If you spend much time in meetings, you’ve probably seen how groups can work themselves into a lather over just about anything. Discussions turn into arguments. People become more and more entrenched in their positions. Tensions escalate.
Or the group may feel united against a common enemy. Fearing loss, feeding on each other’s anxiety, they may be tempted to make rash decisions. Hopefully, cooler heads prevail.
If there are any cooler heads in the room.
In Acts 4, Peter and the apostles were threatened and ordered by the Sanhedrin to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. They ignored the order, and in Acts 5, were dragged before the Sanhedrin again for their flagrant disobedience. Peter calmly told the high priest that in witnessing to Jesus, they were simply obeying God — clearly implying that the Sanhedrin was not. The council exploded with rage and wanted to kill Peter and the others on the spot.
Thankfully, there was at least one cool head in the room: a well-known and much revered rabbi named Gamaliel (mentor to the more hot-headed Saul of Tarsus; cf. Acts 22:3).
There were at the time two main rabbinic traditions. Some followed the more conservative and militant teachings of Shammai, who had been president of the Sanhedrin. Others followed the more liberal, live-and-let-live philosophy of his older contemporary, Hillel, who had been president before Shammai. Gamaliel was of the school of Hillel, and indeed, may also have been his grandson. Many believe that Gamaliel succeeded Shammai as the leader of the Sanhedrin.
The members of the Sanhedrin were not one big happy family. The followers of Shammai didn’t see eye to eye with the followers of Hillel. The aristocratic Sadducees, including the high priest Caiaphas, had charge of the temple, but the Pharisees, including Gamaliel, had the greater reputation with the people.
So imagine the situation: if indeed Gamaliel, of the House of Hillel, was president of the Sanhedrin at the time of Acts 5, he would have been leading a group that was dominated more by the House of Shammai. In terms familiar to Americans, it might have been a bit like having a Democratic president and a Republican Congress.
But Gamaliel was someone whose reputation commanded respect. When he spoke, people listened.
Thus, when the Sanhedrin was gripped with murderous rage, Gamaliel stood up and ordered that the apostles be taken out of the room while he addressed the council. He gave them some much-needed perspective:
Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you intend to do to these people. Some time ago, Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and some four hundred men joined him. After he was killed, all of his followers scattered, and nothing came of that. Afterward, at the time of the census, Judas the Galilean appeared and got some people to follow him in a revolt. He was killed too, and all his followers scattered far and wide. Here’s my recommendation in this case: Distance yourselves from these men. Let them go! If their plan or activity is of human origin, it will end in ruin. If it originates with God, you won’t be able to stop them. Instead, you would actually find yourselves fighting God!” (Acts 5:35-39, CEB)
We know next to nothing about Theudas. The historian Josephus refers to him briefly in his Antiquities, but that story is difficult to reconcile with this one. We know more about Judas the Galilean, who incited people to reject Roman taxation by refusing to participate in the census imposed by the governor Quirinius. Josephus blamed Judas for being the one whose ideology eventually led to the disastrous Jewish revolt against Rome and the mass suicide of the Jewish rebels at Masada.
Whatever the truth about these two men and their followers, Gamaliel’s point remained. Rebel movements come and go. You can’t be certain whether these men are actually obeying God or just deluded. If it’s the latter, the movement will eventually fizzle out of its own accord. But if it’s the former… you don’t want to go there. So just leave them alone.
The council members were convinced. In a final show of force, they had the apostles flogged, ordered them again to cease and desist from preaching, and let them go (Acts 5:40). You’d think that if they really believed what Gamaliel was saying, they would have left out the beating. Did they really want to take the chance that they were flogging God’s apostles? Thus, their decision was probably less a matter of conscience than of calculated politics.
Nor do we need to make Gamaliel the hero of the story. While some traditions suggest that Gamaliel eventually became a Christian, there’s no strong historical support for this. More importantly, I’m left to wonder who was presiding over the Sanhedrin when, just months before, Caiaphas had so smugly suggested that all their problems would go away if they just killed Jesus (John 11:49-53). Was Gamaliel in the room? Was he president? Why didn’t he speak up for tolerance then?
We may never know.
We cannot read the book of Acts as the story of a succession of heroic individuals. Rather, it is the story of God granting his Spirit to people and moving the world through them. Gamaliel’s words were prophetic, whether he realized it or not: If it originates with God, you won’t be able to stop them.
And the movement hasn’t stopped since.