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GAMALIEL (ga-mā'lĭ-ĕl, Heb. gamlî’ēl, reward of God, Gr. Gamaliēl)

GAMALIEL gə mă’ lĭ əl, a proper name, Heb. גַּמְלִיאֵ֖ל, of two persons named in the Bible.

1. A chief of the tribe of Manasseh who was chosen to aid in the wilderness census (Num 1:10; 2:20; 7:54, 59; 10:23).

2. Also a famous Jewish sage mentioned twice in the Acts (5:34; 22:3). He was the head of a large family of prominence תַּנָּאִים, or teachers whose words are quoted in the Mishnah. The one mentioned in Acts is known as Gamaliel ha-zaqen, “Gamaliel the Elder,” and lived during the first Christian cent. Tradition states that his grandfather was none other than Hillel the Elder. However, as with many other legends about him, this statement is unsupported by reliable documents. He often is confused with his grandson also named Gamaliel, and like the first a patriarch of the Sanhedrin. The elder Gamaliel is quoted in the Mishnah, the rabbinic commentary on the Torah, in a number of passages. His legal actions are of an intensely practical nature dealing with such matters as the invalidation of a bill of divorcement through a duplicity of names, the problem of leavening dough by mixed lots of leaven and the extension of the Sabbath prohibition on journeys of mercy. However, some rather legendary and superstitous material also is attributed to his teaching and his followers. He was accorded the highest of all Jewish titles for teachers, that of Rabba/on (cf. John 20:16). His memory has been one of the greatest favor and gentility in rabbinic tradition. His precise opinion in regard to the early Christian Church has been the subject of much debate in ecclesiastical circles. A tradition of the pseudep. Clementine Recognitions, a much disputed early Medieval document, that Gamaliel embraced Christianity toward his death in a.d. 70 is totally without foundation. In the first mention in Acts he is pictured as advocating a course of moderate pragmatism in regard to the captive apostles. In the second instance, he is mentioned by Paul in his defense before the crowd in Jerusalem where Paul claims Gamaliel as his teacher. Considering the meager mention of Gamaliel in the M ishnah as inconclusive, it does appear that each of his enactments was liberalizing and humanitarian in its underlying motive, and this accords well with the speech quoted in Acts and with Paul’s favorable mention of him as a man held in the highest esteem by the Jews. It may well be that Paul mentioned his name as a veiled suggestion that in his own case the policy of Gamaliel be adopted by the crowd. It is noteworthy that Paul casts no aspersions on the ability or insight of Gamaliel in regard to the law of Judaism. Yet he assumes that such a teacher’s pupil would feel no compunction about persecuting the new and thriving “way.” Paul does not again mention Gamaliel as his new-found faith had irrevocably broken off his association with the Jewish sage.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(gamli’el, "reward or recompense of God"; Gamaliel):

(1) The son of Pedahzur, and "prince of the children of Manasseh," chosen to aid in taking the census in the Wilderness (Nu 1:10; 2:20; 7:54,59; 10:23).

(2) A Pharisee who at the meeting of the "council" succeeded in persuading its members to adopt a more reasonable course when they were incensed at the doctrine of Peter and the rest of the apostles and sought to slay them (Ac 5:33-40). That he was well qualified for this task is attested by the fact that he was himself a member of the Sanhedrin, a teacher of the law, and held in high honor among all the people. In his speech he pointed out to his fellow-councilors the dire consequences that might ensue upon any precipitous action on their part. While quoting instances, familiar to his hearers, of past insurrections or seditions that had failed, he reminded them at the same time that if this last under Peter "is of God, ye will not be able to overthrow them; lest haply ye be found even to be fighting against God." As a result of his arguments, the apostles, after being beaten and admonished to speak no longer in the name of Jesus, were released. In the speech which he was permitted by Lysias to deliver from the stairs of the palace after the riot in Jerusalem, Paul referred to Gamaliel as the teacher of his youth, who instructed him rigidly in the Mosaic law (Ac 22:3).

The toleration and liberality displayed by Gamaliel upon the occasion of his speech before the Sanhedrin were all the more remarkable because of their rarity among the Pharisees of the period. Although the strict observance by the Christians of temple worship, and their belief in immortality, a point in dispute between Pharisees and Sadducees, may have had influence over him (Knowling), no credence is to be attached to the view that he definitely favored the apostles or to the tradition that he afterward became a Christian. The high place accorded him in Jewish tradition, and the fact that the title of Rabban, higher even than Rabbi or Master, was first bestowed upon him, testify that he remained a Pharisee to the end. His speech is rather indicative of one who knew the deeper truth in the Old Testament of the universal fatherhood of God, and who recognized that the presence of His power was the. deciding factor in all human enterprise. His social enactments were permeated by the same broad-minded spirit. Thus his legislation on behalf of the poor was formulated so as to include Gentiles as well as Jews. The authenticity of his speech has been questioned by Wendt and others, chiefly on account of the alleged anachronism in regard to Theudas (see Theudas); but the internal evidence is against this view (compare Knowling in The Expositor Greek Test., II, 161). It has also been objected by Baur and the Tubingen school that the liberal, peace-loving Gamaliel could not have been the teacher of the fanatical Saul. To this, reply has been made, firstly, that the charges against Stephen of destroying the temple and subverting the laws of Moses were not brought against Peter and the other apostles, and, secondly, that the doctrines of any teacher, however moderate he himself may be, are liable to be carried to extremes by an over-zealous pupil.


Conybeare and Howson, Life and Epistles of Paul, chapter ii; Kitto, Cyclopaedia of Biblical Lit., 1866, article "Gamaliel" (Ginsberg).