Clement of Rome

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CLEMENT OF ROME , supposed author of a letter sent from the church of Rome to the church of Corinth in the last years of the first century ce. The date most commonly given for the letter is 9697. In the course of the second century the author of this letter came to be identified as Clement and was thought to have been the third bishop of Rome, after Peter and Paul. Although there is no particular reason to doubt that the person who actually penned the letter was so named, there is some doubt as to whether at this time Rome had a bishop in the later sense of the word, that is, a single head of the church.

The letter, known as 1 Clement, tells us nothing about the person who wrote it. Indeed, the letter is intended to be understood as the expression of a church rather than an individual. In response to disagreements at Corinth, it focuses on the need for harmony and the evils of discord. The author draws upon materials from the Bible (the Hebrew Bible in the Septuagint Greek translation) and from Greco-Roman tradition. He knows several of Paul's letters, perhaps including Hebrews. He also uses material similar to what we find in the synoptic Gospels, but it is doubtful whether he knew the Gospels in their present form.

First Clement gives early expression to ideas that would subsequently be very important in the Roman tradition and elsewhere. The leadership of the church is seen as standing in a chain of authority extending from God, through Christ, on through the apostles, and finally to the bishops or presbyters (the terms seem to be used interchangeably), who now stand as a group at the head of the individual churches. To overthrow the established ministers (as apparently had been done at Corinth) when they have been blameless in the performance of their duties is to rebel against God.

Some have interpreted 1 Clement as the earliest expression of Roman primacy, and Clement of Rome therefore as the first pope on record as having acted papally. This, however, is to exaggerate the authoritarian character of the letter and the individual importance of its author. It is a letter of exhortation from one church to another, both of which shared the tradition of having been evangelized by Peter and Paul.

Clement of Rome was subsequently but erroneously credited with a second "letter" (2 Clement ), really a sermon, probably written around the middle of the second century, and two third-century letters on virginity. In addition, the fourth-century pseudo-Clementine Homilies and Recognitions feature Clement as the protagonist of their dramatic narratives. There seems to be no reason to suppose that any historically reliable information about the first-century Clement can be derived from these materials. Subsequent to the time of the pseudo-Clementines, Clement of Rome seems not to have played a large role in Christian tradition. He was remembered as the first pope of whom more than the name alone was known, and as the author of the earliest extant piece of Christian literature outside the New Testament.


For the English-speaking reader, 1 Clement is most accessible through the translation and commentary in Robert M. Grant and H. H. Graham's The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 2, First and Second Clement (New York, 1965). The Greek text is available in Franz X. Funk's Die apostolischen Väter, revised by Karl Bihlmeyer (1924), new ed., edited by Wilhelm Schneemelcher (Tübingen, 1970). The scholarly discussion of 1 Clement is largely a German affair. The most useful monographs are Otto Knoch's Eigenart und Bedeutung der Eschatologie im theologischen Aufriss des ersten Clemensbriefes (Bonn, 1964); Karlmann Beyschlag's Clemens Romanus und der Frühkatholizismus (Tübingen, 1966); and Gerbert Brunner's Die theologische Mitte des ersten Klemensbriefs (Frankfurt, 1972). These books also illustrate the impact of Catholic-Protestant polemics on the study of early Christianity.

James F. McCue (1987)