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The document that goes under this misleading name is neither a letter nor a genuine work of Clement of Rome. It is an anonymous Christian sermon—the earliest that has come down to us. It was written at some time before the middle of the second century; and while scholars differ widely on its place of origin, there are a number of indications that it stems from Egypt. Its importance lies in the picture it gives us of early Christian preaching.
Here is a homily that some presbyter539539It would appear from ch. 17:3 that the author associates himself with the ruling body of presbyters. has written out with a view to reading it to a congregation immediately after the Scripture lesson (ch. 19:1). It is simple, direct, and without any claim to style or clear organization. Taking a verse from the lection (Isa. 54:1), the preacher briefly expounds it and passes on to exhort his hearers to a life of moral purity and steadfastness in persecution, emphasizing the need to repent in the light of the coming judgment. He is addressing Gentile converts (chs, 1:6; 3:1; 17:3), who are in danger of falling a prey to Gnostic teachings (ch. 10:5). In consequence, he stresses the divinity of Christ (ch. 1:1), the resurrection of the flesh (ch. 9), and the way in which the Church is the continuity of the incarnation (ch. 14). These theological emphases are sometimes tinged with Gnostic speculation (chs. 12; 14), but they are nonetheless aimed against basic Gnostic tenets which saw in Christ a being intermediary between God and man, and denied the significance of the body. By holding that the material world was the creation of an evil or impotent god who was contrasted with the good God revealed in Christ, these Gnostics 184rejected the reality of the incarnation and indulged in a moral antinomianism, on the grounds that bodily life was inherently evil. Against such views our sermon is directed.
The Origin of the Homily
How this homily ever came to be associated with Clement's name and dubbed his Second Letter is something of a riddle. This had, however, occurred as early as Eusebius’ time, for he mentions the fact that a second letter is ascribed to Clement, though he rejects it as unauthentic on the grounds that it is not cited by early writers.540540Hist. eccl., III, ch. 38. So also Jerome, De Vir. Ill. 15. Yet the sermon was held in high esteem in some areas of the Church, for it forms part of the New Testament canon in two manuscripts that have survived. In the Codex Alexandrinus (fifth century) it comes at the close of the New Testament after Clement's genuine Letter; while in a Syrian manuscript of the twelfth century the two Letters of Clement are inserted between the Catholic Epistles and the Epistles of Paul. Furthermore, the Apostolic Canons (a work emanating from Syria in the late fourth century) list Clement's two Letters as part of the New Testament (canon 85). It is first in Severus of Antioch541541For the passage see J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, 1890, Part I, Vol. I, pp. 182, 183. (sixth century) that the destination of the Second Letter to the Corinthians is made clear, though a century earlier this is probably assumed by Pseudo-Justin.542542Ibid., p. 178, Resp. ad Orthod. 74.
Somehow or other our sermon became attached to Clement's genuine Letter. This must have happened by the middle of the second century, for by A.D. 180 the New Testament canon was sufficiently settled not to have admitted such an intruder. Indeed, it is not impossible that Irenaeus543543Adv. haer. III. 3:3. knew of the homily as an addendum to Clement's Letter to the Corinthians. For in listing the contents of that work he introduces one doctrine—that of the fiery judgment—that is notably absent from it, but that plays a significant role in our sermon (chs. 16:3; 17:7). Strangely enough, this same doctrine is also attributed by Pseudo-Justin to Clement's Letter to the Corinthians.
Various attempts have been made to explain this situation. It is sometimes argued that the confusion could have originated only in Corinth. It was that church which possessed Clement's genuine Letter, and from time to time read it at worship on 185Sundays.544544Eusebius, Hist. eccl. IV. 23:11. What could be more likely than that some treasured but anonymous homily of that church should be bound up with Clement's Letter, and so become a part of the lectionary manuscript? Furthermore, it is claimed that one reference in our sermon makes it very clear that it stems from Corinth. In ch. 7 the preacher compares the Christian life to the Greek games, and even mentions the fact that the athletes "come by sea" to participate (ch. 7:1). Is this not a decisive indication that the local Isthmian games are in his mind?545545So Lightfoot, op cit., Part I, Vol. II, p. 197, and G. Kr ger in Studies in Early Christianity, ed. by S. J. Case, pp. 423, 424, Zondervan, New York, 1928. The word katapleō literally means "sail to the shore," and it would appear that the preacher was thinking of the crowds landing on the Corinthian Isthmus.
Against this view two objections can be raised. For one thing, Corinth was not the only place where Clement's genuine Letter was prized or read in worship. Alexandria was another; for Clement of Alexandria several times cites it as Scripture,546546For the passages see Lightfoot, op cit., Part I, Vol. I, pp. 158–160. apparently viewing it as an apostolic writing and identifying its author with the Clement in Phil. 4:3. It is just as likely that Alexandria should be the source of the confusion as Corinth. Moreover, the reference to the games in ch. 7 cannot be unduly pressed. The verb katapleō can be used in a derived sense, meaning little more than "resort to"; and the popularity of the Isthmian games was matched by that of those in other centers. Indeed, there were important games held in Alexandria.
Another theory, originally put forward by Hilgenfeld,547547Novum Testamentum extra canonem receptum, I, Leipzig, 1866, p. XXXIX. In the later ed. (1876), he argued the homily was an early work of Clement of Alexandria. has won a good deal of acceptance, due to its elaboration by Harnack.548548Chronologie, 1897, Vol. I, pp. 438–450, and Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft, 6, 1905, pp. 67–71. More recently it has been defended by Goodspeed.549549The Apostolic Fathers, pp. 83, 84, 1950. It is contended that our homily is the lost letter that Bishop Soter of Rome (A.D. 166–174) wrote to the church of Corinth. This letter, as we learn from the reply by the bishop of Corinth, Dionysius,550550Eusebius, Hist. eccl. IV. 23:11. was much valued, and read in public 186worship. There are two slight indications that our sermon comes from Rome. One is the curious use of a lost apocalypse (possibly that of Eldad and Modat, mentioned in Hermas, Vis. II. 3:4) by both Clement of Rome (ch. 23:3, 4) and our homily (ch. 11:2–4). The other is the similarity of our work, in its stress on repentance and the end of the world, to the Roman Shepherd of Hermas itself.
The difficulties, however, of this thesis are insuperable. A sermon is not a letter; and there could be nothing more foreign to Roman Christianity of A.D. 170 than the tone of our homily. Its semi-Gnostic phrases, despite its attack on Gnostic ideas; its speculative spirit; its lack of mention of the monepiscopate,551551Only presbyters are referred to in ch. 17: 3, 5. of the Logos Christology, and of tradition—all these factors tell against its Roman origin. Even more decisive is its use of an apocryphal gospel—the Gospel of the Egyptians—of which more will be said later. Here we may merely note that Hippolytus, who embodied the distinctively Roman tradition and who lived so near to Soter's time, viewed that gospel as quite heretical.552552Ref. haer. V. 7:9. It is surely incredible that at a time when the fourfold gospel had triumphed, a Roman bishop should have relied on an apocryphal one for three or more citations! Then again, Dionysius does not say that Soter sent a homily with a covering letter—which we must assume on this theory. He says Soter sent a letter; and by no stretch of the imagination can our document be called that. Furthermore, the alleged similarities of our homily with the Shepherd of Hermas are not very persuasive. It is rather the marked differences between the two works that are striking. Hermas, for example, insists that only one repentance after baptism is permissible; our preacher mentions no such limit. Again, Hermas’ Christology is tinged with adoptionism, while our author thinks in terms of preexistent spirit becoming incarnate. Finally, while both Clement's genuine Letter and our homily use some lost apocalypse, we are not forced to assume that Rome was the only place where this document was current.
The only situation that really fits the temper and tone of our sermon is Alexandria. This was perceived and worked out by Vernon Bartlet as early as 1906;553553In Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft, 7, 1906, pp.123–135. and Streeter, quite independently, arrived at the same conclusion some twenty years later.554554The Primitive Church, pp. 244–253, Macmillan, 1929. The church of Alexandria was the fountainhead of 187Gnostic speculation; and even the orthodox in that center cannot have been unaffected by its spirit. The strong Platonic note that underlies the discussion of the pre-existent Church in ch. 14 is thoroughly Alexandrine, and reflects the world of thought out of which Valentinus developed his "aeons." Then again, our preacher relies on an apocryphal gospel which (so far as we know) was in use only in Alexandria, and which itself shows Gnostic traces (cf. the citation in ch. 12:2). It is the Gospel of the Egyptians, some fragments of which have been preserved by Clement of Alexandria.555555See M. R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament, pp. 10–12, 1924. The logion in ch. 12:2 comes from that gospel (see note ad loc.), and we may assume that other sayings not to be found in our Gospels (chs. 4:5; 5:2–4) are similarly derived from it. Since, too, it is likely that this Egyptian gospel was a second century product based on the Synoptic tradition, other quotations in our sermon may be drawn from it, rather than from their original sources. Once more, the manuscript tradition of our homily is entirely Eastern. No Latin translation of it has turned up, nor does it seem to have been known in the West. Finally, we may emphasize the high regard shown by Clement of Alexandria for his Roman namesake's genuine Letter. If this could be treated as Scripture and publicly read in Alexandria, it is just as likely that the confusion of the documents originated there as in Corinth. Indeed, in the light of the other factors, it would seem that some local, anonymous homily was early attached in Alexandria to a lectionary manuscript that concluded with Clement's Letter. Thus our sermon came eventually to be passed off as his Second Epistle.
As we have already indicated, the purpose of this homily is to call the congregation to repentance (chs. 8:2; 9:7, 8; etc.), to urge them to steadfastness in persecution (chs. 3:1–4; 5; 19:3, 4), and to challenge some basic Gnostic ideas. There is a stress upon the divinity of Christ (ch. 1:1) and the resurrection of the flesh (ch. 9). Much is said about Christian purity, about the need to keep the seal of baptism free from defilement (chs. 6:9; 7:6), to confess Christ by our actions, and to engage in acts of charity (ch. 16:4). Such acts, it is pointed out, lighten the load of sin. This is a characteristic emphasis of the second 188century where, after the passing of the first enthusiasm of the faith and in view of Gnostic antinomianism, the need was always present to stress the moral life and obedience to the commandments. Hence such un-Pauline phrases occur as: "Fasting is better than prayer" (ch. 16:4), or, "By giving up the soul's wicked passions we shall share in the mercy of Jesus" (ch. 16:2). The tone of the homily is removed from Paul's gospel of faith and justification. The accent falls rather on repentance and good works.
The urgent note of the old eschatology is still present (chs. 12:1; 17:4–7), and the day of judgment is already on its way (ch. 16:3).
The most notable theological idea, however, in the sermon is the doctrine of the Church. In a difficult passage (ch. 14), dependent on the Platonic conception of the phenomenal world as a copy of the immaterial forms, the author works out a view of the Church as the continuity of the incarnation, and connects it with the need for Christian purity. The Church, he claims, is a pre-existent, spiritual reality which took visible form in the flesh of Christ, and is similarly manifested in the flesh of Christians. To abuse the flesh, therefore, is to abuse the spiritual reality of the Church, the flesh being the copy of the "spirit." On the other hand, to keep the flesh pure is to preserve the Church from defilement. As a result, the Christian shares in the spiritual reality of the Church, and in return for giving up his lustful passions, he "gets back," as it were, a reward by sharing in "spirit." The line of thought is not altogether clear; but the underlying conviction is that the Church is a spiritual reality manifested in the incarnation and also in the bodies of true Christians.
Finally, the references to Scripture may be mentioned. This sermon is remarkable for distinguishing between the two classes of writings in the Church—the "Bible" and the "Apostles" (ch. 14:2). The "Bible" (literally, the "books") refers to the Septuagint; the "Apostles" are the apostolic writings. Both were read from in Christian worship, as Justin tells us (Apol. I, ch. 67); and these lections were immediately followed by the sermon, as our preacher himself indicates (ch. 19:1). By his time the apostolic writings had been elevated to the status of "Scripture" beside the Septuagint; for in one place (ch. 2:4) he introduces a Gospel saying (Matt. 9:13) by the phrase, "Another [passage of] Scripture says." This is the first clear instance we have of such use of a "New Testament" on a level 189with the Old.556556Cf. the passage in Barn. 4:14, quoting Matt. 12:14; but it may well be there that the author imagines he is citing from the Septuagint. Our preacher appears familiar with much of the New Testament as we know it; though some of the supposed citations are short phrases that cannot be unduly pressed.
To summarize: We have in this document the earliest Christian sermon that has been preserved. It is likely a product of the Alexandrine church before the middle of the second century. It is interesting as indicating the use of an apocryphal gospel, as evidencing certain Gnostic influences while combating basically Gnostic ideas, and as developing the view of the Church as the continuity of the incarnation.
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