Feast of St Gamaliel

Feast of St Gamaliel August 3, 2009

Today is the Feast of St Gamaliel, Rabbi. In Jewish tradition, he was one of the great teachers, one of the greatest scholars of the law of his time, and a leader of the Sanhedrin. In Christian tradition, he was the teacher of St Paul. But also in Christian tradition, he was a convert to Christianity, indeed, he converted before St Paul and was the one who gave St Stephen a proper burial at his own estate, and later, would be buried next to St Stephen himself (with St Nicodemus and Gamaliel’s son, Abibon as well).[1] In the Clementine Recognitions, he was said to be secretly a Christian and that he was given the dispensation to remain with the rest of the Sanhedrin in order to defend Christians from abuse, the most famous example being his speech in the Acts of the Apostles: [2]

But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, held in honor by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a while. And he said to them, ‘Men of Israel, take care what you do with these men.  For before these days Theudas arose, giving himself out to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was slain and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered.  So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!’ So they took his advice, and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go” (Acts 5:34 -40).

The Clementine Recognitions points out how many of the Jewish leaders were angry with the mercy he showed to the Christians. It should not be surprising, therefore, that once it was learned he was a Christian, he would have been martyred.

Now, it must be clear, the Clementine Recognitions is a work of mixed value; like most books from that time, it mixes history, legend, and supposition; but its early dating provides us a clear understanding that it was believed, very early on, that Gamaliel became a Christian. Certainly we must pause and consider whether or not this is true; Jewish authorities, of course, dispute this claim. But much of his life remains outside of what is known by Jewish tradition, which suggests that perhaps this fact about him has been suppressed. It would have been a major embarrassment if it had been made known that one of the leading Rabbis was also a Christian. And there is enough of an echo of truth with the legend that it sounds as it is based upon some truth. It makes sense that someone who works as a moderate as he did, trying to discern the truth of the Christian faith as the Acts suggests, would end up following the consequences of his own words: God has preserved the Christian faith despite all they suffered, so it must be true. It seems unlikely that he would have been involved with subterfuge when he said such words – if he had been a secret Christian within the Sanhedrin at that time, he would also have found a way to prevent the abuse leveled at the Christians after his speech. Although it is an argument from silence, nonetheless, the fact that a man given so much respect, also ends up not becoming one who finds his own individual place within the line of succession of the oral law suggests that something is being hidden about him from history, and if he became a Christian, that would be a good reason. Curiously enough, the few words most likely to be his within the Mishnah are: “Provide yourself with a teacher and remove yourself from doubt, and do not accustom yourself to give tithes by estimation.” (Mishnah Pirkei Avot 1:16). If he became a Christian, the implications of these words might go much further than otherwise thought – for the teacher would be The Teacher, Jesus, who would then lead one to the truth, free from doubt, and to follow Jesus in the way of charity. And does not the kind of faith Paul asks us to have in Jesus remind us of what Gamaliel suggests here?

But perhaps what is most important for us today are the words of wisdom attributed to him in the Acts of the Apostles. Whether or not he was a Christian, an early Rabbi, or both, his words remain of a kind of moderation and toleration which we should all subscribe to. “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). The Holy Spirit inspires and guides people the world over; not everyone follows the Spirit perfectly (most do not), which is why we must not quickly dismiss other religions as being completely erroneous. Indeed, religious traditions which are long lasting should be seen as indicative of being started by some sort of prompting by the Spirit, for what gives the religious tradition life, what brings people to it, has to be something of the Spirit of Life being manifested within. This is not to say it is a perfect representation of what God desired came out of such promptings (one can be a prophet like unto Balaam, after all), but if it did not provide spiritual nourishment, people would quickly leave that tradition and find something else. Human failing can get in the way of the transmission of what the Spirit desired to reveal, leading to false accretions on top of some religious truth. Thus, for us Christians, this means we must discern what that good is, not because we are looking for another faith for ourselves, but rather, because we should not want to reject that which is true, wherever it might be found. It also means we should be humble, and that we must work to counter-act anything within ourselves which might lead ourselves to err – knowing, full well, that pride leads to a fall, and lack of charity is indicative of someone who has yet to fully tack on the mantle of truth, no matter what propositions they may or may not hold to.


[1] Perhaps Paul’s rage against the Christians stems from this fact – if Paul wanted to be the best scholar of the law, and to become a leading figure in the tradition of Hillel, he felt that chance had been lost when his teacher converted to Christianity and so his attack against Christians was also an attack against his teacher, whom he felt betrayed him.
[2] Clementine Recognitions I, 65, 66, 71.

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