In Praise of Gamaliel

So I’m wrapping up this 601 Leadership Course for my Strategic Foresight degree. I was discussing with a fellow student Paul’s leadership style, and my colleague suggested that Paul learned many of his leadership traits from his Pharisee tutelage under the rabbi Gamaliel.

Did he?

Hmm. That’s a great question. Here’s how I replied:

Great post, sir–but may I argue with you?🙂 Paul in his letter to Philippi recounts his time in training, saying in what we call Chapter Three:

“…If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.” (Philippians 3:4b-8a, emphasis mine)

The KJV translates ‘loss’ here as ‘rubbish,’ and I’m told that in Koine Greek the actual word employed is a crude term not often used in contemporary polite company. Keeping this in mind, I don’t know if Paul consciously had much of an appreciation for his faith-training. I’ll grant you, though, that this self-understanding is laden in paradox; even when vehemently denying his Pharisaic training, he seems to be using it. For instance: “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.” (1 Corinthians 2:1 NRSV) Sure you did, Paul! Yours are some of the loftiest words in Scripture, with unmatched eloquence if not always clarity (see 2 Peter 3:15-16). At the very least, one could say that the experience of conversion or regeneration does not negate who you once were, but transforms it.

I’ll grant you something else, about the relationship-building qualities of Gamaliel himself. Acts 5 recounts a time when Peter and others are proclaiming Christ and healing people, with great public acclaim. Because of their claims about Jesus, the local religious authorities are offended and wish to flog the apostles. But Gamaliel, “respected by all the people,” offers another course: “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men…keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5:35, 38b-39)

Gamaliel believed what he believed, but had a respect and even curiosity about people and ideas different than his–he created a hospitable environment amid religious and political hostility to allow relationship-building between disparate people. Would that we had more Gamaliel’s today in our pluralistic world.

7 Responses to “In Praise of Gamaliel”


  1. 1 Peter K Bell November 30, 2007 at 6:45 pm

    Yes, Mike, Gamaliels are what we need for the interfaith dialogue Carl is so concerned about–and for getting along with the 6000+ different viewpoints represented in the zoe blog and the many people you/we deal with all the time who all call themselves Christians and yet have such radically different views of what that means…

    Peter

  2. 2 brotherjohnny December 1, 2007 at 1:59 am

    Hmmm. 😉
    (You can always tell when I’m about to say something contrary to what is being said. I always start with ‘Hmmm’.)

    I think that maybe Paul wasn’t as good a speaker as he was a writer.
    Although I’m not prepared to offer scriptural evidence of this, I do recall a couple of passages alluding to such a possibility.
    One about him being ‘rude in speech’…

    (that word ‘rude’ in the greek meaning: ‘a writer of prose as opposed to a poet’…it looks like it could be the root word for ‘idiot’)

    …and another about how his letters seem so strong while his presence was rather meek.
    Paul also wrote about how the gospel which he presented was considered as ‘foolishness’ by the ‘wise’ men of the world, while to fools (like myself) it is the wisdom (and/or power?) of God.

    In another place he warned:
    ‘Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ’.

    Certainly he wasn’t encouraging the brothers and sisters to not engage in conversation with unbelievers, but he did seem to find it necessary to warn them to not get sucked in to their philosophical booby traps.

    Only one contrary comment per month. I promise.🙂

  3. 3 brotherjohnny December 1, 2007 at 3:06 am

    (oops! Here is a much more relevant definition for ‘rude’: in the NT, an unlearned, illiterate, man as opposed to the learned and educated: one who is unskilled in any art.)

  4. 4 P.S. December 1, 2007 at 3:40 am

    How do you reconcile the rabbi’s “respect and curiosity” with Paul’s zeal in persecuting the church, exactly?

  5. 5 P.S. December 1, 2007 at 3:49 am

    Well…I suppose that previous question should have been posed to your colleague rather than you, since s/he was the one who brought that point up. My bad.🙂

  6. 6 zoecarnate December 1, 2007 at 4:27 am

    Mr P.S., you might be an authority on this more than the rest of us–would you say that Paul was acting outside of Gamaliel’s school of thought/tutelage when he went on his persecuting spree? It would seem that the zeal of the student was greater than the master in this regard, if the Acts 5 narrative is in any way normative.

  7. 7 P.S. December 1, 2007 at 3:21 pm

    Not really.🙂 Most of the thought I’ve put into this runs concurrent to N.T. Wright in this subject (Google Books‘s excerpts from What Saint Paul Really Said have a bit of information on Paul’s relations to the two protorabbinic schools and comments on zealotry). Wright’s account seems to suggest that there are more similarities between Paul and the school of Shammai, by most but not all accounts the more religiously (and thus politically) rigorous of the two schools.

    It could have been, however, that, should the pictures in Acts be historically accurate, that Paul was simply the more zealous due to his relative youth and exposure to Beth Shammai’s teachings, even if Gamaliel (a Hillelite) was his master. That leaves the question open, though, as to how good a teacher Gamaliel had been, or how respectful of authority Paul ever was.

    Or it could be that Gamaliel was chosen as a front to depict a righteous Jew, and that Luke simply didn’t care about historicity at that point. This might have more support if Gamaliel ever taught that zeal for the nation, even to the point of persecution of goyim and especially apostates, was righteous. The closest statements in Mishnah I can find from Beth Hillel suggest that god will punish the apostates and those who lead Israel astray; I don’t know, however, if the kind of zeal that Paul demonstrates can be supported (my knowledge of Mishnah sucks).


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