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The earliest Christian letter outside of the New Testament comes from Clement, supposedly the bishop of Rome. The letter doesn’t actually name its author, but it was traditionally attributed to him. Scholars typically date it to the late first century. The letter was written to the Corinthian church in response to an incident involving the ouster of the elders of the church. It is quite a long letter (ten thousand words) and calls for the group that took over to hand the leadership back to the elders.
In On the Historicity of Jesus (OHJ) Richard Carrier examines the letter to see if it provides any evidence for or against the historicity of Jesus. Some odd features cause Carrier to conclude this letter is evidence for a mythical Jesus. He summarizes those odd features as “of such great length, filled with so many opportunities to reference the facts of Jesus’ life but never doing so, and with scripture and revelation the only mentioned sources for Jesus’ deeds and sayings” (p. 315).
A translation of First Clement is available at Peter Kirby’s Early Christian Writings.
One silence I found particularly striking was in Chapter 17 where we read, “Let us be imitators also of them which went about in goatskins and sheepskins, preaching the coming of Christ. We mean Elijah and Elisha and likewise Ezekiel, the prophets, and besides them those men also that obtained a good report.” Where is John the Baptist in this list? Lest you think he is one of the men “that obtained a good report”, he is not. Those men are detailed in the rest of the chapter, and the next, and are all Old Testament figures. Later in 36:4 when writing, “Thou art my Son, to-day have I begotten thee”, he cities the Psalms in full, not any encounter with John the Baptist. Biblical scholars assure us that the story of Jesus’ baptism by John is one of the truest pieces of information recorded in the gospels, yet he doesn’t even merit a passing mention. (But, perhaps this is merely another indication the story was invented by Mark.)
As Carrier points out, when recounting the evils of envy in chapters 4 through 6, Clement can’t find a place for the envy of the Pharisees leading to the crucifixion of Jesus. This despite the fact the examples given range from the ancient, to Paul and Peter, and even examples of a more general nature. Chapter 7 follows, on the subject of repentance. Though the blood of Christ gets a mention as bringing repentance to all, no sayings of Jesus on the subject are produced.
In my view, it is not just that Jesus based examples are missing from places they should be. It is also that the letter is structured the way it is. 1 Clem 45:2-4 says, “Look diligently into the scriptures… for ye will not in them find the just expelled by holy men. The just were persecuted, but it was by the lawless;”. Because of this framing of the topic, in terms of what is in the Hebrew scriptures, we might not expect to find a mention of Jesus’ crucifixion, but why frame it that way in the first place? Surely, the best possible example here is of the Jews violating their own laws to kill Jesus. I think it is very odd we don’t find each section of examples, throughout the letter, topped off with an example from the life of Jesus.
Holy Ghost Writer
The view of Clement is that the authors of the Hebrew scriptures were channeling the Holy Spirit. In 45:2 we read “Look diligently into the scriptures, which are the true sayings of the Holy Spirit”. But, apparently, sometimes the Holy Spirit was merely a conduit for Jesus. In giving examples of humility, peacefulness, and obedience to God, Clement tells us Jesus spoke to us through the Hebrew scriptures, using the Holy Spirit as ghost writer (pun intended).
[Psalm 34:11-19]Come, ye children, hearken unto me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
What man is he that wisheth for life and would fain see good days?
Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips that they speak no guile.
Turn away from evil and do good;
seek peace and pursue it.
The eyes of the Lord are over the just, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to destroy their memorial out of the land.
The righteous cried, and the Lord heard him, and delivered him out of all his troubles.
[Psalm 32:10]Many are the afflictions of the sinner, but they that hope in the Lord, mercy shall compass them round about.
Stranger still, when Clement wants to tell us Jesus was of a “lowly condition” he doesn’t produce an actual story about Jesus, he simply cites Isaiah 53 as evidence.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the sceptre of the majesty of God, came not in the arrogance of boasting and pride, though he was able to do so; but in humility, even as the Holy Spirit spake concerning him.
For he saith,
[Isaiah 53]Lord, who hath believed our report, and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed? Like a child have we delivered our message before him; he is as a root in a thirsty land. There is no form nor glory in him, and we beheld him, and he had neither form nor comeliness, but his form was despised, lacking comeliness, beyond the form of the sons of men. He was a man stricken and in toil, knowing how to bear infirmity, for his face was turned away; it was dishonoured and held in no reputation.
He beareth our sins and suffereth pain on our account, and we esteemed him as one in toil, stricken and afflicted.
He was wounded for our sins, and for our transgressions did he suffer infirmity; the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we were healed.
All we, like sheep, have gone astray, every one hath erred in his own way,
and the Lord hath given him up for our sins; and he, through affliction, openeth not his mouth. He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearers is dumb, so openeth he not his mouth.
In his humiliation his judgment was taken away, and who shall declare his generation, for his life is taken from the earth;
for the iniquity of my people he hath come unto death.
And I will give the wicked in requital for his burial, and the rich for his death: for he did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: and the Lord willeth to purify him from stripes.
If ye make an offering for sin your soul shall prolong its days.
And the Lord willeth to take away from the travail of his soul, to show him light and to form him by knowledge, to justify the righteous man who serveth many well; and their sins he shall bear himself.
Wherefore he shall receive the inheritance of many, and shall divide the spoils of the strong, because his soul was delivered up unto death, and he was numbered among the transgressors,
and he bore the sins of many, and was given up for their sins.
And again he saith,
[Psalm 22:6-8]I am a worm and no man — a reproach of men and despised of the people;
all they who saw me mocked me, they spake with their lips, they shook the head; he hoped in God, let him deliver him, let him save him, because he desireth him.
See, beloved, what is the example that hath been given unto us; for if the Lord so humbled himself, what shall we do who have through his mercy come under the yoke of his grace?
What must the situation have been regarding knowledge of Jesus to produce passages like these? It can’t be the one biblical scholars like to imagine; there is no rich oral tradition to draw from. Together with the silences regarding the deeds of Jesus during his life these passages present a serious problem for a historicist understanding of this letter.
The Sayings of Jesus
In his extensive quotation of the Hebrew scriptures, Clement twice cites scriptural passages that don’t match anything we have today (23:3-4 and 46:2). Similarly we also find two passages describing things Jesus spoke that, while resembling sayings in the gospels, are slightly different from them. If these are indeed things a historical Jesus said, Clement probably didn’t get them from a gospel we have. Indeed, the aforementioned silences all but require that to be the case.
The possibility exists though that we are indeed seeing a preserved memory of Jesus’ teaching. The problem is, it is tough to see how this can outweigh the strange features already reviewed above. We know that eventually a large body of sayings were attributed to Jesus despite not being from him. We also know that in Paul’s letters he appears to at least have received some of his information via direct revelation from Jesus. That Clement quotes from unknown (to us) scripture also leaves open the possibility he is doing the same and, like in Chapter 22, attributing the scripture to Jesus.
13:2 Show mercy, that ye may obtain mercy; forgive, that it may be forgiven unto you; as ye do, so shall it be done unto you; as ye give, so shall it be given unto you; as ye judge, so shall ye be judged; as ye are kindly affectioned, so shall kindness be showed unto you; with whatsover measure ye measure, with the same shall it be measured unto you.
13:3 With this commandment and with these exhortations let us strengthen ourselves, that we may walk obedient to his holy words with all humility. For the Holy Scripture saith,
13:4 [Isaiah 66:2]Upon whom shall I have respect but upon him that is meek and quiet, and that trembleth at my words?
Carrier thinks the quotation in 13:2 looks like a proverb, perhaps a lost one. Against the notion that Clement is quoting a lost scripture here are the following points: (1) unlike in Chapter 22 he doesn’t say it is through the Holy Spirit that Jesus is speaking and (2) when introducing the next quotation in 13:4, which is from scripture, he says so. So, I don’t buy that explanation. On the other hand I also don’t see why this couldn’t be the kind of thing someone received through revelation. That is a mere possibility however, and therefore I think this slightly favors a historicist interpretation.
The same could be said of the other saying of Jesus found in Clement’s letter (46:7-8). It is a combination of sayings found in the gospels but slightly changed. In this case I agree with Carrier that the saying best fits a church community settings, in which case it couldn’t be an actual saying of Jesus, since there wouldn’t have been a church when he was alive.
From Jacob According to the Flesh
There is a passage in the letter that is more challenging for a mythicist interpretation.
A discussion of the phrase translated as “according to the flesh” is beyond what I want to go into here. The mythicists certainly think Jesus took on the ‘likeness’ of flesh before his heavenly sacrifice. The merits of that view though aren’t what I have in mind as being challenging. It is where in the passage the phrase occurs. The priests that came from Jacob were certainly ordinary flesh and blood human beings. The same can be said of the kings and rulers of Judah. So why is Jesus, who only took on the likeness of flesh sandwiched in between those two references? Shouldn’t he be set apart somehow? Perhaps I’m making too much of it, but it seems strange to me to find Jesus casually enumerated among people who came from Jacob in the ordinary way.
In the end there are indications pointing in different directions. Without the two sayings of Jesus and the listing of Jesus among the things that came from Jacob I would find the letter to strongly side with the mythicist position; at perhaps as much as a 4 to 1 ratio. The sayings don’t reduce it by much but perhaps it might bring it down to a 3 to 1 ratio instead. The Jacob passage however I feel is at least 2 to 1 against mythicism.
Putting that all together the final ratio would be 3 to 2 in favor of mythicism.
First Clement: 3/2