Apostolic Succession in Judaism and Christianity

I have found that in any discussion of the topic of apostolic succession I am very likely to get very divergent opinions on it. Roman Catholics will certainly support it, and indeed point to it as one of the evidences that they alone are the true church. Of course this ignores the fact that the Orthodox possess it, as do Anglicans. Protestants by and large reject the concept as either foreign to the early church (an assumption that is very wrong), or is simply not important to the life of the church. So what is the truth? Is apostolic succession Biblical? Is it important? Or is it simply an invention of the Roman Catholics as some fringe evangelicals suggest?

To begin our basic exploration of the topic we have to first look to the roots of the Christian faith- Judaism. The Hebrew word semikah refers to the laying on of hands for the transmission of authority from a rabbi to his disciple. This means the rabbi has given the disciple full authority to teach, give theological advice, and to render judgment on issues of faith and practice. In Judaism this succession of authority is traced back to Moses and the seventy elders. 

We see in the following passage of scripture the rite of semikah (laying on of hands for authority) being carried out as Moses ordains Joshua.

 "Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, “Let the Lordthe 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 that have no shepherd.” So the Lord said to Moses, “Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him. Make him stand before Eleazar 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 Eleazar 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 made him stand before Eleazar the priest and the whole congregation, and he laid his hands on him and commissioned him as the Lord directed through Moses."- Numbers 27:15-23

Every rabbi can trace his ordination back to Moses in like manner.

So what does this have to do with apostolic succession? What is known as apostolic succession is in reality the continuance of the Jewish practice of semikah- laying on of hands for transmission of authority.

We find two primary witnesses of this in the gospels.

First Jesus in speaking to Peter of his future plans for them says:

"I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”- Matthew 16:19

Later he says the same to all of the apostles:

"Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."- Matthew 18:18

As an aside, this is evidence enough to reject the notion of the primacy of Peter since this authority was promised to all of the apostles and not exclusively to Peter as Catholics would claim. 

Subsequently Jesus does exactly as he told his apostles he would:

"And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”- John 20:20-23

The same principles that guide semikah in Judaism guide the concept of apostolic succession in Christianity. The early church understood the importance of passing on legitimate authority, as only in such a line of succession could one have sufficient trust that what an individual taught came from one of the apostles, and through them from Jesus himself. This did not mean that someone could not fall away and teach heresy and yet still be considered within apostolic succession. Succession is clearly understood by the Church Fathers to be comprised of both the tactile lineage and the orthodox Christian teachings. 


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