Impressions of First Clement

The letter from the church of Rome to the church of Corinth, traditionally ascribed to Clement of Rome and referred to as First Clement, did not make it into the New Testament canon, although we do have an ancient manuscript from Alexandria in which it was bound together with canonical New Testament writings.

We read this letter for class this week, along with Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians. I counted the scripture quotations (relying on the footnotes as given by Cyril Charles Richardson) and came up with 145 quotations from the Shared Scriptures:
45 from the Torah, 38 from the Prophets, and 60 from the Wisdom literature. There were more quotations from the psalms than from the next two most popular books put together (Dt and Is, with 16 each: psalms had 39). There were also 28 quotations from what we now consider the New Testament: 4 from the gospels, 21 from the epistles. It seemed to me that these included more extensive quotations than I’m used to in the NT canon: long paragraphs quoted in their entirety.

(I meant to go through my New Jerusalem bible and do a similar count for Paul’s letters to Corinth, but haven’t yet gotten round to it. If anybody else has it, please do chime in!)

In addition to arguments from scripture, Clement argues from the natural world: this looks to me like an early instance of natural theology, which is an approach to theology still practiced in the Catholic tradition, less so in most Protestant traditions. The most unusual argument here was his appeal to the phoenix as an argument for the resurrection of Christ: he does not seem to discuss it as a legend, but as natural history about this remarkable creature that lived in Arabia. One wonders whether this was one of the reasons this letter didn’t make it into the canon — Richardson notes that other writers of the time were not so credulous of the story of the phoenix. I’m not sure if I wish it had; I can’t help but wonder how that would have shaped the debates over biblical literalism!!

As when Paul had written, 50 years earlier, the occasion for this letter was factionalism in Corinth: not that the church of Corinth had asked Rome for advice, but apparently reports of these troubles had made it to Rome, perhaps carried by travelers who had stopped in Corinth on the way to Rome and were surprised not to have received the hospitality for which the church of Corinth had been traditionally renowned. Clement is extremely concerned that the Corinthians have deposed their bishop (although this is almost certainly not yet a monepiscopal bishop in the later sense) without justifiable cause. He is very concerned with the tracing of authority: God sent Christ, Christ sent the apostles, the apostles appointed bishops (again, almost certainly not in the modern sense) and either provided for their successors, or successors were appointed with the consent of the whole church… the Greek is apparently a little ambiguous here, but in any case, this orderly handing over of authority is extremely important to Clement. It is good in and of itself, and overturning it, ousting bishops from their positions for no good reason, is a sin in and of itself: both because it can result in schism and because it is unjust persecution of just men.

I sure wish we had a surviving letter describing what had happened from the Corinthians’ point of view. I cannot help but read this letter in which one bishop asserts that another bishop didn’t do anything wrong with rather great skepticism, given various events in the church over the past ten years. (Sigh.) But anyway…

The other reason this letter is interesting to me is the explicit discussion of rivalry in the first part. I’m curious whether any Girardian/mimetic scholars have engaged with this text. If not, it would certainly be worth doing.

It’s interesting that Corinth is still “factional” 50 years after Paul wrote to them about this very thing.

Overall it makes sense to me that this letter was excluded from the canon. In addition to the issue of non-apostolic authorship (which was one of the criteria used by the early church in determining the canon), there’s not really very much gospel material here, and the emphasis on order for the sake of order and good reputation (while probably a very understandable concern in a time when Christians tended to be blamed by the surrounding pagan society) is a far cry from Paul’s appeal to the cross and the truth of the gospel.

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2 Responses to Impressions of First Clement

  1. J. K. Gayle says:

    I can’t help but wonder how that would have shaped the debates over biblical literalism!!


  2. Pingback: The Clements and the literal Phoenix(es) « BLT

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