According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church,1
“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.”
Apostolic succession originates from the Old Testament. Regarding Moses, it is written,2
10 And now come, and I will send3 you to Pharaoh so that you may bring forth My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.
י וְעַתָּה לְכָה וְאֶשְׁלָחֲךָ אֶל פַּרְעֹה וְהוֹצֵא אֶת עַמִּי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם
Moses, the ruler and liberator of the Israelites,4 was also an apostle, that is, one sent by Yahveh.5 Before Moses died, he chose Joshua to succeed him, and Joshua was “full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands upon him, and the children of Israel listened to him, and he did as Yahveh commanded Moses.”6 The Jews assert that this succession continued from Moses to Joshua and subsequent generations after him.7
Our Lord Jesus Christ was “a teacher from God”8 who came in the name9 of Yahveh, God the Father.10 Our Lord Jesus Christ spoke only what God the Father commanded11 and taught him to speak.12 To him men proclaimed, “Teacher, we know that you are true and you teach the way of God in truth.”13 To men, God the Father proclaimed, “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!”14 The Lord Jesus Christ is the chief shepherd,15 the good shepherd,16 the great shepherd of the sheep,17 the shepherd and bishop of our souls.18 As the shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ knows his sheep, and he is known by his sheep.19 Christians follow him, for they are his sheep and know his voice.20
During the time of our Lord Jesus Christ on earth, the scribes and Pharisees sat on Moses’ seat.21 They were teachers of the Law22 and possessed the authority to bind and loose, that is, to permit and prohibit, in accordance with the Law of Moses.23
Our Lord Jesus Christ himself had many students (“disciples”),24 twelve of whom were also his apostles. Before our Lord Jesus Christ ascended to heaven to be at the right hand of God the Father, he bestowed his authority – “all authority in heaven and upon earth”25 – upon his apostles.
Just as our Lord Jesus Christ had the authority to forgive sins,26 he bestowed this authority upon his apostles, saying, “Whoever’s sins you forgive, they are forgiven them, and whoever’s you retain, they are retained.”27
Furthermore, he bestowed upon his apostles the authority to bind and permit, saying, “Whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”28
He also bestowed upon his apostles the authority to teach, saying, “Therefore, go and make students of all the nations…teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.”29 Thus, the apostles taught “in the name of Jesus,”30 and those who were added to the Church “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching.”31
Our Lord Jesus Christ also instructed his apostles, “He who receives you, receives me, and he who receives me, receives Him who sent me.”32 Furthermore, “He who hears you, hears me, and he who rejects you, rejects me, and he who rejects me, rejects Him who sent me.”33
Just as our Lord Jesus Christ shepherded and oversaw his flock of sheep while on earth, he entrusted this responsibility to his apostles after he departed. In particular, the Lord Jesus Christ commanded the apostle Peter, “Feed my lambs…shepherd my sheep…feed my sheep.”34 To shepherd the flock is to oversee it.35 Hence, the apostle Peter, whom the Lord Jesus Christ entrusted to feed and shepherd his flock, was the first to succeed our Lord Jesus Christ as overseer or “bishop” (ἐπίσκοπος).
After the death of Judas, one of the original twelve apostles, the remaining apostles led by the apostle Peter immediately sought another man to “take his episcopate.”36 Evidently, the office of bishop, or the episcopate (ἐπισκοπή), continued by succession, despite the sinfulness of the bishop who previously possessed the office.37 Furthermore, the successor to the episcopate is chosen by the Lord himself.38
Before their deaths, the apostles, who were elders,39 “ordained elders in every church.”40 The apostle Paul commanded Titus to “ordain elders in every city, as I commanded you.”41 The elders (πρεσβύτεροι), to whom the younger were to submit themselves,42 were charged with feeding the flock of God and “overseeing”43 it as bishops (ἐπίσκοποι).44 Just as the apostles possessed the authority to teach, the bishop was required to be “skillful in teaching.”45 The successors to the apostles were ordained by the laying of the hands of the presbytery (πρεσβυτέριον), thereby preserving the continuity of apostolic succession.46 Indeed, the laying of hands was a fundamental practice taught to the earliest Christians.47 By it, “the Holy Spirit was given.”48
The “deposit of faith”49 is the sum of revelation consisting of sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition delivered and entrusted to the apostles by our Lord Jesus Christ and thereafter transmitted to their successors via apostolic succession, thus being preserved generation upon generation by the Church with the Holy Spirit.50 The apostle Paul wrote, “Timothy, guard the deposit (παρακαταθήκην)…”51 and similarly, “Guard the good deposit (παρακαταθήκην) by the Holy Spirit which dwells in you.”52 To Timothy, the apostle Paul wrote, “And what you heard from me with many witnesses, commit (παράθου) the same to faithful men who shall be able to teach them to others also.”53 That which is committed is the deposit (παρακαταθήκη), and it is guarded by the Holy Spirit and passed down to successive generations of faithful men.
The apostle Paul commanded the Thessalonians, “Therefore, brothers, stand fast and retain the traditions that you have been taught, whether by word or by our epistle.”54 “By word” – that is, orally; “epistle” – that is, in writing. The sum of Christian revelation, the deposit of faith, exists both orally, as sacred Tradition, and in writing, as the sacred Scripture known as the Holy Bible.
The practice of apostolic succession is not only confirmed by the Bible but also by the writings of early Christians, even those living in the apostolic era. For example, Clement of Rome, a bishop of Rome, wrote in the end of the 1st century A.D.,55
The apostles preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was sent forth from God. Therefore, Christ was sent forth from God, and the apostles [were sent forth] from Christ. Therefore, both things were done orderly by the will of God.
Therefore, after they received orders, and were fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and were confirmed in the word of God with the full assurance of the Holy Spirit, they went forth preaching that the kingdom of God was about to arrive.
Therefore, while preaching through countries and cities, they ordained their first-fruits, after they proved [them] by the Spirit, for bishops and deacons of those who who would soon believe.
Oἱ ἀπόστολοι ἡμῖν εὐηγγελίσθησαν ἀπὸ τοῦ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, Ἰησοῦς ὁ Χριστὸς ἀπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐξεπέμφθη. Ὁ Χριστὸς οὖν ἀπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ, καὶ οἱ ἀπόστολοι ἀπὸ τοῦ Χριστοῦ· ἐγένοντο οὖν ἀμφότερα εὐτάκτως ἐκ θελήματος θεοῦ.
Παραγγελίας οὖν λαβόντες καὶ πληροφορηθέντες διὰ τῆς ἀναστάσεως τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ καὶ πιστωθέντες ἐν τῷ λόγῳ τοῦ θεοῦ μετὰ πληροφορίας πνεύματος ἁγίου ἐξῆλθον εὐαγγελιζόμενοι τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ μέλλειν ἔρχεσθαι.
Κατὰ χώρας οὖν καὶ πόλεις κηρύσσοντες καθίστανον τὰς ἀπαρχὰς αὐτῶν, δοκιμάσαντες τῷ πνεύματι, εἰς ἐπισκόπους καὶ διακόνους τῶν μελλόντων πιστεύειν.
And our apostles knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife concerning the name of the episcopate. Therefore, for this cause, having obtained a perfect foreknowledge, they ordained those [bishops and deacons] already mentioned,57 and afterwards they gave instructions, so that, if they fell asleep, other approved men may succeed their service.
Καὶ οἱ ἀπόστολοι ἡμῶν ἔγνωσαν διὰ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ὅτι ἔρις ἔσται περὶ τοῦ ὀνόματος τῆς ἐπισκοπῆς. ∆ιὰ ταύτην οὖν τὴν αἰτίαν πρόγνωσιν εἰληφότες τελείαν κατέστησαν τοὺς προειρημένους καὶ μεταξὺ ἐπινομὴν ἔδωκαν, ὅπως, ἐὰν κοιμηθῶσιν, διαδέξωνται ἕτεροι δεδοκιμασμένοι ἄνδρες τὴν λειτουργίαν αὐτῶν.
Ignatius of Antioch wrote,58
Let all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ [followed] the Father, and the presbytery [followed] the apostles. And reverence the deacons as the commandment of God. Let no one do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that Eucharist be regarded as certain which is by the bishop or by whomever he has entrusted. Wherever the bishop is, let the multitude be, just as where Christ Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church. It is permitted neither to baptize nor to perform a love-feast without the bishop, but whoever he shall approve of, this is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may also be safe and certain.
Πάντες τῷ ἐπισκόπῳ ἀκολουθεῖτε, ὡς Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς τῷ πατρί, καὶ τῷ πρεσβυτερίῳ ὡς τοῖς ἀποστόλοις· τοὺς δὲ διακόνους ἐντρέπεσθε ὡς θεοῦ ἐντολήν. Mηδεὶς χωρὶς τοῦ ἐπισκόπου τι πρασσέτω τῶν ἀνηκόντων εἰς τὴν ἐκκλησίαν. Ἐκείνη βεβαία εὐχαριστία ἡγείσθω, ἡ ὑπὸ ἐπίσκοπον οὖσα ἢ ᾧ ἂν αὐτὸς ἐπιτρέψῃ. Ὅπου ἂν φανῇ ὁ ἐπίσκοπος, ἐκεῖ τὸ πλῆθος ἔστω, ὥσπερ ὅπου ἂν ᾖ Χριστὸς Ἰησοῦς, ἐκεῖ ἡ καθολικὴ ἐκκλησία. Oὐκ ἐξόν ἐστιν χωρὶς τοῦ ἐπισκόπου οὔτε βαπτίζειν οὔτεἀγάπην ποιεῖν· ἀλλ' ὃ ἂν ἐκεῖνος δοκιμάσῃ, τοῦτο καὶ τῷ θεῷ εὐάρεστον, ἵνα ἀσφαλὲς ᾖ καὶ βέβαιον πᾶν ὃ πράσσεται.
And therefore, it interests all in every church, who may desire to see the truth, to observe the tradition of the apostles manifested in the entire world. And we are able to count those in the churches who were, by the apostles, instituted bishops, and their successors continuously unto us, those who had neither taught nor had known such things that these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of teaching to “the perfect” separately and privately from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as successors, delivering their own magisterial office to these men.
Traditionem itaque Apostolorum in toto mundo manifestatam, in omni Ecclesia adest perspicere omnibus qui vera velint videre, et habemus annumerare eos qui ab Apostolis instituti sunt Episcopi in ecclesiis, et successiones eorum usque ad nos, qui nihil tale docuerunt, neque cognoverunt, quale ab his deliratur. Etenim si recondita mysteria scissent Apostoli, quæ seorsim et latenter ab reliquis perfectos docebant, his vel maxime traderent ea quibus etiam ipsas ecclesias committebant. Valde enim perfectos et irreprehensibiles in omnibus eos volebant esse, quos et successores relinquebant, suum ipsorum locum magisterii tradentes:
In addition, whichever [heresies] dare plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, so that they may thus seem to have been delivered by the apostles because they existed during the time of the apostles, we can say, “Then let them show the lineages of their churches! Let them unroll the order of their bishops, so that, running down by succession from the beginning, their first bishop shall have had for author and predecessor some one of the apostles or apostolic men who persevered with the apostles!” For in this manner the apostolic churches announce their censuses; for instance, the church of the Smyrnaeans, which relates that Polycarp was placed there by John; for instance, [the church] of the Romans [which relates that] Clement is ordained by Peter. And likewise, the other [churches] exhibit those who, having been appointed to the episcopate by the apostles, were transmitters of the apostolic seed.
Let the heretics invent such a thing! For after blasphemy, what is unlawful for them? But even if they were to invent it, they will accomplish nothing; for their doctrine itself, compared with the apostolic [doctrine], will declare by its diversity and contrariety that it is of some author who is neither an apostle nor an apostolic man. Just as the apostles would not have taught contrary things amongst themselves, so neither would an apostolic man have taught contrary to the apostles, unless those who were taught by the apostles then preached otherwise.
Therefore, by this test, they will be challenged by those churches which, although their founder they produce is not of the apostles nor an apostolic man (for many are later in time – which are even founded daily), yet since they are in agreement in the same faith, they are no considered no less apostolic on account of the consanguinity of doctrine.
Thus, let all heresies prove how they repute themselves to be apostolic, when they are challenged by our churches to meet either test. But indeed, they are neither [apostolic], nor can they prove what they are not, nor are they received in peace and communion by the churches which are in whatever way apostolic. Evidently they are in no way apostolic because of the diversity of their sacred mystery.
Ceterum si quae audent interserere se aetati apostolicae ut ideo videantur ab apostolis traditae quia sub apostolis fuerunt, possumus dicere: edant ergo origines ecclesiarum suarum, evolvant ordinem episcoporum suorum, ita per successionem ab initio decurrentem ut primus ille episcopus aliquem ex apostolis vel apostolicis viris, qui tamen cum apostolis perseveraverit, habuerit auctorem et antecessorem.
Hoc enim modo ecclesiae apostolicae census suos deferunt, sicut Smyrnaeorum ecclesia Polycarpum ab Iohanne conlocatum refert, sicut Romanorum Clementem a Petro ordinatum est. Perinde utique et ceterae exhibent quos ab apostolis in episcopatum constitutos apostolici seminis traduces habeant.
Confingant tale aliquid haeretici. Quid enim illis post blasphemiam inlicitum est? Sed etsi confinxerint, nihil promovebunt. Ipsa enim doctrina eorum cum apostolica comparata ex diversitate et contrarietate sua pronuntiabit neque apostoli alicuius auctoris esse neque apostolici quia, sicut apostoli non diversa inter se docuissent, ita et apostolici non contraria apostolis edidissent nisi illi, qui ab apostolis didicerunt, aliter praedicaverunt.
Ad hanc itaque formam provocabuntur ab illis ecclesiis quae, licet nullum ex apostolis vel apostolicis auctorem suum proferant, ut multo posteriores, quae denique cottidie instituuntur, tamen in eadem fide conspirantes non minus apostolicae deputantur pro consanguinitate doctrinae.
Ita omnes haereses ad utramque formam a nostris ecclesiis provocatae probent se quaqua putant apostolicas. Sed adeo nec sunt nec probare possunt quod non sunt, nec recipiuntur in pacem et communicationem ab ecclesiis quoquo modo apostolicis, scilicet ob diversitatem sacramenti nullo modo apostolicae.
Berington, Joseph; Kirk, John. The Faith of Catholics: Confirmed by Scripture and Attested by the Fathers of the First Five Centuries of the Church. 3rd ed. Ed. Capel, Thomas John; Waterworth, James. Vol. 1. New York: Pustet, 1909. (245–282)
Catechism of the Catholic Church, §74–100
Clement of Rome (Κλήμης Ῥώμης). “First Epistle to the Corinthians” (Ἐπιστολὴ Πρὸς Κορινθίους Αʹ). Patrologiæ Cursus Completus: Series Græca. Ed. Migne, Jacques Paul. Vol. 1. Petit-Montrouge: Imprimerie Catholique, 1857.
Flavius Josephus. Flavii Iosephi Opera. Ed. Niese, Benedictus. Vol. 6. Berlin: Weidmann, 1894.
Flavius Josephus. The Complete Works of Flavius-Josephus the Celebrated Jewish Historian. Trans. Whiston, William. Philadelphia: Potter, 1895.
Gibbons, James. The Faith of Our Fathers: Being a Plain Exposition and Vindication of the Church Founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ. 10th ed. Baltimore: Murphy, 1879. (56-69)
Ignatius of Antioch (Ἰγνάτιος Ἀντιοχείας). “Epistle to the Smyrnaeans” (Πρὸς Σμυρναίους). Patrologiæ Cursus Completus: Series Græca. Ed. Migne, Jacques Paul. Vol. 5. Petit-Montrouge: Imprimerie Catholique, 1857.
Irenaeus. “Against Heresies” (Adversus Haereses). Patrologiæ Cursus Completus: Series Græca. Ed. Migne, Jacques Paul. Vol. 7. Petit-Montrouge: Imprimerie Catholique, 1857.
Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus). “On the Prescription of Heretics” (De Praescriptione Haereticorum). Patrologiæ Cursus Completus: Series Prima. Ed. Migne, Jacques Paul. Vol. 2. Petit-Montrouge: Imprimerie Catholique, 1844.
1 CCC, §77
2 Exo. 3:10
3 LXX: ἀποστείλω
4 Acts 7:35
5 The Greek word ἀπόστολος, from which the English loanword “apostle” is derived, is related to the verb ἀποστέλλω, meaning “to send.”
6 Deu. 34:9 cp. Num. 27:18–23
7 Moshe ben Maimon. Introduction to the Mishneh Torah (הקדמה למשנה תורה).
8 John 3:2: «ἀπὸ θεοῦ…διδάσκαλος»
9 i.e., authority
10 John 5:43
11 John 12:49
12 John 8:28
13 Matt. 22:16
14 Matt. 17:5
15 1 Pet. 5:4: «ὁ ἀρχιποίμην»
16 John 10:11, 10:14: «ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλός»
17 Heb. 13:20
18 1 Pet. 2:25
19 John 10:14
20 John 10:4, 10:27
21 Matt. 23:2 cp. Exo. 18:13
22 cp. Acts 5:34 where Gamaliel is described as “a Pharisee…a teacher of the Law” (Φαρισαῖος…νομοδιδάσκαλος). Elsewhere, some of the Pharisees are described as being a νομικός, or “lawyer”; cp. Matt. 22:35.
23 Book 1, Ch. 5, §2. Niese: Line 110 (26); Whiston: (506)
25 Matt. 28:18 cp. John 3:34
26 Mark 2:10
27 John 20:23
28 Matt. 18:18
29 Matt. 28:19–20
30 Acts 4:18
31 Acts 2:42
32 Matt. 10:40
33 Luke 10:16
34 John 21:15–17: «Βόσκε τὰ ἀρνία μου… Ποίμαινε τὰ πρόβατά μου… Βόσκε τὰ πρόβατά μου»
35 1 Pet. 5:2. In his epistle, the apostle Peter states, “Shepherd the flock of God…overseeing it…” The participle “overseeing” is translated from the Greek participle ἐπισκοποῦντες, which is conjugated from the verb ἐπισκοπέω, which is related to the noun ἐπίσκοπος, from which is translated the English noun “bishop/overseer.”
36 Acts 1:20: «τὴν ἐπισκοπὴν αὐτοῦ λαβέτω ἕτερος»
37 Judas, one of the original twelve apostles, betrayed our Lord Jesus Christ.
38 Acts 1:24
39 1 Pet. 5:1. The apostle Peter refers to himself as “the co-elder” (ὁ συμπρεσβύτερος).
40 Acts 14:23
41 Tit. 1:5
42 1 Pet. 5:5
43 1 Pet. 5:2: «ἐπισκοποῦντες»; cp. Acts 20:28
44 literally, “overseers”
45 1 Tim. 3:2: «διδακτικόν»
46 The apostles themselves were the original presbytery of the Church.
47 Heb. 6:2
48 Acts 8:18
49 Greek ἡ παρακαταθήκη τῆς πίστεως; Latin depositum fidei
50 CCC, §80–84
51 1 Tim. 6:20: TR, 1550: «Ὦ Τιμόθεε τὴν παρακαταθήκην φύλαξον»; Vulgate: o Timothee depositum custodi
52 2 Tim. 1:14: TR, 1550: «τὴν καλὴν παρακαταθήκην φύλαξον διὰ πνεύματος ἁγίου τοῦ ἐνοικοῦντος ἐν ἡμῖν»; Vulgate: bonum depositum custodi per Spiritum Sanctum qui habitat in nobis
53 2 Tim. 2:2
54 2 Thes. 2:15
55 First Epistle to the Corinthians (Ἐπιστολὴ Πρὸς Κορινθίους Αʹ), Ch. 42 (291–294)
56 First Epistle to the Corinthians (Ἐπιστολὴ Πρὸς Κορινθίους Αʹ), Ch. 44 (295–300)
57 in Ch. 42 of his First Epistle to the Corinthians
58 Epistle to the Smyrnaeans (Πρὸς Σμυρναίους), Ch. 8 (713–714)
59 Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), Book 3, Ch. 3, §1 (848)
60 On the Prescription of Heretics (De Praescriptione Haereticorum), Ch. 32 (44–45)