader is really dead, maybe you ought to stop this preaching. On the other hand, his warning is also to the Sadducean leader of the Sanhedrin: if you are wrong about this, you will be fighting God!  To a certain extent, Gamaliel’s advice is a nit of “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.

This advice is wise because the best way to solidify a religious movement is to persecute it.  There will be no half-hearted followers of Jesus if there is persecution.  By encouraging peace with the growing messianic movement, Gamaliel may have opened the door to some of the problems which develop over the next few years as the messianic movement begins to evangelize Gentiles.

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Christian Theology

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