16 Dec 2013

The Author

David Flusser [1917-2000]

Professor David Flusser died and was buried in Jerusalem on Friday, September 15, 2000, his 83rd birthday. A founding member of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research, Flusser was one of the world’s leading Jewish authorities on Early Christianity. His pioneering research on Jesus and Christianity’s relationship to Judaism won him international recognition. His collaboration with Robert Lindsey, beginning in 1961, inspired a new approach to the Synoptic Gospels.

Flusser was born in Vienna, but because of food shortages caused by the First World War, his family relocated to the small Catholic, Bohemian town of Příbram, Czechoslovakia. As a young man Flusser studied at the University of Prague. While a student there he met Josef Perl, a pastor and member of the Unity of Bohemian Brethren. It was Perl who stirred the young Flusser’s insatiable curiosity. The many evenings that he spent in conversation with Perl spawned what became an enduring interest in Jesus’ teachings and the Jewish origins of Christianity.

On the eve of World War II, Flusser left his native Eastern Europe for the Middle East. He arrived in Palestine in 1939. In 1957 he received his doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he later taught in the Comparative Religions department for many years, training several generations of scholars. For example, Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research members Professors Brad Young and Steven Notley wrote their doctoral dissertations under his supervision.

A member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Flusser was frequently recognized for his scholarship: he was awarded the Israel Prize (1980), the State of Israel’s most prestigious honor, as well as the Rothschild Prize for Jewish Sciences (2000). He was a recipient of honorary doctorates from, among others, the Catholic Faculty of Theology of Lucerne, Switzerland (1989), and Hebrew Union College (2000).

Flusser could converse fluently in nine languages and read literature in an additional seventeen. He authored over 1,000 scholarly articles in Hebrew, German, English and other languages. Among the books he wrote are Jesus (3nd ed., 2001) and Judaism of the Second Temple Period (Volume 1, 2007; Volume 2, 2009).


Flusser also co-authored (with Shmuel Safrai) “The Apostolic Decree and the Noahide Commandments.”

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Gamaliel and Nicodemus
5 Comments Print
Date First Published: December 16, 2013
Saint Stephen Mourned by Saints Gamaliel and Nicodemus. 
Carlo Saraceni, c. 1615, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

he Pharisee Gamaliel is mentioned twice in the New Testament (Acts 5:34; 22:3). In Acts 5:34 he appears as an advocate of the nascent congregation of Jesus’ disciples in Jerusalem and is called “a Pharisee, a teacher of the Law, held in honor by all the people.” Then, in Acts 22:3, Paul says that he was “brought up in this city [Jerusalem] at the feet of Gamaliel.” Indeed, Gamaliel was an important spiritual leader of the Pharisees and a Jewish scholar. He also is well known from Jewish sources.

The Pharisees were one of the three main Jewish parties in the first century: the Pharisees (the Jewish sages); the Sadducees (a small but mighty party of high priests, rationalists who “say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit,” Acts 23:8); and the Essenes (a sect whose writings are the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered beginning in 1947).

If we want to understand Gamaliel’s defense of the Apostles, we have to know the political implications of Jesus’ trial. The Apostles were arrested by the “high priest and all who were with him, that is, the party of the Sadducees” (Acts 5:17-18). The Temple guard brought the Apostles before the Sanhedrin “without violence, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people” (Acts 5:26). Evidently the Sadducees knew that the sympathy of the Jewish people in Jerusalem was on the side of Jesus’ movement of disciples. When finally the Apostles were brought before the council, the high priest questioned them, saying: “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” (Acts 5:27-28).

The Apostles, preaching the gospel in Jerusalem, could not avoid mentioning the active role of the Sadducean high priest in the trial of Jesus, which led to Jesus’ crucifixion. Indeed, when we read the Gospels, we see that the high priests were the main instigators of Jesus’ death. One of the aims of Jesus’ last visit to Jerusalem was to sound a note of warning about the future destruction of the Temple: Jesus did not accuse the Romans, but the Sadducees, whose source of power was their rule over the Temple. The Sadducean high priests were not loved by the people. They were a small, aristocratic and wealthy party of high priests. Therefore, they were very nervous about Jesus’ prophecy of doom, since the people, who did not love them, were in this point on Jesus’ side: “all the people hung upon his words” (Luke 19:48).

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  1. Is there an article explaining the dynamic between Paul the ‘Christian Killer’ working with the Sadducean High Priest and Paul as a Pharisee of the School of Gamaliel?

    Since Paul is a student of Gamaliel and the ethics which come from him and that school of thought, why is he participating in killing Christians and found doing the bidding of the High Priest?


    • Joshua,
      This is a great question, though difficult to answer. I am certainly not the most qualified person to tackle this issue, but a few provisional thoughts might be of some use.
      First, it is not impossible for a person to forsake the tradition in which he or she was brought up only to return to it later. In fact, it is quite a common story. Thus it does not seem difficult to imagine Paul being trained in the School of Hillel, rebelling against his tradition and adopting a militant nationalist stance (under the Roman governors political tensions were running high in Judea—perfect conditions for creating extremists), and then, when his circumstances changed, falling back on his Hillelite tradition, especially where it was compatible with Jesus’ distinctive halakhah which Paul, by that time, had adopted.
      Second, if it seems strange that someone brought up in the School of Hillel could switch to the School of Shammai, it is useful to know that this switch is not without historical precedent. Rabban Gamliel II, the grandson of Paul’s teacher, seems to have abandoned his family’s tradition in order to follow the School of Shammai. Referring to Gamliel II, Shmuel Safrai writes that, “all his halakhot and decisions are in the tradition and spirit of Beit Shammai,” (“Halakhah,” The Literature of the Sages, Philadelphia: Fortress [1987], 1: 197).
      With respect to cooperation between Pharisees and the high priest, Peter Tomson notes that “the extreme circumstances of the war against Rome provoked all kinds of unusual coalitions and oppositions, among which was a violent inner-Pharisee clash of Shammaites and Hillelites; so the otherwise unlikely alliance of Shammaite, zealot Pharisees and high-priestly circles cannot be excluded,” (“ ‘Jews’ in the Gospel of John as Compared with the Palestinian Talmud, the Synoptics, and Some New Testament Apocrypha,” Anti-Judaism and the Fourth Gospel [R. Bieringer, D. Pollefeyt, & F. Vandecasteele-Vanneuville, eds.] Louisville: Westminster John Knox [2001], 197). If Shammaite zealot Pharisee is an accurate description of Paul at the time of his persecution of the early church, then perhaps, given the political climate, Paul’s cooperation with the high priest is conceivable.
      For further reading you could check out Justin Taylor, “Why Did Paul Persecute the Church?” Tolerance and Intolerance in Early Judaism and Christianity (Graham Stanton & Guy Stroumsa, eds.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1998), 99-120; and Urban C. Von Wahlde, “The Relationships Between Pharisees and Chief Priests: Some Observations on the Texts in Matthew, John and Josephus,” New Testament Studies 42 (1996), 506-522.

      • Wow, great reply! I will try and pick up the resources you’re mentioning. I’m currently trying to finish up “Our Father Abraham”. I also read your e-book, ‘The Gospel of Jesus’, thanks for writing it.

        Coming from a background of “these 66 books are the only ones worth reading”, I think the Evangelical community has cut itself off from 1st Century reality. Effectively blinding itself from being able to understand the dynamics which were going on at the time.

        History (e.g. Josephus) certainly can inform us here (which Evangelicals won’t readily avoid), but if you mention talmud, rabbanics, or other ‘Jewish’ related writings, a barrier immediately goes up, “That’s not scripture!”, they say. They won’t hear it, they won’t receive it, they don’t want to understand it.

        I feel like I’ve been cheated my whole Christian life because my “Pastor’s” and “Teachers” by and large either didn’t know about these sources, actively avoided them, or they seriously challenged their already ingrained notions and conclusions they’ve come to or inherited from the previous generations and were subsequently not seriously considered.

        I was listening to D.A. Carson’s response to the ‘NPP’ movement. One thing he readily admits is that the conclusions Luther et al. came to about Judaism were based off of 5th century rabbanics rather than what Judaism was in Jesus’ day.

        I think this is a huge revelation, it seriously calls into question the train and lines of thought which came out of the reformation. I’m not saying it’s all rubbish, but the anti-semitic rhetoric is abysmal at best. Concerning Jesus’ life, one quote from a book I just read and I may not get it quite right, but in effect said, “Jesus has simply become to Christians a small element supporting an enormous theological edifice”. His life is largely sidelined in favor of the soteriological aspects of his mission.

        One thing that stuck out in your e-book, and correct me if I get it wrong, but you had in effect said that by Jesus raising from the dead, God was in effect saying, “I approve of Jesus’ life, the way he led it, the message he brought. The world would think that Jesus’ life was one of a loser. God begs to differ.”

  2. Amen to both of you.

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