A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 5:17-42. The Sanhedrin intensifies its opposition – (continued).
Hearing the words of defiance and triumph, the Council was *furious* (‘touched …on the raw’, NEB), and but for the diplomatic intervention of Gamaliel, they would probably have fulfilled their wish *to put them to death* (33). Gamaliel was a Pharisee, and as such exhibited a more tolerant spirit than the rival party of the Sadducees. Grandson and follower of the famous liberal rabbi Hillel, he was given the honorific and affectionate title ‘Rabban’, ‘our teacher’, and Saul of Tarsus had been one of his pupils (22:3). He had a reputation for scholarship, wisdom and moderation, and *was honoured by all the people*. His behaviour on this occasion was fully in keeping with his public image. He stood up and gave instructions for the apostles to *be put outside for a little while*, so that the Council might confer in private session (34). He then proceeded to restrain their anger and to counsel caution (35) on account of certain historical precedents. He gave two examples, namely men called Theudas and Judas the Galilean.
The account which Gamaliel is recorded as giving of their careers is brief. When Theudas arose, *claiming to be somebody, about four hundred men rallied* to his cause. But he himself *was killed, and all his followers were dispersed*, and his movement *came to nothing* (36). Following him, *Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census* (always an inflammatory event, a symbol of Roman rule by taxation), and ‘induced some people to revolt under his leadership’ (NEB). But he also perished, ‘and his whole following melted away’ (JBP,37). Gamaliel thus sketched their histories in parallel. Both men *appeared*, advanced claims and won a following. But then each *was killed, all his followers* were scattered, and his movement faded away.
Commentators have understandably consulted Josephus for confirmation and/or amplification of these revolts, and have found references to two rebels with the same names. There was, he says, ‘a certain magician’ named Theudas, when Fadus was procurator of Judea, who persuaded many to ‘follow him to the River Jordan, for he told them he was a prophet, and that he would by his own command divide the river’. But he was captured and beheaded. Then Josephus also described ‘a certain Galilean’ named Judas, who prevailed on his countrymen to revolt, because he told them they would be ‘cowards if they would endure to pay a tax to the Romans’ and thus ‘submit to mortal men as their lords’, when tribute should be paid to God alone. He was the forerunner of the zealots.
So far, then, there are slight similarities between Gamaliel and Josephus. The problem arises when we look at the dates. The taxation census against which Judas revolted was introduced by Cyrenius (Quirinius) when he came from Rome to Judea in about AD 6. Josephus’ Theudas, however, rebelled not *before* Judas (as Luke records Gamaliel as saying, verses 36-37) but during the procuratorship of Fadus (AD 44-46) which was about 40 years *after* him, and indeed a decade or more after Gamaliel was speaking!
How we react to the discrepancy will depend on our basic pre-suppositions. Liberal commentators jump to the conclusion that Luke was guilty of an anachronism amounting to a major error, which must fatally undermine our confidence in him as a reliable historian. Conservatives, on the other hand, reach the opposite conclusion: ‘we cannot suppose that St. Luke could have made the gross blunder attributed to him in the face of his usual accuracy.’ If there is a mistake, it is more likely to have been made by Josephus (who was ‘far from being an infallible historian’) than by Luke. A better alternative explanation is that Josephus and Luke were each referring to a different Theudas. The stories they tell are divergent (Josephus does not mention that his followers numbered four hundred, nor Luke that he led them to the River Jordan). The only similarities are that both men were named Theudas, and led a revolt which was crushed. But Josephus tells us that after the death of Herod the Great ‘there were ten thousand other disorders in Judea, which were like tumults’, and Theudas was not an uncommon name. So perhaps neither Luke nor Josephus made a mistake, but Gamaliel was referring to a Theudas whom Josephus does not describe, who revolted about 4 BC, and who was indeed followed, among others, by Judas the Galilean in AD 6.
At all events, Gamaliel took the failure of both revolts as an object lesson which justified a policy of *laissez-faire*. His advice to the council is given in verse 38: *Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. If, on the other hand it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God* (39). We should not be too ready to credit Gamaliel with having uttered an invariable principle. To be sure, in the long run what is from God will triumph, and what is merely human (let alone diabolical) will not. Nevertheless in the shorter run evil plans sometimes succeed, while good ones conceived in accordance with the will of God sometimes fail. So the Gamaliel principle is not a reliable index to what is from God and what is not.
Tomorrow: Acts 5:40-42. The conclusion.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.