On Friday, the First Reading was from Acts 5:34-42, which describes the trial of the Apostles before the Sanhedrin:
A Pharisee in the Sanhedrin named Gamaliel,
a teacher of the law, respected by all the people,
stood up, ordered the Apostles to be put outside for a short time,
and said to the Sanhedrin, “Fellow children of Israel,
be careful what you are about to do to these men.
Some time ago, Theudas appeared, claiming to be someone important,
and about four hundred men joined him, but he was killed,
and all those who were loyal to him
were disbanded and came to nothing.
After him came Judas the Galilean at the time of the census.
He also drew people after him,
but he too perished and all who were loyal to him were scattered.
So now I tell you,
have nothing to do with these men, and let them go.
For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin,
it will destroy itself.
But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them;
you may even find yourselves fighting against God.”
They were persuaded by him.
After recalling the Apostles, they had them flogged,
ordered them to stop speaking in the name of Jesus,
and dismissed them.
So they left the presence of the Sanhedrin,
rejoicing that they had been found worthy
to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.
And all day long, both at the temple and in their homes,
they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the Christ, Jesus.
Gamaliel holds a position of great esteem within Judaism and Christianity. He was St. Paul’s teacher, and was considered the last great rabbi. He was also the first person to ever be called “Rabboni,” which means “Great Teacher” or “My Great Teacher.” Jesus would later be given this title in John 20:16. So Gamaliel was the premiere rabbi and a leader amongst the Jewish people. It’s significant that he took up the Apostles’ defense since he was not himself a Christian (there’s some debate over whether or not he converted to Christianity before he died, but this might be wishful thinking). In any case, the Bible mentions not only that Gamaliel defended Christianity, but the precise argument he used. The obvious reason is that his argument was valid. And here’s what Gamaliel is arguing:
- Gamaliel is referring to the visible Church. In this case, the Apostles are on trial. They’re the visible office-holders chosen by Christ. There may have been others (even Gamaliel himself) who secretly held the Faith, but that’s not who he’s referring to. He’s referring just to the visible Church.
- This visibility is tied to unity. The followers of Theudas “were disbanded and came to nothing.” There may have been those who privately rooted for Theudas, but without a unified body, they came to nothing. Likewise with Judas the Galilean, we know that the movement wasn’t of God because “all who were loyal to him were scattered.”
- The mark of whether the Christian movement is ordained by God is whether a visible, unified group of followers continued on forever.
- This group, which we’ll go ahead and call the Church, is tied directly to God Himself. There’s not a distinction between Christ and the Church. If you attack the Church, “you may even find yourselves fighting against God.”
This is, I think, one of the strongest and simplest arguments for Catholicism vis-a-vis Protestantism that there is. Protestantism has been disbanded and scattered, while Catholicism has stayed united, carrying forward the same teachings, and with a single visible Church — that is, there’s no real confusion about which church is the Catholic Church, even if there are some rival claimants. If Gamaliel is right, and the inclusion of his speech in Acts suggests he is, then we should expect to see One True, Visible Church.