The Sanhedrin was the governing board of Judaism in New Testament times. They were directed by the High Priest (Acts 5:21, 22:5, 23:1-2) and according to rabbinic sources found their origin from the days of Moses (Ex. 24:1, 9; Num. 11:16). In many ways this council was similar to the civic structure of Greek constitutions with a select portion of the aristocracy ruling over the people. The Sanhedrin was often a mixture of hostile opponents such as the priestly Sadducees and the people-popular Pharisees. While the Romans had overall control in most judicial matters, the Sanhedrin was allowed to function under their auspices and primarily dealt with religious matters such as whether or not an individual was blasphemous or had a legitimate bloodline when it came to the priesthood. When Paul was brought before the Sanhedrin in Acts 23 it was to answer the charge that he had broken the Law by bringing an uncircumcised man into the Temple proper (Acts 21:27-29). Paul uses the opportunity to review not only his personal history (Acts 22:1-21) but to reiterate the message of the resurrection (Acts 23:6-9), a message that divides the Sanhedrin immediately (v.8).
One particular member of the Sanhedrin, Gamaliel, carried a legacy not only through his lineage but also through those he taught. He is first mentioned in Acts 5:33-39 when Peter and the Apostles are arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin after teaching about the resurrection in the Temple courts. Peter has presented the Apostles’ case summarizing their actions by proclaiming, “We must obey God rather than men,” which does not settle well with many of the members of the council. A demand for the death penalty (literally that Peter et al be sawn in half- v. 33) is argued for, however, Gamaliel and calmer heads prevail. As the grandson of Hillel the founder of one of the Pharisees’ more liberal schools of study, he carried a lot of weight. His power is reflected in the fact that he can “order” the apostles to be removed for “a little while” so that the situation can be discussed and a solution agreed upon and his request is carried out. That a Pharisee would have this much clout over the Sadducees who held political sway with the Romans could appear unusual but more often than not the Sadducees gave way to the Pharisees due to their popularity with the people. Gamaliel’s advice is to proceed with caution. Perhaps the death penalty is a bit rash. He suggests that the movement behind Peter and his companions is no different than several other Messianic movements which fizzled out and died. This one will probably do the same. The council concurs with Gamaliel and lessens the punishment to a flogging (although this cruel and gruesome punishment could also result in death). Gamaliel is mentioned one more time in Acts 22:2 when Paul speaks before a crowd of people at the Temple in Jerusalem. Paul attributes his Pharisaic education to Gamaliel.
I have often wondered if Gamaliel was there when Paul made his defense. Would he reflect back to the day when he judged Peter and the Apostles’ case and wonder if he made the right decision since what he thought was just a passing fad had now influenced one of his best and brightest students? It would be interesting to know if Peter, Paul and others made him look more deeply into the claims that Jesus was the Messiah. History does not tell us he did so, but it does show us he never accepted Jesus as his Savior. You and are charged with proclaiming the Gospel just as Peter and Paul were (Mt. 28:18-20) but just like them what people believe about Jesus is not up to us. And no matter what the outcome may be, in the end, “We must obey God rather than men.” What will you do the next time you appear before your own Sanhedrin?
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
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