The persecution of the Jesus Movement began only months after that first Pentecost when Peter preached his sermon accusing the people and their leaders of killing the Elect One—Jesus. Some accuse Luke of great exaggeration in his claims of the thousands of new believers repenting and coming to Jesus after each of Peter’s sermons. In a matter of days the only unbelievers in Jerusalem would have been the ruling class. But, this is a gross misunderstanding of the text. Luke highlights the history of the growth of the body following the Way.
In Acts he preached to thousands among about a million Jewish pilgrims during the Pentecost festival of early summer 31 CE. In Acts 3 and 4 he again preached to thousands, but probably this was several months or possibly almost a year later during either the Feast of Tabernacles of 31 CE or possibly the Passover of 32 CE. Peter’s dynamic Gospel preaching was done during the Jewish Holy Day Festivals when up to a million devoted Jews would often be making a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage from all over the Empire to visit their Holy Temple at Jerusalem.
Peter’s preaching was received by many pilgrims in Acts 4, but both he and John were imprisoned overnight and threatened the following day by the rulers of the Jews. The Jewish court commanded them they were not to preach in Jesus’ name and released them. The Apostles gathered together with other believers and prayed to the Lord for help. Jesus sent help in the form of mighty miracles that made their names great among the people, and the public-opinion-conscious Sanhedrin didn’t dare touch them. All went well for another several months or perhaps a year, until we come to Acts 5 where we find the enemy had infiltrated the gathering of the believing Messianic group in the form of Ananias and Sapphira and “the rest” of the spies (Acts 5:13) that had been planted by the rulers of the Sanhedrin.
When the subversive plan failed and the Apostles reputation grew to the extent that many Jews began to seek them out from cities round about Jerusalem (Acts 5:14-16), the high priest sent for them once more (Acts 5:17). This time they were jailed with the intent that he would take care of the matter once and for all. Nevertheless, the apostles were miraculously let loose and the Temple police took them once more but “without violence,” because they feared the people. It was at this time that Gamaliel stood up in the assembly, putting the Apostles in another room, and advised the council to leave them alone. Gamaliel was “honored” among the people, and he did not want to put this honor in jeopardy, for the Apostles had been doing nothing but good for the Jewish people. Therefore, to hurt them at this time would put his own name at risk among the people who up to now had held him in high esteem.
It is assumed that Gamaliel was an honorable and gentle ruler of the Jews, a Hillelite and a descendant of Hillel, himself. I doubt this is true. Nevertheless, we need to understand a few things surrounding his mention in Acts. First of all, it is understood that as a Pharisee he was a believer in the resurrection, but the resurrection is not an issue here. Gamaliel doesn’t mention anything about Jesus rising from the dead. Also, unless he came to be a ruler only a few months prior to this scene in Acts, he was present when Jesus was tried, and Gamaliel cast his vote against him. Gamaliel was not one of the two who cast their votes to save Jesus, but he was one of the rulers whom the Apostles had been accusing of crucifying the Elect One. He voted for death, showing his Pharisaical leaning was toward that of the strict and harsh school of Shammai, Hillel’s opposing party. Gamaliel, at the time of Acts 5, was between a rock and a hard place, as far as his reputation with the people was concerned, and he knew it. He certainly didn’t believe Jesus rose from the dead, so the main thrust of his speech in the council was not that the Jesus’ Movement might be of God but that it would fade away. Gamaliel was looking to save his good name with the people. Why risk the ire of the masses, which would be difficult to control—especially during one of the great annual Festivals. He believed this matter would fade away like all the other movements that were not empowered with the hand of God. The Council, though it would rather have killed the Apostles (Acts 5:33), reluctantly agreed with Gamaliel’s advice (Acts 5:40), but not until they had the Twelve beaten.
The minimum penalty for disobeying the Jewish rulers was to accept a beating as just punishment or to accept excommunication as the alternative. The apostles could not accept the latter and expect their testimony about Jesus would be received by any devoted Jew. They, therefore, received the beating, which may have been the first of many floggings they and other believers received at Jerusalem. The persecutions had already begun, but safety in terms of life and death was promised for three and a half years after Jesus’ death (Revelation 12:5, 13-17), but one has to wonder as we ponder this scene—where was Saul of Tarsus? His teacher Gamaliel was there. Paul seems to have been a lawyer / officer attached to the authority of the Sanhedrin. Was he there watching and listening to these things as they occurred?