I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city
at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day. Acts 22:3
I’d like to discuss a phrase used in the scripture above. Paul uses this same phrase in an argument to defend his standing in the Jewish community as not only a good Jew, but a brilliant and zealous one as well.
Gamaliel was an extremely influential rabbi. And since so many young men (ages 13-14) wanted to be accepted as one of his few close disciples, a grueling audition had to be passed even to get a chance at applying to him in person. The audition required that, over a four-day period, the applicant would have to recite – word perfect – every syllable of the Torah from memory while standing in front of a panel of rabbis. They were allowed two short breaks during each of those four days just to go to the bathroom and to eat a quick lunch. The tiniest mistake would eliminate them from the competition.
The handful who passed this audition formed the pool from which Gamaliel would choose his new disciple. Just being in that pool did not guarantee acceptance. It was necessary to pass an intensive personal interview with Gamaliel to be admitted.
Discipleship was a lifetime commitment. The disciple was the vehicle for the long-term continuation of his rabbi’s teachings. For this reason, it was the custom to place the most promising and dedicated pupil closest to the teacher so that he wouldn’t miss any of the choicest teachings. This special student would also receive private whispered insights from time to time. This position was called “being at the feet.”
That being said, and remembering the generally hostile attitude toward teaching women the Law and the prophets, we can see an additional dimension in Luke’s description that Mary “also sat at Jesus’ feet” – implying equality with Peter, James, John, and the other disciples.