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Studies in the Book of Acts

Acts 5:33-41

Gamaliel the Pharisee (5:33-34)

The Jewish leaders are told that they were responsible for the death of Jesus, whom God had exalted. Peter insists that it is the apostles who are being led by God’s Holy Spirit, and obedient to God. The implications are that the religious leaders are disobedient to God, have rejected his purpose for humanity, and have rejected their own Savior. Most of the Sanhedrin officials are angry after this accusation, and they are about to condemn the apostles to death. (Rome had not given the Sanhedrin the authority to inflict capital punishment, but the Sanhedrin could find a way around that, just as they had done with Jesus.)

But a man named Gamaliel stands up to speak, and what he says changes the council’s mind and saves the apostles. This member of the Pharisee sect was an extremely respected teacher of the law. He was a grandson of Hillel, who founded one school of the Pharisees. Later, Luke notes that Gamaliel had been Paul’s teacher (22:3). Gamaliel was so respected among pious Jews that he was given the title Rabban, which means “our teacher.” This was a higher title than even Rab (“teacher”) or Rabbi (“my teacher”). The Mishnah, a book composed of materials attributed to Jewish teachers from 50 b.c. to A.D. 200, says of him: “When Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died, the glory of the Torah came to an end, and cleanness and separateness perished.” [Sotah 9.15.]

Although the Sadducean leaders of the Sanhedrin want to sentence the apostles to death, they cannot take action without the support of so prominent a religious leader as Gamaliel. Though the Pharisees are in the minority in the Sanhedrin, they command much more public support than the Sadducees. For this reason, the Sanhedrin cannot disregard the opinion of a Pharisee, especially one of Gamaliel’s stature.

Counsel of moderation (5:35-39)

Gamaliel tells the council to reconsider its desire to have the apostles executed (5:35) and to let them go (5:38). If their movement is of purely human origin, it will fail, said Gamaliel. But if it came from a divine source, he said, “You will only find yourselves fighting against God” (5:39).

Gamaliel refers to two Jewish revolutionaries — Theudas and Judas — who were killed by the Romans, and their followers scattered (5:36-37). His implication is that if the Christian movement is another attempted revolution, the Roman military will kill its leaders and crush the movement. The Jewish leaders don’t need to get involved in something that might backfire on them.

At first glance, it seems strange that a member of the Pharisee sect would counsel leniency for Jesus’ disciples. After all, the Pharisees were frequent debate opponents of Jesus, as Luke noted in his Gospel. [Luke 5:21307:3011:37-12:115:216:14-1518:9-14.] Jesus often criticized them for their hypocritical behavior. Also, Gamaliel must have been on the council when it condemned Jesus and handed him over to the Roman authority for crucifixion (Luke 22:66-23:25Matthew 27:62). There is no indication that Gamaliel defended Jesus. Why come to the defense of his followers now?

Some commentators point out that Jesus was not necessarily hated by all the Pharisees. He was often invited to their homes for a meal (Luke 7:3611:3714:1). Jesus appeared to have some support among this sect, as the case of Nicodemus indicates (John 3:17:5019:39). Later, many of the Pharisees became Christians (Acts 15:523:6). While Pharisees would have been on the Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus, the Gospels do not name Gamaliel specifically, so we do not know how Gamaliel felt about Jesus and what the Sanhedrin did with Jesus. Thus, many commentators are led to a favorable view of Gamaliel’s counsel to free the apostles. William Neil says:

Apart from his liberal leanings, which would encourage his tolerance of the Nazarenes [i.e., Christians] as law-abiding and faithful Jews, Gamaliel would be naturally more sympathetic than were the Sadducees to preachers of the Resurrection. [Neil, 99.]

Others, such as Luke Timothy Johnson, take a more critical view of Gamaliel’s speech. He points out that Gamaliel was one of the synagogues’ leaders and would have been party to the condemnation of Jesus. Gamaliel had already rejected the apostles’ claim that the power of God was at work — that Jesus had been resurrected and glorified (5:31). He was also part of a council that had earlier rejected the proof that God had healed the beggar at the temple gate.

Commentaries on Acts of the Apostles

Later, with Judaism’s institutions — the temple, law and land — under frontal assault by Stephen, Gamaliel probably joined in the persecution of Christians in Jerusalem. Once again, then, the question: Isn’t it possible that Gamaliel’s counsel to free the apostles was tainted with selfish motives? Johnson claims that Gamaliel’s intent was generally self-serving, and had little to do with belief in God, or the Christian movement:

He sends the apostles from the room, and with his colleagues formulates a plan of action based on historical prudence…. His entire point is to reduce Jesus to the status of those “would-be” prophets and kings. His argument runs like this: they “rose up,” but then they were killed, and their followers scattered. His implication is that the same thing will probably happen here. [Johnson, 103.]

The leader of the Christians — Jesus — had already been executed, just like the leaders of the two movements to which Gamaliel referred, Theudas and Judas. Gamaliel’s inference was that the Christians are already a doomed movement because their leader, Jesus, is dead. The apostles will soon follow. Why get involved in a religious argument that could have bad political consequences for Jews?

Apostles rejoice (5:40-41)

Whatever point of view Gamaliel may have held toward the apostles, his intervention results in their freedom. But first they are flogged and again ordered not to speak in Jesus’ name (5:40). The apostles probably receive a severe beating of 39 lashes. The Mishnah describes this punishment, based on Deuteronomy 25:2-3. [Makkot 3:10-15a.] The whipping could be administered by the Sanhedrin or the officials of a local synagogue if it was determined that Jewish law had been violated. Paul would later feel the sting of such a flogging on five occasions (2 Corinthians 11:24).

The apostles rejoice in their punishment, for they think of themselves as being “counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (5:41). Jesus counseled his disciples to rejoice when persecuted for his name (Matthew 5:11). The apostles Peter and Paul, having suffered much persecution themselves, could from personal experience tell Christians to rejoice even though they are persecuted (Romans 5:32 Corinthians 6:101 Peter 1:64:13). Such situations as this one described by Luke provide Christians with examples of the spiritual rejoicing they can have even under persecution.

Finally, Luke reports that the apostles are obedient to the angelic message to preach the gospel. They disregard the warning of the Sanhedrin not to teach and “they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah” (5:42).

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012