Neither Eastern Orthodoxy nor Catholicism can trace themselves back to the church that Jesus instituted, for the simple reason that Jesus did not found a church. He did initiate a Jewish sectarian reform movement based on the claim that his ministry embodied the radical inbreaking of God’s kingdom. This “church” was just one more q’hal – a “gathering/community” – among many other, sometimes competing, Jewish schools. When Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel talks about founding his church, he is talking about founding a Jewish reformist movement, his “gathering/community” that would exist among, and also in distinction to, other Jewish groups.
Later Christianity’s claim to “the Apostolic Succession” is largely mythical inasmuch as it is claimed by Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic communions.
The really legitimate apostolic succession was the one that devolved upon James, Jesus’ brother, who was the acknowledged head of the movement after Jesus was executed. The book of Acts says that at the Jerusalem Council, Peter gives an opinion, but it is James who leads the Council, ratifies that Noahide rules should apply to Gentile converts, sends out Paul and Barnabus with letters explaining his ruling, who later on sends delegates out to check up on Paul’s dubious practice of Gentile table fellowship, and who has Peter’s obedience and loyalty.
After James, the true (Jewish) apostolic succession continued to fall mostly to members of Jesus’ own family, and usually to Jews. Sometimes known as “the Jerusalem Caliphate,” this true (Jewish) succession was composed of Jesus’ Jewish relatives, and this institution was the real “Jesus Dynasty,” not the phantasmagoric succession from The Twelve/Peter, Paul (and sometimes John) put forth by current mainline Christianity.
Moreover, ancient Rome was aware of this situation, as was exemplified by the emperor Domitian when he sent a police squad to Judea to arrest relatives of Jesus for possible revolutionary crimes. The Emperor was acting pragmatically in doing this because even during his reign it was known that Jesus was of the House of David and that his relatives were still living in Palestine, connected to the executed Messiah and continuing to uphold his original “church” there.
Shockingly, the real – that is, the true Jewish – apostolic succession may not have existed in the West since the year 318 C.E. It seems that at that time, six years before the Council of Nicea, the entire Gentile church was excommunicated by Mar Yosip, “the Patriarch of Jerusalem in Exile”! According to some sources, the Jewish Jerusalem church had been petitioning Pope Sylvester for recognition of its apostolic Hebrew roots and the legitimacy of its bishopric. Sylvester refused and the Jerusalem patriarchy responded by excommunicating the truly heretical – that is, the non- (and sometimes anti-Jewish) Gentile church. Regardless of this story’s literal truth, Christian history seems to have devolved in a way consistent with the story’s core theme.
Since the time when this little remnant Jewish community of Jesus’ successors broke koinonia (communion) with the Roman-Greek Gentile churches, the West has parodoxically been cast adrift from that original Judean group originated by Jesus
If mainstream Christianity really derives from an apostolic succession (or some reasonable facsimile thereof), then obviously, its current ecclesiology, soteriology, christology, and pneumatology rightly ought to primarily be Jamesian/Jacobite and Petrine/Jewish-sectarian… not the current amalgam of Pauline/Trinitarian theology and christology with which we are so familiar.
The original, true Jewish church and Jewish apostolic succession were swallowed up in a Paulinism interpreted by Greco-Roman bishops, developed by Hellenistic philosophers, embraced by pagan converts – and strangest of all – ultimately mandated by Roman imperial decree.
In that process, the historical succession was not only lost, but more or less consciously rejected, by non-Jewish Christianity. But, thankfully, it can be partially reconstructed by reading between the lines of the NT, deliniated in non-canonical sacred texts, retrojected from the descriptions of heresiologists, from archaeology, and from the work of scholars such as James Tabor, Alan F. Segal, Larry Hurtado, Henri Danielou, Amy-Jill Levine, Raymond Brown, Joel Carmichael, Keith Akers, Marcus J. Borg, James Charlesworth, Geza Vermes, Hugh J. Schonfield, Bruce Chilton, Robert Eisenman, and others.
Fortunately, then, it can be said that the small flickering flame of original, Jewish Christianity still burns bright enough to illuminate the search for the real Jesus and his original Jewish successors.