Paul is one of the most controversial figures in Christianity yet even his biggest detractors do not doubt his education. When presenting his defense at trial in Jerusalem, Paul cites his credentials, including studying under the famed Jewish rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). This would be the ancient equivalent of an Ivy League education.
Gamaliel the Elder (d. 52 CE) was a leading authority in the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish tribunal. He was the first to whom the title “Rabban” (“our master”), from which we get “Rabbi”, was given. Rabbi was a relatively new term during Paul’s life as it developed around the time of a schism which arose between the schools of Hillel and Shammai. Many suppose that Gamaliel was the grandson of Hillel, but the earliest traditions document that he founded his own school (Andreas J. Köstenberger [b.1957], L. Scott Kellum [b. 1964] and Charles L.Quarles [b.1965], The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament, 389). The Talmud claims that 500 people in Gamaliel’s “house” studied the Torah while 500 studied Greek wisdom (Baba Kamma 83a).
Gamaliel is revered in the Mishnaic tradition but referenced less frequently in the Talmud (Heigel, The Pre-Christian Paul, 29-34). In the Mishnah, like Billy Graham (b. 1918) in modern times, Gamaliel was called to consult a king and queen (Pesahim 88:2) and he is remembered as one of the greatest teachers ever: “Since Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died, there has been no more reverence for the law, and purity and piety died out at the same time (Sotah 15:18).”
Gamaliel is one of the few Pharisees to garner favorable reviews in the New Testament, where he is referenced twice (Acts 5:34, 22:3). In Gamaliel’s only other Biblical appearance, he diffused Christian opposition by asking that his Jewish constituents exercise patience (Acts 5:33-40). They grudgingly heed his advice - “So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God (Acts 5:38-39 NASB).” An early church tradition even claims that Gamaliel embraced Christianity but remained in the Sanhedrin as a covert Christian operative (Recognitions of Clement, 1:65-66).
Who taught you? Is your education formal or informal? How much did your teachers influence you? Do your opinions mirrors those of your mentors and/or teachers? Did Gamaliel influence Paul?
To varying degrees, all teachers influence their students. The magnitude to which Gamaliel impacted Paul is debated as Paul does not state the nature or the extent of his tutelage under Gamaliel. Given Paul’s murderous pursuit of Christians (Acts 8:1-3, 9:4-5, 22:4, 22:7-8, 26:14-15; I Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13, 23; Philippians 3:6; I Timothy 1:13) and Gamaliel’s tolerance (Acts 5:33-40), there was certainly a disconnect between the two. N.T. Wright (b. 1948) explains that Gamaliel’s stance was indicative of the Hillelites who “broadly speaking, pursued a quality of ‘live and let live.’” (Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 27). In contrast, it has been speculated that Paul espoused the stricter code of law as supported by Hillel [d. 10]’s foe, Shammai [50 BCE-30 CE] (Galatians 5:3, Köstenberger, 389) Their diverging beliefs and the fact that the pairing is not mentioned elsewhere has led many, including Helmet Koester (b. 1926), to doubt whether Paul actually studied with Gamaliel. The Talmud does describe Gamaliel as having taught an impudent student (Shabbath 30b), which a few scholars have speculated references Paul.
Paul certainly was more radical than the tolerant Gamaliel. The discrepancies between the two does not necessarily mean that they did not work together. In his speech, Paul never claims to have been disciple of Gamaliel. A student, unlike a disciple, does not always adopt the philosophy of her teacher. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) wrote, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
Strikingly, Paul never references Gamaliel in any of his epistles, even in places where it would be expected as when he cites his Jewish credentials (Philippians 3:4-6). Then again, when Paul brags, it is of his deeds, not his education (II Corinthians 10:13). Paul’s education led to action. George Santayana (1863-1952) wrote, “The great difficulty in education is to get experience out of ideas.” Paul certainly did this.
Can Gamaliel’s influence be seen in Paul’s theology? Are you proud of your education? Was Paul proud of his?
“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” - Henry Brooks Adams (1838-1918)