Then he (Gamaliel) said to his colleagues, “Men of Israel, take care what you are planning to do to these men! Some time ago there was that fellow Theudas, who pretended to be someone great. About 400 others joined him, but he was killed, and all his followers went their various ways. The whole movement came to nothing. After him, at the time of the census, there was Judas of Galilee. He got people to follow him, but he was killed, too, and all his followers were scattered. So my advice is, leave these men alone. Let them go. If they are planning and doing these things merely on their own, it will soon be overthrown. But if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even find yourselves fighting against God!”Acts 5:34-39
There has been much debate over Gamaliel’s comments. Some Bible critics say that these words could not be Gamaliel’s original words. They suggest this was a concocted story to aid the Christian story but was far from reality. They claim it was unlikely that Gamaliel, a Pharisee, would side with these early Christians. It is more likely, they say, that this story is fiction to bolster the Christian story for the spread of the faith. But in the account depicted by Gamaliel’s words he was at this stage non-committal. It seems he was merely being the wise statesman and suggesting caution for the time being and recommending they leave the matter, in order to make it clear which direction this story was going to move. On the other hand, there was a Christian novel called the Clementine Recognition which dated to circa 200 which suggests that Gamaliel converted to Christianity. There was also a tradition which arose in the 5th Century Greek Church confirming that Gamaliel did indeed convert and was baptised with his sons, Abibus and Nicodemus. If that indeed was the case then one wonders why he didn’t say more at the time of this speech. Either at this time his move to embrace Christianity was not sufficiently developed or he was simply an undercover disciple like Nicodemus and was not willing to come out and admit it.
Some see in this speech a positive endorsement of the apostles which perhaps gave rise to the stories above, fictitious or not. I don’t sense Gamaliel’s speech was necessarily in defense of the apostles, irrespective of what he may have done after this. Rather, he is prudently suggesting to his colleagues on the Council to step back from the brink of killing these men and let time show the truth of what they claim. There is much debate as to why Gamaliel has chosen the examples of Theudas and Judas, of course fuelled by which Theudas he was actually referring to. I don’t think it matters all that much as to which Theudas (or derivative of his name) Gamaliel referred to. I think it is clear there were many pretenders to Messiahship, who claimed to be the one to save Israel, primarily from Roman oppression rather than satanic oppression. That much was clear. The nation longed for a Messiah at times of bondage and hardship at the hands of oppressors. This time frame was no different. So Gamaliel is merely using these two as examples like all the others and suggesting if you wait, the truth about these men will become evident. While this Theudas had amassed 400 followers, Judas of Galilee had gathered only “some of the people”. These men were just small pretenders and their threat abated when their followers were scattered. But remember, already Jesus followers quickly numbered in the thousands and even more significantly, there were significantly more miraculous signs which accompanied this man (Jesus) and now the miracles were accompanying his followers as well. That must have been disconcerting at the very least. How much more so when they locked up all twelve of these core followers, only to have them walk out of the locked jail surrounded by temple guards. Message: be careful here friends, I sense this case is different.
The literal Greek of verse 5:38 reads “so in the present case”. The construction is emphatic and doesn’t just mean “now” as some translations render it. It is more literally “at this present/now crisis”. In other words, if we consider this in comparison with the other two cases, I recommend you leave them alone. Gamaliel sets two conditional “if” clauses against one another.
- If they are planning and doing these things merely on their own, it will soon be overthrown.
- If it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even find yourselves fighting against God!
The nature of the two subjunctive clauses casts doubt or uncertainty as to which of these scenarios is the more likely. All questions as to Gamaliel’s conversion aside, he is merely being prudent and advising the Sanhedrin to step back and observe what happens. As in the case of Theudas and Judas of Galilee, just wait and see if these followers disperse some time after his death. All three, Theudas, Judas and Jesus have died. If this present movement is contrived of men (planned and carried out) on their own, then it will be overthrown, stopped or put down. This does not necessarily mean some force has to oppose it but rather in the nature of things it will come to nothing. However if it is from God then you will not be able to overthrow it. This is a different meaning of the same verb Καταλύω [kataluō]. The first is more passive: come to nothing, being overthrown. But the second verb is very active. I.e. the nature of the overthrowing or opposing is by human means. Meaning if you try to actively oppose something that is originated by God, effectively you will be fighting or opposing God. That is not a wise position for you religious leaders to find yourselves in. Gamaliel doesn’t go so far as to say it but the inference is – from what we have seen already in terms of signs and wonders and miracles, the evidence is more indicative of it being of God than to be of men. My advice to you guys is to back off and see what happens. A convincing argument. Now let’s see what happens in the next Gem.
It is not the mountain I conquer, but myself.Shendy Tampubolon
The Lord is in the process of building us so His blessings don’t kill us.Bill Johnson
If you don’t have people speaking against you, you haven’t arrived.Ian Vail
No rhema will ever come to you that doesn’t contain its own ability to perform itself.Anon
You really don’t believe anything you don’t make room for.Anon
Don’t emphasize the strength of the opposition. Look to the One who has spoken His word to you. Greater is He who is for you than he who is after you.Anon