Acts 22:3

I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city (Jerusalem). At the feet of Gamaliel I was educated strictly in our ancestral law and was zealous for God.

In Acts 5 Gamaliel is identified as a broadminded and tolerant rabbi of the Pharisees a fact confirmed by Jewish tradition as well:

a Pharisee in the Sanhedrin named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up, ordered the men to be put outside for a short time, 35 and said to them, “Fellow Israelites, be careful what you are about to do to these men....38 So now I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go. For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. 39 But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.” They were persuaded by him.

If Paul was educated by Gamaliel, how did he become a persecutor of the church? Not only did Gamaliel urge a policy of patience - he did so well before Paul/Saul consented to the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7. Was it the tenor of Stephen's speech; a break between Paul and his mentor; something in Paul's personal life, or what? We may never know for certain, but what clues do we get from the text of Acts and Paul's letters?

  • 1
    Being taught by someone doesn't imply being a clone of them!
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 2:30
  • 2
    But invoking his name as your mentor and saying you were raised at his feet does imply that you inherited his tradition to a large extent, IMO. Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 4:58

6 Answers 6


Here I am making a case that Paul was persecuting the Christians because their actions, such as the mass selling of land, could be viewed as a direct violation of Mosaic Law, potentially provoking a harsh response from devout Jews. Leviticus 25:23 states, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me.” This verse emphasizes the concept that the Israelites were merely stewards of the land, which ultimately belonged to God. The early Christians’ practice of selling their land and sharing the proceeds (Acts 4:34-37) might have been seen by some, including Saul (later Paul), as disregarding this divine stewardship, thus violating the sacred law.

Additionally, the incident involving Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), where they were struck dead for lying about the proceeds of a land sale, illustrates the severity with which the Christian community treated matters related to communal living and honesty. This strict internal discipline could have been perceived as a radical departure from Jewish legal traditions, possibly reinforcing Saul’s motivation to persecute the Christians.

Furthermore, Paul's later actions, such as handing over Hymenaeus and Alexander to Satan “to be taught not to blaspheme” (1 Timothy 1:20), show a form of strict internal discipline that mirrors his earlier zeal in upholding Jewish law. This approach to dealing with internal community transgressions could be seen as a reflection of his earlier commitment to the purity of Jewish faith and practice.

Considering these points, Saul's background as a student of Gamaliel, who advocated for a more patient approach towards the Christians, might have been overshadowed by Saul’s own zealous interpretation of the law and his perception of the Christian practices as a significant deviation from Jewish tradition. This perspective could have fueled his initial fervor in persecuting the early Christian church, despite his education under a more moderate teacher.

  • 2
    +1... this is an idea I have seen nowhere else. Your first paragraph reminds me of the radical elements contemporary anti-cult movement, whose rhetoric mirrors the issues you speak of to a large extent - leading them to such drastic measure as kidnapping adult children on behalf of their parents for "deprogramming" (a parallel to Paul's arresting believers at the behest of the high priest?) Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 5:07

I would say this is to do with personality types and differences.

Adam and Eve gave birth to Cain, Abel and Seth. These children were guided and nurtured by the same parents for many years. Yet, two became saints and the other became a murderer!

Compared to them, Saul spent less time with Gamaliel. So he must have absorbed great knowledge from his teacher but not the tolerant attitude.

It seems to be obvious that by personality trait, Saul was an extremist in whatever he believed and did. He was the stuff for a militant or worse, a terrorist!

Before his conversion, he was an extremist in the wrong direction. But after the conversion, he again became an extremist in the right direction, scolding even Peter publicly to his face (Gal 2:11)!!

He kept this personality trait throughout his career!

“Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death” (2 Cor 11:23).

No wonder, God used him to spread the “Way” (Acts 24:14) from Antioch in the east to Spain in the west (Rom 15:28)!


There are at least two possible explanation for this distinction between Paul and Gamaliel. One that can be eliminated almost immediately, is any suggestion of a "falling out" between the two as Paul later touts his association with Gamaliel as a badge of honor (Acts 22:3). So, I am not sure there is a definitive answer, but here are two plausible possibilities:

  1. Different Personalities

As the OP has pointed out, Gamaliel was remarkably tolerant toward the emerging Christian church. This may have been, in part at least, due to a soft and congenial personality.

By contrast, Paul is always portrayed, especially before his conversion, as a very fiery and intolerant person who was described as "zealous" (ie, "boiling") for whatever cause he threw himself into.

The root cause of Paul's fierce objection to Christianity is difficult to fathom; the Jewish leaders believed Jesus was undermining their authority (He did but only incidentally); but Paul should have had no such problem. However, the fact that Paul changed so quickly when he met Jesus on the Road to Damascus (Acts 9) suggests that his theological objection were more apparent than real.

There is plenty of precedent for such differences in personalities and attitudes in Israelite history such as:

  • Athalia vs Joash
  • Ahaz vs Hezekiah
  • Hezekiah vs Manasseh
  • Manasseh and Amon vs Josiah
  • Josiah vs Jehoahaz and Jehoiakim
  • etc.
  1. Difference of Opinion

It is well-known that the Jewish tradition, even to modern times, almost encourages differences of opinion and enthusiastic debate because this stimulates growth in understanding. Thus, it is entirely possible that Paul, for reasons still unknown, graduated from Gamaliel's tutelage with quite different views.

  • A thoughtful response. But I get the feeling (no certainty) that something happened to make Paul shift his attitude. At the moment I'm considering the episode with Stephen, whose speech I consider to have been provocative. Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 5:02
  • @DanFefferman - that may be true. I think it more likely being struck blind for 3 days and being forced to think things through after coming face to face with Jesus. Most likely, it was the combination of the two.
    – Dottard
    Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 5:18
  • the Damascus road experience may be an indication of a personality that could make radical changes almost instantly. But he did take time to work things out before he began writing. Oh, to be a fly on the wall of his earliest talks with believers after his conversion. Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 6:07
  • @DanFefferman - agreed!
    – Dottard
    Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 6:43

The answer is exactly in the same verse, in which Paul describes himself 'zealous for God'.

The expression "zealous for God" can manifest in two distinct ways.

  1. The first manifestation is exemplified by Gamaliel, as recounted in Acts 5:34-39. In addressing the Sanhedrin, he emphasized that human endeavors are destined to fall, whereas endeavors originating from God cannot be thwarted. Essentially, Gamaliel's trust lies soledy in God.
  2. The second manifestation is embodied by the majority of Sanhedrin leaders, who perceive serving God as the eradication of adversaries on their own terms, rather than leaving matters to God's hand. Jesus foreshadowed this mentality to His disciples in John 16:1-2, warning them that they would face expulsion from synagogue and even death at the hands of those who believe they are offering a service to God.

Paul, who initially obtained authority from the high priest (Acts 9:1) to prosecute Jesus' followers, could be seen as a rising star within the Sanhedrin. He was young and ambitious, unlike his mentor Gamaliel. However, in the letter to the Church of Laodicea, we learn Jesus condemns lukewarm faith (Rev 3:16). Therefore, although 'zealous for God' can lead to divergent expressions, but as Paul elucidates in Romans 9:21, God is capable of harnessing it for good.

Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use? (NIV)


We know that Paul was born in Tarsus, a city in Asia Minor, sometime around a.d. 5 and that he held Roman citizenship (Acts 22:28). He was given an outstanding education; it has been said that by the time he was 21 that he had earned the equivalent of two advanced academic degrees. He was an Israelite of the tribe of Benjamin and was raised a Pharisee. He studied in the Jerusalem school of Rabbi Gamaliel, one of the leading Jewish thinkers of his time. The Pharisees were a sect that had arisen during the Intertestamental Period in response to growing secularization in Israel. They were most zealous for the law of God. Paul himself acknowledged that he was great among the Pharisees in his zeal for the group’s goals, so much so that he hated any departure from the Pharisaical code. When he became aware of the group called the Way, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, he unleashed his fury against them. Departing from the counsel of his mentor, Gamaliel (Acts 5:35–39), he went after the Christians with passion, going house to house to find them and jailing many men and women (Acts 8:3), voting for their executions, and compelling them to blaspheme (Acts 26:10–11). He was even prepared to pursue them beyond Jerusalem R.C. Sproul

Saul fits the description of someone who was killing others, thinking he was doing a service for God. Jesus tells about this in John 16:2-3

They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.

Later on, he explains a little bit more why he did what he did.

I too was convinced that I ought to do all I could to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did in Jerusalem. With authority from the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were condemned to death, I cast my vote against them. I frequently had them punished in the synagogues, and I tried to make them blaspheme. In my raging fury against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them. Acts 26;9-10

Saul said he was better acquainted with Judaism more than anybody and that he had been exceedingly zeal for the traditions of his father's.

And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. Galatians 1:14

Later on, he realizes that he was acting ignorantly and in unbelief.

In the past I was a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent man. But I received mercy because I acted ignorantly in my unbelief, 1 Timothy 1:16

So, in conclusion Saul thought was at the top of of anyone, his age and even maybe better than his teacher Gamaliel. Saul's zeal exceeded anybody else's, and probably because of that he thought he was doing everything in divine service to God. Surely he had to have been the most proud person at that time.

What a glorious example of the grace of God.


Acts 5:26, 29-30, 33-35

26 Then went the captain with the officers, and brought them without violence: for they feared the people, lest they (the captain and officers who were re-arresting Peter and the other apostles) should have been stoned.

29 Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree.

33 When they (High priests and co) heard that, they were cut to the heart, and took counsel to slay them. 34 Then stood there up one in the council, a Pharisee, named Gamaliel, a doctor of the law, had in reputation among all the people, and commanded to put the apostles forth a little space; 35 And said unto them, Ye men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what ye intend to do as touching these men.

Gamaliel’s motives are not mentioned but he was wise enough to read the room and know that this wasn’t the time to squash this new sect. The captain was nervous about even bringing the apostles before the council, fearing that crowds would turn on them. We don’t know from scripture if Gamaliel himself played a role in the following deception that would convince Saul to take up the cause of persecuting the church, but he used his stature as a statesman of sorts to at least allow the high priest and his co-conspirators to live to fight another day.

Acts 7:9-14

9 Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen. 10 And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake. 11 Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God. 12 And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council, 13 And set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law: 14 For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.

The answer is in vs 11.
1: ὑποβάλλω
(Strong's #5260 — Verb — hupoballo — hoop-ob-al'-lo ) "to throw or put under, to subject," denoted "to suggest, whisper, prompt;" hence, "to instigate," translated "suborned" in Acts 6:11 . To "suborn" in the legal sense is to procure a person who will take a false oath. The idea of making suggestions is probably present in this use of the word.

Saul witnessed a show trial, staged with false testimony. The intent of the trial was to instigate the reaction that they got from Saul. He truly believed he was serving God. In summary: We don’t really know what Gamaliel believed about Jesus, just that he was smart enough to avoid starting a riot and potentially getting himself killed. Saul was persuaded by deceit and mob mentality to believe Jesus was a false prophet.

Matthew 24:4

And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you.

  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! and thank you for your contribution. When you get a chance, please take the tour to understand how the site works and how it is different than others. I also recommend going through the Help Center's sections on both asking and answering questions.
    – agarza
    Commented Mar 9 at 3:54

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.