The Sanhedrin had been confident. No prophet comes out of Galilee. Jesus had never been educated, and the same was true of his followers. But these north country fishermen were converting multitudes, and when the surrounding villagers swarmed in for a new wave of healings, the Council had their first real crisis moment since Jesus died.
We know Annas, Caiaphas & the Sadducees drew power from Jerusalem's wealthy, while Gamaliel and the Pharisees were preferred among common folks. The Sadducees had no trouble keeping control - partly because Rome favored the upper classes - but if local villagers were joining with Galileans, the Sadducees had new reasons for concern. If two separate Pharisee constituencies came closer together, it could bring on unpredictable political change.
Annas had maintained stability since Quirinius' census (6 AD) and there had been no outright rebellion in Israel since King Herod's death (4 BC). The last revolt that almost broke out was Judas the Galilean, whose plot to rebel was snuffed out by Quirinius in 6 AD. Prior to that, multiple uprisings had occurred in Judea, Idumea and Galilee after Herod's death in 4 BC. It had been four decades since an uprising, but Annas was aiming at a legacy and a dynasty. There must not be another.
Gamaliel, for his part, knew it was much better to keep the smaller half of a loaf than to try seizing it all. Like his predecessor Hillel, Gamaliel focused on teaching the law. Practically, therefore, he had nothing to gain from political turmoil. He, too, did not want the people to swell and demand more.
The Sanhedrin had been confident. But now they feared revolt. "You intend to bring this man's blood upon us." Peter, oddly, didn't deny the rebellion charge - and the Sanhedrin was ready to kill them.
Then Gamaliel spoke up.
Wait. Time out. Most commentators assume Luke has made a chronological error by having Gamaliel refer to "Theudas" in Acts 5:36. The famous Theudas of 45 AD - who claimed to be the messiah and led people out toward the wilderness - would indeed be anachronistic to mention at this point, and Luke's error is plausible even if we date Acts as early as possible. However, it may not be so simple as that.
The Sanhedrin's crisis in Acts 5 was the threat of rebellion, but Theudas' peculiar uprising was non-aggressive, so far as we can tell. Josephus calls his followers deluded, which they must have been to think that merely crossing the Jordan (into what was still Provincia Judaea in 45 AD) would mean anything at all. They were easily cut down by a single troop of horsemen and Josephus specifically tells us it ended before they had been able to make any advantage (at all) out of Theudas' crazy designs.
Commentators suggest that Gamaliel's description of Theudas "claiming to be somebody" best fits the Theudas of 45 AD, who did claim to be the messiah. But there's nothing strictly messianic about Gamaliel's statement. Furthermore, Gamaliel's Theudas - whoever he was - had 400 men, perhaps enough (even without weapons) to suggest more than "one troop of horsemen" be sent after them.
If Luke was merely confused, all bets are simply off, but if Luke was specifically referring to this messianic Theudas, as most commentators claim, then Luke's "chronological" error would be more problematic than a simple mistake in arithmetic. The movement in 45 AD came four years after the family of Annas lost control of the High Priesthood, one year after Herod Agrippa's death, about the same time when the sons of Judas the Galilean were also snuffed out trying to resurrect their father's philosophy.
When this Theudas was killed, Claudius was Emperor and Judea was under Procurators for a second time, having just lost their independent kingdom under Agrippa. The political tension that was building up at that time was pro-Jewish, anti-Roman, independence flavored.
But Gamaliel claims to speak of a Theudas who came before Judas of Galilee, who rose up in the days of the census. Whatever else Luke thought about Quirinius, and whether he ran one or two censuses, there can be no mistaking who Gamaliel means by this Judas. That gives us a Theudas whom commentators believe Luke has placed - not just in the wrong year - under the wrong Emperor, King and much worse.
To belong before Judas of Galilee, Luke's Theudas should have rebelled under Augustus and Herod the Great, or his son Archelaus. Josephus' Theudas (45) was killed by Romans. Gamaliel does not specify who killed his Theudas, but any Theudas before 6 AD would have been killed by Herodian forces (unless he rebelled in 4/3 BC). In short, the contextual differences are enormous, making it hard to believe Luke was somehow that confused.
To the point, if Luke WAS so confused, how can we possibly believe he knew enough to specifically meant the later Theudas? And if Luke merely grabbed a name, again, how can commentators be sure which Theudas Luke meant? Just as Josephus names two Galilean rebels named Judas, it is certainly possible there was some other, earlier Theudas. At any rate, the problems listed above suggest the usual critique is too easy.
If we're going to find fault with Luke on Acts 5:36, it would be simpler and more plausible to suggest Luke got the name wrong. If Gamaliel's "Theudas" were instead the earlier "Judas" (son of Ezekias) who led one of the 4 BC uprisings, a lot of things about Acts 5:36 would suddenly make a lot more sense.
For one thing, the Judas of 4 BC was from Sepphoris in Galilee. Changing Theudas to Judas gives Acts 5 a thoroughly Galilean context, making Gamaliel's speech even more appropriate, and explaining why he chose that particular rebel of 4 BC, instead of Athronges or Simon the slave, whose movements also came quickly to nothing.
For another thing, Judas of Sepphoris did militarize. He terrorized people physically and led enough men to seize a royal armory and hold Sepphoris briefly against a Roman siege. Instead of "one troop of horsemen", Judas of Sepphoris was brought down when an entire Roman Legion burned the whole city. Could "about 400 men" hold an entire city? They could - especially if they'd already terrorized the rest of the populace into going along, most of whom presumably would have claimed coercion afterwards and thus avoided being counted as Judas' men.
Okay, let's consider this in context. Time back in.
Gamaliel stands up and reminds everyone of the last two rebellions that started in Galilee. Popular in rural Galilee, the Pharisee specifically indicts his own constituency, perhaps partly to ease the fears of the Sadducees. His laizzez-faire attitude is backed up by his confidence that Galileans (especially) don't ever get very far with these things. His acceptance of those past failures reminds everyone that the Pharisees are content with the current political situation. In this context, Gamaliel's phrase "if it is of God" sounds as skeptical as it does logical. In the subtext, he's already declared his true expectations.
I submit this reading of Acts 5 is more emphatic with a Galilean Theudas. If both movements mentioned by Gamaliel were rooted in Galilee, it's not only more appropriate to the situation - it also helps explain why the prominent Pharisee voice would have been the best one for quieting controversy on that particular day.
*Compare, by the way, the incident in John's Gospel (7:52) when Nicodemus (also a Pharisee) was shouted down for speaking well of a Galilean.
**PS: Thanks also to Mike Koke for reminding me to blog about this one.