Theudas & Judah of Galilee

The Epistle reading for this Sunday is Acts 5:29-42.  It’s an interesting passage full of historical personages we have conflicting information on beyond Scripture itself.  Some see this passage as problematic, particularly in reference to Theudas and Judas of Galilee.

From the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus we know of a Theudas who apparently intended to lead a revolt against the Romans.  However Josephus implies a Theudas active after this passage written by St. Luke, culminating in the dispersal of Theudas’ adherents and Theudas’ decapitation under order of the Roman procurator Cuspiuss Fadus, who ruled in Judea from AD 44-46.  This causes some to assert an error in Scripture.  But such an assertion rests on the confidence that the Theudas mentioned in Acts 5 is intended to be the same one Josephus mentions.  It also presumes Josephus is correct and, while Josephus is a respected historical source, he is also known to be in error upon occasion.  Scholars differ as to how common the name Theudas was in the first century (the meaning of the name is either gift of God or perhaps flowing with water, depending on where you source the name).  Respected New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce indicates it was probably a fairly common name (The Book of Acts, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, p.125 footnote 47).  However The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia claims it was an uncommon name (p.838).

At most we have a curiosity, and it would seem rash to rush to the assumption Luke has his information wrong (or misquoted Gamaliel).

The second figure mentioned is Judas of Galilee, whom Luke quotes Gamaliel as referencing “in the time of the census”, but after Theudas.  If the census mentioned is the one Luke mentions in his Gospel, it would provide significant complications by making Theudas’ revolt far too early to ever reconcile with Josephus.

We know of three Roman census’ that fall within the Biblical time frame – one in 8 BC, one in AD 14, and one in AD 47.  The one in 8 BC matches well with the time frame of Jesus’ birth, and the AD 47 census would be after the account of Acts 5.  But it could be Gamaliel is referring to the census in AD 14.

This would not remove the conflict with Josephus’ account of things, but given how accurate Luke is on many other technical issues in his writings, it’s not necessarily fair to presume the error lies with him.  Nor does the above information rule out the possibility of other figures with similar names that we don’t have external historical corroboration for.

Gamaliel himself is a well known-historical figure.  He was the grandson of the great rabbi Hillel the Elder.  He has considerable documentation validating his existence, identity, and the role Luke attributes to him in the Sanhedrin.  He is believed to have died in AD 52.

A lot of information for a relatively short passage!

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