Good Question...

...on two historical issues in Acts: Theudas and the Sanhedrin

A dear friend of mine got a series of honest questions from a sincere seeker of Jewish background. He forwarded them to me for my input, and here is my response...
Dear sir,

XXX forwarded this email on to me for my comments, so here they are...

[TankNote: I will put the ISBE in italics, JS remarks in bold, and my remarks in "regular".]
But first, let me commend you on approaching this material carefully and critically (in a positive sense)! There are so few that think about the data they hear--I am always mindful of the passage in Acts praising the Berean synagogue (17.11) for actually checking Paul's references!

So, with that in mind, let's dive in...

In response to the gentleman's first question, XXX sent him the following entry from ISBE:

THEUDAS. The leader of an unsuccessful rebellion in the area of Judea during the 1st cent. A.D. The only reference to the name in Scripture appears in Acts 5:36, where Gamaliel, in his testimony before the Sanhedrin, indicates that the rebellion associated with Theudas occurred before the uprising led by Judas the Galilean, who arose in the days of the census" (presumably a reference to the taxation associated with the governor Quirinius, Ca. A.D. 6; cf. Lk. 2:lf.). A more probable date, however, was provided by Josephus (Ant. xx.5. 1197-99)), who assigned the movement to the rule of the procurator Cuspius Fadus (A.D. 44-46) several years after the death of Gamaliel himself.

Josephus described Theudas as a self-proclaimed prophet who deluded the majority of the masses" (four hundred men according to Acts) with his promise to divide the Jordan River upon command so that the people could cross with ease, thus repeating the miracle performed by Joshua. The attack of a Roman cavalry regiment soon brought an end to the uprising, however, and many in the movement were either slain or captured. Theudas himself was decapitated.

Some scholars (e.g., F. F. Bruce. _Comm. on the Book Of Acts_ [NICNT, 1954), pp. 124f.) have suggested that the accounts provided in Acts and Josephus refer to different individuals. But modern attempts to associate the Theudas of Acts with other historical rebels in Palestine, such as Simon (Herod the Great's former slave), Theudion (Herod the Great's brother-in-law), or Matthias (the son of Margaloth, a radical teacher of the law), have proven unconvincing. The name was relatively uncommon, and the significance attributed to the rebellion by the text of Acts certainly characterizes the movement as worthy of reference by Josephus. The disparity between the accounts of Acts and Josephus, with respect to both details and dating, would suggest instead some problem associated with the sources used by the authors. (C. N. Jefford)


I'm still wondering about what Christians believe about this "Gamliel." If Theudas happened after Rabban Gamliel passed away, how could Rabban Gamliel mention Theudas?

Let me first make a comment about the ISBE. That encyclopedia suffers from a great unevenness in quality, actually demonstrable from the two entries you read! The first on "Theudas" is unduly skeptical; the one on "Gamaliel" is unduly speculative. I will go through your remarks in give what we know and what we DON'T know from the 'hard data'.

Now, as to Theudas...

All indications lead to the belief that Josephus and Gamaliel were NOT talking about the same "Theudas".

  1. Josephus refers to a more "troublesome" figure than does Gamaliel (Antiquities, Whereas Gamaliel ascribes only 400 men to T., Josephus uses the terms "a great part of the people" and "many" [The following paragraph in Josephus recounts a massacre of over 20,000 people, so a band of only 400 would probably not be 'newsworthy' enough for Josephus to even mention. Therefore the ISBE insistence that Josephus WOULD HAVE mentioned so 'significant' an event is unwarranted.].

  2. The terminology for the figure is likewise somewhat different: Gamaliel says T. was 'claiming to be somebody', Josephus uses the terms 'magician' and 'prophet'.

  3. Gamaliel says that T's followers 'rallied to him' (a more political sounding term); Josephus says T.'s followers took their effects and were migrating to the river Jordan.

  4. Gamaliel says that T. was simply killed; Josephus says T was captured and then beheaded, and the head then taken to Jerusalem.

  5. Gamaliel says that after T was killed, "all his followers dispersed", but Josephus says that many of the followers were killed by the Roman troop of horsemen, and that many of them were likewise captured and arrested.

  6. (Additionally, it should be noted that the scholar Origen referred to a Theudas active before the birth of Jesus as well, in Contra Celsum 1.57, although it is possible that this is simply a referral to Acts already.)

At the surface, these events look like different occasions, even though the name 'Theudas' is the same. That this would not create a prima facie case for identity, can be seen from the following considerations:

  1. Although 'Theudas' was not a common name itself, it does show up in Jerusalem ossuaries close in time, e.g. Inscription 1255).

  2. 'Theudas' shows up in the Papyrii as hypocoristic forms (i.e. "pet" names, 'nicknames') for many Greek theophoric names (e.g. Theodotus, Theodorus, Theodotion, etc.) [New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, vol 4.183-185], so it could refer to any number of people at the time.

  3. At the time there was a prevalence for having both a Greek AND a Hebrew name, with the Greek name having the same or very similar meaning as the Hebrew. This pattern shows up in the Jerusalem ossuaries and the 'Goliath' family in Jericho [e.g. 'Theodorus' (gk) for 'Nathanel' (hb)]. With this in mind, 'Theudas' could be Greek for a wide range of Hebrew names: Jonathan, Nathanael, Mattathias, Hananias, Jehohanan, etc. In one case, the synagogue ruler in Ophel was listed under his alternate Greek name "Theodotus".

  4. We do know that there were many smaller tumults in Judea after the death of Herod the Great (Josephus uses the phrase "ten thousand" in Antiquities,!), and that we do not have data on many of them. The data seems to indicate that that the two that we know of led by a 'Theudas' are NOT the same event.

Therefore, the reference by Gamaliel to the minor exploits of a Theudas was not necessarily historically illegitimate or confused.

I also have some major problems with the next Encylopedia entry. To wit:

[ISBE] GAMALIEL ga-ma'le-al [Heb. -'God is my recompense reward,' indicating the loss of one or more earlier children in the family;

I don't know how they know this. In the first place, "gomel" usually refers simply to repayment or reward for good deeds. Secondly, how do they know that it was because of the loss of an earlier child? There is no indication anywhere that he had any such.

The first part doesn't seem that far off--the word form being (roughly): "reward of mine is God", but how this can be associated with the death of children escapes me as well...I cannot find a shred of evidence for this in the reference material.

[ISBE]: 2. Rabbi Gamaliel I, son of Simon and grandson (according to the Talmud) of Rabbi Hillel (founder of the more liberal of the two main schools of the Pharisees, Shammai being the other). .... ...A member of the Sanhedrin

Actually, he was the LEADER of the Pharisaic Sanhedrin, because he was the Nasi. He was the Nasi, the Prince, the head of the Pharisaic Sanhedrin, the leader of all Pharisaic Jews everywhere, the Chief Rabbi, and the RIGHTFUL KING OF THE JEWS (as he was also from the House of King David). It is highly unlikely that anyone who was aware of the times would refer to him as simply a Pharisaic Rabbi who was a member of the "council" that was headed by the Sadducee High Priest. It makes no sense.

The issue of the Nasi is a bit more complicated than this, and a very definite problem will surface.

The problem is that the sources of data about the Sanhedrin do not paint a uniform picture of it. The earliest sources are written in Greek (Josephus, Philo, and the NT), the later sources (by a couple of centuries) are written in Hebrew/Aramaic (the Rabbinical writings).

The earliest sources (Josephus, Philo, and the NT) consistently portray the Sanhedrin as (1) dominated by the ruling Sadducees and (2) ruled by the High Priest. The later sources (the Rabbinics) portray the Sanhredin as Pharisaic and headed by the Nasi. Let me highlight this by citing two outstanding conservative Jewish scholars:

First, Gedaliah Alon [The Jews in Their Land in the Talmudic Age, translated from the Hebrew by Gershon Levi, Hebrew University: 1984,p.188]:

"He [Buchler] formulated his theory in order to cope with a striking contradiction between the rabbinic sources and those we have called external. The tannaitic tradition, it was claimed, gives us a picture of the Sanhedrin as an entirely Pharisaic institution, composed exclusively of learned Sages. But the external sources show us the priests--particularly the upper priesthood--cast in an important (one might even say a paramount) role. Still more glaring is the difference between the two types of sources when it comes to the Presidency of the Sanhedrin. The rabbinic tradition calls this office the 'Nasi', and makes him out to have been a learned judge--a Pharisee. It is in accordance with this tradition that Hillel the Elder, and Rabban Gamaliel the First, and Rabban Simeon his son are said to have been each in turn Nasi of the Sanhedrin.

"By contrast, the Greek-language sources always have the High Priest presiding at sessions of the Great Sanhedrin. That is the situation in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles, at the trials of Jesus, of Stephen, of the Apostles, and of Paul. So too in Josephus, as at the trial of Jacob, brother of Jesus, or the appearance of Herod before Hyrcanus II

"The problems caused by our multiple and contradictory sources remain...

Alon then goes on to document (from rabbinical sources) that the 1st century Sanhedrin had powerful non-Pharisaic elements in it. Some of the data he brings up are:

  1. The example of the struggle (in Meg.Taan.) between Simeon ben Shetah and the Sadducees over a matter of law, which led to the Pharisees gaining control of the Great Sanhedrin (this was during the times of the last of the Hasmonean kings, pre-63). To 'gain control' implies that the Sadducees HAD control before this--and the portraits in Acts fit nicely into this understanding.

  2. There is the pre-Destruction incident about the capital punishment of the priest's daughter. She was found guilty and burned to death. In the discussion, this is deemed a mistake, because it was made by a 'court that did not know the law correctly' (Mishnah, Sanh VII:2), but Rav Yosef in the Gemara explains that it "was a court of Sadducees" (Sanh. 52b). That this was being judged in Jerusalem a generation before the Destruction by a court of Sadducees indicates that they were QUITE in control during the time in question.

  3. The Tosefta refers to the Sanhedrin, in its role of inspecting the King's Torah Scroll, as being the "court of priests and Levites and of Israelites from families eligible to intermarry with the priesthood" [Tos. Sanh. IV:7].

  4. Sifre (para 153) says explicitly that the High Court contains Kohanim and Levites.

  5. He adduces the NT descriptions of the Court as being historically sound, and in agreement with the other Jewish data.]

  6. "To be sure, the oldest traditions give the priests a decisive role in the Sanhedrin" (p.191)

  7. Philo understands that the Great Sanhedrin is in the control of the priests [De Special. Legib. IV]

He concludes that the pre-Destruction Court was a mixture of groups, each with their own power.

As to the issue of Presidency or of the Nasi, Alon resolves it probably better than most:

"We have already suggested that it is unlikely that any one of the elements composing the Sanhedrin had control of it. This very fact, if fact it may be, may explain why the sources contradict one another. It would allow us to view the high priest as one leader of the Sanhedrin, and the head of the Pharisaic party as another. If this be granted, then it is logical to suppose that the high priest took over when the agenda dealt with matters of state and public policy, while the Nasi or the Av Bet Din took the chair when the discussion concerned religious affairs, matters of substantive law, and whatever else was internally Jewish. As a matter of fact, all the sessions mentioned above that show the high priest presiding were cases with a political aspect, even though they seem on the surface to have been the trials of individuals. But when the subject before the house was purely halakhic, then Hillel and Rabban Gamaliel the Elder and Rabban Simeon Ben Gamaliel might well have presided.

"We have no real proof that the Nasi had any official constitutional status in the Sanhedrin during the Second Commonwealth. On the contrary, it is much more likely that he was simply the de facto leader of his party, occupying no legally recognized office. Consequently, Rabban Gamaliel can be described in Acts of the Apostles (5.34) simply as one highly respected member of the Sanhedrin, much as Josephus describes Shemaya (or Shammai). " [p.194]

The 2nd Jewish scholar is Ephraim E. Urbach. In his work, The Sages: The World and Wisdom of the Rabbis of the Talmud (Hebrew University:1979, translated from the Hebrew by Israel Abrahams), page 593, he points out the variable meaning of the term Nasi when it was applied to various individuals:

"But it was just the success and achievements of Hillel's acts that led to a far-reaching change in the status of the Sages. It is a fact that for the first time we encounter Bet Hillel (the "house of Hillel") as denoting a dynasty, although the son and grandson of Hillel--Rabban Gamaliel and his son Rabban Simeon--were not Nesi'im ('Princes') in the sense that Simeon the Hasmonean was a Nasi, nor in the connotation given to the function of the Nesi'im of the House of Hillel in the period following the Destruction. But undoubtedly they had a special status in the Sanhedrin, and enactments made in certain spheres bore their name" (p.593)
And he points out that Hillel's Nasi title was very restricted in import (p.580):
"Even if his appointment as Nasi [Patriarch, Chief] by the Son of Bathyra had only limited significance--that is to say, he was accepted as Nasi over them, as a teacher of Halakhot in the sphere of the Sanctuary--his influence is nevertheless proved by his enactments."
Third, just to be complete, let me cite some relevant evidence from the 1st Century Jewish historian Josephus:

All in all, what this means is the picture in Acts is EXACTLY in accordance with all we know about the Sanhedrin at this time period--from any and all sources.

I should also make one comment about the Nasi being descendants of Judah/David. The Rabbinical writings seem contradictory here, as exemplified in Rabbi Judah I the Prince--descendent of Hillel/Gamaliel. Although some of the later writings ascribe Judaic lineage to him (e.g. b. Sanh. 5a; b. Hor. 11b Bar.) or even Davidic lineage (e.g. b. Shab. 56a), HE HIMSELF says he was descended from Benjamin (j. Kil 9.4, 32b.30; j. Ket. 12.3, 35a.37; Gen. R. 33.3 on 8.1) on his FATHER'S SIDE! This would imply that the lineage back through Gamaliel was NOT from Judah/David...there is no currently accepted resolution to this problem.

[ISBE] teacher of the law (Acts 5:34), he was known in rabbinical writings as Gamaliel the Elder to distinguish him from his grandson, Gamaliel II.

Actually, that was not why. Certain distinguished Rabbis were granted the title "Elder," such as Hillel the Elder, and Shammai the Elder. The next Hillel was at least ten generations later, and Shammai had no other person to distinguish his name from, and would not have "needed" that title for that reason.

I tend to agree with you, on Shammai, but cannot find any data one way or another on Gamaliel...the fact that the stuff was written down so much later could certainly allow for the ISBE's understanding, but since it was not supported by argumentation, we sorta cannot so much with it.

[ISBE] Secondly, the second Rabbi Gamliel was referred to as "Rabbi Gamliel of Yavneh," where he led the Sanhedrin, after the Destruction of the Holy Temple. He was the first of seven successive leaders of the school of Hillel to be honored with the title Rabban ("Our Rabbi/Master").

That I shall have to check, but I do not believe this is true at all, if memory serves.

You are correct -- it is NOT true. Gamaliel the Elder was ALSO known as Rabban. The title is applied to: Gamaliel I, Simeon b. G.I., G.II., Simeon b. G.II., GIII (Aboth 2.2), and then of Johanan ben Zaccai [not a descendant of Gamaliel, but a student of Hillel. This makes SIX leaders of the school of Hillel, but they are NOT successive--Rabban Johanan ben Zaccai overlaps with G.I. and Simeon b. G.I. (they co-signed an encyclical on tithes, for example, described in Midrash Tannaim).

[ISBE] While believing the law of God to be divinely inspired, Gamaliel tended to emphasize its human elements. He recommended that sabbath observance be less rigorous and burdensome,

Why do they quote no sources for this? I have never encountered any indication of this.

This is widely accepted, based on his leadership in the school of Hillel.

The 'human element' might be seen in his pronouncing a benediction on a non-Jewish lady--because of her beauty (T.P. A.Z. 1.9 and T.P. Berahkot 9). He was responsible for introducing a number of reforms on divorce and remarriage (Mishnah, Gittin 4.2-3; Yebamoth 16.7). He 'violated' the prescription about offering full burial honors to slaves, when he did so for his slave Tabi (Ber. II.7). The general guideline to not teach a daughter the Torah (Sot 3.4; Kid. 30a; p. Sot. 19a), was certainly ignored by G.I.--some of the sharpest answers given to questions in the Talmud is by his daughter--Sanh. 39a and 90b!

[ISBE] he studied Greek literature avidly.

THAT I would DEFINITELY like to see proof of! I doubt it highly, and would like to know what evidence anyone has for any such thing.

Well, I think 'avidly' is a bit strong [in light of the generally strong anti-"greek wisdom" strains in the Rabbinics], but...

Actually, there is surprisingly strong evidence for the position that the ENTIRE SCHOOL and Family line of Hillel studied Greek literature:

  1. "Coming from Babylonia, Hillel studied under Shemaiah and Abtalion, whom posterity remembered as great in exegetical ability, and of whom we are told that they were proselytes" [B. Pesh. 70b, cited by Longnecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, Eerdmans: 1975, p. 34. The footnote points out that the Hellenistic background of these proselytes would explain some of the features of Hillel's exegesis.]

  2. "Hillel's seven rules of interpretation are found earlier in Cicero (On Invention 2.40.116). [The New Testament in Its Social Environment, John Stambaugh and David Balch, Westminister Press: 1986, p.103].

  3. "We learn from the Talmud that his (Gamaliel's) son Simeon had pupils who learned the 'wisdom of the Greeks'; and it is most probable that Simeon's father had such pupils too." [the Talmud cite is Sotah 49b, cited by F.F. Bruce, in New Testament History, Anchor:1969, p.237-238.]

  4. "R. Judah Hanasi 'the Prince' or 'the Patriarch'...son of Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel...He studied also Greek and had a liking for this language." [Sota 49b; Baba Kama.82b f; cited in Hermann Strack's, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, Atheneum/JPS:1931, p.118]

  5. "Even after the catastrophes of AD 70 and 135 the positive attitude towards Greek education continued in the family of Jewish patriarchs descended from Hillel. Even towards the end of the fourth century AD the sons of the patriarch are said to have studied with the rhetorician Libanius in Antioch" [Martin Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in Their Encounter in Palestine during the Early Hellenistic Period, Fortress: 1974, p.77.

Now, notice that in the chain beginning with Hillel and running some several centuries, we have evidence for Greek education in many of the people of his line. But we DO NOT have any specific evidence for G.I. But if his father (or grandfather) Hillel did it, and his son and grandson did it, it is probably safe to believe that HE DID IT also.

[ISBE] TB. Shabbath 30b mentions a student of Gamaliel who displayed impudence in matters of learning," a young man identified by some as the apostle Paul. Paul himself says, 'Under Gamaliel, I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today" (Acts 22:3, NIV).

How can they bring proof from a Talmudic passage that says the student was impudent, when Paul's claim is that he was as "zealous as any of you?"

That passage in the Talmud, by the way, refers to "THAT student" who was known for deriding the Torah.

But where was Rabbi Gamliel when Paul was saying this?

I agree with you...this is a case of PURE speculation, in my opinion.

[ISBE] Gamaliel's reputation as one of the greatest teachers in the annals of Judaism, however, remains untarnished and is perhaps best exemplified in Mish. Surul? ix.15. "Since Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died there has been no more reverence for the law, and purity and abstinence ["Pharisee"] died out at the same time."

From memory, I'd have to say that this must refer to Talmud Tractate Sotah. And the word rendered as "abstinence ['Pharisee']" is way off target. The Hebrew word does not refer to abstinence, but to seperation from alien influences and from anything unholy or impure. This is another indication that he never read any Greek literature.

Yes, it is from B. Sot. 49a.

As for the translation of the word, it is translated as 'abstinence' in the Eng. Version of the Sefer Ha-aggadah (Hayim Bialik and Yehoshua Ravnitzky, trans. by William G. Braude.). This is a very common translation of the word, but others that I have seen are 'continence' and 'separation'...but since these are not Gamaliel's words (they are words spoken in eulogy ABOUT him by another), this passage would not count one way or another on the Greek-language question.

Thanks for your patience, as I struggle my way through this passage of Acts.

I ought to come back full circle to your question about what Christians believe about actuality, they love him so much they tried to 'steal him'! A number of traditions (without authentication) arose that Gamaliel actually became a follower of Yeshua. Christians literally built shrines to him and Nicodemus, and spurious works in the 5-9th centuries arose about him in this regard.

I suppose their imaginations were excited by the obvious beauty of Gamaliel's character and spirit. I personally consider him a model of much that I admire in the Judaism from which "Judeo-Christianity" developed. His gentleness, moderation, compassion, commitment to purity, rabbinical commitment to obedience, and even his home life (I am a father of bright daughters also!) are testimony of the work of God's Spirit in His people in the 1st century.

I hope these historical and literary pieces are of some value to you, friend.

glenn miller

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