Theudas came after Judas

Posted on Sep.27, 2009. Filed in Acts. Average rating: 3.0 / 10 (Rate It).

Following Jesus’ death, Peter and the apostles were hauled before the Jewish council for preaching the gospel despite having been ordered not to. The council were minded to kill them, but a Pharisee named Gamaliel advised against this course. His speech to the council appears to involve an error.

Gamaliel appeals to the examples of two previous trouble-makers who perished, suggesting that if the message preached by Peter and the apostles is not of God then they would fail on their own, while if it is of God then they should be allowed to succeed; either way, he suggests, the Jewish council shouldn’t oppose them:

“When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, ‘Fellow-Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them–in that case you may even be found fighting against God!’ [Acts 5:33-39a, NRSV]

Gamaliel puts his two examples in order, saying that Theudas rose up first and then Judas the Galilean rose up after him.

Judas’s uprising was in response to the census conducted by Cyrenius, or “Quirinius”:

“Now Cyrenius, a Roman senator, and one who had gone through other magistracies, and had passed through them till he had been consul, and one who, on other accounts, was of great dignity, came at this time into Syria, with a few others, being sent by Caesar to he a judge of that nation, and to take an account of their substance. Coponius also, a man of the equestrian order, was sent together with him, to have the supreme power over the Jews. Moreover, Cyrenius came himself into Judea, which was now added to the province of Syria, to take an account of their substance, and to dispose of Archelaus’s money; but the Jews, although at the beginning they took the report of a taxation heinously, yet did they leave off any further opposition to it, by the persuasion of Joazar, who was the son of Beethus, and high priest; so they, being over-pesuaded by Joazar’s words, gave an account of their estates, without any dispute about it. Yet was there one Judas, a Gaulonite, of a city whose name was Gamala, who, taking with him Sadduc, a Pharisee, became zealous to draw them to a revolt, who both said that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty…” [Josephus, Antiquities, 18:1ff]

Quirinius took this census in 6 CE.

We know from Josephus’s Antiquities that Theudas’s uprising took place during the time of the Procurator Fadus:

“Now it came to pass, while Fadus was procurator of Judea, that a certain magician, whose name was Theudas, persuaded a great part of the people to take their effects with them, and follow him to the river Jordan; for he told them he was a prophet, and that he would, by his own command, divide the river, and afford them an easy passage over it; and many were deluded by his words. However, Fadus did not permit them to make any advantage of his wild attempt, but sent a troop of horsemen out against them; who, falling upon them unexpectedly, slew many of them, and took many of them alive. They also took Theudas alive, and cut off his head, and carried it to Jerusalem. This was what befell the Jews in the time of Cuspius Fadus’s government.” [Josephus, Antiquities, 20:97-99]

Fadus was procurator between 44 and 46 CE.

The order, therefore, was not Theudas then Judas, but Judas then Theudas. Gamaliel’s speech in Acts puts them the wrong way around.

N.B. All posts are written in a style sympathetic to the claim of Biblical error, even in cases where the author ("Errancy") disagrees with the claim. See the About page for the site's philosophy.

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  1. 1

    Assuming that Acts accurately reports the words of Gamaliel, the question becomes “Was Gamaliel wrong?”

    There’s really only one reasonable to that question: “It is possible, but not likely.”

    Unlike Stephen, who can be forgiven for flubbing the finer points of the history of the Fathers, Gamliel was a teacher of the law. If Gamaliel made the error alleged here, it would be as if an American History professor placed Crispus Attucks (one of the victim/instigators of the notorious ‘Boston Massacre’ that preceded the American revolution) after John Brown (the crazed leader of the Harper’s Ferry Rebellion that preceded the American Civil War). It’s more likely that he wouldn’t know who they are than that, knowing who they are, he’d get a fact of this nature wrong. That mistake is just not going to happen.

    So how do we sift out this issue?

    The short answer is that there had to be two Theudases. One that lived before Judas of Galilee and one, Theudas the Magician, that lived about 50 years after Judas of Galilee. It had to be the earlier Theudas that Gamaliel was referencing.

    How likely is this?

    A lot turns on how common the name “Theudas” or “Theodus” is. The name means “Gift of God”. Just considering that, you might guess that the name was common…How many parents view their children as a gift from God? While suggestive, that reasoning is not decisive. There are a couple other Theudases in antiquity, but, again, not so many that you can inductively infer that the name was common. Unfortunately, there is no scroll of ‘most popular names’ that has come down to us from antiquity, so there’s no way to be sure. Still, we might give a slight edge to the idea that the name was common.

    Also, Gamaliel could not have been referencing Theudas the Magician, since Theudas the Magician had not yet done anything at the time of Gamaliel’s remarks.

    Of course, I know that someone determined to find error (or someone, like Errancy, determined to discuss alleged errors) will take this last point as a seperate allegation of error rather than evidence that Gamaliel could not have been talking about Theudas the Magician.

    In that sense this issue may be like the two Zechariahs problem. In order to get any error at all out of the passage, you actually have to assume multiple errors.

    If Luke is right about anything, regarding Theudas, then he’s right about everything. If he’s right that Gamaliel said what he said, then he can’t be refering to the Magician who tried to part the Jordan, but to some other Theudas (who, presumably, came before Judas of Galilee). If he’s right that Theudas came before Judas of Galilee, then the Theudas in question is not Theudas the Magician, and there’s absolutely no problem with Gamaliel having referenced that Theudas.

    Like the two Zecheriahs problem, you also have to assume that an individual makes a major blunder in an area where he should be an expert. In this case, Gamaliel, in the case of Zecheriah, the TgLam comentator.

  2. 2

    I agree: Gamaliel would have known his recent Jewish rebels and is unlikely to make the mistake attributed to him. In fact, as Theudas hadn’t done anything at the time of the speech, it’s impossible that Gamaliel made the mistake attributed to him. (Given Gamaliel’s reliability, I think that this allegation of error will stand or fall with Theudas came after Gamaliel after all.)

    Note that Gamaliel’s reliability actually makes this case more problematic for inerrancy (relative to how problematic it would have been if Gamaliel were unreliable on this topic): If Gamaliel had made a mistake, then that needn’t bother inerrantists. The elimination of a possibility that shouldn’t bother inerrantists makes the possibility that should do so (i.e. that Acts misreports his speech to the council) relatively more likely.

    We have to weigh up two possibilities here: (i) that there’s a Theudas that isn’t attested to elsewhere; (ii) that Luke, writing decades later, attributed to Gamaliel words that he didn’t say.

    Neither possibility can be proven. Which is seen as more likely will depend on prior views concerning the nature of New Testament authorship in general and the precision of New Testament quotations in particular.

  3. 3

    The traditional view on how Luke would know what Gamaliel said in a closed session of the Sanhedrin is that Paul, the student of Gamaliel, was present and told him. So you’d have to assume Paul would get the history wrong too (Paul would have to get the history wrong to misquote Gamaliel in this way). But that seems almost as unlikely as Gamaliel’s getting it wrong.

    Taking a non-traditional view about Luke’s sources, you have to assume that Luke did not get this from Paul, but either got it from some other source or made it up. But any other source privy to the proceedings of a a closed session of the Sanhedrin also seems unlikely to make the mistake in question.

    So you are left with the assumption that Luke made up the quotation basing it on some historical account of prior messianic claimants. Obviously, that historical account could not have been Josephus. It is a historical account that we know as much about as we know about the first Theudas (because there is no record of either).

    Note that starting from the assumption that Luke made the quotation up is to start with the assumption of Biblical Errancy. It is not surprising that a biblical error could be proven from such an assumption.

    It would be different if you started from an existing history that placed Theudas the magician before Judas of Galilee. You could then argue for the claim that Luke used that history to make up the quotation of Gamaliel. But the argument here is going the other way, from the assumption that Luke made up the quotation to the claim that there is such a history.

    It would also be different if you started from the assumption of Biblical Inerrancy and proved an error. In this case, that would be assuming that Luke correctly quoted Gamaliel. But we’ve been down that road.

  4. 4

    “It would be different if you started from an existing history that placed Theudas the magician before Judas of Galilee. You could then argue for the claim that Luke used that history to make up the quotation of Gamaliel.”

    Actually, that’s roughly what some scholars think happened. In Antiquities 20, Josephus first discusses Theudas then discusses Judas. Some scholars think that Luke’s misreading of this passage as a chronological account is the source of the error in Gamaliel’s speech. This leads them to date Acts to circa 100 CE, after the publication of Antiquities.

  5. 5

    Dating Acts any time after AD 70 seems a non-starter to me, since Acts makes no reference to the downfall of Jerusalem. The Antiquities were published in the 90s, so it seems that that Acts probably does not reference that work.

  6. 6

    possibly worth adding Josephus’ own words of the times directly after Herod’s death

    “ten thousand other disorders in Judea, which were like tumults” (Antiquities 17.10.4)

    It’s not inconceivable that Theudas was one of the insurgents of that time – it was, after all, a common name. That would place him at the right time before Judas of Galilee.

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