Rabbinical Eras
This article is about Gamaliel the Elder. For other individuals and uses see Gamaliel (disambiguation)

Gamaliel the Elder (gəmā'lēəl), or Rabbi Gamaliel I, was a leading authority in the Sanhedrin in the mid first century. He was the grandson of the great Jewish teacher Hillel the Elder, and died twenty years before the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem. He fathered a son, whom he called Simeon, after his father's name[1], and a daughter, whose daughter (i.e., Gamaliel's granddaughter) married a priest named Simon ben Nathanael[2]. The name Gamaliel is the Greek form of the Hebrew name meaning reward of God.

In the Christian tradition, Gamaliel is celebrated as a Pharisee doctor of Jewish Law, who was the teacher of Paul the Apostle[3]; portrays Gamaliel as a man of great respect[4].

As Rabban

In the Talmud, seven leaders of Hillel's school of thought, of which Gamaliel was the first, are given the title Rabban[5] (master), a rabbinic title given to the Head of the Sanhedrin; although it is not doubted that Gamaliel genuinely held a senior position, whether he actually held this highest position has been disputed.[1] Gamaliel holds a reputation in the Mishnah for being one of the greatest teachers in all the annals of Judaism:

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[6]

Gamaliel's authority on questions of religious law is suggested by two Mishnaic anecdotes, in which the king and queen ask for his advice about rituals[7]; the identity of the king and queen in question is not given, but is generally thought to either be King Herod Agrippa I and his wife Cypris, or King Herod Agrippa II and his sister Berenice.[1]

However, as classical rabbinical literature always contrasts the school of Hillel to that of Shammai, and only presents the collective opinions of each of these opposing schools of thought - without mentioning the individual nuances and opinions of the rabbis within them - these texts do not portray Gamaliel as being knowledgeable about the Jewish scriptures, nor do they portray him as a teacher[1]. For this reason, Gamaliel is not listed as part of the chain of individuals who perpetuated the Mishnaic tradition[8]; instead, the chain is listed as passing directly from Hillel to Johanan ben Zakkai.

Nevertheless, the Mishnah still mentions Gamaliel's authorship of a few legal ordinances on the subjects of community welfare and conjugal rights. He argued that the law should protect women during divorce, and that, for the purpose of re-marriage, a single witness was sufficient evidence for the death of a husband[9]. The Mishnah also contains a saying it attributes to 'Gamaliel', though it is vague in this case about which particular 'Gamaliel' it means; the saying itself concerns religious scruples:

Obtain a teacher for yourself, keep yourself [on religious questions] far from doubt, and only infrequently give a tithe using general valuation[10].

Various pieces of classical rabbinic literature additionally mention that Gamaliel sent out three epistles, designed as notifications of new religious rulings, and which portray Gamaliel as the head of the Jewish body for religious-law[11][12][13][14]. Two of these three were sent, respectively, to the inhabitants of Galilee and the Darom (southern Judea), and were on the subject of the Levite Tithe. The third epistle was sent to the Jews of the Diaspora, and argued for the introduction of an intercalary month.

Since the Hillel school of thought is presented collectively, there are very few other teachings which are clearly identifiable as Gamaliel's; there is only a somewhat cryptic dictum, comparing his students to classes of fish:

A ritually impure fish: one who has memorised everything by study, but has no understanding, and is the son of poor parents
A ritually pure fish: one who has learnt and understood everything, and is the son of rich parents
A fish from the Jordan River: one who has learnt everything, but doesn't know how to respond
A fish from the Mediterranean: one who has learnt everything, and knows how to respond

Influence on the Christian Apostles

The author of Acts of the Apostles introduces Gamaliel as a Pharisee and celebrated scholar of the Mosaic Law[15]. In this passage, Saint Peter and the other apostles are described as being prosecuted by the Sanhedrin for continuing to preach the Gospel, despite the Jewish authorities having previously prohibited it; the passage describes Gamaliel as presenting an argument against killing the apostles, reminding the Sanhedrin about previous revolts, which had been based on beliefs that individuals such as Theudas and Judas of Galilee were the prophesied messiah, and which had collapsed quickly after the deaths of those individuals. According to Acts, his authority with his contemporaries was so great that they accepted his advice, regardless of how unwelcome it was; Gamaliel's concluding argument to them had been that:

if [the Gospel] be of men, it will come to naught, but if it be of God, ye will not be able to overthrow it; lest perhaps ye be found even to fight against God[16].

The Book of Acts later goes on to describe Paul of Tarsus recounting that he was educated at the feet of Gamaliel about Jewish religious law[17], although no details are given about which teachings Paul adopted from Gamaliel - and hence how much Gamaliel influenced aspects of Christianity. However, there is no other record of Gamaliel ever having taught in public[1], although the Talmud does describe Gamaliel as teaching a student who displayed impudence in learning, which a few scholars identify as a possible reference to Paul[18]. Helmut Koester, Professor of Divinity and of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard University, is doubtful that Paul studied under this famous rabbi, arguing that there is a marked contrast in the tolerance that Gamaliel is said to have expressed about Christianity, in contrast to the "murderous rage" against Christians that Paul is described as having prior to his conversion[19].

As a Christian


Ecclesiastical tradition maintains that Gamaliel had embraced the Christian faith. His tolerant attitude toward the Early Christians is explained by this. According to Photius, he was baptized by Saint Peter and Saint John, together with his son and with Nicodemus; the Clementine Literature, suggested that he maintained secrecy about the conversion, and continued to be a member of the Sanhedrin, for the purpose of covertly assisting his fellow-Christians[20]. The Roman Catholic church views him as a Saint, and listed him in the Roman Martyrology; it is said that in the 5th century, by a miracle, his body had been discovered, and taken to Pisa Cathedral[21].

The Jewish account maintains that he remained a Pharisee until his death. There is little historical evidence concerning Gamaliel's religious persuasion later in his life, so after 1956[22] he stopped being listed in the Roman martyrology. However, not appearing in the martyrology does not mean that he is no longer considered a saint by the Church; once someone is canonized (considered a saint in heaven) they cannot become "un-canonized." Contemporary Jewish records continue to list him first among the Sanhedrin[23] but it is of note that he is not listed in the chain of transmission of the oral tradition which may indicate that he was suspected of adhering to another oral tradition, that of the Christians.

Film portrayals

Gamaliel has been portrayed in several made-for-television films and miniseries by actors such as Jose Ferrer, John Houseman, and Franco Nero. [24]

See also

Template:Mishnah tree

Preceded by
c. 30–50
Succeeded by
Shimon ben Gamliel


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 The Jewish Encyclopedia article on Gamliel I by Solomon Schechter and Wilhelm Bacher.
  2. 'Abodah Zarah 3:10
  3. "Gamaliel." Catholic Encyclopedia.
  4. Acts 5:34
  5. Shabbat 15a
  6. Sotah 15:18
  7. Pesahim 88:2
  8. Pirkei Abot 1-2
  9. Yebamot 16:7
  10. Pirkei Abot 1:16
  11. Sanhedrin (Tosefta) 2:6
  12. Sanhedrin 11b
  13. Sanhedrin (Jerusalem Talmud only) 18d
  14. Ma'aser Sheni (Jerusalem Talmud only) 56c
  15. Acts 5:34-40
  16. Acts 5:39
  17. Acts 22:3
  18. Shabbat 30b
  19. Acts 8:1-3
  20. Recognitions of Clement 1:65-66
  21. Catholic Encyclopedia, Gamaliel the Elder
  22. Roman Martyrology for August 3
  23. Cheyne and Black (1903). Encyclopedia Biblica. New York: Macmillan. 
  24. "Gamaliel (Character)". Retrieved 2008-11-06. 

External sources

oc:Gamalielpt:Gamaliel ru:Гамлиэль ха-Закен sk:Gamaliel Starší fi:Gamaliel sv:Gamaliel yi:רבן גמליאל הזקן zh:迦玛列