I was just curious how far the “paper trail” goes for the various apostolic churches. I found a website some time ago that allegedly traced all Catholic (Latin Rite) US Bishops to one 15th century bishop. Is this as far as the records go? How about other churches?
Note: I am not arguing against any of the lines going back to the apostles themselves.]
ALL Bishops go back in an unbroken line to the Apostles themselves, that’s precisely what Apostolic succession means!
As to your one bishop, of course that bishop came from somewhere, obviously, he was ordained by someone! So the line extends back beyond him. Records of ordinations (including the name of the person who did the ordination) have always been kept, just as records of baptisms, confirmations and marriages have been. So it would be easy to keep the paper trail going back.
Remember firstly that there are other Catholic Rites and Churches, hence necessarily other Bishops than the Latin Rite bishops, so a bishop whose succession is from the East rather than the Latin Rite is also a valid successor of the Apostles.
Secondly, there wasn’t some major rupture or heresy in the 15th century resulting in ONLY one Latin Rite bishop having authority to ordain others - of course there were other Latin Rite bishops possessing such faculty. And as I said above, it’s fairly easy through records of ordinations to keep the paper trail going.
Remember the succession of the Popes? We know, for instance, that one of Peter’s successors (can’t remember whether it was Linus, Cletus or Clement) was installed as bishop, though not Pope of course) by St Paul. Even Acts names the deacons who were ordained by the Apostles, so it’s reasonable to assume that ordinations after that time were also well recorded.
One is the personal line of succession of bishops, and the other is the succession of officeholders. The line of Popes is a succession of officeholders, like the line of bishops of any city. The office is not a sacrament.
For instance, the bishop who holds a See is almost never the successor of the person who was his principle consecrator. Although it is possible it is not very likely in modern times (in early centuries, a Metropolitan Archbishop might be the principal consecrator of all the regional bishops, one of whom could succeed him as Metropolitan later).
That whole 15th century issue you refer to is a result of the concentration of episcopal consecrations in the hands of the Popes. It was a great honor to be made a bishop under the hands of a Pope, and in later centuries it became more and more possible to do so, as travel became easier.
I believe the bishop you are thinking of is Scipione Ribiba, he was placed in history such that he is the earliest traceable consecrator of the line of some Pope within a century who happened to either live a long time or otherwise had a lot of opportunities to consecrate bishops. The process snowballed from there. Think of the many bishops Pope John Paul II had consecrated, he is from that same line. If the records were more complete it would not be bishop Ribiba who is so significant, but one of his predecessors.
The Orthodox have a different situation because the individual synods elect their own bishops and elevate them. The absence of any kind of centrality to the structure prevents this type of phenomena (of having one “Adam” figure in the record) on an international scale.
Ribiba might not be the earliest traceable record, possibly just the one whose line has the most “results”. However, earlier records are very fragmentary, for instance, a lot of old material was lost when the Papacy transferred from Avignon back to Rome (carts spilling into streams, that sort of thing). Local records were vulnerable to fires as well as worms, rats and dry rot.
I believe that it is very likely the extant records of the Latin Catholic church are more thorough than for any other church.
If you are interested, go to Catholichierarchy.org, it is the work of Charles Bransom who (I think) wrote the article you read some time ago.