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Apostolic Succession

Apostolic Succession

There is a certain Catholic tradition that is strikingly similar to a Rabbinical tradition that is said to go back to the time of Moses.

Jewish Oral Law and Succession

When Moses ascended Mount Sinai after the Exodus, he received revelations from God that he committed to writing. These writings were known as the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible.

By the time of Christ, however, many Jews believed that Moses had received additional instructions from God that were not written down, but rather were passed down orally through religious teachers in a unbroken line of succession.

The first-century Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus spoke of this transmission of tradition:

'The Pharisees had passed on to the people certain regulations handed down by former generations and not recorded in the Law of Moses' (Antiquities 13:297–298).

Rabbinic Judaism calls this the 'Oral Torah' or the 'Oral Law.'

The Talmud, which is the written form of this Jewish oral tradition and is comprised of the Mishnah and Gemara, also describes this unwritten law:

'Moses received the law from Sinai and committed it to Joshua and Joshua to the elders and the elders to the prophets. The prophets committed it to the men of the Great Synagogue' (Abot 1:1).

Thus, you have a long line of succession from Moses down through Joshua, prophets, men of the Great Synagogue, down to the leaders of the rabbinic schools in Christ's day, the Pharisees. These spiritual leaders went beyond the written text of Scripture and expanded upon it. Notice how Marcel Simon explains this:

'In their eyes, the tradition that they invoked in doing this, far from opposing the Torah [the five books of Moses], was the natural prolongation and explication of it. This tradition went back to Moses himself, just as did the Torah. An oral law was revealed to Moses along with the written law, and this oral law was faithfully transmitted from generation to generation' (Marcel Simon, Jewish Sects, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967, p. 34, 35).

George Foot Moore agrees with Simon, adding:

'The Book of the Law of Moses might be a final law, but it was not a finished law. Many things which had … been generally observed and were regarded as necessary and binding were not contained in it at all. Some of these figure in later times as 'traditions of Moses from Sinai'; others as ordinances of Ezra, or of the prophets of his time, or the men of the Great Synagogue, or more indefinitely of the Soferim, or the Early Elders' (George Foot Moore, Judaism, Volume 1; New York: Schocken Books, 1974; p. 30).

A Living Interpreter

Besides the Jewish tradition of an unwritten revelation from God passed down from generation to generation in unbroken succession, there is a third element of a living interpreter needed to explain these traditions. When indicting the scribes and Pharisees, Christ spoke of this position when He said to the multitudes and His disciples, 'The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat' (Matthew 23:2).

The term 'seat' in this passage is the Greek kathedra, and can also be interpreted as 'throne.' Regarding this expression, 'Moses' seat,' the Roman Catholic Jerome Bible Commentary says:

'The phrase is most probably a metaphor for the authority of the scribes to teach. In rabbinical tradition the interpretation of the Law was carried on in a scribal tradition that theoretically went back through an unbroken chain of scribes to Moses. This view is, of course, entirely unhistorical' (The Jerome Bible Commentary, Vol.2; New York: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1968, p. 102).

The Pharisees saw themselves as living interpreters of these supposed oral traditions of Moses. They believed that they had the authority to determine if a tradition was genuine or not. Of course, it also gave them opportunity to justify any elaboration they introduced to one of these doctrines. Whenever they brought out a new teaching not contained in the writings of Moses, they claimed it was part of the unwritten tradition handed down to them.

Notice, according to Josephus, just how much authority the Pharisees held with the people.

'The Pharisees have delivered to the common people by tradition from a continuous succession of fathers certain legal regulations which are not written in the Law of Moses, on which account the Sadducean sort rejects them, affirming that what is written is to be regarded as law, but what comes from the tradition of the fathers is not to be observed. On this point the Pharisees have the mass of the people on their side, and they have so much influence that anything they say, even against a king or a high priest, finds ready credence' (Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, xvii.2.4., paragraph 41).

Even if a teaching of the Pharisees was not found in the writings of Moses, they could claim it as truth when they spoke from Moses' seat. This concept is important to understand when we look at the Roman Catholic view of tradition.

Jesus' Authority

Jesus teaching

First, consider what distinguished the authority of Jesus from that of the scribes and Pharisees. It's interesting to see in the Gospels how often religious leaders questioned Jesus' right to teach. After Christ ended the Sermon on the Mount, 'the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes' (Matthew 7:28, 29).

Even though Jesus had not attended a rabbinical school, even though He did not sit 'in Moses' seat,' He spoke with unusual authority that was above the religious teachers of His day. We see this again when Jesus visited His home town. 'When He had come to His own country, He taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished and said, 'Where did this Man get this wisdom and these mighty works?'' (Matthew 13:54).

Another time, the Bible records of Jesus, 'The Jews marveled, saying, 'How does this Man know letters, having never studied?'' (John 7:15). Christ had not attended rabbinical schools, but the people were drawn to His teaching; this created jealousy in the hearts of the scribes and Pharisees. So stunned were even the spies who tried to catch Jesus saying something wrong that they could only go back to the religious leaders and exclaim, 'No man ever spoke like this Man!' (v. 46).

The issue of Christ's authority came to a head after His triumphal entry:

'Then they came again to Jerusalem. And as He was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to Him. And they said to Him, 'By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority to do these things?'' (Mark 11:27, 28).

Soon after, they crucified Christ.

The Pharisees spoke from Moses' seat and believed that they alone determined what could be or couldn't be taught, what was genuine tradition and what was not. But Jesus spoke with greater authority because His words were based on Scripture. Christ never quoted a rabbi to support His teachings. He always confronted opponents, including the devil (see Matthew 4), with Scripture.

Jesus began His ministry by quoting Isaiah 61 (Luke 4:21). He explained His parables by quoting the Old Testament (Matthew 21:42). He corrected the Sadducees views of the resurrection by plainly saying to them, 'You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God' (Matthew 22:29, emphasis added), and then quoted Exodus 3:6 to substantiate His point.

After Jesus' resurrection, when speaking to two discouraged disciples on the road to Emmaus, Christ directed their attention to the Scriptures:

'He said to them, 'O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?' And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself' (Luke 24:25–27, emphasis added).

The Bible was the basis of Christ's life and teaching.

The Tradition of the Elders

In one particular incident between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees, the issue of tradition is especially notable. Speaking of those who sit in Moses' seat and claim to speak with authority, the Bible says,

'The Pharisees and some of the scribes came together to Him, having come from Jerusalem. Now when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault. For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders' (Mark 7:1–3).

This passage is not talking about biblical hygiene, but about a practice established by oral tradition. This religious behavior was not based on the writings of Moses, but upon an unwritten tradition. The Jerome Bible Commentary explains the term 'tradition of the elders':  

'A rabbinical term for the body of unwritten laws that the Pharisees considered as equally binding as the written Torah' (Vol. 1, 'The Gospel According Mark', 42:42, p. 36).

When the Pharisees and scribes confronted Jesus about this, they asked, 'Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?' (Mark 7:5), Jesus defended Himself by quoting Scripture:

'Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: 'This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men'' (vv. 6, 7).

Christ laid open the problem with the scribes and Pharisees by proclaiming, 'All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition' (v. 9). He then illustrated how their tradition was placed above the Ten Commandments, saying they made 'the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down' (v. 13).

Jesus' concept of tradition was a serious offense in the eyes of the Pharisees; it helped lead the Jewish nation to reject Jesus Christ as the Messiah and to crucify Him.

Ex Cathedra

The Council of Nicea

There is a notable similarity between the Jewish view of tradition and the Roman Catholic view. Instead of referring back to Moses, however, the Roman church speaks of Peter and the apostles. Instead of calling these unwritten traditions the Oral Law, the church speaks of it as the 'Deposit of Faith,' which is defined as 'the body of revealed truth in the Scriptures and tradition' (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, emphasis added).

The transmission of these unwritten traditions is not through scribes and rabbis, but through what is called 'apostolic succession,' which is defined as the uninterrupted transmission of spiritual authority from the apostles through successive popes and bishops.

So also, the Roman Church believes there must be a living interpreter in every age to show which traditions are genuine and which are not. This teaching authority of the church, exercised by bishops and popes, is called the 'magisterium.'

When the pope speaks for the bishops of the church, he speaks 'ex cathedra,' which means with full authority and with infallibility. The word 'cathedra' is Latin (from the Greek kathedra) and means seat, chair, or throne. The word 'ex' means 'from,' so 'ex cathedra' literally means 'from the teacher's chair.' This term is identical to the reference Christ made in Matthew 23:2 when He said the scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses' 'seat' (kathedra).

Tradition Equal with Scripture

We also see similarities between the Catholic Church views of tradition and those spoken of in Mark 7. When Pope Paul VI addressed Vatican II in 1965, in a document titled Dei Verbum, referred to as a 'Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,' his words were considered infallible. In part, it reads:

'In order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, 'handing over' to them 'the authority to teach in their own place. … And so the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore the Apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter.'

Notice how tradition is elevated to a position equal with the Bible: 'Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God.'

Whose task is it to interpret both of these?

'The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. … It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.'

The church teaches that divine revelation has been given orally and in writing 'by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching'—and through apostolic succession this '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' (www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s1c2a2.htm).

The Church Above the Bible

Notice these statements by Catholic authors regarding tradition and the Bible.

Francis J. Butler, Holy Family Series of Catholic Catechisms (Boston: Thomas J. Flynn & Co., 1904) p. 63.

'Some of the truths that have been handed down to us by Tradition and are not recorded in the Sacred Scripture, are the following: that there are just seven Sacraments; that there is a Purgatory; that, in the New Law, Sunday should be kept holy instead of the Sabbath; that infants should be baptized, and that there are precisely seventy-two books in the Bible.

'The truths of Catholic Tradition have been handed down in the Church by means of the writings of the 'Fathers of the Church,' as well as by the decrees of Councils, by approved Creeds and by the prayers and ceremonies of the Church. These ancient writings and institutions show plainly what has been the faith of the Church from the earliest times.

'However, it is only the infallible teaching office of the Church that secures us against error as to the truth contained in Tradition as well as in the Holy Scripture. The voice of the Church is the voice of God.'

John O'Brien, The Faith of Millions, (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1974) pp. 137, 138.

'From all of which it must be abundantly clear that the Bible alone is not a safe and competent guide because it is not now and has never been accessible to all, because it is not clear and intelligible to all, and because it does not contain all the truths of the Christian religion.

'The simple fact is that the Bible, like all dead letters, calls for a living interpreter [yes, the Holy Spirit]. … Just as the supreme court is the authorized living interpreter of the constitution, so the Catholic Church is the living authoritative interpreter of the Bible. She has been the preserver and custodian of the Bible through the centuries, and she interprets it for us in the name and with the authority of Jesus Christ.'

Joseph Faa di Bruno, Catholic Belief, (New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1884) pp. 39, 40.

'By TRADITION we do not mean a mere report, a hearsay, wanting sufficient evidence to deserve belief; or a local tradition started by men, and therefore merely human, as were those traditions of the Pharisees condemned by our Lord; but we mean a Tradition first coming from God, continually taught, recorded, and in all desirable ways kept alive by a body of trustworthy men successively chosen in a divine, or divinely appointed manner, well instructed, and who are, as a body, protected by God from teaching what is wrong, or handing down unfaithfully to others the doctrine committed to them.'

John Laux, A Course in Religion for Catholic High Schools and Academies, part 1 (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1936), pp. 50, 51.

'Since the truths contained in Scripture and those handed down by Tradition both come from God, Scripture and Tradition are of equal value as sources of faith. Both deserve the same reverence and respect. Each alone is sufficient to establish a truth of our holy faith. …

'Scripture and Tradition are called the remote rule of faith, because the Catholic does not base his faith directly on these sources. The proximate rule of faith is for him [the Catholic] the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, which alone has received from God the authority to interpret infallibly the doctrines He has revealed, whether these be contained in Scripture or in Tradition.'

Bertrand L. Conway, The Question Box Answers (New York: The Columbus Press, 1910), pp. 75, 76.

'Because the origin of our faith is not the Bible alone, but the Church which gives us both the written and the unwritten word. …

'So in the New Law, Catholics believe some things not in the Scriptures, although wholly in accord with them, because of the infallible witness of the Church as to their divine or apostolic origin. Why do Protestants accept the Scriptures as inspired? Why do they honor the first day of the week instead of the seventh? Why do they baptize children? Contrary to their principles, they must look outside the Bible to the voice of tradition, which is not human, but divine, because guaranteed by the divine, infallible witness of the Catholic Church.'

Just as in the days of Christ, when the scribes and Pharisees sat in Moses' seat and determined which traditions were equal with the Word of God, so in the Catholic Church there is a living interpreter and magisterium to determine what is truth—supposedly found outside the Scriptures and based on oral tradition.


There are many traditions within Catholicism that are not found in the Bible—including their teachings that Mary is the divine mother of God, her Immaculate Conception, her perpetual virginity, and her assumption to heaven.

How is it that these doctrines are held as true? The Catholic magisterium has set itself up to proclaim, regardless of what the Bible says, what is truth, what is part of the deposit of faith that has been transmitted by oral tradition.

Jesus tells us that God's people do not live by tradition 'but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God' (Matthew 4:4). Some believe that God made a human being an infallible spokesman for the church. We'll study this next.

*This series of articles is based on messages by Pastor Stephen Bohr.
To find additional information on his ministry, please visit www.secretsunsealed.org.
To purchase his full series on Mary, please click here.