Friday 16 July 2010

Gamaliel among the politically minded

Who would have thought that one of the foremost left-wing political blogs would invite a Messianic Jew to post a guest blog about an incident recorded in the New Testament? But Harry's Place invited Joseph Weissman to do just that.

As was to be expected, the blog attracted a great deal of attention - negative and positive - and I submitted the folowing comment. Go to the blog and have your say:

I once attended a lecture by Hyam Maccoby at which he expressed his scholarly opinion that the Gamliel account in chapter 5 of the New Testament book of Acts was one of the few authentically trustworthy passages in the book.

However, Maccoby didn’t comment on the wisdom of Gamliel’s judgement.

What are the merits of Gamliel’s case? The first thing to say is that Gamliel was either right or he was wrong. But on what basis can we say Gamliel was wrong? A number of movements such as Chassidic Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Scientology, Secular Humanism and the Latter Day Saints have failed to ‘come to nothing’ but they all teach different doctrines, and only a purblind post-modernist would suggest that they are all teaching ‘Truth’. Indeed, while Gamliel spoke, there were a number of sects within Judaism, including the Sadducees, the Essenes and the Zealots. Even within Gamliel’s Phariseeism there were the hard-line Shamaites and the more moderate Hillelites. Were they all ‘of God’? Certainly those within the various groups did not think so.

Nevertheless, the Sanhedrin appeared to think there was merit in Gamliel’s counsel; therefore they followed it.

Let’s be clear about this; within months of the death and reported resurrection of Jesus, the first-century Jews who followed him as Messiah was so great they were the largest sect within Judaism (Josephus says there were just 6,000 Pharisees) and the leaders of the influential Pharisaic and Sadducean parties felt threatened.

The followers of Jesus were not simply another sect of Judaism, they believed the Messiah had come and was present with them. Gamliel names two other messianic leaders, Theudas and Judas (Josephus also mentions them), both of whom came to a sticky end (we might also say the same about Shimon bar Kosiba and Rabbi Akiva).

In every generation since, there have been messianic pretenders who started movements which, in accordance with Gamliel’s wisdom, came to nothing. Even Chabad must inevitably collapse under the weight of its own pretensions. How much longer can Chabadniks claim their Rebbe is going to rise from the dead? Within the first three months of the first century Jesus movement, more than 5,000 Jews in Jerusalem believed Jesus had risen from the dead. The only way you can get a story about a resurrected Saviour to fly, it seems, is if it is true.

Was Gamliel right in his judgement? You betcha.

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