Four things Clement of Rome tells us about early Christianity

Fresco of female figure holding chalice in the Agape Feast. Catacomb of Saints Pietro e Marcellino (Saints Marcellinus and Peter), Via Labicana, Rome, Italy. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Fresco of female figure holding chalice in the Agape Feast. Catacomb of Saints Pietro e Marcellino (Saints Marcellinus and Peter), Via Labicana, Rome, Italy. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

One of the earliest Christian writings to survive outside of the New Testament itself is the Letter of Clement of Rome to the church at Corinth (often known as 1 Clement). It may have been written around 97 A.D., that is, seventy years after the ascension of Christ into heaven and within two or three decades of the deaths of many of the apostles. Its writer Clement actually knew the Apostle Paul.

Here are four things we learn about early Christianity from Clement’s letter.

1. The Apostles Peter and Paul were both martyred

Tradition has it that the Apostle Paul was beheaded during the reign of the Emperor Nero (A.D. 54—68[1]) and that the Apostle Peter was executed by being crucified upside-down[2]. In the case of Paul’s martyrdom I have evaluated the evidence here.

“After preaching both in the east and west, [Paul] gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects.”

1 Clement, chapter 5

Clement doesn’t go so far as to tell us how Peter and Paul were martyred, but it is certain that they both were martyred from his reference to them in chapter 5 of his letter:—

But not to dwell upon ancient examples, let us come to the most recent spiritual heroes. Let us take the noble examples furnished in our own generation. Through envy and jealousy the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the church] have been persecuted and put to death. Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours; and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects.
1 Clement, chapter 5[3]

It will be observed that Clement here is not writing some fanciful hagiography intended to exalt the names of Peter and Paul; he is writing simply and plainly, to remind the Christians of Corinth of the spiritual heroes who have paved the way for their faith.

Since Clement was personally known to the Apostle Paul (at least), and would have been well acquainted with these facts — and since his readers in Corinth could easily have refuted him if he were not telling the truth — we may take it as certain that Peter and Paul were indeed both martyred.

2. The church of Corinth continued to suffer schisms after Paul

Anyone who has read the New Testament will be aware that Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is one of Paul’s most issue-driven letters. Rather than the high, cosmic theology of something like his Letter to the Ephesians it is filled with practical exhortations on all kinds of issues which were affecting the Corinthian church — issues such as division in the church (chapters 1—4), immorality (chapter 5), worldly litigiousness (chapter 6), and about whether one should eat meat which may have been sacrificed to idols (chapters 8, 10). And many more besides.

By the time he comes to write 2 Corinthians these issues seem mainly to have been settled; 2 Corinthians is a much calmer, more measured letter.

“The worthless rose up against the honoured, those of no reputation against such as were renowned, the foolish against the wise, the young against those advanced in years.”

1 Clement, chapter 3

However, the Corinthians’ tendency to divide had clearly not gone away altogether. A generation later,[4] we find them once again dividing.

This time a group within the Corinthian church has tired of their appointed leaders, and has forcibly ejected them and appointed their own people as leaders in their place:—

Every kind of honour and happiness was bestowed upon you [= the Corinthian church], and then was fulfilled that which is written, “My beloved did eat and drink, and was enlarged and became fat, and kicked.” Hence flowed emulation and envy, strife and sedition, persecution and disorder, war and captivity. So the worthless rose up against the honoured, those of no reputation against such as were renowned, the foolish against the wise, the young against those advanced in years.
1 Clement, chapter 3[5]

This, in fact, is the whole occasion for Clement’s letter: the Corinthian church (probably the ejected leaders and those who support them) is appealing to its sister church at Rome for an independent decision as to who are the rightful leaders.

(The reason for the appeal to the church at Rome is obvious: Corinth was a large city, and its church would therefore have had considerable standing. In order to get an independent decision which would carry due weight, clearly it would be necessary to appeal to a church of similar standing, i.e., in a city whose size and importance was at least equal to that of Corinth. The appeal does not imply the supremacy of the Roman church.)

“In Clement’s letter we see what happened to the Corinthian church in the decades after Paul. It is a sad episode which Clement’s letter shows us — but then, like the New Testament itself, it is candid about the problems the church was facing.”

Thus in Clement’s letter we see what happened to the Corinthian church in the decades after Paul. It is a sad episode which Clement’s letter shows us — but then, like the New Testament itself, it is candid about the problems the church was facing. And that is one of the reasons that I personally find the New Testament such a convincing and compelling body of writings: precisely that it is so candid about the problems (including internal ones) which the apostolic Church faced.

Here, surely, is a lesson for our own time. Whatever problems are besetting the Church today — and there are many — it is right and proper that the Church faces up to them with candour and transparency.

3. Clement believed in the same gospel as Paul

The Apostle Paul throughout his life had strenuously to defend the principle that a person is made right with God solely by faith in Jesus Christ and not by keeping the law of Moses.

It was this principle — justification by faith alone — that a German monk named Martin Luther had to rediscover in the early 1500’s by his reading of Paul’s New Testament letters such as (particularly) Galatians and Romans.

Thus, in Galatians he vigorously defends the principle of justification by faith alone against some who have been disturbing the Galatian believers by insisting that they must be circumcised according to the law of Moses:—

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
Letter to the Galatians, 2:15-16[6]

When we come to Clement’s letter, we clearly see that he believes in the same gospel as Paul:—

“We, too, being called by his will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men.”

1 Clement, chapter 32

From him [= Jacob] also was descended our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh. From him arose kings, princes, and rulers of the race of Judah.  Nor are his other tribes in small glory, inasmuch as God had promised, “Your seed shall be as the stars of heaven.” All these, therefore, were highly honoured, and made great, not for their own sake, or for their own works, or for the righteousness which they wrought, but through the operation of his will. And we, too, being called by his will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Clement, chapter 32[7]

Like Paul, Clement is clear that we cannot save ourselves by our own efforts. Our efforts, even at their best, are like filthy rags. No, it is only by trusting in the merits of Jesus Christ that we can hope to be right with God.

4. Already there was a group of authoritative New Testament writings

The fourth and final observation I wish to make from 1 Clement is an important one: His letter shows us that, already by the end of the first century, there was a group of apostolic writings considered as authoritative Scripture.

“Clement quotes from between eleven and fourteen of our New Testament books — an impressive fact considering the relative brevity of his writings in our possession.”

This is not to say that the entire New Testament in its final form, with its 27 books, had been officially defined as ‘the New Testament.’ Far from it; the term ‘New Testament’ hadn’t been invented yet as a term for the writings (it does appear in the New Testament writings but there it always refers to God’s new covenant made in Jesus, and not to a body of writings). And the exact 27 books of our New Testament wouldn’t be officially recognized as the New Testament canon until the latter half of the fourth century.[8]

Nevertheless, we do see in Clement’s letter a clear regard for a number of the New Testament books as divinely inspired writings. I have shown here that Clement quotes from between eleven and fourteen of our New Testament books — an impressive fact considering the relative brevity of his writings in our possession.

His quotations range from the Gospels (certainly Matthew and Luke, conceivably Mark; he does not refer to John’s Gospel), to a number of Paul’s letters, the Letter to the Hebrews and — with a fair degree of certainty — 2 Peter and the Letter of James.

“What [Clement] shows us is that already, by the end of the first century, the apostolic writings were beginning to be collected together into a group of writings regarded as carrying divine authority.”

What this shows us is that already, by the end of the first century, the apostolic writings were beginning to be collected together into a group of writings regarded as carrying divine authority.

Today millions of Christians around the world revere the New Testament books as God’s revealed word — deposited for the benefit of the Church and carrying his stamp of approval.

This belief is not some comparatively modern invention of later theologians. It goes right back to the very beginnings of Christianity — as Clement’s letter shows us.

Conclusion

We have seen in this short article four things which Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians shows us about the beginnings of Christianity.

“I suspect that many, many people in the Western world implicitly believe that the New Testament was written, and then nothing else by Christians until the Middle Ages. Nothing could be farther from the truth.”

I suspect that many, many people in the Western world implicitly believe that the New Testament was written, and then nothing else by Christians until (?)the Middle Ages. Thus — according to this mistaken view — and it is a mistaken view which authors such as Dan Brown make full use of to persuade you of their wildly inaccurate and incorrect theories (as I have shown here) — the New Testament writings are the only written deposit from the earliest centuries of the Christian Church, highly suspect, and the Mediaeval Church credulously swallowed them.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, we have many, many writings from the earliest centuries of the Christian Church (for a table see here), such as Clement’s Letter.

What these writings show us is that the Christian Church from earliest times had to wrestle with all sorts of issues of theology; of Christian unity; of how to live integrally in Roman society which was often hostile to them.

These writings also show a continuity between the teaching we find in the apostolic writings in the New Testament, and what Christians believed in the centuries following.

“Writings such as Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians therefore show us that the New Testament is in fact genuinely traceable back to the first generation of believers.”

Thanks to these writings, we can even trace how Christian belief, whilst it certainly developed, also in some ways declined from what the apostles taught. The third-century Christian theologian, Origen, for example — though an impressive figure, and a martyr for the Christian faith — introduced various philosophical ideas which would end up wreaking havoc with Christian theology for much of the fourth and fifth centuries.

Writings such as Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians therefore show us that, far from being a suspect deposit of writings out of which the Mediaeval Church was unfathomably born, the New Testament is in fact genuinely traceable back to the first generation of believers, and faith in it as the revealed word of God is entirely reasonable.

Why not read some of the Apostle Paul’s New Testament letters — you can obtain a New Testament in modern English quite inexpensively — and find out for yourself whether Christian faith is true and reasonable?

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nero

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Peter#Death

[3] 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. The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, pp.230-31. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf09.xii.iv.v.html. Note, in the online version Vol. X is referred to as Vol. IX.

[4] Assuming 1 Clement to have been written circa A.D. 97, and not, as some suppose, at a much earlier date (cf. ibid., Introductory Notice to 1st Clement, p.227; http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf09.xii.ii.html).

[5] Ibid., p.230 (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf09.xii.iv.iii.html).

[6] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Galatians+2%3A15-16&version=ESVUK

[7] ANF Vol. X, p.238 (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf09.xii.iv.xxxii.html). Note, in this and subsequent quotations from 1 Clement I have slightly adapted the language to make it easier for the modern reader.

[8] http://www.bible-researcher.com/bruce1.html

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