It is sometimes falsely claimed that the Church arbitrarily selected the 27 books of the New Testament in the fourth century.
While it is true that the 27 books of our New Testament were not formally recognized as ‘the New Testament’ until near the end of the fourth century, and our earliest canon list containing the exact 27 books in our New Testament today didn’t appear until A.D. 367, the choice of which books made the final ‘cut’ was not at all arbitrary. It was based on the books which earlier Christian writers and theologians had regarded as authoritative in their time.
One such writer was Clement, bishop (or overseer) of the church at Rome towards the end of the first century. In his Letter to the Corinthians (or 1 Clement), dating from around A.D. 97, we see him quoting or referring to around thirteen of the 27 books that are in our New Testament today.
In this post we will study the New Testament passages quoted or alluded to by Clement, and thus show that — even by the end of the first century — a number of apostolic writings were already regarded as authoritative ‘scripture.’
“When we come to a letter such as Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians, also known as 1 Clement, a number of difficulties present themselves when trying to determine what ‘New Testament’ Clement had before him.”
When we come to a letter such as Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians, also known as 1 Clement — a letter of some sixty-five chapters, written from the church at Rome to the church at Corinth with the aim of settling a schism which had occurred there — a number of difficulties present themselves when trying to determine what ‘New Testament’ Clement had before him.
Clement seldom refers to what we now call the New Testament using any kind of authoritative formula (“as the scripture says…”). It is therefore not always easy to determine whether he is quoting some New Testament book, or is merely quoting the liturgical or theological language already in common use in the church.
Many of the New Testament passages which Clement may be quoting, themselves are quotations from the Old Testament. It is therefore not always easy to determine whether Clement is quoting the Old Testament passage, or the New Testament An instance of this occurs in chapter 23 where he may equally be quoting Hebrews 10:37 (New Testament) or Habakkuk 2:3 (Old Testament). Where there is no clear indication that he is quoting the New Testament passage we will generally discount such instances.
Clement often quotes from memory and sometimes splices two or three passages together into a single quotation, intentionally or otherwise. It is not always easy to unpick which passages exactly are in his mind. An instance of this occurs in chapter 13 where he quotes the words of Jesus, but his quotation is (in my opinion) a composite of Luke 6:36-38, Matt. 5:7 and Matt. 7:2.
In this latter connexion it should also be borne in mind that Bibles (even had ‘the Bible’ been defined at this point) were not so simply and readily to hand as today. Today we can go to a bookshop — perhaps to our own bookshelf — and can pick up the entire Bible in one hand. But in the days before printing, Bibles would not have been so easily accessible — of the New Testament writings which Clement quotes, the entire church at Rome probably had just one or two copies at this time — and it would have been natural for Clement to quote from memory.
We should also bear in mind that, by Clement’s own admission, the church at Rome had endured “sudden and successive calamitous events,” and so his letter was probably written under somewhat difficult circumstances.
Given the early date of this letter, and the fact that Clement had personally known at least one of the apostles (Paul), we must in some cases consider whether an apparent quotation from a New Testament writing is in fact Clement’s quotation of part of the verbal tradition.
One final thing to say, is that Clement’s letter is never going to give us anything like a complete list of the New Testament books he considers authoritative. This is because it is the only genuine work of his which survives, and is only sixty-five, fairly short chapters in length.
Therefore any New Testament quotations which we find therein will naturally only be from a subset of the books he considers authoritative. But for such books as he does quote as authoritative, we can say that at least these are in his ‘New Testament.’
Key to symbols
For brevity’s sake, in the analysis that follows I fill use the following symbols at the end of Scripture references:—
* = denotes a New Testament reference which Clement quotes, or to which he alludes, almost (but not quite) certainly;
** = denotes a New Testament reference which he quotes, or to which he alludes, with a fairly high probability (but by no means certainly).
I have used my own judgement to determine when a New Testament reference is certain, nearly certain, or probable. References which are merely possible, but for which no solid case can be made, I have omitted entirely.
Here then, in no particular order other than descending order of obviousness, are the books in his ‘New Testament’:—
“One thing that stands out when reading 1 Clement is just how frequently he quotes from the Letter to the Hebrews.”
One thing that stands out when reading 1 Clement is just how frequently he quotes from the Letter to the Hebrews.
He quotes from, or alludes to this letter, in the following passages:—
By [Jesus Christ] the Lord has willed that we should taste of immortal knowledge, “who, being the brightness of [God’s] majesty, is by so much greater than the angels, as he has inherited a more excellent name than they.” 1 Clement, chapter 36,
After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
It’s also worth noting that Clement three times describes Jesus as our “High Priest” (in chapters 36, 61, 64). Given that the High Priesthood is a major motif of Hebrews, it seems likely that this letter is in Clement’s mind in all these references.
Conclusion: It is certain that Clement had Hebrews prominent in his mind when he composed his letter.
This probably shouldn’t surprise us: the letter does, after all, indicate that it was written in Italy. But Clement’s undoubted use of it is an important witness to an early date for it, and an important witness in favour of its canonicity.
Matthew & Luke
Clement tends to quote from the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke compositely. There are two main passages to consider:—
…being especially mindful of the words of the Lord Jesus which he spoke teaching us meekness and long-suffering. For thus he spoke: “Be merciful, that you may obtain mercy; forgive, that it may be forgiven you; as you do, so shall it be done to you; as you judge, so shall you be judged; as you are kind, so shall kindness be shown to you; with what measure you measure, with the same it shall be measured to you.” 1 Clement, chapter 13
Remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, how he said, “Woe to that man [by whom offences come]! It were better for him that he had never been born, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my elect. Yes, it were better for him that a millstone should be hung about [his neck], and he should be sunk in the depths of the sea, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my little ones.” 1 Clement, chapter 46
This seems to be a composite quotation of Luke 17:1-2 and Matthew 26:24. The idea of ‘my elect’ has also been introduced from somewhere, but the idea of ‘the elect’ is frequently found in the New Testament, and it is impossible to say from whence this might have been drawn — or indeed it may simply be Clement’s paraphrasing from memory.
“It is certain that Clement had the Gospels of Matthew and of Luke before him and regarded him as authoritative texts.”
Conclusion: It is certain that Clement had the Gospels of Matthew and of Luke before him and regarded him as authoritative texts.
Whether there is any reference in here to the Gospel of Mark, or whether Clement had it before him, is in my view impossible to say.
Clement not only quotes from 1 Corinthians but actually refers explicitly to the letter:—
Take up the epistle of the blessed Apostle Paul. What did he write to you at the time when the gospel first began to be preached? Truly, under the inspiration of the Spirit, he wrote to you concerning himself, and Cephas, and Apollos, because even then parties had been formed among you. But that inclination for one above another entailed less guilt upon you, inasmuch as your partialities were then shown towards apostles, already of high reputation, and towards a man whom they had approved. 1 Clement, chapter 47
Conclusion: There can be no doubt that Clement had 1 Corinthians before him and considered it authoritative.
“It should not surprise us to find Clement, as bishop of the church at Rome, referring to Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Indeed, he may well have had the original letter in his possession — what a tantalizing thought that is!”
It should not surprise us to find Clement, as bishop of the church at Rome, referring to Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Indeed, he may well have had the original letter in his possession — what a tantalizing thought that is!
There are numerous references to Romans. Probably the most obvious one is when he quotes Romans 1:32, as follows:—
For they that do such things are hateful to God; and not only they that do them, but also those who take pleasure in those that do them. 1 Clement, chapter 35
He also describes the Lord Jesus as descended from Jacob “according to the flesh.” This phrase can only have come either from Romans 9:5 or from Romans 1:3:—
From him [= Jacob] also [was descended] our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh. 1 Clement, chapter 32
Conclusion: It is certain that Clement had Paul’s Letter to the Romans before him and regarded it as authoritative.
Clement twice refers to Paul’s Letter to Titus:—
You never grudged any act of kindness, being “ready to every good work.” 1 Clement, chapter 2
May God, who sees all things, and who is the Ruler of all spirits and the Lord of all flesh — who chose our Lord Jesus Christ and us through him to be a peculiar [or special] people — grant to every soul that calls upon his glorious and holy name, faith, fear, peace, … 1 Clement, chapter 64
Conclusion: It is certain that Clement had Paul’s Letter to Titus before him, and regarded it as authoritative.
Acts of the Apostles
There is one, very obvious reference to Acts in Clement’s letter:—
Moreover, you were all distinguished by humility, and were in no respect puffed up with pride, but yielded obedience rather than extorted it, and were more willing to give than to receive. 1 Clement, chapter 2
“Being ‘more willing to give than to receive’ is the kind of phrase which might well have been a stock phrase used to summarize the early Christian ethic (a bit like ‘what would Jesus do?’ today).”
The only doubt that exists that this is a genuine quotation of Acts 20:35, is because being “more willing to give than to receive” is the kind of phrase which might well have been a stock phrase used to summarize the early Christian ethic (a bit like “what would Jesus do?” today). It is possible, therefore, that Clement is referring to a well-known stock phrase which was part of the verbal tradition, rather than quoting Acts 20:35 per se.
Conclusion: It is nearly, but not quite, certain that Clement had the Acts of the Apostles before him and considered it authoritative.
There seems to be one allusion to a passage in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (4:4-6):—
Why are there strifes, and tumults, and divisions, and schisms, and wars among you? Have we not [all] one God and one Christ? Is there not one Spirit of grace poured out upon us? And have we not one calling in Christ? 1 Clement, chapter 46
Conclusion: It is probable, but not certain, that Clement had Paul’s First Letter to Timothy before him and regarded it as authoritative.
James, 1 Peter & 2 Peter
“These references cause considerable difficulty, because it’s not always straightforward to decide to which, if any, of the letters Clement is referring.”
Clement’s letter contains a number of quotations from, and probable allusions to, the New Testament letters of James, 1 Peter and 2 Peter.
These references cause considerable difficulty, because it’s not always straightforward to decide to which, if any, of the letters Clement is referring.
Love covers a multitude of sins. 1 Clement, chapter 49
Reading the whole of chapter 49 of Clement’s letter, it’s obvious he mainly has 1 Corinthians 13 in mind at that moment.
However, the saying above occurs not in 1 Corinthians 13 but in bothJames 5:20 and in 1 Peter 4:8. So which of the two letters is Clement quoting? Or, is he simply repeating part of the verbal tradition — another early Christian commonplace which nicely summarizes the Christian ethic?
Another instance, even more shrouded in difficulty, appears to be a (very loose) composite quotation from James 1:8 and 2 Peter 3:3-4:—
Far from us be that which is written, “Wretched are they who are of a double mind, and of a doubting heart; who say, ‘These things we have heard even in the times of our fathers; but, behold, we have grown old, and none of them has happened to us.’” 1 Clement, chapter 23
The phrase “in the times of our fathers” especially sounds like it is alluding to 2 Peter 3:4. However, Clement’s quotation is not a particularly accurate repetition of either text, and this has led some to wonder whether Clement is actually quoting from some lost apocryphal book.
My view is that this is probably a composite of James 1:8 and 2 Peter 3:3-4, quoted loosely from memory.
There are, however, several more or less probable allusions to James and 2 Peter in the letter.
In two passages Clement seems to have 2 Peter 2 in mind:—
Noah preached repentance, and as many as listened to him were saved. 1 Clement, chapter 7
On account of his hospitality and godliness, Lot was saved out of Sodom when all the country round was punished by means of fire and brimstone, the Lord thus making it manifest that he does not forsake those who hope in him, but gives up those who depart from him to punishment and torture. 1 Clement, chapter 11
There are also two more likely references to James:—
For what reason was our father Abraham blessed? Was it not because he wrought righteousness and truth through faith? Isaac, with perfect confidence, as if knowing what was to happen, cheerfully yielded himself as a sacrifice. 1 Clement, chapter 31
Why are there strifes, and tumults, and divisions, and schisms, and wars among you? Have we not [all] one God and one Christ? Is there not one Spirit of grace poured out upon us? 1 Clement, chapter 46
The first of these passages seems to have James 2:21-22 in mind (note the context, in James, is also how Abraham was justified/blessed).
The second passage seems to be somewhat loosely quoting James 4:1.
On balance, Clement’s quotation seems to me to be closer to Revelation 22:12 — although it may be another instance of quotation from memory, in which Clement has fused the Old and New Testament texts together.
Based on our analysis, we can say from Clement’s one surviving letter that his ‘New Testament’ consisted at least of these books:—
Books certainly in Clement’s ‘New Testament’:
Books almost certainly in Clement’s ‘New Testament,’ albeit with some slight doubt:
Books arguably in Clement’s ‘New Testament’ (but far from certain):
“From this evidence alone, we can see that it simply isn’t the case that the books of the New Testament were decided ‘arbitrarily’ at the end of the fourth century.”
Hence when we ask the question, “What was Clement’s New Testament?” we are able to detect between ten and thirteen of our 27 books of the New Testament, referred to by Clement.
From this evidence alone, we can see that it simply isn’t the case that the books of the New Testament were decided ‘arbitrarily’ at the end of the fourth century. The eventual decision about which books were ‘in’ and which ‘out’ was always based on what earlier Christian writers — such as Clement — had regarded as their ‘New Testament.’
* * *
As I have to some extent shown in this article, as Christians we have good reasons for regarding the 27 texts which today form our New Testament as genuine, authoritative writings of the earliest Christians — texts which the Christian Church has always regarded as authentic, divinely-inspired writings.
Why not pick up a Bible today in modern English, and read one of these 27 texts which we regard as the inspired word of God? For example, why not begin reading the Gospels of Matthew or of Luke today, in which we have what Clement calls “the words of our Lord Jesus Christ”?
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 This being to distinguish it from another letter, 2 Clement, which is in fact a sermon and is now regarded as the work of somebody else and of a somewhat later age.
 For convenience we will speak about ‘the New Testament.’ Bear in mind, however, that such usage is anachronistic for Clement’s age. The books we now refer to as ‘the New Testament’ were not referred to by that name until some way into the second century A.D. See http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/New_Testament
The Ante-Nicene Fathers (10 vols.). T&T Clark, Edinburgh; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1996 (henceforth referred to as ANF). Vol. X. Introductory Note to the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, p.240. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf09.xii.ii.html. Note, in the online version Vol. X is referred to as Vol. IX.
 With this and subsequent quotations from ANF Vol. X, I have slightly adapted the language of the quotation to use more modern English.
 Remembering, of course, that, given the meagre amount of writing we possess by Clement, we would naturally expect some texts he regarded as ‘canonical’ not to be mentioned: the list of references we can adduce must therefore be a subset of those regarded by him as canonical.
 When a passage occurs in Matthew, Mark and Luke, it is often difficult to determine from which Gospel exactly a quotation is taken. It may well be that, within our quotations from Matthew and Luke, there were also allusions to Mark, though we weren’t able to detect any distinctly.
Graham is an evangelical Christian believer living in Sussex, UK. He is passionate about helping people to understand what the Bible really says, and about explaining what the Christians of the early centuries believed and taught.