Explore the Bible: Acts 5:35-39
Luke introduces us in this passage to Gamaliel, the great rabbi who flourished around the time of Jesus and the early church. Gamaliel had a reputation for piety and was recognized as one of the ablest teachers of the Law in his day. He was a grandson of Hillel, one of the two great rabbis (along with Shammai) whose opinions framed much Jewish theological debate. The respect in which he was held is seen in this passage, as the Sadducees stop the proceedings, send the apostles out of the room, and listen as he speaks. His advice about the apostles is followed, although with the addition of a severe flogging.
Some scholars have questioned the historicity of this passage. They present two basic objections. The first is questioning how Luke could have gained knowledge of these proceedings, given that the apostles were not present. It is not difficult to see how Luke could have gotten information about this, however, First, it is possible that Saul (later Paul), a student of Gamliel, was present at this time. He may even have been a member of the Sanhedrin, since he speaks in Acts 26:10 of casting a vote to condemn Christians. Even if Paul was not there, in Acts 6:7 we are told a large number of priests became Christians, and among them may well have been someone who was either present at this trial or who heard the story of it from someone who was. Luke was a careful researcher, so presuming he had a source for this account is entirely in line with what we know of his work.
The second, more serious, issue is Gamliel’s use of the examples of Theudas and Judas. Josephus mentions an uprising led by Theudas in about AD 46 in his Antiquities (XX.5.1). This would be well after the time Gamaliel gave the speech recorded here in Acts 5. In Josephus’ account, the sons of Judas are mentioned as creating trouble after Theudas’ revolt, so some scholars believe Luke misread what Josephus wrote and had Gamaliel commit an anachronism by speaking of a revolt that had not yet occurred.
The difficulty with that interpretation is that Josephus’ Antiquities was not published until AD 94. Luke was probably written around AD 62 (since Paul is still in prison in Rome at then end of the book), more than 30 years earlier. Even most liberal critical scholars date Luke to around 80-90, still too early for him to have read Josephus.
The most likely solution to this issue is that Gamaliel refers to an otherwise unknown Theudas, who led a revolt around the time of the death of Herod the Great. There were many disturbances during this time, and we know the names of only a few who led revolts. Theudas was not an uncommon name in the early first century, so it could well be that Gamaliel knew something we have lost. While this solution is not absolutely certain, it makes more sense than assuming Luke used a book he couldn’t have read.
One other question about this passage that is sometimes raised is how a tolerant and patient man like Gamaliel could have been the teacher of the zealous persecutor Saul. Yet teachers today know that their students don’t always accept everything they are taught, but often make up their own minds based on information or ideas they have gained elsewhere. We will see Gamaliel’s student confront Christians in a much more hostile way (if he was present at this trial, I’m sure he approved of the flogging). Yet it is the violent Saul rather than the peaceful Gamaliel who will become one of God’s great instruments in the spread of the Gospel throughout the Roman world.