Gamaliel—He Taught Saul of Tarsus
THE crowd stood in hushed silence. Just moments earlier, they had almost killed the apostle Paul. Also known as Saul of Tarsus, he had been rescued by Roman troops and now faced the people from a stairway near the temple in Jerusalem.
Motioning with his hand for silence, Paul began to speak in Hebrew, saying: “Men, brothers and fathers, hear my defense to you now. . . . I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but educated in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, instructed according to the strictness of the ancestral Law, being zealous for God just as all of you are this day.”—Acts 22:1-3.
With his life in danger, why did Paul open his defense by saying that he had been educated by Gamaliel? Who was Gamaliel, and what was involved in being taught by him? Did this training influence Saul even after he became the Christian apostle Paul?
Who Was Gamaliel?
Gamaliel was a well-known Pharisee. He was the grandson of Hillel the Elder, who had founded one of the two great schools of thought within Pharisaic Judaism.* Hillel’s approach was considered more tolerant than that of his rival, Shammai. After the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple in 70 C.E., Bet Hillel (the House of Hillel) was preferred to Bet Shammai (the House of Shammai). The House of Hillel became the official expression of Judaism, since all other sects disappeared with the temple’s destruction. The decisions of Bet Hillel are often the basis for Jewish law in the Mishnah, which became the foundation of the Talmud, and Gamaliel’s influence apparently was a major factor in its dominance.
Gamaliel was so esteemed that he was the first to be called rabban, a title higher than that of rabbi. In fact, Gamaliel became such a highly respected individual that the Mishnah says of him: “When Rabban Gamaliel the elder died the glory of the Torah ceased, and purity and saintliness [lit. “separation”] perished.”—Sotah 9:15.
Taught by Gamaliel—How?
When the apostle Paul told the crowd in Jerusalem that he was ‘educated at the feet of Gamaliel,’ what did he mean? What was involved in being a disciple of a teacher like Gamaliel?
Regarding such training, Professor Dov Zlotnick of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America writes: “The accuracy of the oral law, hence its reliability, depends almost entirely on the master-disciple relationship: the care taken by the master in teaching the law and the intentness of the disciple in learning it. . . . Disciples were, therefore, urged to sit at the feet of the scholars . . . ‘and drink their words with thirst.’”—Avot 1:4, the Mishnah.
In his book A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, Emil Schürer sheds light on the methods of first-century rabbinic teachers. He writes: “The more famous Rabbis often assembled about them in great numbers, youths desirous of instruction, for the purpose of making them thoroughly acquainted with the much ramified and copious ‘oral law.’ . . . The instruction consisted of an indefatigable continuous exercise of the memory. . . . The teacher brought before his pupils several legal questions for their decision and let them answer them or answered them himself. The pupils were also allowed to propose questions to the teacher.”
In the view of the rabbis, the stakes for the pupils were much higher than merely receiving a passing grade. Those studying under such teachers were warned: “Whoever forgets a single thing from what he has learned—Scripture reckons it to him as if he has become liable for his life.” (Avot 3:8) The greatest praise was bestowed upon a student who was like “a plastered well, which does not lose a drop of water.” (Avot 2:8) Such was the sort of training that Paul, then known by his Hebrew name, Saul of Tarsus, received from Gamaliel.
The Spirit of Gamaliel’s Teachings
In keeping with Pharisaic teaching, Gamaliel promoted belief in the oral law. He thus placed greater emphasis on the traditions of the rabbis than on inspired Scripture. (Matthew 15:3-9) The Mishnah quotes Gamaliel as saying: “Provide yourself with a teacher [a rabbi] and free yourself of doubt, for you must not give an excess tithe through guesswork.” (Avot 1:16) This meant that when the Hebrew Scriptures did not explicitly say what to do, a person was not to use his own reasoning or follow his conscience to make a decision. Instead, he was to find a qualified rabbi who would make the decision for him. According to Gamaliel, only in this way would an individual avoid sinning.—Compare Romans 14:1-12.
However, Gamaliel was generally noted for a more tolerant, liberal attitude in his religious legal rulings. For example, he showed consideration for women when he ruled that he would “permit a wife to remarry on the testimony of a single witness [to her husband’s death].” (Yevamot 16:7, the Mishnah) Additionally, to protect a divorcée, Gamaliel introduced a number of restrictions into the issue of a letter of divorce.
This spirit is also seen in Gamaliel’s dealings with the early followers of Jesus Christ. The book of Acts relates that when other Jewish leaders sought to kill Jesus’ apostles whom they had arrested for preaching, “a certain man rose in the Sanhedrin, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a Law teacher esteemed by all the people, and gave the command to put the men outside for a little while. And he said to them: ‘Men of Israel, pay attention to yourselves as to what you intend to do respecting these men. . . . I say to you, Do not meddle with these men, but let them alone; . . . otherwise, you may perhaps be found fighters actually against God.’” Gamaliel’s advice was heeded, and the apostles were released.—Acts 5:34-40.
What Did It Mean for Paul?
Paul had been trained and educated by one of the greatest rabbinic teachers of the first century C.E. No doubt the apostle’s reference to Gamaliel caused the crowd in Jerusalem to pay special attention to his speech. But he spoke to them about a Teacher far superior to Gamaliel—Jesus, the Messiah. It was now as a disciple of Jesus, not of Gamaliel, that Paul addressed the crowd.—Acts 22:4-21.
Did training by Gamaliel influence Paul’s teaching as a Christian? Likely, the stringent instruction in Scripture and Jewish law proved useful to Paul as a Christian teacher. Yet, Paul’s divinely inspired letters found in the Bible clearly show that he rejected the essence of Gamaliel’s Pharisaic belief. Paul directed his fellow Jews and all others, not to the rabbis of Judaism or to man-made traditions, but to Jesus Christ.—Romans 10:1-4.
If Paul had continued to be a disciple of Gamaliel, he would have enjoyed great prestige. Others from Gamaliel’s circle helped to shape the future of Judaism. For instance, Gamaliel’s son Simeon, perhaps a fellow student of Paul, played a major role in the Jewish revolt against Rome. After the destruction of the temple, Gamaliel’s grandson Gamaliel II restored the authority of the Sanhedrin, moving it to Yavneh. Gamaliel II’s grandson Judah Ha-Nasi was the compiler of the Mishnah, which has become the foundation stone of Jewish thought until our day.
As a student of Gamaliel, Saul of Tarsus might have become very prominent in Judaism. Yet, concerning such a career, Paul wrote: “What things were gains to me, these I have considered loss on account of the Christ. Why, for that matter, I do indeed also consider all things to be loss on account of the excelling value of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord. On account of him I have taken the loss of all things and I consider them as a lot of refuse, that I may gain Christ.”—Philippians 3:7, 8.
By putting his career as a Pharisee behind him and becoming a follower of Jesus Christ, Paul was making practical application of his former teacher’s advice to guard against being “found fighters actually against God.” By ceasing his persecution of Jesus’ disciples, Paul stopped fighting against God. Instead, by becoming a follower of Christ, he became one of “God’s fellow workers.”—1 Corinthians 3:9.
The message of true Christianity continues to be proclaimed by zealous Witnesses of Jehovah in our day. Like Paul, many of these have made dramatic changes in their lives. Some have even given up promising careers in order to have a greater share in the Kingdom-preaching activity, truly a work “from God.” (Acts 5:39) How happy they are that they have followed Paul’s example rather than that of his former teacher, Gamaliel!
Some sources say that Gamaliel was the son of Hillel. The Talmud is unclear on this matter.
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As the apostle Paul, Saul of Tarsus proclaimed the good news to people of the nations