The Speeches of Acts, Part 8: Acts 5:34-40

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Acts 5:34-40 represents the seventh speech in the book of Acts, and the first by a non-Apostle (Gamaliel). It functions in tandem with the speech of Peter in Acts 5:27-32—on this, along with an outline of the overall narrative structure in chapter 5, see the discussion in Part 7. Gamaliel (la@yl!m=G~, transliterated in Greek as Gamalih/l) the first (flourished c. 20-50 A.D.) was a known historical figure, a Rabbi (Teacher/Master, lit. “great one”) of the highest degree (Rabban, /B*r^, “Our Master”), grandson of the famous R. Hillel and grandfather of R. Gamaliel II. Here in Acts he is described as:

  • ti$ e)n tw=| sunedri/w|—someone [i.e. a certain member] in the “(place of) sitting together” (Sanhedrin, or council of Jewish leaders in Jerusalem)
  • Farisai=o$—a Pharisee
  • nomodida/skalo$—a Teacher of the (Old Testament / Jewish) Law
  • ti/mio$ panti\ tw=| law=|—honored by all the people

According to Acts 22:3, the young Saul of Tarsus (Paul the Apostle) studied under Gamaliel.

Though it does not reflect apostolic preaching, Gamaliel’s speech, in many ways, still follows the basic sermon-speech pattern I have used in analyzing these speeches in the book of Acts:

  • Narrative Introduction (v. 34)
  • Introductory Address (v. 35)
  • Citation from History (vv. 36-37)—instead of a Scriptural citation, two examples taken from recent/contemporary (Jewish) history are cited
  • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 38-39), with an application to the current situation
  • Narrative Summary (vv. 39b-41)

Before proceeding, it may be useful to repeat the narrative transition of verse 33, which describes the reaction to Peter’s speech (in vv. 27-32) and joins it to the speech of Gamaliel:

“And (at this) the (one)s hearing were cut [lit. sawn] through and wished to take them up [i.e. do away with them, kill them]”

This reaction and response is similar to that following Stephen’s speech (cf. Acts 7:54ff), only here Gamaliel’s words restrain the crowd (of Jewish leaders) seeking the Apostles’ death.

Narrative Introduction (v. 34)—it is narrated how Gamaliel, “standing up” (a)nasta\$), intervened:

“…he urged [i.e. ordered] (them) to make the men [i.e. the apostles] (wait) outside a short (time)”

For the terms and expressions used to describe Gamaliel, see above.

Introductory Address (v. 35)—Gamaliel addresses the Council in a manner similar to that of Peter in Acts 2:22; 3:12 (cf. also 2:14, 29):  &Andre$,  )Israhli=tai… (“Men, Israelites…”); his address serves as a word of warning:

“have (care) toward yourselves upon [i.e. concerning] these men, how [lit. what] you are about to act!”
(or, in more conventional English)
“take care yourselves concerning what you are about to do to these men!”

Citation from History (vv. 36-37)—instead of a citation from Scripture (according to the sermon-speech pattern), Gamaliel offers two examples from recent/contemporary Jewish history—of Theudas and Judas the Galilean—men who had considerable (revolutionary) influence over the people, but whose success was short-lived and ended in failure. These verses contain two apparent (and apparently blatant) historical discrepancies:

  1. According to Josephus (Antiquities 20.97-98), Theudas was a Messianic-type ‘imposter’ who gathered a following during the period when C. Cuspius Fadus was procurator in Judea (44-46 A.D.). This would seem to have occurred later than the time of Gamaliel’s speech here in Acts (44 A.D. is the customary date given for the death of Herod Agrippa I, which does not take place until Acts 12:20-23).
  2. Judas the Galilean, an even more dangerous revolutionary, who incited rebellion during the time of the census (of Quirinius), according to both Acts and Jos. Ant. 20.102, War 2.118. By all accounts, this census took place in 6-7 A.D., clearly some time prior to Theudas’ movement, and yet Gamaliel here indicates that Judas appears after Theudas.

These apparent discrepancies, if proven correct, would provide an extremely strong argument that the speech of Gamaliel, at least, is fundamentally a Lukan creation. However, traditional-conservative commentators (and other interpreters assuming, or eager to defend, a particular view of Scriptural inspiration and/or inerrancy), naturally enough, have sought explanations which preserve the historicity of the speech. It has been suggested that there was another (earlier) “Theudas” (with a similar career), perhaps during the reign of Herod the Great, but this is rather unlikely; Acts and Josephus almost certainly are referring to the same person. A simpler explanation is that Gamaliel is counting backward, from Theudas to the earlier Judas; however, the normal sense of the Greek expression meta\ tou=ton (“after this”) speaks decidedly against this, and in any event it would only partially solve the problem. It is also possible that Acts preserves here advice given by Gamaliel at a later date (subsequent to Theudas’ appearance), but again at least a partial discrepancy would remain. Another possibility is that Josephus is himself mistaken about the date of Theudas, but this too seems somewhat unlikely. None of these solutions are especially convincing.

Historical questions aside, the point of these examples (Theudas and Judas) in Gamaliel’s speech is clear enough; note the parallels used to describe them:

  • they both “stood up” (a)ne/sth), that is, “rose up, appeared”
  • by this is implied that they suddenly achieved some measure of prominence—of Theudas is added the detail that he “counted himself to be some(one)”
  • they both gained a devoted following:
    Theudas—about four hundred men “were bent/inclined toward” [i.e. joined with] him
    Judas—he caused people to “stand away” [i.e. go away], following after him
  • they both perished—Theudas (“was taken up”, i.e. killed), Judas (“went away to ruin”, i.e. destroyed himself)
  • both groups of followers are specified as those who were persuaded/convinced by (e)pei/qonto, i.e. obeyed) the false leader—foolishly and in vain (implied by the context)
  • the followers of Theudas were “loosed/dissolved throughout” (i.e. dispersed) and “came to be nothing”; the followers of Judas were “all scattered throughout”

The comparison with Jesus and his followers is readily apparent.

Concluding Exhortation (vv. 38-39)—this is in the form of an injunction (or direction) urging his fellow leaders to:

  • “stand away from” [a)po/sthte, the same verb used in v. 37] the Apostles (“these men”)—that is, refrain from any further hostile action, and
  • “release” [a&fete] them—i.e. leave them alone for now

There is an interesting parallel to Peter’s response in Acts 4:19; 5:29, where the choice is between obeying God or obeying men. See how this is framed in vv. 38b-39a:

  • If (the word and work of the Apostles) is of men (e)c a)nqrw/pwn)
    • it will be loosed down (kataluqh/setai)—i.e. it will dissolve (by itself)
  • If (the word and work) is of God (e)k qeou=)
    • you will not have power [i.e. be able] to loose it down (katalu=sai)—i.e. you cannot dissolve/destroy it

A final warning is added—if the work of the Apostles is truly of God, and the Sanhedrin leaders try to resist it, Gamaliel cautions:

mh/pote kai\ qeoma/xoi eu(reqh=te

which has to be understood in light of the conditional sentence in vv. 38-39, but also in the context of the entire speech (beginning with the imperative prose/xete in v. 35); in other words—

“take care… that you do not even find (yourselves) fighting God!”

The noun qeoma/xo$ (theomáchos) literally means “one fighting with (or against) God”. It is a relatively rare word, appearing only here in the New Testament, and most notably at 2 Macc 7:19 in the LXX (the spirits/shades of the dead [? <ya!p*r=] are also translated by qeoma/xoi in Job 26:5; Prov 9:18; 21:16). Use of the related verb qeomaxe/w in Greek literature (admittedly rare, cf. several instances in Euripides) suggests opposition to the will and forward march of the deity.

Narrative Summary (vv. 39-40)—the summary begins with the conclusion of verse 39 (“and they were persuaded [e)pei/sqhsan] by him”, or “they obeyed him”, i.e. they accepted his advice). This repeats the key verb pei/qw, used previously (or in compounds) in vv. 29, 32, 36-37. A variant reading (in the Byzantine Majority text) adds mh\ qeomaxw=men (“let us not fight [against] God”); for this verb, and the related noun (used earlier in v. 39), see above. Verse 40 narrates in succession that the Jewish leaders of the Sanhedrin (a) called the apostles back in, (b) had them flogged (lit. “skinned”, i.e. struck so as to remove skin), and (c) directed them again not to speak “upon the name of Yeshua/Jesus” (as in 4:18). After this, the Sanhedrin “loosed” the Apostles from custody (i.e. released, set them free).

The narrative summary continues in verse 41; however, I regard vv. 41-42 more properly as the conclusion to the entire narrative section beginning with vv. 12ff (or at least vv. 17ff). Verse 41 mentions two actions of the apostles, that:

  • they traveled (out away) from the “face” of the Sanhedrin
    • rejoicing that they were (indeed) considered worthy to be dishonored [i.e. treated with dishonor]
      • over [i.e. for the sake of] the name (of Yeshua)
  • they did not cease… in the sacred place [i.e. Temple] and according to house [i.e. from house to house]
    • teaching and giving the good message of [i.e. announcing/proclaiming]
      • the Anointed (One) Yeshua

In many ways this is parallel to the narrative section in 4:23-31—the Apostles leave the Sanhedrin Council precincts and return to their own (fellow believers). The outline above indicates a pair of triads:

  1. Location—Sanhedrin council (where they face trial/suffering) vs. Temple and private houses (where they teach and worship)
  2. Regular Activity—rejoicing (over their suffering) vs. teaching and preaching (“the words of life”, cf. 4:20)
  3. Central Focus—the name of Jesus (the cause of their suffering) vs. Jesus the Christ (the content of their teaching/preaching)

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