Did Luke Concoct Gamaliel's Speech?

Jason dealt with Richard Pervo’s argument that Acts’ reference to Theudas in Gamaliel’s speech is evidence of dependence on Josephus. Because I think Pervo has been refuted on that point, I wanted to address another, related comment that he makes expressing skepticism at the possibility that Luke could have known about Gamaliel’s speech even if it had been given. Pervo raises two challenges to the authenticity of Gamaliel’s address in Acts: that it is to short to be authentic and that there was no possible source for Luke to draw on.

Those who maintain that Luke here reproduces an actual speech have taken on a formidable challenge, not only because of its extreme brevity, but also because Acts represents the action as taking place behind close doors.

Pervo, Dating Acts, page 152. In a footnote, Pervo claim that conservative scholar Ben Witherington “concedes that Luke may have concocted the speech, but allows for the possibility that Paul is the source.” That is quite a claim and, as I found out after checking Witheringotn, overstated. What Witherington actually says is rather different; "This may be one of those occasions when Luke has composed a speech on the basis of what one could conjecture the speaker likely did say, but on the other hand it is possible that Gamaliel’s pupil Saul was either present on this occasion or heard a detailed report from Gamaliel about it later. Luke, then, could have gotten the information from Paul.” Witherington, Acts, page 234.

In any event, this post will examine the theory that Luke-Acts simply "concocted" the speech, based on Pervo's two challenges -- setting aside for the moment the already addressed notion that Luke-Acts used Josephus as source material.

Gamaliel’s Speech

Acts 5:33-40:

When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. Then he addressed them: "Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God." His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.
Is Brevity Evidence of Fabrication?

Pervo does not explain how he determined that the length of Gamaliel’s speech was too short. How long must it be before one can entertain the possibility that it is authentic rather than concocted? How does Pervo rule out the possibility that Gamaliel was simply a to-the-point public speaker? This is a question of methodology, for if Pervo is going to claim speeches are concocted based on their length, he must have some ideal length in mind. He does not tell us what that might be or how it might be established.

Further, I would be surprised if Pervo did not know that brief speeches are “in almost all ancient historical accounts." Marion L. Soards, The Speeches in Acts, page 141 (Soards notes that Acts contains more brief speeches than most other ancient histories, but that is no reason to suppose fabrication). One cannot accuse Acts of fabricating speeches based on brevity unless one is willing to make the same charge against almost all ancient historiography from the Greco-Roman world. In such case, Pervo has failed to distinguish Acts from even top-tier ancient historians who are otherwise considered useful historical sources. I suppose Pervo could make the charge that all ancient historians did concoct their speeches (or at least their shorter ones), but he does not do so in his discussion of Gamaliel's speech and would face an even steeper methodological challenge had he done so.

In a footnote, Pervo notes that scholars have suggested that the Gamaliel speech is a summary rather than a verbatim transcript. He appears to reject this possibility out of hand as “methodologically questionable, for the narrator does not say ‘in words to this effect’ or the like. If Luke is permitted to summarize without saying so, permission to invent is also possible.” Pervo, Dating Acts, page 411, n. 27. I am not certain what Pervo means by “permitted,” but the last sentence appears to be a non-sequitur. An author who feels free to summarize will not necessarily feel free to invent. Nor if historians conclude that some authors summarized the speeches in their writings must they then conclude that those speeches are fabrications. In fact, for what should be obvious reasons, summarizing or paraphrasing were common among ancient historians; so common that there was no need to signal the fact that such was the practice.

The "father of history," at least Greco-Roman history, Thucydides commented on his practice of reporting speeches.

As for the speeches each side made either in preparing to go to war or during it, it has been difficult for me to remember accurately what was said in regard to those I heard myself and those reported to me from other sources. I have given the speeches as I thought each person or group said what was required on different occasions, keeping as close as possible to the overall sense of what was actually said.

Thucydides 1.22 (As translated by T.J. Luce, The Greek Historians, page 71). Thucydides notes the difficulty in recalling exactly what was said in a particular speech. Instead, he shoots for the “overall sense” of what was really said. I agree with Luce that Thucydides does not mean to suggest that he wrote speeches “as he thought would have best suited the speakers and occasions.” Id. If that was his meaning, why clarify that he was keeping close to what was actually said. “So the speeches are to a degree objective.” Id. The use of the term “overall” strongly suggests “something brief,” that focuses on what the recounter considered most important. This, and the “great stumbling block” of memory, explains why ancient historians tended to record speeches that included their own style and vocabulary. Id. at 71-72.

Thucydides was not atypical. Polybius -- writing centuries later -- is critical of another historian's free invention of speeches, noting that “he has not set down the words spoken nor the sense of what was really said....” Polybius, 12.25a. This shows us that some ancient historians did fabricate -- as have some later historians -- but that the expectation is that speeches should be accurate, which would include providing the "sense of what was really said.” Charles William Fornara concludes that “the principle was established that speeches were to be recorded accurately, though in the words of the historian, and always with the reservation that the historian could ‘clarify’ -- provide arguments expressing what the circumstances required of the speaker when the latter presented his case imperfectly.... In theory at least, Thucydides set down a positive methodological rule: speeches were deeds or actions requiring accurate reproduction in substance, always with the possibility, when necessary, of expansion, truncation, or reduction.” The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome, page 145. Fornara concludes that “Thucydides’ methodological rule proved authoritative.... the public proceeded on the expectation that the speeches they would read represented the tenor of what had actually been said.” Id.

Accordingly, the expectation was that historians of the time should report what was actually said at speeches. This did not mean that the historian would reproduce a verbatim transcript, but should at least provide an “overall sense” of what was actually said. The speech was typically recast in the historians style and subject to “truncation or reduction.” Fornara, op. cit., page 145. Given this practice, the speech of Gamaliel is not unusually brief nor, if summarized, must we conclude that the author believed he had a license to invent.

Is There A Plausible Source?

The other challenge Pervo raises is the question of how the author of Luke-Acts would have access to the “closed-door” meeting in which the speech occurred. Considerations of a possible source for how the author of Luke-Acts could have learned of the contents of Gamaliel's speech is an interesting question. But it should not begin by using misleading characterizations. Acts does not state that the speech was given behind “closed doors.” Rather, it states that the accused apostles (perhaps only Peter and John) were removed from the Sanhedrin during the deliberations. This does not mean that the room was cleared of everyone but a select few, the cone of silence descended, and no one else ever had any idea what was said. At most, it means that the accused apostles were not present to hear the speech themselves.

Does this mean that there was no possible source from which Luke-Acts could have obtained a report of the speech? Not at all. Pervo himself acknowledges Colin Hemer’s suggestion that Paul learned of the speech from Gamaliel, but appears skeptical that Paul was Gamaliel’s student given their different in approaches to the “Christian problem.” By this I suppose that Pervo means that Paul was an enthusiastic persecutor of Christians whereas Gamaliel is more passive. This objection is unpersuasive. Pervo produces no evidence that the relationship between teacher and student at the time required complete harmony of perspectives. In fact, Rabbinical writings recount disagreements between teachers and students, including having a student “scoff” at his teacher and vocally disagreeing with him. More to the point, Acts 22:3 states that Paul had been a student of Gamaliel during his upbringing, not that he continued to be his disciple or student through the time of his conversion. So it is no objection to the possibility that Gamaliel himself is the source, through Paul, that they may have disagreed with how to address the Christian issue at the time.

However, I think Hemer was merely making a point by noting that Paul -- by his own account -- was a Jewish leader committed to opposing the early Christian movement. There is no need to suppose that Paul learned of the speech directly from Gamaliel to establish plausibility. For example, Pervo notes the possibility that Paul was present at the trial himself, but fails to explain why he dismisses the notion. Whether personally present, no doubt Paul would have been interested in the deliberations that resulted in the release of the apostles and likely had access to persons who were present, if he was not there himself. So even if not present at the deliberations -- and I suspect Acts would have mentioned if he was -- Paul may still have been a source for the speech, though he himself learned of it not from Gamaliel but from other participants in the deliberations; perhaps those who -- like Paul -- favored more dramatic measures against the Christians. Indeed, it is hard to believe that Paul would not have been interested in why the Christian apostles were treated in what to him would have been a lenient manner. So Paul as a source is perfectly plausible and that plausibility reduces the force of any claim that Acts could not have had access to a report about Gamaliel’s speech.

Even if we take Paul out of the picture, however, it is unlikely that everyone present at the speech -- members of the Sanhedrin, lesser officials, servants -- failed to describe the speech to a broader audience. The Gospels and Acts agree that there were Jesus sympathizers among the Jerusalem leadership. These are also plausible sources. Moreover, Acts suggests that the trial was a notable event. The statement that the apostles were placed in “public jail” means that the arrest “is designed to make a visible public point. People are to know that the apostles have been arrested.” Darrell Bock, Acts, BECNT, page 238. Given the public ruckus the Christians had been making, a publicly promoted arrest and imprisonment, followed by a a quick release, there must have been significant interest in the rationale for the release. So even if Paul himself made no inquiry -- which seems less likely than its alternative -- it is plausible that others participants reported what they had heard to Christians or people who reported it to Christians. Obviously, the further removed the source is from the speech itself, the greater the possibility that the recollection decreased in accuracy. But as we have already noted, it was acceptable to provide an “overall sense” of what was said. Accordingly, Pervo’s contention that Luke “concocted” the speech because -- at least in part -- the meeting was supposedly “behind closed doors” fails to persuade.


Jason Pratt said…
Registering for comment tracking...

It's also worth pointing out that even according to story details elsewhere (including previously in Acts), a number of chief priests were of divided loyalties in favor of the new movement, both before and after the crucifixion. While Paul makes the most sense as the source, there are plenty of other options.

Anonymous said…
In the next chapter, "many priests" believe....some of the many might have been there. In any case it's hard to keep a secret among 70+! And it must have been a memorable, dramatic meeting if Gamaliel managed to change the anger of the 70! I'm suprised serious questions would arise from this episode. Why would Luke spin a yarn that could be so easily disproved? What would he have to gain?

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