Who was Gamaliel in the Bible?There are two men by the name of Gamaliel in the Bible. The first is Gamaliel, son of Pedahzur who was the head of the Israelite tribe of Manasseh while under Moses's leadership. He was chosen by God to lead his family's tribe in Numbers 1:10. In Numbers 7:53–59 he is seen giving an offering on behalf of his tribe at the tabernacle's consecration, and he is later seen leading his tribe's 32,200 man army (Numbers 2:20–21) as the Israelites set out from Sinai in Numbers 10:23. However, the second Gamaliel mentioned in the Bible is the more well-known Jewish teacher of the law during the first century AD known as Gamaliel the Elder.
Gamaliel the Elder was the grandson of the great Jewish Rabbi Hillel the Elder, and he kept to Hillel's interpretation of Jewish law. Gamaliel became a leading authority in the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish court in Jerusalem. In fact, it is in this capacity where he is first mentioned in Acts 5. The apostles were on trial for preaching about Jesus, and the Sanhedrin wanted to put them to death. "But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up" (Acts 5:34). Gamaliel urged the court to "let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!" (Acts 5:38–39). Because he was well respected "by all the people" and his speech was measured and persuasive, "they took his advice" (Acts 5:39). Thus, the apostles' lives were spared because Gamaliel stepped in.
Defending and successfully saving the apostles are not Gamaliel's only biblical claim to fame. He was also the rabbi who had instructed Paul before his conversion. Paul touted this tutelage under Gamaliel as a credential for why the Jewish crowd in Jerusalem should hear him out in Acts 22:3. He said, "I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day." Under Gamaliel's teaching Paul developed an expert knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, and this educational pedigree gave him access to preach in the synagogues wherever he traveled (Acts 17:2). Gamaliel's influence extended beyond just his own teaching, then, and also filtered down to Paul and Paul's understanding of Jesus being the fulfillment of the Jewish law (Matthew 5:17).
Church tradition suggests that Gamaliel became a Christian and was baptized along with Nicodemus by Peter and John. Tradition says he continued in his role in the Sanhedrin to clandestinely assist fellow Christians, and for this reason Gamaliel is venerated as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church. However, the Jewish historian, Josephus, only mentions Gamaliel in a Jewish context and the Bible records no further details. So Gamaliel's conversion to Christianity cannot be confirmed. Whether or not he ultimately accepted the gospel, Gamaliel was a well-respected man among both Christian and Jewish circles and his contributions to the faith cannot be denied even if they happened inadvertently.
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