Many of us might not be familiar with Gamaliel, but we should be. He is among the most revered sages in Judaism. He’s so revered that Jewish literature says, “When he died the honor of the Torah ceased, and purity and piety became extinct” (Soṭah 15:18).
After the apostles had cleared the room, Gamaliel said this:
“Fellow Israelites, be careful what you are about to do to these men. Some time ago, Theudas appeared, claiming to be someone important, and about four hundred men joined him, but he was killed, and all those who were loyal to him were disbanded and came to nothing. After him came Judas the Galilean at the time of the census. He also drew people after him, but he too perished and all who were loyal to him were scattered. So now I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go. For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:35-39).
Gamaliel’s advice is perfectly in line with what he experienced during the first century, when all expected the messiah to come. Charismatic leaders arose and were cut down. Theudas was killed by the prefect Fadus around AD 44-46. Judas led a violent tax revolt in AD 6. Both had large followings and both movements disappeared after their leaders’ death. When Gamaliel gave this advice, it was almost 20 years after Christ’s crucifixion. These followers would soon disperse … or so one would think.
Fifty years later, the Jewish historian Josephus records a short passage about Jesus in his work, Antiquity of the Jews. At the end of the passage, he notes, “And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day” [Antiquities, 18, 3, 3]. This undoubtedly was a surprising fact for Josephus because he, like Gamaliel above, knew the first century pattern for pseudo-messiahs. He records such figures as Judas ben Hezekiah, Simon of Peraea, Athronges the shepherd, the unnamed Egyptian false prophet, an unknown Samaritan prophet, Menahem, John of Gischala, Simon bar Giora, and Jonathan the weaver. All of these leaders gained a following, were killed, and their movement came to nothing. But Jesus’ followers were still around. How strange!
Another person writing not long after Josephus notes the same oddity. This person is not Jewish, but pagan. In fact, he is the Roman senator and historian Tacitus (AD ca. 56 – ca. 117), who wrote:
“Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome” [Annuals 15:44].
As you can see, Tacitus believed that Christ’s death under “Pontius Pilatus” ought to have stopped the movement. He, too, knew that once the leader is executed, his followers have no reason to continue. But oddly enough, Christianity was checked only for a moment, but it again broke out and spread from Judaea even to Rome.
What Gamaliel, Josephus and Tacitus didn’t ask was the obvious question: Why? Why didn’t Christianity disappear after its leader’s death? Josephus records the reason: “They report that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive…” (Arabic version).
The leader of the Christians isn’t dead. He’s alive, enthroned, and reigning at the right hand of the Father. This is why the Church is still alive and well and spreading over the Earth. Gamaliel’s advice, therefore, was indeed wise. Our faith does indeed come from God and therefore it cannot be destroyed.
Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.