If you ever read the Old Testament, you’ll notice that the family tree of the people of God was of the highest importance. Keeping track of who begot who begins in the book of Genesis and is taken up again in the book of Numbers and then in First Chronicles. In the Gospels of Mathew and Luke, the tradition of genealogical recording is continued.
As for the Old Testament, this was how certain tribes of Israel could prove ownership of land that was allotted to them. After the Hebrews wandered in the desert for forty years, they settled in the Promise Land or what was known to be the land of Canaan. In the book of Joshua it says that each tribe was given a piece of the land by lot. Hebrew genealogy further served as evidence of what tribe, what family and what individual could rightfully serve as king and as priest. The tribe of Judah, for instance, was the royal tribe where Israel’s kings would come from. It was from this tribe that the Messiah would belong. And as for the priesthood, only the Hebrews who descended from Levi would qualify to offer sacrifices on behalf of the whole nation. Indeed, God’s authority to mediate on his behalf as priest and to rule on his behalf as king was largely validated and confirmed through lineage. Prophets, on the contrary, did not rely so much on what tribe they belonged to for their credentials to speak on God’s behalf so much as the direct and unmediated inspiration they received from God.
Still, as the preaching of the Gospel to the Jews embarked in the first century, it was important for the Apostles and the sacred authors of the New Testament to demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth was a descendant of Judah (one of 12 sons of Jacob and the father of the tribe of Judah) and King David who also belonged to the tribe of Judah. This would lend credence to their claim that Christ was truly the Messiah.
This tradition which began in the book of Genesis and served to help prove the credentials of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, was yet again taken up again by the early Church. In order to demonstrate her credentials to speak as prophet, mediate as priest, and rule as king on God’s behalf (not civil but religious rule), it wasn’t the physical or tribal genealogy that would prove beneficial. Rather, it was the spiritual authority- originating with Christ -that would be transmitted through the laying on of hands from the Apostles to the bishops and from the bishops to their successors.
Tertullian, an early Church Father who lived around the year 190 A.D., taught that those who desire to know truth and the religious guarantor of that truth had to look to the churches the Apostles founded. He said the Apostle “set up churches in every city. Other churches received from them a living transplant of faith and the seed of doctrine, and through this daily process of transplanting they became churches. They therefore qualify as apostolic churches by being the offspring of churches that are apostolic.” Even the Church Fathers used that ancient tradition, that is, the family tree, to prove the God-given credentials of the Catholic Church and her right to speak, mediate and rule on God’s behalf. Tertullian continues: “Every family has to be traced back to its origins. That is why we can say that all these great churches constitute that one original Church of the apostles; for it is from them that they all come.”
It wasn’t private revelation or personal interpretation of Scripture that served as the method of guaranteeing truth or knowing God’s will, it was tracing the churches back to their apostolic origins and listening and obeying what they had to say that counted. In addition to the apostolic origin of the churches, the early Christians would also look to the bishops and their predecessors in order to determine the proper credentials for speaking on God’s behalf. Tracing back the long succession of the laying on of hands, starting with an Apostle of the Lord and continuing down to the local bishop, was confirmation enough.
To claim, like Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, or Mohammad, founder of Islam, that he was the sole beneficiary to receive a revelation from God was not possible in the Catholic Church. In Hebrews 5:4 it reads: “No one takes this honor upon himself but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.” The bishop or the church in question was not to speak on its own behalf but on the behalf of the Apostles, who, in turn, spoke on behalf of Christ, who, in turn, spoke on behalf the Father.
Even Pope Benedict XVI benefits from this tradition which is as old as mankind. He can trace back his papal lineage, so to speak, all the way back to St. Peter the Apostle. As such, we listen to him. After all, it was to the custody of St. Peter that Christ had promised that His truth would be forever preserved. Therefore, when any person, Christian or church would wander off the path of truth or righteousness, the church that St. Peter founded in Rome would be invoked or summoned as a standard-bearer of truth. Again, in early Christianity, this was tradition was the guarantor of revealed truth.
For instance, St. Irenaeus (180 A.D.), when demonstrating the difference between authentic Christianity and its counterparts, didn’t bother to recite the family tree of other apostolic churches and bishops. He said that would be too tedious. Instead, he pointed to the list of popes going back to St. Peter. He said,
“For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere. The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric.”
Every faithful Catholic belongs to the family of tree of the popes and the bishops, a tree that extends back to Christ and the Apostles. And our Lord is “the” shoot that was to “sprout from the stump of Jesse.” (Isaiah 11:1) Jesse, of course, was the father of King David, a “stump” whose roots goes back to Moses, Abraham and finally to Adam. They too spoke on God’s behalf.
Indeed, we belong to a long prophetic tradition. To bear witness to Christ, to speak on God’s behalf, it is imperative we know this family tree. Indeed, our credibility as Christ-bearers and standard-bearers depends on our union and obedience to the bishops who are in turn united with the Bishop of Rome. This is our connection with Christ, with the Apostles, and with our forefathers such as David, Moses, Abraham and Adam. It is a big family that goes back to the beginning.