Apostolic Succession – the Old Testament Model

One of the first items of business we see take place in the New Testament Church is for the apostles to replace Judas among their ranks.  In leading the apostles to select the replacement of Judas, St. Peter quotes Psalm 69 – “Let his habitation become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it” and Psalm 109 – “His office let another take.”  (Acts 1:20).  There is an expectation in their understanding of the Old Testament the apostles are filling an office, and once they are no longer in that role, another will take their place.

And we do see an Old Testament model of this, when we see Moses passing on the authority God has given him to Joshua.  “Moses said to the Lord, ‘Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in; that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep which have no shepherd.’ And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand upon him; cause him to stand before Elea′zar the priest and all the congregation, and you shall commission him in their sight.  You shall invest him with some of your authority, that all the congregation of the people of Israel may obey.  And he shall stand before Elea′zar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the Lord; at his word they shall go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he and all the people of Israel with him, the whole congregation.’ And Moses did as the Lord commanded him; he took Joshua and caused him to stand before Elea′zar the priest and the whole congregation, and he laid his hands upon him, and commissioned him as the Lord directed through Moses.”  (Numbers 27:15-23)

When we get to the New Testament, we see a passage where Christ acknowledges the “scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.”  (Matthew 23:2) James McCarthy cites this passage in his anti-Catholic work “The Gospel According to Rome.”  His take on the passage is this — “The scribes and the Pharisees had not received their authority from God.  To the contrary, Jesus said, The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses (Matthew 23:2).  Nowhere did the Hebrew Scriptures instruct the Jews to set up the Sanhedrin, to submit to the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees, or to recognize the authority of oral Tradition alongside Scripture.  Nevertheless, in the first century, this is the way it was, and most Jews submitted to it without question.“

The translation used by McCarthy that says the scribes and the Pharisees have “seated themselves” in the chair of Moses is a minority one.  BibleGateway.com has 62 different English translations of this verse.  Eleven of them render the verse in a way it could be viewed the scribes and the Pharisees had illegitimately taken this role as McCarthy claims.  It makes a huge difference in the way the verse is interpreted to read Christ says the “scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat” versus an implication they have seated themselves there.  Both the Protestant KJV and the now popular NIV render the verse as their authority being legitimate.

What McCarthy fails to do however is to present to his readers the rest of what Christ says.  He deliberately leaves the impression Christ does not see their authority as legitimate.  But the full statement of Christ is this – “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.”  (Matthew 23:2-3) Far from indicating their authority is not legitimate, Christ upholds it by telling the people they need to obey their teaching.  That is clear in all 62 translations.  He also sets an expectation that the failure of religious leaders to live the life demanded by Christ is not an excuse to reject their legitimate authority….

The position of the Catholic Church about the continuing role of the apostles is found in CCC77 – “In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors.  They gave them their own position of teaching authority.  Indeed, the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time.”

One of the more common objections to the Catholic view is the criteria the apostles use when choosing Matthias as a successor to Judas.  “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.”  (Acts 1:21-22) Obviously no bishop today can meet these qualifications. 

However, St. Paul could not meet these qualifications either, as he most certainly had not been with the apostles since the beginning.  Nonetheless, he is called by Christ and receives the authority of an apostle (Acts 14:14, Romans 1:1, Romans 11:13).  In fact, several others in Scripture are noted as being apostles – Barnabas in Acts 14:4, Epaphroditus in Philippians 2:25, Apollos in 1 Corinthians 4:6-9, and Timothy and Silas in 1 Thessalonians 1:1, 2:6.  None of these men were known in Scripture to be associated with the apostles since the beginning.  The criteria set forth in Acts 1:21-22 is obviously intended to be the criteria for becoming one of the twelve, not an apostle in general.  It is noted in the book of Revelation “And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.”  (Revelation 21:14).  Among all apostles, the twelve are most certainly unique. 

The catechism notes this unique role in CCC860 – “In the office of the apostles there is one aspect that cannot be transmitted: to be the chosen witnesses of the Lord’s Resurrection and so the foundation stones of the Church.  But their office also has a permanent aspect.  Christ promised to remain with them always.  The divine mission entrusted by Jesus to them will continue to the end of time, since the Gospel they handed on is the lasting source of all life for the Church.  Therefore, .  .  .  the apostles took care to appoint successors.“

Christ’s promise to always remain with the apostles happens when he gives the eleven the great commission after his resurrection and before his ascension – “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted.  And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.’” (Matthew 28:16-20) Obviously these eleven men will die long before the “close of the age.”  Christ’s promise can be seen to recognize their office will continue, and his promise extends to those who will succeed them. 

In Ephesians 4:10-14 St. Paul writes “He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles.”  This passage too recognizes there will always be those in the role of the apostles in the Church. 

And within Sacred Scripture, we have a very clear picture of this succession occurring, found in the mentoring of Timothy by St. Paul.  My next post will closely look at their relationship and the authority St. Paul delegates to Timothy when he ordains him. 

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