Who was Gamaliel the Elder?

Gamaliel the Elder, also referred to as, Gamaliel I, was one of the most prominent Jewish teachers of the first half of the first century, perhaps even the most prominent. Gamaliel is a Hebrew name that means, “Reward from God.” It is likely that Gamaliel is named after the Gamaliel of the Old Testament that was from the tribe of Manasseh. At the very least, Gamaliel the Elder sat in a position of leadership in the Sanhedrin, but there is evidence that suggests he did not only sit in a position of leadership, but that he in fact had the highest position of leadership in the Sanhedrin. It is likely that Gamaliel the Elder rose to his position of prominence because he was the grandson Hillel the Elder, who was a very well-known and very influential rabbi.

Gamaliel’s son, Shimon ben Gamaliel, is best known for helping lead the Jewish rebellion against Rome, an event which is also known as the First Jewish-Roman War and the Great Revolt, which took place from 66 C.E. to 70 C.E. There are mixed feelings about Shimon ben Gamaliel, some sects of Judaism honor him for his bravery of trying to do what was right and other sects outcast him as a fool for trying to do what only YHWH could do. Nevertheless Gamaliel’s grandson, Gamaliel II, became even more popular as a leader of the Sanhedrin than Gamaliel the Elder was. It is noteworthy that Christianity and Judaism take notice of Gamaliel I as being a prominent leader; while his son, Shimon, and his grandson, Gamaliel II, are only emphasized as major leaders within Judaism. Many scholars have placed the death of Gamaliel anywhere between 50-60 C.E.

The Christian Version

Gamaliel the Elder is placed in a heroic position in Protestantism, in Roman Catholicism, and in Eastern Orthodoxy.  He is mentioned twice in the Protestant canon and both times in the book of Acts. The first reference to him is in Acts 5:34, “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.” In the context of this passage, Peter and the Apostles are standing before the Sanhedrin, facing charges for blasphemy because they are preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Gamaliel stands up and has Peter and the Apostles escorted out of the room. Once they are out of the room, Gamaliel addresses the Sanhedrin and his words are recorded in verses 5-9, “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.”

The second reference to Gamaliel in the Protestant canon is recorded in Acts 22:3, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today.” The Apostle Paul was claiming that Gamaliel was his Rabi-mentor; which would have spoken volumes to both the Pharisees and the Sadducees, since Gamaliel was one of the leaders on the Sanhedrin at the least and the head leader at the most.

In Protestantism, the records of Gamaliel in the book of Acts is all that he is known for. In Roman Catholicism, Gamaliel has been venerated to the status of sainthood, and his Feastday is August 3rd. In Eastern Orthodoxy, Gamaliel has also been venerated to the status of sainthood and they have the “translation of his relics,” which is celebrated on August 2nd. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy both have different veneration processes to arrive at the status of sainthood, and both accounts about Gamaliel have very different details; for instance, in Roman Catholicism it is believed and taught that Peter and John both baptized Gamaliel; whereas Eastern Orthodoxy makes no such claims about his baptism.

It is also noteworthy that there is an Apocryphal writing entitled, “The Gospel of Gamaliel.” The earliest version of the Gospel of Gamaliel that has been found, has been dated anywhere between the fourth and seventh centuries; accordingly, there is much debate as to whether it is a copy of a copy that is linked directly to Gamaliel or whether it was a product of amanuensis. Nevertheless, the central purpose of the Gospel of Gamaliel is to declare that Gamaliel saw the resurrected Christ and the gospel itself is an eyewitness account to this reality.

Some scholars suggest that Gamaliel was not an eyewitness to the resurrected Christ and that he did not convert to Christianity, because contemporary Jewish records still list Gamaliel and his children as honorable leaders in the non-Christian sect of the Jewish community. This argument is not entirely valid, since there are many various stories as to who Gamaliel was and many different stories as to what Gamaliel believed.

The Jewish Version

In the 1st and 2nd century of Jewish history, there were two major sects of thought that penetrated the Sanhedrin: the followers of Shammai and the followers of Hillel. Hillel’s teaching was more liberal and Shammai’s teaching was more conservative. It was noted earlier that Hillel was the grandfather of Gamaliel. The issue is that history could be skewed; because a few generations later, those who followed Shammai’s conservative teachings gained traction in the Sanhedrin and could have possibly redacted a lot of the Hillelite history. Therefore, any account given of Gamaliel, from Jewish history may have perhaps been altered.

Although there may have been redaction to the historical Gamaliel, he is still held in a position of respect and prominence in Judaism today. The Talmud, a record of Jewish rabbinical commentary, refers to Gamaliel as being the “Rabban,” which is a term reserved for the head of the Sanhedrin.  There is much debate as to whether this was a formal position that Gamaliel held or as to whether he was the natural leader and took more of a role of persuasion instead of a role of position. There are also three Jewish epistles that are still remaining today that make the claim that Gamaliel was in fact the leader of the Sanhedrin, but these documents are also debated upon grounds of origin and purpose.  The Mishnah, a record of the oral law of Judaism, records Gamaliel as being the author of multiple legal ordinances; particularly in regards to marriage regulations.

About all that can be gathered about Gamaliel in Jewish history is the fact that he descended from the bloodline and theology of Hillel, he was a leader of the Sanhedrin, he was liberal and changed some laws, and the Christians honor him. The fact of the matter is that although it appears that Gamaliel played a larger role in Jewish history, the account of him, that remains, is rather vague and uninteresting.

Gamaliel’s Wise Advice

There are three pieces of wise advice that are attributed to Gamaliel the Elder; that offer timeless truth to anybody who reads them, from any society, throughout any age. The first piece of wise advice was mentioned earlier from Acts 5:38-39, “…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.”

A second piece of advice that is attributed to Gamaliel the Elder is for students and it is found in the translated phrase, “Secure a teacher for thyself.” This phrase is commentated on to mean that people without a teacher are like sheep without shepherds; we end up lost, abused, and perhaps slaughtered.

A third piece of advice that is attributed to Gamaliel is for teachers. Gamaliel makes the claim that there are four types of fish in the Palestinian region and there are four types of students that correlate with each type of fish. There is the unclean fish which is symbolic of the student that works really hard, but lacks understanding. There is the clean fish which is symbolic of the student who works really hard and has understanding. There are fish from the Jordan River that are symbolic of students that know everything, but don’t speak up and offer their insight. Then there are the fish from the great ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, that are symbolic of students who know everything and do speak up and share their insights.

These three pieces of advice are about all the teachings of Gamaliel that remain in existence today, excluding the law ordinances that are recorded in the Mishnah. However, it is noteworthy that some scholars believe that a lot of the quotes and teachings of Gamaliel the Elder have been wrongly attributed to his grandson, Gamaliel the II.

Who was Gamaliel the Elder?

Anthony J. Saldarina, in his book entitled, Pharisees, Scribes, and Sadducees in Palestinian Society, writes that Gamaliel the Elder is the “only leader of the first century to be greatly honored in both the Jewish and Christian traditions.” We wouldn’t go so far to say that he is the “only” person that is honored in both traditions, but it is clear that he does hold a respectable position in both Judaism and Christianity. Who then is Gamaliel the Elder? The answer is dependent on who is asked that question.