There are not many talmudic rabbis who have been canonized as Christian saints. The only one that I know of who merited that dubious distinction was Rabban Gamaliel the Elder. The Orthodox church honours him on August 2 of their liturgical calendar, and the Roman Catholics on the following day.
Rabban Gamaliel lived during the last years of the Second Jewish Commonwealth and was a respected spokesman for the Jewish sect of Pharisees who evolved, after the destruction of the second Temple, into the Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash. We know much less about him and his teachings than about his grandson, the Rabban Gamaliel who was active in the rabbinic academy of Yavneh in the generation following the Temple’s destruction.
The attitudes of the early Christian church towards the Pharisees, as reflected in the various works included in their New Testament, were not uniform. Jesus and Paul accepted Pharisaic doctrines like the belief in bodily resurrection. A passage in the Gospel of Matthew has Jesus advising his followers to follow the Pharisaic teachings because “the scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat”—though he goes on at greater length to warn against emulating their behaviour, which he characterized as arrogant, ostentatious and hypocritical.
In fact, the few explicit references to the Pharisees in rabbinic literature are not very different in their tone from the New Testament passages, depicting them as people who made ostentatious demonstrations of their piety, and were so narrowly focussed on petty matters of ritual and propriety that they lost sight of the larger moral issues.
And yet the Pharisee elder Gamaliel received a much more sympathetic treatment in Christian tradition. This descendant of the illustrious Hillel the Elder was himself an acknowledged scholar and religious leader, and his name was invoked in two passages in the New Testament’s “Acts of the Apostles.”
When Paul of Tarsus was called before the council of Jesus’s followers in Jerusalem to account for his negative assertions about the Torah and for his welcoming of unconverted gentiles into the church (which at this stage saw itself as a strictly Jewish movement), he proudly presented his credentials as one who was “brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers.”
Furthermore, when the Sadducees and priests were demanding the prosecution of Peter and other followers of Jesus, it was the Pharisee Gamaliel, “a teacher of the law held in respect by all the people,” who made a reasoned argument against an excessive response. He cited precedents from other failed messianic resistance movements, those of Theudas and Judah of Galilee, that had been allowed to follow their own ambitions without interference—only to be ultimately crushed by the Romans. Presumably the same fate would befall these followers of the current messiah if left to their own devices. Gamaliel concluded his argument: “And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of human origin, it will come to nothing.”
The text in the New Testament includes an additional inference that I suspect was inserted by the Christian editor: “but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it, lest you even be found to fight against God.” In recent years, this approach, referred to as “the Gamaliel principle,” has been invoked by many Christians as a practical guideline that mandates a passive wait-and-see attitude when reacting to potential heresies or rival religions.
Gamaliel’s reasoning was accepted by the priestly assembly and they released the Christians with an admonition to refrain from further missionary activity. The author is quick to note that they happily ignored those instructions and resumed their energetic preaching.
Gamaliel’s presence in the New Testament meant that he also made appearances in several cinematic biblical epics, where his role has been played by capable actors like John Houseman and José Ferrer.
The traditions about Rabban Gamaliel seem to reflect the situation that prevailed during the early evolution of the Jewish “Jesus movement” before it consolidated into a separate religion that stood in opposition to a mainstream rabbinic Judaism. As the lines separating the respective communities became more clearly demarcated, both of them tended to inhabit ideological enclaves that were clearly polarized between “us” (the virtuous followers of the true religion) and “them” (the wicked heretics or deceivers).
This created something of a dilemma for Christians who had to find a place for that sympathetic Pharisaic sage, Gamaliel. By then, the only way for a person to get onto the list of “good guys” was by becoming a Christian. The fourth-century church father John Chrysostom outlined Gamaliel’s problematic status: “One may well wonder, how, being so right-minded in his judgment, and withal learned in the law, he did not yet believe. But it cannot be that he should have continued in unbelief to the end.” The only plausible solution to this impasse was to conclude that Rabban Gamaliel did indeed convert to Christianity!
An ancient “historical novel” known as the “Recognitions of Clement” took the form of an imaginary memoir by a companion of the apostle Peter. It included an expanded, dramatic retelling of the confrontation between Gamaliel and the priests. In that version, however, we find an additional detail: Gamaliel “was secretly our brother in the faith, but by our advice he remained among them.” That is to say, the wise Pharisaic sage had converted to Christianity, but kept the conversion under wraps so that he could serve as an undercover “mole” on behalf of his new community. And in fact, he made good use of his strategic position in order to alert his new allies about any impending schemes to harm them.
This motif invites comparison with a tradition that was current in some medieval Jewish biographies of Jesus [the genre known as “Toledot Yeshu”] according to which Jesus’s most prominent disciples were actually loyal Jews, but in order to protect their people they chose to establish Christianity as a foreign religion, with separate Latin scriptures, in order to divert the wrath of the Roman authorities away from the Jewish nation. To be sure, midrashic tradition also had a tendency to turn virtuous gentiles, such as Jethro, Rahab, or the Roman ruler “Antoninus” (who was an amicable companion of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch) into converts to Judaism.
In the late sixth century, the Presbyter Eustratios of Constantinople was able to add that both Gamaliel and his otherwise unknown son named Abib had been baptized by the apostles Peter and John. It was reported of several Christian holy men that Gamaliel appeared to them in dreams to inform them where they might find his remains along with the relics of other martyrs, thereby allowing them to be reinterred in a church in Constantinople in 428. One of those visionaries described the Jewish sage as “a tall, venerable man with a long white beard. He was dressed in white clothing which was edged with gold and marked with crosses, and held a gold wand in his hand.”
That might not be a distinctive enough image to brand him as a competitor to Santa Claus or a super hero—but one never knows if some enterprising greeting-card company will seize the opportunity to resuscitate the tradition of celebrating St. Gamaliel’s Day.
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