Acts 5
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession,

(1, 2) A certain man named Ananias.—The name meets us again as belonging to the high priest in Acts 23:2, and was the Greek form of the Hebrew Hananiah. It had the same significance as John, or Johanan, “The Lord be gracious.” “Sapphira,” is either connected with the “sapphire,” as a precious stone, or from a Hebrew word signifying “beautiful” or “pleasant.” The whole history must be read in connection with the act of Barnabas. He, it seemed, had gained praise and power by his self-sacrifice. Ananias thought that he could get at the same result more cheaply. The act shows a strange mingling of discordant elements. Zeal and faith of some sort had led him to profess himself a believer. Ambition was strong enough to win a partial victory over avarice; avarice was strong enough to triumph over truth. The impulse to sell came from the Spirit of God; it was counteracted by the spirit of evil, and the resulting sin was therefore worse than that of one who lived altogether in the lower, commoner forms of covetousness. It was an attempt to serve God and mammon; to gain the reputation of a saint, without the reality of holiness. The sin of Ananias is, in some aspects, like that of Gehazi (2Kings 5:20-27), but it was against greater light and intensified by a more profound hypocrisy, and it was therefore visited by a more terrible chastisement. We may well trace in the earnestness with which St. James warns men against the peril of the “double mind”—i.e., the heart divided between the world and God (James 1:8; James 4:8)—the impression made on him by such a history as this.

And kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles' feet.
(2) And kept back part of the price.—The mere act of keeping back would not in itself have been sinful. The money was his own, to give the whole or part (Acts 5:4). But the formal act, apparently reproducing that of Barnabas, was an acted lie. The part was offered as if it were the whole. The word for “kept back” is rendered “purloining” in Titus 2:10, and always carried with it the idea of stealthy and dishonest appropriation. It is used in the LXX. of Joshua 7:1, as describing the sin of Achan.

But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land?
(3) Why hath Satan filled thine heart?—The narrative is obviously intended to leave the impression that St. Peter’s knowledge of the fact came from a supernatural insight. He had that prophetic gift which gave him insight into the hearts of men, and through this outward show of generous devotion he read the baseness and the lie. And that evil he traced to its fountain-head. Like the sin of Judas (John 13:2; John 13:27), it had in it a malignant subtlety of evil, which implied the perversion of conscience and will just at the moment when they seemed to be, and, it may be, actually were, on the point of attaining a higher perfection than before. The question “why” implies that resistance to the temptation had been possible. Had he resisted the Tempter, he would have fled from him (James 4:7).

To lie to the Holy Ghost.—The words admit of two tenable interpretations. Ananias may be said to “have lied unto the Holy Ghost,” either (1) as lying against Him who dwelt in the Apostles whom he was seeking to deceive; or (2) as against Him who was the Searcher of the secrets of all hearts, his own included, and who was “grieved” (Ephesians 4:31) by this resistance in one who had been called to a higher life. The apparent parallelism of the clause in Acts 5:4 is in favour of (1); but there is in the Greek a distinction, obviously made deliberately, between the structure of the verb in the two sentences. Here it is used with the accusative of the direct object, so that the meaning is “to cheat or deceive the Holy Spirit;” there with the dative, “to speak a lie, not to men, but to God;” and this gives a sense which is at least compatible with (2). The special intensity of the sin consisted in its being against the light and knowledge with which the human spirit had been illumined by the divine. The circumstance that it was also an attempt to deceive those in whom that Spirit dwelt in the fulness of its power comes in afterwards as a secondary aggravation.

Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.
(4) Whiles it remained . . .—Fresh circumstances are pressed home, as depriving the act of every possible excuse. Ananias had not been bound by any rule of the Church to such a gift. At every stage he was free to act as he thought best; and had he brought part as part, or even brought nothing, he would have been free from any special blame. As it was, the attempt to obtain the reputation of saintliness without the reality of sacrifice, involved him in the guilt at once of sacrilege, though there had been no formal consecration, and of perjury, though there had been no formulated oath.

Thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.—The parallelism between this and “lying to the Holy Ghost” in Acts 5:3 has often been used, and perfectly legitimately, as a proof that while the Apostles thought of the Spirit as sent by the Father, and therefore distinct in His personality, they yet did not shrink from speaking of Him as God, and so identifying Him with the Divine Essential Being.

And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things.
(5) Ananias hearing these words fell down.—It is to be noted that St. Peter’s words, while they press home the intensity of the guilt, do not contain any formal sentence. In such a case we may rightly trace that union of natural causation and divine purpose which we express in the familiar phrase that speaks of “the visitation of God” as a cause of death. The shame and agony of detection, the horror of conscience not yet dead, were enough to paralyse the powers of life. Retribution is not less a divine act because it comes, through the working of divine laws, as the natural consequence of the sin which draws it down. It was necessary, we may reverently say, that this special form of evil, this worst corruption of the best, should be manifestly condemned on its first appearance by a divine judgment. And we must remember that there is a silence which we may not dare to break as to all but the visible judgment. The dominant apostolic idea of such punishments was that men were delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (1Corinthians 5:5). St. Peter himself speaks of those who are “judged according to men in the flesh,” who yet “live according to God in the spirit” (1Peter 4:6).

And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him.
(6) And the young men arose.—Literally, the younger men, implying the existence of a distinct body as contrasted with the “elders” of the Church. So in Luke 20:26 we find the same word answering in the parallel clause to “him that serveth,” and opposed to “elders,” where the latter word seems used in a half official sense rather than of age only. We find here, accordingly, rather than in Acts 6, the germ of the later diaconate as a body of men set apart for the subordinate services of the community. The special work here done by them was afterwards assigned to the Fossarii, the sextons, or grave-diggers of the Church.

Wound him up.—The word in this sense is found here only in the New Testament. It implies the hurried wrapping in a winding-sheet. It was followed by the immediate interment outside the walls of the city. Custom, resting partly on the necessities of climate, partly on the idea of ceremonial defilement, as caused by contact with a corpse (Numbers 19:11-16), required burial to follow quickly on death, unless there was a more or less elaborate embalmment. In the act itself we note something like a compassionate respect. There is a reverence for humanity, as such, perhaps for the body that had once been the temple of the Spirit (1Corinthians 6:19), that will not permit men to do as the heathen did, and to inflict dishonour on the lifeless corpse. The narrative implies that the new society had already a burial-place to which they had free right of access. Was it in the Potter’s Field that had been bought to bury strangers in? (Matthew 27:7.) Did the body of Ananias rest in the same cemetery with that of Judas? (See Note on Matthew 27:8.)

And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in.
(7) And it was about the space of three hours after.—Literally, And there was an interval of about three hours.

And Peter answered unto her, Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much? And she said, Yea, for so much.
(8) And Peter answered unto her.—The word does not necessarily imply a previous questioning, but it is probable enough that she came to inquire why her husband had not returned home; perhaps, expecting to find him high in honour. The question asked by Peter gave her an opening for repentance. It had been in her power to save her husband by a word of warning protest. It was now in her power to clear her own conscience by confession. She misses the one opportunity as she had misused the other. The lie which they had agreed upon comes glibly from her lips, and the irrevocable word is spoken.

Then Peter said unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out.
(9) To tempt the Spirit of the Lordi.e., to try, or test, whether the Spirit that dwelt in the Apostles was really a discerner of the secrets of men’s hearts. The “Spirit of the Lord” is probably used in its Old Testament sense, as the Spirit of Jehovah. The combination is rare in the New Testament, occurring only in 2Corinthians 3:17, but is common in the Old, as in Isaiah 61:1 (quoted in Luke 4:18); 1Kings 22:24; 2Kings 2:16.

Behold, the feet of them. . . .—In this instance the coming judgment is foretold, and the announcement tended to work out its own completion. Here, to all the shame and agony that had fallen on Ananias, there was now added the bitter thought of her husband’s death as in some sense caused by her, inasmuch as she might have prevented the crime that led to it. The prophetic insight given to St. Peter taught him that the messengers, whose footsteps he already heard, had another task of a like nature before them.

And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things.
(11) And great fear came upon all the church.—With the exception of the doubtful reading in Acts 2:47, this is the first occurrence of the word ecclesia since the two instances in which our Lord had used it, as it were, by anticipation. (See Notes on Matthew 16:18; Matthew 18:17.) Its frequent use in the LXX. version for the “assembly,” or “congregation,” of Israel (Deuteronomy 18:16; Deuteronomy 23:1; Psalm 26:12; Psalm 68:26), its associations with the political life of Greece as applied to the assemblies, every member of which was a full citizen, made it a natural and fitting word for the new society; and the use by our Lord either of the actual Greek word or of the corresponding Aramaic term stamped it with His sanction. Its occurrence here is, perhaps, an indication of the increase of the Hellenistic element among the disciples. The sudden startling death of Ananias and his wife naturally tended to give a new prominence to the society, the rulers of which were seen to be clothed with supernatural powers; and the fear that fell upon all who heard of these things led them in part to draw near with reverence, in part to shrink back in awe.

And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people; (and they were all with one accord in Solomon's porch.
(12) Many signs and wonders. . . .—See Note on Acts 2:22.

They were all with one accord in Solomon’s porch.—See Notes on Acts 3:2; John 10:23. It was, we have seen, at all times a favourite place of resort for teachers. The chronology of this period of the history is still, as before, left somewhat indefinite; but assuming some months to have passed since the Day of Pentecost, what is now related would be in the winter, when, as in John 10:23, that portico, as facing the east and catching the morning sunlight, was more than usually frequented. On “with one accord,” see Note on Acts 4:24.

And of the rest durst no man join himself to them: but the people magnified them.
(13) Of the rest.—We are left to conjecture who these were who are contrasted with the Apostles on the one side and with the people on the other. Does it mean that the Apostles stood aloof in an isolated majesty, and so that none of the other disciples dared associate himself with them? or is this St. Luke’s way of speaking of the Pharisees and other teachers, who also resorted to the portico, but, as in the days of our Lord’s ministry (John 7:48; John 12:42), had not the courage to attach themselves to those with whom they really sympathised? The latter view seems every way the more probable, ‘and so the passage stands parallel with those which tell us how the people heard our Lord gladly and “came early to hear him” (Luke 21:38).

And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.)
(14) Added to the Lord.—Here, probably, the word is used in its definite New Testament sense for the Lord Jesus.

Both of men and women.—The mention of the latter forms an introduction to the dissensions connected with the “widows” in Acts 6, and is itself characteristic of St. Luke as a writer who had seen and known the effect of the new Religion in raising women to a higher life, and whose knowledge of its history was in great measure derived from them. (See Introduction to St. Luke’s Gospel.) So in Acts 8:3 women are named as prominent among the sufferers in the first general persecution.

Insomuch that they brought forth the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and couches, that at the least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them.
(15) Insomuch that they brought forth the sick . . .—The tense implies habitual action. For some days or weeks the sick were laid all along the streets—the broad open streets, as distinct from the lanes and alleys (see Note on Matthew 6:5)—by which the Apostle went to and fro between his home and the Temple.

That at the least the shadow of Peter . . . .—It is implied in the next verse that the hope was not disappointed. Assuming that miracles are possible, and that the narratives of the Gospels indicate generally the laws that govern them, there is nothing in the present narrative that is not in harmony with those laws. Christ healed sometimes directly by a word, without contact of any kind (Matthew 8:13; John 4:52); sometimes through material media—the fringe of His garment (Matthew 9:20), or the clay smeared over the blind man’s eyes (John 9:5) becoming channels through which the healing virtue passed. All that was wanted was the expectation of an intense faith, as the subjective condition on the one side, the presence of an objective supernatural power on the other, and any medium upon which the imagination might happen to fix itself as a help to faith. So afterwards the “hand, kerchiefs and aprons” from St. Paul’s skin do what the shadow of St. Peter does here (Acts 19:12). In the use of oil, as in Mark 6:13, James 5:14, we find a medium employed which had in itself a healing power, with which the prayer of faith was to co-operate.

On the “beds and couches,” see Note on Mark 2:4. The couches were the more portable pallets or mattresses of the poor.

There came also a multitude out of the cities round about unto Jerusalem, bringing sick folks, and them which were vexed with unclean spirits: and they were healed every one.
(16) There came also a multitude.—Here also the tense points to a continual and daily concourse. The work of expansion is beginning. The “cities round about” may have included Hebron, Bethlehem, Emmaus, and Jericho; perhaps also Lydda and Joppa. (See, however, Notes on Acts 9:32; Acts 9:36.) It is obvious here also that we have the summary of what must have occupied, at least, several months.

Vexed with unclean spirits.—In this work the Apostles and the Seventy had already experienced the power of the Name of the Lord Jesus (Luke 10:17). Now that they were working in the full power of the Spirit, it was natural that they should do yet greater things (John 14:12).

Then the high priest rose up, and all they that were with him, (which is the sect of the Sadducees,) and were filled with indignation,
(17) Then the high priest rose up. . . . Probably, as before, Annas or Caiaphas.

Which is the sect of the Sadducees.—The fact, of which this is the only distinct record, is of immense importance as throwing light on the course of action taken by the upper class of priests, both during our Lord’s ministry and in the history of this book. From the time of the teaching of John 5:25-29, they must have felt that His doctrine was diametrically opposed to theirs. They made one attempt to turn that doctrine, on which, and almost on which alone, He and the Pharisees were in accord, into ridicule, and were baffled (Matthew 22:23-33). The raising of Lazarus mingled a dogmatic antagonism with the counsels of political expediency (John 11:49-50). The prominence of the Resurrection of Jesus in the teaching of the Apostles now made the Sadducean high priests their most determined opponents. The Pharisees, on the other hand, less exposed now than they had been before to the condemnation passed by our Lord on their unreality and perverted casuistry, were drawing off from those with whom they had for a time coalesced, into a position at first of declared neutrality; then of secret sympathy; then, in many cases, of professed adherence (Acts 15:5).

Filled with indignation.—The word is that elsewhere rendered “zeal,” or “envy.” Both meanings of the word were probably applicable here. There was “zeal” against the doctrine, “envy” of the popularity of the Apostles.

And laid their hands on the apostles, and put them in the common prison.
(18) Put them in the common prison.—The word is the same as the “ward “of Acts 4:3. The addition of the word “common” or “public” perhaps indicates a greater severity of treatment. They were not merely kept in custody, but dealt with as common criminals, compelled to herd with ruffians and robbers and murderers.

But the angel of the Lord by night opened the prison doors, and brought them forth, and said,
(19) But the angel of the Lord.—Better, an angel. The fact is obviously recorded by St. Luke as supernatural. Those who do not accept that view of it, and yet wish to maintain the general historical character of the narrative, are driven to the hypothesis that the “angel” was some jealous and courageous disciple; and that the Apostle, in the darkness of the night and the excitement of his liberation, ascribed his rescue to the intervention of an angel. Acts 12:7 may be noted as another instance of a like interposition. It has sometimes been urged, with something of a sneer, what was the use of such a deliverance as this, when the Apostles were again arrested on the very next day. The answer to such a question is not far to seek. (1) The marvellous deliverance was a sign, not without its influence on the subsequent decision of the Council, and on the courage of the two Apostles. (2) It was no small boon for them to be delivered even for a few hours from the vile companionship to which they had been condemned.

Go, stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life.
(20) All the words of this life.—The use of the demonstrative pronoun is significant. The “life in Christ” which the Apostles preach is that eternal life which consists in knowing God (John 17:1), and in which the angels are sharers.

And when they heard that, they entered into the temple early in the morning, and taught. But the high priest came, and they that were with him, and called the council together, and all the senate of the children of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought.
(21) Early in the morning.—Probably at day-break, when the worshippers would be going up to the Temple for their early devotions, or, though less probable, at the third hour, the time of the morning sacrifice.

They that were with him.—Probably those named in Acts 4:6, who seem to have acted as a kind of cabinet or committee.

All the senate. . . .—Literally the word means, like senate, the assembly of old men, or elders. They are here distinguished from the Sanhedrin, which itself included elders, in the official sense of the word, and were probably a body of assessors—how chosen we do not know—specially qualified by age and experience, called in on special occasions. They may have been identical with the “whole estate of the elders” of Acts 22:5.

Now when the high priest and the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these things, they doubted of them whereunto this would grow.
(24) The high priest.—The Received text gives “the priest,” but the use of that word as meaning the high priest has no parallel in the New Testament, and the word is omitted by many of the best MSS.

The captain of the temple.—The commander of the Levite sentinels. (See Notes on Acts 4:1; Luke 22:52.)

Whereunto this would grow.—Literally, what it might become, or, possibly, what it might be. They do not seem to have recognised at once the supernatural character of what had taken place, and may have conjectured that the Apostles had by some human help effected their escape.

Then went the captain with the officers, and brought them without violence: for they feared the people, lest they should have been stoned.
(26) Without violence . . .—The scene recalls that of John 7:45. Here, however, the Apostles set the example of unresisting acquiescence, even though the tide of feeling in their favour was so strong that they might have easily raised a tumult in their favour. The signs that had been recently wrought, perhaps also the lavish distribution of alms, the ideal communism of the disciples, were all likely, till counteracted by stronger influences, to secure popular favour.

Saying, Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man's blood upon us.
(28) Did not we straitly command you . . .?—The Greek presents the same Hebrew idiom as in Acts 4:17, and suggests again that it is a translation of the Aramaic actually spoken.

Ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine.—Better, with your teaching, both to keep up the connection with the previous clause, and because the word is taken, as in Matthew 7:28, in its wider sense, and not in the modern sense which attaches to “doctrine” as meaning a formulated opinion.

To bring this man’s blood upon us.—There seems a touch, partly of scorn, partly, it may be, of fear, in the careful avoidance (as before, in “this name”) of the name of Jesus. The words that Peter had uttered, in Acts 2:36; Acts 3:13-14; Acts 4:10, gave some colour to the conscience-stricken priests for this charge; but it was a strange complaint to come from those who had at least stirred up the people to cry, “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:25).

Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.
(29) Then Peter and the other apostles.—The whole company of the Twelve, it must be remembered, were now the objects of attack, and they all accept Peter as their spokesman.

We ought to obey God rather than men.—The words are an assertion of the same general law of duty as that of Acts 4:19-20, but the command of the angel in Acts 5:20 had given them a new significance.

The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree.
(30) Whom ye slew and hanged on a tree.—This synonym for crucifying comes from the LXX. version of Deuteronomy 21:23, where it is used in a wider sense, including analogous forms of punishment, such as hanging or impaling. It meets us again in Peter’s speech to Cornelius (Acts 10:39. Comp. Galatians 3:13).

Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.
(31) Him hath God exalted.—It is significant that St. Peter should use a word which, while it does not occur as applied to our Lord in the first three Gospels, meets us as so applied in St. John (John 3:14; John 12:32 : “lifted up” in the English version). It had also been used of the righteous sufferer in the LXX. version of Isaiah 3:13, and was afterwards used of the ascended and glorified Christ by St. Paul in Philippians 2:9.

A Prince.—See Note on Acts 3:15.

To give repentance.—We note, as in Acts 2:38, the essential unity of the teaching of the Apostles with that of the Baptist (Matthew 3:2). The beginning and the end were the same in each; what was characteristic of the new teaching was a fuller revelation (1) of the way in which forgiveness had been obtained; (2) of the spiritual gifts that followed on forgiveness; and (3) the existence of the society which was to bear its witness of both.

And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him.
(32) And so is also the Holy Ghost.—The signs and wonders, the tongues and the prophecies, the new power and the new love, were all thought of by the Apostles as coming from their Lord; and therefore as an evidence that He had triumphed over death and had ascended into heaven. (Comp. Acts 2:33.)

When they heard that, they were cut to the heart, and took counsel to slay them.
(33) They were cut to the heart.—The strict meaning of the verb describes the action of a saw, as in Hebrews 11:37. Used figuratively, it seems to imply a more lacerating pain than the “pricked to the heart” of Acts 2:37, leading not to repentance but to hatred. The persons spoken of are principally the high priest and his Sadducean followers (Acts 5:17).

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;
(34) A Pharisee, named Gamaliel.—We are brought into contact here with one of the heroes of Rabbinic history. The part he now played in the opening of the great drama, and not less his position as the instructor of St. Paul, demand attention. We have to think of him as the grandson of the great Hillel the representative of the best school of Pharisaism, the tolerant and large-hearted rival of the narrow and fanatic Shammai, whose precepts—such, e.g., as, Do nothing to another which thou wouldest not that he should do to thee—remind us of the Sermon on the Mount. The fame of Hillel won for him the highest honour of Judaism: the title of Rabban (the Rabboni of Mark 10:51; John 20:16), and the office of President of the Council. For the first time, there seemed likely to be a dynasty of scribes, and the office of chief of the Jewish schools, what we might almost call their Professorship of Theology, was transmitted through four generations. Hillel was succeeded by his son Simeon, whom some have identified with the Simeon of Luke 2:25 (see Note there), and he by Gamaliel. He, too, was known as the Rabban, and he rose now, with all the weight of years and authority, to counsel moderation. Various motives may have influenced him. He was old enough to remember the wisdom and grace of the child Jesus when, twenty-eight years before, He had sat in the midst of the doctors (Luke 2:46). He may have welcomed, during our Lord’s ministry, the teaching with so much of which Hillel would have sympathised, and been as the scribe who was not far from the kingdom of God (Mark 12:32-34), rejoicing in the new proof that had been brought forward of the doctrine of the Resurrection. As being himself of the house and lineage of David, he may have sympathised with the claims of One who was welcomed as the Son of David. One who was so prominent as a teacher could not fail to be acquainted with a brother-teacher like Nicodemus, and may well have been influenced by the example of his gradual conversion and the counsels of caution which he had given (John 7:50-51). The tone in which he speaks now might almost lead us to class him with the “many” of the chief rulers who secretly believed in Christ, but shrank from confessing Him (John 12:42-43). It seems probable that he, like Joseph of Arimathæa, had “not consented to the counsel and deed” of the Sanhedrin which Caiaphas had hastily convened for our Lord’s trial, and had contented himself with a policy of absence and expectation. If, as seems probable, Saul of Tarsus was at this time one of his disciples (Acts 22:3), the words of warning, though addressed generally to the Council, may well have been intended specially to restrain his fiery and impetuous zeal.

Commanded to put the apostles forth a little space.—The practice of thus deliberating in the absence of the accused seems to have been common. (Comp. Acts 4:15.) The report of the speech that follows may have come to St. Luke from some member of the Council, or, probably enough, from St. Paul himself. The occasional coincidences of language with the writings of that Apostle tend to confirm the antecedent likelihood of the conjecture.

And said unto them, Ye men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what ye intend to do as touching these men.
(35) Ye men of Israel.—We note the more familiar address of a man in high authority as compared with St. Peter’s “Rulers of the people, and elders of Israel” (Acts 4:8).

Take heed to yourselves.—Compare our Lord’s use of the same formula (Matthew 6:1; Matthew 7:15; Matthew 10:17), and St. Paul’s (1Timothy 1:4; 1Timothy 4:13; Titus 1:14).

For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered, and brought to nought.
(36) Before these days rose up Theudas.—An insurrection, headed by a leader of this name, is mentioned by Josephus (Ant. xx. 5, § 1). He, however, places it, not “before the taxing”—i.e., circ. A.D. 6—but in the reign of Claudius, and under the procuratorship of Cuspius Fadus, A.D. 44, ten or twelve years after this speech of Gamaliel’s. The Theudas of whom he speaks claimed to be a prophet, and promised to lead his followers across the Jordan. Fadus sent a troop of horse against him, and he was taken and beheaded. It has accordingly been inferred by some critics that we have here a blunder so portentous as to prove that the speech was made up long years after its alleged date by a writer ignorant of history, that the whole narrative of this part of the Acts is accordingly untrustworthy, and that the book requires to be sifted throughout, with a suspicious caution. On the other side, it is urged (1) that the circumstances of the two cases are not the same, Josephus speaking of a “very great multitude” as following his Theudas, while Gamaliel distinctly fixes the number of adherents at “about four hundred”; (2) that the name Theudas, whether considered as a form of the Aramaic name Thaddœus (see Note on Matthew 10:3), or the Greek Theodorus, was common enough to make it probable that there had been more than one rebel of that name; (3) that Josephus mentions no less than three insurrections of this type as occurring shortly after the death of Herod the Great (Ant. xvii. 10)—one headed by Judas (a name which appears from Matthew 10:3, Luke 6:16, to have been interchangeable with Thaddaeus or Theudas), the head of a band of robbers who seized upon the fortress of Sepphoris; one by Simon, previously a slave of Herod’s, who proclaimed himself king and burnt Herod’s palaces at Jericho and elsewhere; one by Athronges and four brothers, each of whom ruled over a band, more or less numerous, of his own—and adds further, that besides these there were numerous pretenders to the name of king, who murdered and robbed at large, and that one of these may well have been identical with the Theudas of whom Gamaliel speaks; (4) that it is hardly conceivable that a writer of St. Luke’s culture and general accuracy, writing in the reign of Nero, could have been guilty of such inaccuracy as that imputed to him, still less that such a mistake should have been made by any author writing after Josephus’s history was in the hands of men. A writer in the reign of Henry VIII. would hardly have inverted the order of Wat Tyler and Jack Cade. The description given by Gamaliel, saying that he was some onei.e., some great personage—agrees with the sufficiently vague account given by Josephus of the leaders of the revolts on the death of Herod, especially, perhaps, with that of Simon (who may have taken the name of Theudas as an alias to conceal his servile origin) of whom he says that “he thought himself more worthy than any other” of kingly power.

After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished; and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed.
(37) Judas of Galilee.—In one passage Josephus (Ant. xviii. 1) calls him a Gaulonite—i.e., of the country east of Galilee. Had this stood alone, St. Luke might have been charged here also with inaccuracy; but in other passages (Ant. xx. 5, § 2; Wars, ii. 8, § 1) he is described as a Galilean. On the taxing, in the modern sense of the term, which followed on the census that synchronised with our Lord’s nativity, both being conducted under the supervision of Quirinus, see Notes on Luke 2:1-2. The insurrection of Judas was by far the most important of the attempts to throw off the yoke of Rome. He was assisted by a Pharisee, named Sadduk, and the absolute independence of Israel was the watchword of his followers. It was unlawful, in any form, to pay tribute to Cæsar. It was lawful to use any weapons in defence of freedom. The war they waged was a religious war; and Josephus, writing long after the movement had collapsed, but giving, obviously, the impressions of his own early manhood, enumerates them as being with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, with the first of whom they were very closely allied—one of the four great religious sects of Judaism. Roman procurators and princes, like Archelaus and Antipas, were naturally united against him, and he and his followers came to the end of which Gamaliel speaks. His influence over the excitable population of Galilee was, however, at the time great, and in part survived. One of the Apostles probably derived his name of Zelotes, or Cananite (see Notes on Matthew 10:4), from having been among the followers of Judas, who were known by that name. His sons, Jacob and Simon, continued to be looked on as leaders after his death, and were crucified under Tiberius Alexander, the successor of Fadus in the procuratorship (Jos. Ant. xx. 5, §2).

And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought:
(38) Refrain from these men.—The advice implies something like a suppressed conviction not bold enough to utter itself. Gamaliel takes his place in the class, at all times numerous, of waiters upon Providence, who are neutral till a cause is successful, and then come forward with a tardy sympathy, but who, above all, shrink from committing themselves while there seems any possibility of failure. In 1Thessalonians 2:13, St. Paul seems almost to contrast the readiness of his disciples in receiving his gospel, not as “of man,” but as “of God,” with the timid caution of his Master. As a prudential dilemma, the argument was forcible enough. Resistance was either needless or it was hopeless. If needless, it was a waste of energy; if hopeless, it involved a fatal risk besides that of mere failure. We may legitimately think of the fiery disciple as listening impatiently to this temporising counsel, and as stirred by it to greater vehemence.

It will come to nought.—Better, it will be overthrown, so as to preserve the emphasis of the repetition of the same verb in the next clause of the dilemma.

But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.
(39) Fighters against God.—It is interesting to note the recurrence of the same phrase in the reasoning of the Pharisees who took St. Paul’s part in Acts 23:9.

And to him they agreed: and when they had called the apostles, and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.
(40) And to him they agreed.—The Sadducees, after their manner, would probably have preferred a more violent course, but the Pharisees were strong in the Sanhedrin, and the via media recommended by Gamaliel was, under such circumstances, likely to command a majority, and was, therefore, apparently accepted without a division.

And beaten them.—Here we trace the action of Caiaphas and the priests. They were not content without some punishment being inflicted, and the party of Gamaliel apparently acquiesced in this as a compromise in the hope of averting more violent measures. And this is accordingly to be noted as the first actual experience of persecution falling on the whole company of the Twelve, and not on Peter and John only. They were probably convicted of the minor offence of causing a disturbance in the Temple, though dismissed, as with a verdict of “not” proven, “on the graver charge of heresy. The punishment in such a case would probably be the “forty stripes save one,” of Deuteronomy 25:3 and 2Corinthians 11:24.

And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name.
(41) Rejoicing that they were counted worthy.—The emotion is probably, in one sense, natural to all who have an intense conviction of the Truth for which they suffer. But in this case there was something more. The Twelve could not fail to remember their Lord’s beatitudes; and now, for the first time, felt that they could “rejoice and be exceeding glad” because they were suffering as the prophets had suffered before them (Matthew 5:11-12). And they were suffering for His Name, or rather, with the best MSS., “for the Name”—for that of the Master who had loved them and whom they had learnt to love. We may note, too, in the whole history, the fulfilment of the prediction and the promise of Matthew 10:17-20.

And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.
(42) And daily in the temple.—Probably, as before, in the Portico of Solomon; the captain of the Temple now acting on the resolution just taken, and letting the movement take its course without interruption.

And in every house.—Better, as in Acts 2:46, at home: in their place, or, it may be, places, of meeting.

To teach and preach Jesus Christ.—Better, to teach and to declare the good tidings of Jesus Christ. The word for “preach” is literally to “evangelise,” as in Acts 8:4; Acts 8:12; Acts 8:25; Romans 10:15, and elsewhere.

As the chief members of the Sanhedrin disappear from the scene at this stage, it may be well to note the later fortunes of those who have been prominent up to this point in the history. (1) Annas lived to see five of his sons fill the office of high priest (Jos. Ant. xx. 9, § 1); but his old age was overclouded by the tumults raised by the Zealots under John of Gischala, in the reign of Vespasian, and before he died the sanctuary was occupied by them, and became in very deed a “den of robbers” (Jos. Wars, iv. 3, § 7). (2) Joseph, surnamed Caiaphas, his son-in-law, who owed his appointment to Gratus (Jos. Ant. xviii. 2, § 2), was deposed by the Proconsul Vitellius, A.D. 36 (Jos. Ant. xviii. 4, § 3), and disappears from history. (3) On John and Alexander, see Notes on Acts 4:6. (4) Gamaliel, who is not mentioned by Josephus, continued to preside over the Sanhedrin under Caligula and Claudius, and is said to have died eighteen years before the destruction of Jerusalem, and to have sanctioned the Anathema, or “Prayer against heretics,” drawn up by Samuel the Little (Lightfoot, Cent. Chorograph, c. 15). Christian traditions, however, represent him as having been secretly a disciple of Christ (Pseudo-Clement, Recogn. i. 65), and to have been baptised by Peter and Paul, with Nicodemus, who is represented as his nephew, and his son Abibas (Photius Cod. 171, p. 199). In a legendary story, purporting to come from a priest of Syria, named Lucian, accepted by Augustine, he appears as having buried Stephen and other Christians, and to have been buried himself in the same sepulchre with the Protomartyr and Nicodemus at Caphar-algama (August. de Civ. Dei xvii. 8, Serm. 318). Later Rabbis looked on him as the last of the great Teachers or Rabbans, and noted that till his time men had taught the Law standing, while afterwards they sat. The glory of the Law, they said, had departed with Gamaliel.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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