Apostolic Sucession

I was wondering since we Catholics uphold apostolic succession to be extremely important then why don’t we have records of all the bishops succeeding the apostles in the early Church?

Well, there were bishops after all the Apostles died, so who could have ordained them? Only the Apostles.

My history professor gave a simple reason why we don’t have a list of all the bishops in line:

  • We lost/had destroyed our list.

Because a list is not important.

The laying on of hands is what is important.

What about imposters? After the council of Nicaea 3 bishops were required to lay their hands. What about the imposters prior to this? It would certainly have helped to have a list?

Found some information which may be helpful

The term for bishop, episcopos (“overseer”), was also fluid in meaning. Sometimes it designated the overseer of an individual congregation (the priest), sometimes the person who was the overseer of all the congregations in a city or area (the bishop or evangelist), and sometimes simply the highest-ranking clergyman in the local church—who could be an apostle, if one were staying there at the time.

Although the terms “bishop,” “priest,” and “deacon” were somewhat fluid in the apostolic age, by the beginning of the second century they had achieved the fixed form in which they are used today to designate the three offices whose functions are clearly distinct in the New Testament. Source: catholic.com/tracts/bishop-priest-and-deacon

There is a weightier article at: newadvent.org/cathen/02581b.htm

I suppose it boils down to changes in language and the fact that the Church was at the very beginning of its mission.

I don’t know about all this. I have a Muslim friend who is reluctant to become a Christian because apparently we Christians are not very skilled in keeping our records and writings in order.

The list of popes has flaws. There are discrepancies of dating and the chronology is presented in a different and conflicting order by the Early Church Fathers. Why? You would think something this important; the leaders would be scrupulous with their records…

Two gospels keep record of the genealogy of Christ. Since this was the typical practice of those times why wouldn’t they keeps records of the list of succession of the bishops? I don’t accept the documents were destroyed or what’s more important is the laying of hands. That sounds like a cop out to my Muslim friend…

For whatever reason, it was not seen as necessary always to keep records of ordination. It is evident that this is not because it would be impossible, as it would not be difficult to maintain true records or forge false ones. The lack of universal records of succession is not distressing if we have faith that the previous generation was vigilant in preserving the aposolic succession. As long as every generation is sure that their new bishops are consecrated by a true bishop, then there is no difficulty. The rule of Nicaea makes it nearly impossible that false bishops would prevail, since even if one or two slipped into the episcopate, their lack of order would be overriden in the consecration by the valid bishops unless an entire province had been overtaken by such imposters and these imposters spread throughout the whole world, a most unlikely scenario. Think of how difficult it would be for an imposter to set himself up as the Catholic bishop of Detroit without anyone noticing his fraud. As long as we have assurance that the bishops are valid, then there is no reason to be concerned over episcopal pedigree. The Master said, And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.

Why are written records so important to this person? Get to the bottom of what they believe about written records. There aren’t any written records contemporary with the time of Abraham, Moses, etc, and yet he accepts the genealogy and other writings that came thousands of years later, compiled as the Old Testament.

Is it important? Why?

The genealogy of Christ serves a specific purpose in Scripture, it is not a family tree for posterity, it is a sign of the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies.

First, you are assuming that it was “typical practice”. Secondly, what purpose would a list of bishops serve?

well then, you are out of luck. Why is this list so important??? The Church is a living entity, not a book. In each generation, the people know perfectly well who the bishops are and where they came from, that is sufficient.

I do not know who my great, great, great grandfather was, yet I know I had one.

Again, WHY?

Actually, I’m going to have to side with the original poster here. The reason this person wants written records is PRECISELY because he is a Muslim. Muslims believe that inaccuracies crept up in the beliefs of the Jews and Christians. These errors were very serious, and Muhammad’s job was to serve as a messenger to correct them. The reason he accepts what he knows about Abraham, Moses, and so on, is NOT because of the Bible, which is believed to be flawed, but because of the Qu’ran, which was believed to be dictated to Muhammad directly by God himself, much like the Ten Commandments were to Moses. When debating a Muslim, being able to demonstrate that the claims of the church and Bible were indeed correct, using corroborating historical evidence, would be a very important tool in trying to sway their opinion on the matter. Not having a list by no means disproves Christianity in any way, but having one would probably help in evangelizing Muslims.

Another relevant point is, at least, according to my understanding, Islamic oral tradition is given with an explicit unbroken chain of transmission. For example, a saying of their prophet Muhammad would be referenced as coming from “X, who learned it from Y, who learned it from Z…” and so on. Someone who knows about Islam could explain more.

I don’t think that this, practically speaking, ensures that false traditions cannot creep in by mistake or be deliberately introduced into Islamic tradition, but you can understand how someone accustomed to this detail of citation would be uncomfortable with a tradition which does not have this. He’ll have to accept the fact that history is an imprecise science because we can only know what we have with us. Even if we have record of an exact chain of transmission, a chain is only as strong as the weakest link, and, to complicate things further, we can only examine those links who are still living. We accept the previous links (who may or may not actually be true links) only on the say so of the later link, and we have no absolute certainty that this chain is actually secured at the end to factual reality.

Thanks guys for your answers!

I looked further into this and found the consecration of the bishops was always done in front of witnesses and the bishop who is laying his hands on the recipient needs to be a recognised as an apostolic bishop. So the only thing the people how to worry about is whether the laying of hands was done by a recognized bishop which was not hard to do even in times of persecution of the early church. Here is a document around the late fourth century (regardless of the fact the persecution had ceased) describing the ordination which was typically done in front of the congregation.


I was wondering since we Catholics uphold apostolic succession to be extremely important then why don’t we have records of all the bishops succeeding the apostles in the early Church?

Tough to keep perfect records when they want to kill you (think the killing of Christians and especially the Bishops in the early Church–the persecutions in the early Church).

Actually there have been some lists. But some of these lists have been slightly different from one another. Why?

Here are some possibilities why.

Some diocese’s even today have two or three Bishops.

One Bishop in charge, and the other might be a “coadjutor Bishop”. They usually take a “co-pilot seat” to the Bishop until he retires (then the coadjutor Bishop often steps in as the Diocesan Bishop).

Other diocese’s have both a coadjutor Bishop and an auxiliary bishop. An auxiliary bishop is a Bishop assigned to a Diocese to help the Diocesan Bishop. He, along with the coadjutor Bishop might be needed to help with confirmation numbers or other duties.

There are Bishops who have been run out of their Diocese (by war for example) who are forced to live in a diocese other than their own.

There are Bishops who are titular bishops or Bishops who for one reason or another have no formal diocese (an example might be a Bishop being named but no diocese available because of persecution or whatever, so the Pope names him something like: “Bishop of the North Pole” – I’m just making this title up so you can get the idea).

So if you have a persecuted Church (like we had in the early Church and in many places still do today), and the Romans wanted all the Bishops fed to the lions (think ancient Rome), and you have no fax machines, etc. what might you EXPECT the lists of Bishops to look like?

You’d expect some lists might have minor variations with each other.

So you could have many Bishops in one diocese, but different “lists” might name one Bishop, other “lists” might name another Bishop.

**A few examples of the types of Bishops who might ALL reside in one Diocese (who are ALL real Bishops by the way)
*]Diocesan Bishop
*]Coadjutor Bishop
*]Auxiliary Bishop
]Titular Bishop
]Other Bishops (i.e. administrative Bishops such as we have at the Vatican even today)

What do we see from lists of Bishops in the early Church?

Minor variations with each other.

So people wanting to deny the Church’s authority will say something like:

“Well I see this ancient list differed slightly from that ancient list so you guys didn’t really have any list to begin with. Therefore I’m going to REJECT the authority of the Catholic Church and follow a denomination that was invented about 1400 years or so later! That’s MY solution”

OK. They don’t quite put it that way.

But if all the lists were perfectly uniform you know what they’d say:

“Well all those lists are perfectly uniform so it is OBVIOUS that those lists are all fabricated. After all, with all these years you’d expect minor variation in these lists. Therefore I’m going to REJECT the authority of the Catholic Church and follow a denomination that was invented about 1400 years or so later! That’s MY solution”

OK. They wouldn’t quite put it that way either but that is the essence of what you would hear.

This minor differing list objection is yet another excuse for them rejecting authority and that is the context I’ve seen this issue brought up in the past.

Recording the succession of the bishops of Rome was considered sufficent to the ancients.

After this passage, he goes on to list the succession of the bishops of Rome.

Thanks for the post Genesis315 (post #14).

The St. Irenaeus quote you brought up was what I had in mind when I said . . .

Actually there have been some lists. . . .

But I did not research or post it. Thanks to you for posting it.

Dating, maybe. What other flaws are you speaking of?

Two gospels keep record of the genealogy of Christ.

Hmmm … I have been in countless discussions about the “discrepancies” of these two genealogies.

Since this was the typical practice of those times why wouldn’t they keeps records of the list of succession of the bishops?

I suspect, at least in the first 3 centuries, it’s similar to asking why we don’t have lists of covert operatives or other “underground” activities. Such a list would provide the empire a “hit list” of “enemies” to be destroyed.

We also should not project 21st century technology onto the ancients. They didn’t keep backup copies of documents very often.

Is there a complete list of practicing Christians in, say, Iran?

I don’t accept the documents were destroyed

At least in the first few centuries, this is quite a likely possibility.

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