Gamaliel and the Early Church

This is a guest post by Joseph Weissman

As many readers will appreciate, I have long been concerned for the welfare of my fellow believers in Israel and indeed around the world. I am always saddened to read stories of violent anti-missionaries persecuting Jesus’ followers and causing them personal harm.

However, I am even more saddened when these activists try to justify their violence in the name of God. I do not think that God wants one sect to aggressively persecute another in order to establish a theological truth. Not by power, nor by might, but by my Spirit says the Lord (Zech 4:6).

And so when reading the New Testament, I have gained great comfort from reading the words of the great rabbi Gamaliel to the Sanhedrin as recorded in Acts 5.

Gamaliel I is one of the greatest teachers within Judaism, gaining the title of rabban to denote the depths of his wisdom and Torah study. Gamaliel’s teachings are celebrated in the Talmud and acknowledged in modern-day yeshivas across the world. The Mishnah starkly states that piety and purity died with Gamaliel. Yet Gamaliel is also greatly celebrated within the Christian world for his advice to the Sanhedrin.

To set the scene, the Sadduccean members of the Sanhedrin are particularly upset with Peter and John, who insist on blabbing to all of Jerusalem that the crucified Jesus is also the salvation of the world. According to the Sadducean high priest and his associate, Peter and John are determined to call the Sanhedrin guilty of Jesus’ blood.

Peter retorts assertively, declaring the resurrected Jesus as Israel’s prince and saving redeemer, and the tension is ratcheted up further. With the Sadduccean-controlled Sanhedrin determined to make Peter and John suffer and potentially be put to death, the Pharisee named Gamaliel steps in, advising:

 “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail.But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

At first glance, one might say that Gamaliel was using the apostles as a pawn in his contentions with the Sadducees. Others would say that Gamaliel was anxious to avoid any kind of messianic rumblings, be they expressed as a positive belief  for a particular claimant or as a negative belief against a messianic claimant – in this case Jesus.

Gamaliel was perhaps a more sensitive teacher and more politically astute than other members of the Sanhedrin, and would see these messianic uprisings as a distraction from Torah study.

Still others argue that Gamaliel was a secret believer in Jesus who, although belonging to the Sanhedrin, did not agree with its rulings on Jesus. This will no doubt come as a surprise to many Jews. Yet within the New Testament, there is evidence of Sanhedrin members taking a radically different position on Jesus to the majority of ruling clerics.

Consider Joseph of Arimathea – a prominent member of the Sanhedrin who disagreed with their decision to condemn Jesus, and counted himself as a disciple of Jesus. Perhaps Gamaliel too was in a similar situation, remaining within the Sanhedrin so as to use his position of influence to assist fellow believers.

Of course, there are further options than believing in Jesus as Messiah and wishing Jesus and his followers to come to harm. There is a good case that Gamaliel simply abhorred violence. This is perhaps the most logical position to take on Gamaliel.

Even so, the idea of Gamaliel as a secret believer is hugely popular within Catholicism, a view initially advanced by St. Photius of Constantinople. 

Leaving aside what Gamaliel may or may not have actually believed, there is a simple wisdom in Gamaliel’s words here – if this movement is the same as the other failed messianic movements of his time, it should come to nothing. Whatever you think of the Jesus movement, it has indeed stood the test of time. To this day, many people believe after Jesus’ death that he is the Messiah and that he is risen from the dead.

And whichever way you look at it, Gamaliel had a huge influence on the early church, particularly on St. Paul. In Acts 22 when Paul is in Jerusalem accused of stirring up trouble by the crowds and mistaken by the Roman army for an Egyptian terrorist leader, this is his opening gambit:

I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today.

Gamaliel was a teacher from the House of Hillel and was a direct descendant from Hillel. Paul trained under Gamaliel learning the Torah. Gamaliel’s teachings would have so saturated Paul’s life that – even years after Paul’s conversion to Christ – Paul was able to declare before the Sanhedrin in Acts 23:

“My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead.”

Paul has initially encountered the reality of resurrection, not on the road to Damascus in an encounter with the risen Christ when he was a grown man, but under the feet of Gamaliel in Jerusalem, having learned about the future resurrection of the dead as a young lad.

Paul here rests on the authority of Gamaliel, leading to Pharisees standing up and declaring there was nothing wrong with Paul in Acts 23:9.

Paul’s words inevitably lead to a conflict between the ruling Sanhedrin comprised of Pharisees and the Sadducees: a coalition government far more strained than anything the British Parliament has countenanced.

Imagine a Labour MP being attacked by Conservatives and Lib Dems over the 2010 budget, only for backbench Lib Dem MPs to stand up and side with the Labour MP as good socialists. Paul here is the Labour MP, appealing to the grassroot beliefs of the Pharisees, lamenting their compromises with the Sadducees.

Just as Gamaliel directly saved Peter and John from certain death before the Sanhedrin in Acts 5, his teachings have indirectly saved Paul from an almost identical predicament in Acts 23.

So what then may we learn from Gamaliel’s interaction with the early church?

Firstly, that in one way or another, Gamaliel’s words came to be a physical protection for the apostles. Christians should remember this and be wary of teaching that Judaism is essentially anti-Christian, or that rabbis are uniformly represented by anti-missionary thugs: they are clearly not.

Theologically, Christian clerics and laymen should reconsider any belief that the leading Jews of first century Israel were uniformly antagonistic towards the Jesus movement. Gamaliel is the clearest proof against this, as is Joseph of Aramathea and indeed many other Pharisees within the Sanhedrin – some of whom warned Jesus that Herod was out to kill him.

Meanwhile, haredi clerics  may similarly allow Gamaliel’s wisdom to hit home. If the Jesus movement were based on falsehoods, it should disappear in its own time. Of course, the Jesus movement has expanded globally, and has sadly allowed itself to be corrupted by power and empire, to the point of being distorted beyond all recognition. Still, the essence of the belief that Jesus is the Messiah has been preserved for many centuries.

Yet for those arguing that Jesus was not the Messiah, violence and hysteria against his followers will not contribute anything constructive anyway. Instead, we should all hope for a world of peace and love, not agitation and fear against neighbouring communities.