Acts of the Apostles Online Commentary (16)

This is the sixteenth entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. This post examines the second arrest of the disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount.

For previous entries, please now go to the Complete Acts of the Apostle Commentary, where you can find links to each of the entries updated after each new blog post.

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3. Contents:

C) Work of Peter and the Apostles (3:1-5:42): Arrested Again, Freed through Gamaliel’s Intercession (5:27-42):

27 When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, 28 saying, "We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man's blood on us." 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than any human authority. 30 The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him." 33 When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. 34 But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. 35 Then he said to them, "Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. 36 For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. 37 After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. 38 So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!" They were convinced by him, 40 and when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. 41 As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. 42 And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.  (NRSV)

This section is focused on the re-arrest of the apostles and their trial before the council. They are saved from possible death through the intercession of the Pharisee Gamaliel, a noted Rabbi, who Paul claims was his teacher (Acts 22:3).

No mention is made of the miraculous escape of the apostles, or their arrest, the scene just begins with the apostles being brought in and being made to “stand before the council” (Acts 5:27).  In this case the word synedrion is used in Acts 5:27 for council not gerousia as we saw in Acts of the Apostles Commentary (15). The high priest questions the apostles, reminding them that “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man's blood on us” (Acts 5:28).

The sense of  the phrase, “you are determined to bring this man's blood on us,” appears to be an accusation against the apostles that they have made the Jewish authorities responsible for Jesus’ death in  their teaching and preaching (see Acts 4:13-15 and comments in Acts of the Apostles Online Commentary (9)). Luke Timothy Johnson says, “The chief priest is not wrong, for Peter in Acts 4:10-11 has certainly placed the blame for Jesus’ death squarely on the leaders” (Johnson, Acts, 98). I must concur.

Peter and the apostles do not immediately dispute the high priest’s claim, but only say that "We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29). Richard J. Dillon points out the parallels Luke draws here between Peter’s defense (in the imperative tense: “it is essential that we obey!”) and that of Socrates in Plato, Apol. 29d (Dillon, NJBC, 739; Johnson, Acts, 98). These are both innocent men who have died for a higher cause, a connection Luke would expect his Hellenistic readers to make.

Peter and the apostles continue their defense, arguing that

The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him. (Acts 5:30-32)

The verb for killed used in Acts 5:30 is diacheirizomai which Johnson says is harsher than “laying hands on,” which is found elsewhere in Acts, and diacheirizomai is used only here and Acts 26:1 ” (Johnson, Acts, 98; see also Page, Acts, 114). There is also, and more importantly, a clear allusion to Deuteronomy 21:22 in Acts 5:30 about Jesus’ death on a tree.  Dillon argues that “Luke’s purpose is to argue from the law itself the magnitude of the people’s shame in ‘laying violent hands’ on their savior,” unlike Paul who uses this passage from Deuteronomy 21 in Galatians 3:13-14 to claim that salvation is apart from the law (NJBC, 739; see also Johnson, Acts, 98).

“The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus” is a claim certainly and foremost a proclamation about the truth of the resurrection, but the phrase secondarily denotes the commonality of the apostles and the council members - they serve the same God – and provides a basis for the claim that Jesus’ community of disciples “fulfills and continues the promises God made to the patriarchs” (JANT, 208).

Acts 5:31 also supplies us with the description of Jesus as “Leader and Savior.”  The word “leader” (archêgos) is translated as “author” in Acts 3: 15 (see the discussion in Acts of the Apostles Commentary (9)). Page has it as “Prince” here instead of author or leader (Acts, 114). But since the focus throughout the Jerusalem section of Acts is the offer of salvation to the Israelites, I wonder if a better translation is “author,” as in the sense of “originator” of our salvation. “Author” might be too awkward an English translation for our day and age, but this is the sense of “leader” that ought to be understood in this passage.

The point for Peter and the apostles in their defense is that they are witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection and the salvation God has wrought through Jesus, yet even more the apostles are joint witnesses with the Holy Spirit (see Luke 12:12). The bottom line for Luke is that “Obedience to God requires acknowledging God’s exaltation of Jesus” (JANT, 208). What Peter and the apostles represent, Luke is saying, is the will of God as evidenced by the witness of the Holy Spirit.

The response of the council is swift and sharp to the apostles’ defense: “When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them” (Acts 5:33). Johnson points to an expressive verb used in this verse to describe their reaction: they wanted them to be “torn apart” (diapriô) (Johnson, Acts 98). It is at this juncture that Gamaliel enters the scene and he dominates until the end of the chapter.

Gamaliel, a Pharisee and “a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time” (Acts 5:34). Who is Gamaliel, apart from Paul’s purported teacher (Acts 22:3)? Mishnah Sota 9:15 presents Gamaliel as a respected leader of the Jews prior to the destruction of the Temple (JANT, 209). He is actually only one of three well known Gamaliels. This would be Gamaliel I, a descendant of Hillel. His son R. Simeon ben Gamaliel I lived during the time of the Jewish war (Josephus, Life 189-198) and his grandson Gamaliel II was the successor, according to Rabbinic tradition, of R. Johanan ben Zakkai at Yabneh (90-110 CE), the site of a Jewish Rabbinic school and the proposed location of the editing of the Mishnah by R. Judah ha-Nasi (circa 200 CE). Dillon also sees this figure as Gamaliel I, Paul’s teacher, a descendant of Hillel, a rabbi who was a Pharisee and offers that this scene presents Paul’s antagonism to the Gospel as “an aberration…not as a natural consequence of zeal for the law” (NJBC, 739).

Gamaliel’s speech, in fact, counsels caution about the Christian project, saying,

Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!(Acts 5:35-39a)

Gamaliel, according to Luke naturally, gave two examples of eschatological projects which were started and failed with the death of their leaders: one led by Theudas; and the other led by Judas the Galilean. There is a problem with the chronology of these claims, not with the claims themselves. Theudas was an eschatological prophet who raised a revolt around 45-47 CE and who was executed by order of the Roman procurator (Josephus, Ant. 20.97-98) (JANT, 209). Judas was a leader of a revolt against the Roman census in 6 CE (Josephus, Ant. 18.2-10.23-25; J.W. 2.117-19.433). The chronological problem is clear: not only did Judas the Galilean come about 40 years before Theudas, not after Theudas, but Theudas came probably a decade or so after this speech would have been given in the 30s (see Johnson, Acts, 99).

What to make of this? Probably Luke has mixed up the chronologies. But as Dillon states, the use of Theudas and Judas the Galilean may be anachronistic, but the point is clear enough: their movements died when they did, but Jesus’ movement has not (Dillon, NJBC, 739).

What about the content of Gamaliel’s speech, in which Gamaliel counsels prudence and caution in dealing with the disciples of Jesus? Unlike many commentators, Johnson sees Gamaliel as presented in a negative way. He sees it as “far from a positive portrayal” (Johnson, Acts, 99). In fact, he says that “Gamaliel’s prudent advice about this ‘plan or work’ (boulê ê ergon) is therefore really an example of bad faith. He is (in the sense Luke uses the term of the Pharisees and teachers of the law), a ‘hypocrite,’ for he wants to appear to be righteous, and he has all the right convictions, but he will not respond to the prophetic call before him.” (Johnson, Acts, 103).

I disagree. Gamaliel is perhaps playing a political game to see what side he ought to be on – what is truly God’s side here? - and so asking for time and prudent consideration, but the upshot is entirely positive for Peter and the apostles. The apostles are not killed, they are ultimately released and are able to go on with their ministry to the risen Lord even on the Temple mount. I find that hard to characterize as “bad faith”; Gamaliel might be hedging his bets, perhaps, but he is not guilty of bad faith.

Gamaliel states that “in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!"(Acts 5:38-39a). At the end of v.38, translated in the NRSV as “let them alone,” Johnson believes that aphete autous could mean “release them,” which would be much stronger than “let them alone,” even if the result might turn out to be the same thing (Johnson, Acts, 99).

But what is this work or undertaking of the apostles? Dillon suggests it is the ingathering of Israel, but while that might be the plan of the apostles (and even perhaps on Luke’s mind) there is not enough data to suggest that Gamaliel feels this way or to be this specific (NJBC, 739). His claim, even from the pen of Luke, seems more general: if it is from God as they say, we will find out soon enough. It will either succeed or fail. Naturally, Luke has him saying this, believing full well it will succeed, but knowing as he writes that in many ways it has already succeeded.

The opinion of Gamaliel here is also found in similar form offered by R. Yohanan the Sandal-maker in Mishnah Avot 4.11 (JANT, 209), which Johnson (Acts, 100) translates as “Any assembling together that is for the sake of heaven shall in the end be established, but any that is not for the sake of heaven shall not in the end be established.” That is the full intent of Gamaliel’s claim as offered by Luke.

The council was “convinced by him” (Acts 5:39b), which we should not overlook as a reasonable and measured response to what they considered a continuing provocation.  They released the apostles after having them flogged (Acts 5:40), which itself is not a light punishment, but much better than death. In addition, the council “ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go” (Acts 5:40). But the attitude of the apostles was one of joy. They were alive and able to continue their work, so “as they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name” (Acts 5:41). Not only is suffering for Jesus honorable not shameful (JANT, 209), but the apostles emerge as “models of fearless confession under persecution” (Dillon, NJBC, 739).

And what was the result? “And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah” (Acts 5:42). Continuing to obey God and not men, they kept on preaching. Even more, however, they did not stop teaching even in the Temple! This is a key, but often overlooked claim. Does this mean the Temple authorities took Gamaliel’s words to heart? It certainly seems so.

Next entry, the Hellenists and the Hebraioi have a dispute.

John W. Martens

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