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Who Was Gamaliel?

Gamaliel is mentioned several times in the New Testament, but many simply read over his name, not realizing the significance of the man or his actions.

The Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies (CHLS) provides a regular column to PE News that offers deep and sometimes surprising insight into the Word of God through close examination of the culture of the day, biblical sites, and archaeological records. In this article, Wave Nunnally, Ph.D., professor of Early Judaism and Christian Origins at Evangel University and a regular instructor in Israel for CHLS, examines the role of Gamaliel in protecting the lives of the apostles and his broader influence on early Christianity in general. 

The last article in this series left off with the re-arrest of the apostles in the Temple. After being taken back into custody, they were taken directly before the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:27). There, the High Priest accused them of direct disobedience to the orders of the Sanhedrin (v. 28). The intent was clear, “…they were…intending to slay them” (v. 33).

Therefore, with the death penalty now looming over the apostles, enter Gamaliel. “But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while” (v. 34). Who was this man who could, by his own authority, suspend the hearing, command that the accused be removed from the courtroom, take the floor away from the High Priest, give an uninvited speech, and reverse the intentions of the Sanhedrin and get the apostles released (vv. 34-40)?   

Gamaliel is described by Josephus as coming from a "very illustrious" family (The Life of Josephus, 190-191). Indeed, he was the grandson of the great rabbi Hillel the Elder, [1] who founded the most lenient version of Pharisaism. Gamaliel became Hillel’s successor, leading the Pharisaic movement, which was most lenient school of thought in Palestinian Judaism. These things made him very popular with the people, which translated into even greater influence within the Sanhedrin.[2In fact, Rabbinic Literature describes Gamaliel as being given the honorary title “the Elder” like his grandfather before him (Mishnah Sotah 9:15) and was the first of only seven men in all history to have bestowed upon him the title Rabban (“our master,” as opposed to the more common Rabbi (“my master”).[3Although all Pharisees were held in high esteem,[4] Gamaliel was even more so. Luke’s statement that he was “respected by all the people” (v. 34) is actually somewhat of an understatement: he was the most respected, most influential Jew alive at this time. It is for this reason that Paul cites study under him as a prominent feature of his Jewish pedigree (Acts 22:3).

At this time, Gamaliel was the head of the Pharisaic movement, which had the support of the masses.[5The Pharisees were known to be the most lenient in judgment,[6] whereas the Sadducees were known for their severity in judgment.[7Because he was the leader of the Pharisees, he brought this emphasis on leniency into the deliberations of the Sanhedrin, where he served as co-chair along with the High Priest.[8]

As the Pharisaic “co-chair” of the Sanhedrin and the most influential Jew alive, Gamaliel had the status and the authority to “command/order” (i.e., he gave a personal order which was not debated or voted upon by the rest of the Sanhedrin[9]) that the apostles be removed from the courtroom (v. 34). This order was obeyed immediately and without question. Similarly, during Gamaliel’s speech, he says, “I advise you” (v. 38, NIV). This phrase, however, should be rendered, “I say to you” (NASB). It is the same construction Jesus used to introduce an authoritative pronouncement, and is used in the same context with the same meaning in Rabbinic Literature. Therefore, Gamaliel is not giving “advice,” as the NIV suggests; rather, he is strongly asserting his authoritative “ruling” as the ranking minority leader. All Pharisaic members of the Sanhedrin are now sure to vote for acquittal. Because they had the full support of the masses,[10the Sadducaic element within the Sanhedrin was forced to follow this more lenient Pharisaic initiative. The entire Sanhedrin’s response in verse 40 is further confirmation of this. In this way, the sentence of capital punishment was reduced to flogging (vv. 38-40)! 

In addition to his timely intervention in Acts 5, Gamaliel had considerable influence elsewhere in the NT: 

Gamaliel focused on the importance of study and the teacher-student relationship (Avot d'Rabbi Natan A, 40; Mishnah Avot 1:16; Peah 2:6; Orlah 2:12; Yevamot 16:7)…..He reached out to Jews living in the Diaspora (Jerusalem Talmud [JT] Maaser Sheni 5:4 [56c]; Sanhedrin 1:2 [11b]), and was quite tolerant of Gentiles, as were his pupils and descendants after him (Tosefta Bava Kama 9:30; JT Avodah Zarah 1:9; Sifre to Deuteronomy 38; BT Berachot 27a; Avodah Zarah 20a; Sanhedrin 104b; Gittin 61a). Like Hillel before him (Soferim 16:9), Gamaliel stood almost alone in his love for the Greek language. It was studied in his "school" and he even declared that it was the only language into which the Torah could be perfectly translated (BT Sotah 49b; cf. Bereshit Rabbah 36:8; Devarim Rabbah 1:1; Mishnah Megillah 1:8).[11]

Now knowing these aspects of the life of Gamaliel, it is easy to see his influence on his best-known student, Paul of Tarsus (Acts 22:3). Like his master Gamaliel, Paul can be seen in the NT mentoring younger students, reaching out to Jews in the Diaspora, including Greeks in his mission, and utilizing the Greek version of Scripture and the Greek language to raise up disciples. Like Gamaliel before him,[12Paul also dictated letters.[13 ]In fact, the very terminology Paul uses to describe his relationship to Gamaliel in Acts 22:3 derives neither from the Greek translation of the OT (the Septuagint) nor from Greek literature. Rather, it is a phrase borrowed directly from the words of the rabbis themselves,[14 no doubt learned by Paul as he was literally “brought up…at the feet of Gamaliel.” 

Does background and “back-story” matter in better understanding our Bible and in more fully appreciating its accuracy? Of course, and knowing a little more about the biography of Gamaliel is a perfect example of this. It’s part of the reason the Center for Holy Lands Studies exists and why we encourage believers to study the Scriptures like this in context, where they actually happened — where “Faith Becomes Sight”![15] 

[1] Babylonian Talmud (BT) Shabbat 15a.

[2] See W.E. Nunnally, “Gamaliel”, in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, ed. D.N. Freedman. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000, pp. 481–482.

[3] See Nunnally “Gamaliel”, pp. 481–482; BT Rosh HaShanah 24b, etc.

[4] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 13:288, 298; 18:15; History of the Jewish War 1:107-114; 2:162-163, 166.

[5] Antiquities 13:288, 296, 298; 18:12–17.
[6] Antiquities 13: 294; Mishnah Avot 1:6, “When you judge anyone, incline the scales toward innocence.”

[7] Avot d’Rabbi Nathan, 5; Antiquities 20:199.

[8] BT Shabbat 15a.

[9] Compare Acts 4:15, where a similar action was taken by the consent of the entire Sanhedrin.

[10] Antiquities 13:288, 297; 18:15, 18.

[11] This paragraph appears as an indented quote because it is taken almost verbatim from Nunnally, “Gamaliel”, p. 482.

[12] Tosefta Sanhedrin 2:6; BT Sanhedrin 11b; JT Sanhedrin 18d; Ma'aser Sheni 56c.

[13] Rom. 16:22; Gal. 6:11; 2 Thes. 3:17.
[14] See Mishnah Avot 1:4; 2:10; Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:20, etc.

[15] The substance of this article has been excerpted from the author’s The Book of Acts. Springfield, MO: Global University Press, 2008. To obtain a copy of this book, email [email protected].