by Al Maxey

Issue #75 ------- October 8, 2003
Until thy feet have trod the Road
Advise not wayside folk.

--- Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)


Guidance From Gamaliel
Analyzing the Aptness of his Advice

Rabbi Akiba (40-135 A.D.), who is quoted in the Talmud as saying "Beware of unsolicited advice," may well have had the events of Acts 5:33-42 at least somewhat in mind when he made that rather astute observation. Luke, the physician and biblical historian, recounts an event in which a man by the name of Gamaliel offers some startling advice to the members of the Sanhedrin. The advice was followed, which turned out well for the apostles and the cause of Jesus Christ, a fact which undoubtedly caused the Jewish leaders to speculate in the months and years that followed if they had acted in their own best interests. Who was this man who offered this unsolicited advice? What prompted him to take such a stand, and what caused the Sanhedrin to listen to him? What was his advice, and was it wise counsel or foolish instruction? These are some of the questions we will seek to address in this study.

The Circumstance

The body of believers in the city of Jerusalem was growing. In fact, there was a faith explosion taking place. Some three thousand committed their lives to the Lord on the day of Pentecost, and the Lord kept adding men and women to Himself "day by day" from that point forward (Acts 2:47). In short order "the number of the men came to be about five thousand" (Acts 4:4). This growing number of believers was "of one heart and soul" (Acts 4:32), and the people of the city were amazed at their love and unity, as well as awed by the powerful signs and wonders which were taking place among them. "The people held them in high esteem. And all the more believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women" (Acts 5:13-14). Jerusalem was being filled with the teaching of Jesus and the resurrection, and the Jewish religious leaders "were filled with jealousy" (Acts 5:17). Therefore, they arrested the apostles and threw them in jail, but an angel of the Lord released them during the night (Acts 5:18-19). The next day, when the Sanhedrin met to consider their case, they were not to be found in the prison. Instead, they were discovered at the Temple teaching the good news about Jesus Christ. They were again brought before the leaders and charged to cease their proclamation; again, they refused. Thus, the leaders were determined "to slay them" (Acts 5:33).

It was at this juncture that a man by the name of Gamaliel spoke up and offered a bit of advice to the Council. We will examine the nature of that advice momentarily. First, however, we must determine who this man was, and why he was accorded such respect by the members of the Sanhedrin.

The Rabban

The name Gamaliel means "reward of God," and he certainly proved to be a reward of the Lord God to the apostles on that specific occasion when the Sanhedrin listened to his advice. Through his interdiction in a very volatile, hostile situation the lives of the apostles were spared that day. This man, who was also known as Gamaliel the Elder, Gamaliel the Great, and Gamaliel the First, was the grandson of the famous Jewish rabbi Hillel, who was the founder of one of the two great rival rabbinical schools (the other being founded by Shammai). Hillel's school had a reputation for its gentleness in the application of the Law, whereas the school of Shammai was far more strict. In a word, the former school was more grace oriented, while the latter was more Law oriented. Gamaliel followed in that tradition, and became "the first of seven successive leaders of the school of Hillel to be honored with the title Rabban -- 'Our Rabbi/Master'" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, p. 393).

Gamaliel was highly revered in Judaism, even though he was regarded as being one of the leading liberals of his day. As the head of the school founded by Hillel "he led the more liberal wing of the Pharisees" (William P. Barker, Everyone In The Bible, p. 111). "He recommended that Sabbath observance be less rigorous and burdensome, regulated current custom with respect to divorce in order to protect women, and urged kindness toward Gentiles" (ISBE, vol. 2, p. 394). "Gamaliel was liberal in his outlook, showing moderate views toward the laws of the Sabbath, marriage, and divorce" (Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 651). His views constituted "the most lenient and therefore most popular form of Judaism" (Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 481). He was the head "of a broader and more liberal school among the Pharisees, the school of Hillel as opposed to that of Shammai. He was interested in Greek literature and encouraged his students to study it. His teaching tended towards a broader and more spiritual interpretation of the Mosaic Law, and encouraged the Jews to friendly intercourse with foreigners, allowing poor strangers equal rights along with Jews to the gleanings of the corn; he exerted himself for the relief of wives from the abuses of the law of divorce and for the protection of widows from the greed of children. He was a humane, tolerant, generous, liberal-minded man" (Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of the NT: The Apostolic Church, vol. 3, p. 440).

Gamaliel was consulted by the Herods on occasion concerning matters of Jewish law, and was regarded so highly by the Sanhedrin that they would often defer action on some matter until they could gain his advice or approval. This shows his commanding position as a key member of the Jewish Sanhedrin. On one occasion, for example (as related in the Mishna, the rabbinic commentary on the Torah), "The council had recognized the need for appointing a leap-year, but, as Gamaliel was absent, resolved that their decision should take effect only if it received the subsequent sanction of their leading man" (Dr. James Hastings, ibid). His esteem was so high that it was related in the Mishna (Sota 9:15), "Since Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died, the glory of the Torah ceased, and purity and saintliness perished." "His rulings were commonly based on the guiding principles of 'promotion of the common good' and 'promoting the ways of peace'" (Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 482).

The Talmud affirms that he died solidly within the Jewish faith. Most scholars place his death in the mid-50's A.D., over two decades following his advice to the Sanhedrin recorded in Acts 5. It would be wonderful if we could declare this man became a Christian in later life, but there is no real evidence of such. According to a later legend (as recorded in Clement's Recognitions 1:65), the apostle Peter refers to Gamaliel as "our brother in the faith." "Photius asserts that he was baptized by Peter and Paul. But both of these traditions are now universally rejected as spurious" (ISBE, vol. 2, p. 394). "The tradition that Gamaliel was a secret Christian and was baptized by St. Peter and St. Paul is purely legendary" (Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of the NT: The Apostolic Church, vol. 3, p. 440). "A tradition of the pseudepigraphous Clementine Recognitions, a much disputed early Medieval document, that Gamaliel embraced Christianity toward his death is totally without foundation" (The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 2, p. 649).

The Advice

Cicero (106-43 B.C.) wrote, "Advice is generally judged by results, not by intentions." This would certainly apply to the advice proffered by Rabban Gamaliel that day before the Sanhedrin. His intentions may not be perfectly clear to us, but the result was very obvious! The apostles were close to being descended upon and summarily slaughtered by an angry and agitated assembly of very conservative Sadducees (who were less than thrilled with all this teaching about Jesus and the resurrection), but the liberal Pharisee Gamaliel diffused the situation and saved the lives of these Christian leaders. One church "wit" recently observed, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, "How ironic that it took a liberal to save the church from the conservatives."

The statement made by Gamaliel to the Sanhedrin can be read in its entirety at Acts 5:35-39. Some have wondered how Luke came by this information, since verse 34 indicates the apostles, and presumably any spectators, were "put outside for a short time" so the members of the Sanhedrin could speak privately. It is speculated by a few scholars that Saul of Tarsus may have been present at the time and later passed the information on to Luke (since he and Luke were traveling companions on occasion). It's also possible Gamaliel may later have told his prize student about the event, who then passed it on to Luke.

Gamaliel, in keeping with his policy of moderation and non-aggression, urged his fellow members of the high council to "take care what you propose to do with these men" (vs. 35). They were highly agitated in their hearts (vs. 33) and thus on the verge of taking action they might later regret. It was time for a "time out," and so Gamaliel wisely removed the source of irritation from the room for the moment (vs. 34) and provided a cooling off period. He also sought to convince them of a more reasoned approach to their treatment of these leaders of this new "sect." His rationale was that such movements had come and gone in great abundance in recent Jewish history, and they rarely endured when their charismatic leaders had fallen away or been killed. They had already put this Jesus to death on the cross, so it was just a matter of time until His followers got discouraged and disbanded. Be patient ... they'll come to nothing, just like the others! Yes, yes, they are a source of irritation, but if you kill them you run the risk of alienating the people with whom they are very popular. Thus, the pathway of wisdom lies in patiently waiting for them to self-destruct. "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" (vs. 38-39, NIV).

This was to be advice oft repeated in various forms among the later rabbis. For example, a second century rabbi, Johanan the sandal-maker (a disciple of Rabbi Akiba), wrote: "Every assembly which is in the name of heaven will finally be established, but that which is not in the name of heaven will not finally be established" (Pirke Aboth 4:14). There is definitely a degree of good common sense in this typically Hillelian counsel, however it is hardly a universal prescription to be followed in all cases. J.W. McGarvey, in his commentary on Acts, wisely observed, "The merits of his advice must be differently estimated according to the point of view from which we contemplate it" (p. 99). F.F. Bruce wrote, "Certain kinds of men -- and movements -- can safely be relied upon to hang themselves if they are given enough rope; but Gamaliel's policy of 'Wait and see' is not always the right one to adopt in religious life. His pupil Saul of Tarsus was of a very different mind" (The Book of Acts, p. 126). Nevertheless, "such sentiments of tolerance and moderation, with history being viewed as the final judge of whether something is of God, characterized the better Pharisees of the day, and therefore Gamaliel's response to the proclamation and activity of the apostles was not out of line" with the prevalent perception of his particular school of thought (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 323).

The advice certainly worked out well for the apostles, and for the church of our Lord Jesus, which was in the early stages of formative growth. However, in all honesty, this would prove historically to be very costly advice for the religious leaders of the Jews, many of whom were intent upon preserving their system of religion and their authority within it. Following such advice certainly did not serve them well, nor did it work toward the attainment of their individual and collective goals. Most Christians today would hesitate to follow that same advice if a group of disciples perceived to be godless in their teaching and practice threatened to draw away countless precious souls into their apostasy. Indeed, we are cautioned to be alert to such digression from Truth, to contend earnestly for the faith delivered to us, to test those who come proclaiming "another gospel," and to mark, avoid and even discipline those who seek to subvert Truth. Toleration, a policy of "wait and see," can be deadly, and may bring upon us the same rebuke it did upon the church in Thyatira (Rev. 2:20).

The Two Examples

In support of his principle, Gamaliel cited two examples of movements which "came to nothing" following the deaths of their leaders. These two historical uprisings referenced by Gamaliel were led by (1) Theudas, and (2) Judas of Galilee. Let's notice briefly a few facts pertaining to each.

Judas of Galilee --- We'll notice the second of these examples first. "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" (Acts 5:37). The account of this man and his actions can be read in some detail in the writings of Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, book 18, chapter 1, section 1). Judas led his revolt in 6 A.D. when the Roman forces sought to conduct a census of the people of Judea, at the order of Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, to assess the amount of tribute (taxation) it should yield for the imperial treasury. Naturally, many of the Jews chose to fight and die rather than pay such funds to the Romans. Judas declared only God was Israel's King, and therefore it was "high treason" against God to pay tribute to Caesar. This revolt was crushed by Rome, and Judas killed, but the movement lived on, and even thrived, in the group known as the Zealots. From this group our Lord would later call one of His apostles -- Simon the Zealot. This group was characterized as one of the four largest sects in Judaism by the historian Josephus, and they would be a source of conflict in the land, as they opposed the occupying forces, for over 60 years after this revolt. Thus, the movement was not as ineffective as Gamaliel's description seems to suggest.

Theudas --- "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" (Acts 5:36). Some skeptics believe Luke has committed a grievous error here with regard to historical accuracy. He mentions the uprising of Judas of Galilee as occurring AFTER (Acts 5:37) the uprising of Theudas. This would place the activity of Theudas PRIOR to the year 6 A.D. (which was when Judas led his revolt). There is only one documented uprising involving a man named Theudas, however, and it occurred around 44 A.D., which would have been well over a decade AFTER Gamaliel's speech before the Jewish Sanhedrin. Josephus documents this uprising of Theudas in his Antiquities of the Jews (book 20, chapter 5, section 1), an uprising which took place during the administration of Cuspius Fadus the procurator (44-46 A.D.). Notice the account of Josephus:

F.F. Bruce, in his commentary on Acts, wrote, "Some are prepared to make Luke guilty of a double blunder -- (a) making Gamaliel refer to a rising which did not take place until ten or more years later, and (b) making an event of A.D. 44 take place before the rising of Judas in A.D. 6" (p. 125). Some have even accused Luke of making up the speech of Gamaliel; putting words in his mouth that he never uttered. The solution, however, is that Gamaliel was apparently referring to a previous revolt led by a man named Theudas (one not mentioned by Josephus). "We know that many insurgent leaders arose in Palestine when Herod the Great died in 4 B.C., and Theudas may have been one of them" (F.F. Bruce, p. 125). "Theudas" was a fairly common name at that time, thus "the Theudas Gamaliel referred to may have been one of the many insurgent leaders who arose in Palestine at the time of Herod the Great's death in 4 B.C., and not the Theudas who led the Jewish uprising of A.D. 44" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 323). Brother H. Leo Boles observed, "The times were full of revolts and rebellions, and as not less than three insurrectionary leaders were called Judas, and four Simon, there may have been two of the name of Theudas" (A Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, p. 91).

Concluding Thoughts

Depending on one's theological perspective, the advice of Gamaliel to the Sanhedrin has been praised as some of the wisest counsel ever offered, and vilified as perhaps the most godless guidance recorded in Scripture. It is true that if something falls within the will and purpose of God, it shall come to pass. That which God preordains will be accomplished, and no amount of human opposition will bring it to naught. Those who seek to thwart His designs end up "being found fighting against God" (Acts 5:39). Thus, we should indeed "take care" (vs. 35) when we seek to array ourselves against some position or practice, or those who embrace them.

On the other hand, Gamaliel's "wait and see," tolerant spirit can prove deadly when men's lives hang in the balance! With regard to personal perspectives and perceptions, opinions and preferences, we must be tolerant and accepting of one another (Romans 14). There is room for great diversity with regard to such non-essentials. When it comes to revealed Truth, however, toleration and compromise are not acceptable. When TRUTH is under attack, and precious souls are being led away to falsehood, there is danger and death in delay!! A "wait and see" policy will prove eternally costly.

Obviously, wisdom and maturity is required to make such a distinction as to which course of action to take. This is, frankly, where we too often fail our Lord and one another. Much of the feuding, fussing and fighting in the One Body, and the subsequent dismemberment of that Body, is over matters of no eternal consequence, whereas we too often tend toward toleration when Truth is being assaulted. The church sits silently while the name of God is slowly but surely being removed from our society, while homosexuality is being promoted, and immorality pervades every aspect of our daily lives. But, just let someone read from the "wrong version," or put real wine instead of grape juice in the communion trays, or allow the teens to clap during a song, and we become like sharks who have scented blood in the water. Brethren, it is time to refocus, which is the whole purpose of these Reflections. May God help us all to step back and do some serious reflection about who we are .... and Whose we are! It will not only change our perspective, it will change our lives!!

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Texas:

Your presentation on How Long Is Forever? is clear and draws obvious conclusions. Odd, isn't it, that we understand clearly when we profess love always or forever, it will only last as long as we do, and yet think torment will never end? Are we a bit vengeful? I think, however, part of the problem is Luke's dramatic and memorable recording of the rich man, Lazarus, and Abraham story. No reflection necessary and generally none given. It catches the imagination and hangs there. Reason and other Scriptures sort of fade into the background. Thank you again for your continuing effort to shine the light in dark corners.

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, How Long Is Forever? is an excellent essay! This is an important subject to the "hyper" preterist. Many of this persuasion use this to say that the great commission of Matthew 28 applied only to those prior to AD 70, and at the closing of that age (aion), with the parousia (2nd coming) of Christ, ended the need to baptize in today's age (aion) as part of Christ's commission command. They say little, however, of the continued need to preach the gospel as ending also!

From a Reader at Texas Tech University:

Thanks for adding me to your list for Reflections. I have just read your essay on "Forever," which confirms my own long-held view, held in a general way even before reading Edward Fudge's book on the subject. I look forward to future essays as they come.

From a Reader in California:

Al, you wrote: "From this 'second death' there will be no resurrection to life, as there was with the first. Once the wicked have been destroyed, they are gone forever." If you have a minute, could you define "wicked"? It simply cannot mean someone who worships God along with music, as some believe. It cannot mean those who remember Jesus in communion one with the other, but don't do it as I do. Can you give me a brief description of "wicked" according to your biblical understanding?

We grew up in the one cup/no music Church of Christ and truly had a wonderful childhood and early adulthood in the church. But the Churches of Christ that we both grew up in, and were affiliated with until we were asked to leave some 20+ years ago, have become introverted, arrogant, haughty, high-minded, withdrawn, judgmental, and condescending. It breaks my heart to see where the rules and regulations governing conduct, clothing, church "business," and other people's business and faith, over and above faith in Jesus Christ, has taken my people. In my opinion, these people are "wicked." Anyone who is not comfortable with, and does not love the presence and fellowship of, other believers (anyone whom God accepts as His because of Christ Jesus), in my opinion will not be comfortable in heaven --- therefore, what is God to do with these people, even though they aren't murderers, molesters, robbers, etc.? He has made only ONE heaven. If they are not comfortable with other believers here, then they have practically sealed their own fate. So sad!