When the apostles appeared before the Sanhedrin, the high-priest charged them with contumacy, seeing that they still taught the people “in this name,” though they had been strictly forbidden to do so. He recognized the rapid progress of their doctrines among the people—“Ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine;” and accused them as designing to inflame the public mind against them, by teaching that they had shed innocent blood. His words were, “Ye intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” Now, the apostles did undoubtedly believe that their Lord had been virtually murdered by this council, which had thereby made itself liable to the judgments of God. This they again and again declared in the face of the Sanhedrin itself. It is indeed before that body that they chiefly urge it; but there is no evidence that they dwelt much upon it in their public preaching—and then, less for the purpose of bringing the council into discredit, than of maintaining the honor of their Lord’s character, by showing that He was innocently slain; and that the nation, which had accepted this act of its rulers, had incurred deep guilt on the account.
It is well to take notice how curiously the high-priest evades using the name of Jesus, obscurely indicating Him by the phrases, “This name”—“This man.” This contemptuous mode of designating our Lord, as “that man,” or “this man,” of which we have here the first instance, continued to be in use among the Jews. Many examples of it might be adduced from their writings. So a “heretic” is defined as “one that confesses that man;” and “heretics” as those who “are the disciples of that man who turned to evil the words of the living God”—Jesus being meant.
In answer to the charge of contumacy, Peter, who as usual undertook to answer for all the apostles, by simply repeating his former declaration, “We must obey God rather than man,” reminded the council that he had not undertaken to observe the previous injunction; and that, indeed, he had then, as now, declared, that he acted under obligations that must overrule any commands of theirs. He then proceeded with unshaken countenance, before that assembly which had condemned his Lord to death, to proclaim that “this man”—that Jesus whom they had crucified—had risen from the dead, and now stood exalted at God’s right hand as a Prince and a Savior; and he claimed for himself and his companions inspiration by the Spirit of God.
On hearing this, the most vehement wrath and indignation seized the hearts of the council, or at least the Sadducean part of it; and they insisted that it was needful these men should be put to death. It was usual to send prisoners out while the council deliberated on their sentences; but in their heated eagerness, this was now overlooked, until one calm voice was heard directing the removal of the apostles. The voice was that of Gamaliel, the real president of the Sanhedrin, although, in right of his office, the chair was taken by the high priest, when, as on the present occasion, he happened to be present. This eminent man was a Pharisee, and, as such, disposed, on the grounds yesterday indicated, to lenient measures with the apostles; and even without the bias derived from antagonism to the Sadducees, he was naturally a man of mild character and moderate views. His eminent position in the council and in the nation, and his high character, together with the fact that his decision was to be regarded as carrying with it that of the powerful party to which he belonged, caused him to be heard with respectful attention, and gave weight to his opinion, even in an assembly where the Sadducean influence was so strong. His counsel was admirably framed to serve the apostles, without committing him decidedly to any favorable opinion of their cause. He urged caution and forbearance, and enforced his advice by examples from the past. Measurers of forcible expression would only fan the popular excitement into a higher flame; whereas, if left to its course, it would die out; or, if it rose to destructive violence, would be put out by the sword of the Romans, being, either way, extinguished like other great excitements, which he instanced, and which had at first awakened much expectation in some, and alarm in others. If the cause which the apostles upheld were destitute of vital strength, if it were not of God, it would assuredly come to nothing, whatever stir it made at the moment; but if there were any good in it, it would prosper, in spite of all their endeavors to put it down; and they would then incur the guilt of having endeavored to lay a curse where God had laid a blessing.
Some have thought, from his admitting the supposition that the apostles might prove to be in the right, that he was secretly a Christian, or at least had a leaning in that direction. This does not seem to have been the case. The mere suspicion would have neutralized all his counsel. The hypothesis was necessary to his argument, and, as a liberal-minded man, he did not shrink from using it, for what it might be worth, in favor of persons so earnest in hearing testimony to the prominent doctrine of the Pharisees, who were not favorable to the apostles, because they believed in Christ, but because they preached the resurrection of the dead. It is likely also that Gamaliel’s kindly feeling, if it were such, changed somewhat with the lapse of time; for we know that the man who “breathed threatening and slaughter” against the Christians, came from his school. He also died with a high Jewish reputation, presiding over the Sanhedrin to the last, that is, until within eighteen years of the destruction of Jerusalem, or about twenty-two years after this. Lightfoot says, “for all the fairness of this man at this time, yet did he afterwards ordain and publish that prayer, called ‘The Prayer against Heretics,’ meaning Christians, framed, indeed, by Samuel the Little, but approved and authorized by this man, president of the Sanhedrin, and commanded to be used constantly in their synagogues; in which they prayed against the Gospel, and the professors of it.”
Gamaliel was a common-enough name among the Jews, especially in and after this age. There is little doubt that the one before us is the most eminent of them, distinguished as Gamaliel the elder. The sacred historian indicates his eminence in the public view, by describing him as “a doctor of the law, had in reputation of all the people.” A doctor or teacher of the law was one who had made the law and the traditions illustrative of it his especial study; and who taught it to others—like a professor to his class. Gamaliel was the first in reputation of those professors, and it was a distinction to have belonged to his class. This distinction was enjoyed by Paul, who more than once tells us that he was brought up “at the feet of Gamaliel”—which is as much as to say that he had received the highest Jewish education which was obtainable at Jerusalem.
The information we possess concerning this eminent man entirely coincides with that here given. He was distinguished as Rabban Gamaliel; and as there were two other Rabbans of the name, one his grandson, and the other his great-grandson, he was further distinguished as Rabban Gamaliel the elder. Rabban was a title of the highest eminence and note—as much more dignified than Rabbi; as Rabbi was than Rab. There were, in fact, but seven persons, all presidents of the Sanhedrin, who ever bore it, and of these four were of this family. The first was his father, Simeon, whom some have fancied to be the same who took the infant Jesus in his arms and blessed Him; and the others this Gamaliel and the two of that name just mentioned. So highly was the present Gamaliel esteemed, that the Jewish Mishna declares that when he died the glory of the law ceased, and parity and Pharisaism expired. A great mourning was made for him, and it is recorded that one of his pupils, Onkelos, the Targumist, burnt seventy pounds of frankincense in honor of the great Rabban when he died. This ostentation was, however, contrary to his wish, for it is recorded that he left orders that his corpse should be wrapped up in linen for burial; not in silk, as had been the custom. It is added, that this was very grievous to his relations, who thought he had not been interred with sufficient honor.
So much of Gamaliel, with whose advice to “refrain from these men,” that is, to leave them unmolested, the council so far agreed, as to desist from the purpose of putting them to death; but fearful of compromising their own authority with the people, if they suffered them to go altogether unpunished, after they had avowedly disregarded the injunction which had been laid upon them, they were beaten or scourged, and then dismissed with a renewed injunction, “not to speak: in the name of Jesus.” This being a Jewish scourging, was of thirty-nine stripes, like those which Paul mentions that he had been subject to. 2Co_11:24. It was a common secondary punishment among the Jews; and our Lord had forewarned his disciples that they would be exposed to this pain and shame. And how did this first experience of it affect them? “They rejoiced.” What for? Certainly not because they had been scourged, nor because they had escaped with their lives, but “that they were worthy to suffer shame for his name.”
The sacred historian is careful to add that, notwithstanding all that had passed, “daily in the temple and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.”