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Outside the new testament writings, the earliest Christian document we possess is an anonymous letter of the church of Rome to the church of Corinth. It was written about A.D. 96, and was so highly esteemed in Christian antiquity that for a while it was even reckoned as part of the canon in Egypt and Syria.99Clement of Alexandria cites it as Scripture, and it is found in Syriac and Coptic codices of the N.T. as well as being appended to the Codex Alexandrinus. Very ancient tradition ascribes the letter to a certain Clement who, according to the early episcopal lists, was the third bishop of Rome. The style of the document is simple and clear, though it is marked by some rhetorical devices, notably a fondness for synonyms. The importance of the letter lies in the picture it gives us of early Roman Christianity. Here we see a version of the gospel which, while reflecting Paulinism, is more strongly influenced by Hellenistic Judaism, and which, in several ways, foreshadows the leading emphases of later Roman Catholicism.
Some references in the letter itself indicate that it stems from the period of the second generation of Christians. The Neronian persecution of A.D. 64 is already past (chs. 5; 6): the Corinthians are viewed as an "ancient church" (ch. 47:6), and there are in Rome those who from youth to old age have lived irreproachable Christian lives (ch. 63:3). Yet Peter and Paul can be described as heroes belonging to "our own generation" (ch. 5:1); and while the apostles have passed away, there still 34 survive some whom they appointed as presbyters (ch. 44). Certain calamities have again befallen the church (chs. 1:1; 7:1). These are distinguished from the Neronian persecution (ch. 7:1), and are generally taken to refer to Domitian's capricious attacks on Christians. While we are not well informed about these, there is sufficient evidence to credit them.1010The relevant passages will be found in J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, Part I, Vol. I, pp. 104 ff. A further indication that the letter belongs to the first century is the lack of a knowledge of the canonical Gospels. All in all, there can be little doubt that A.D. 96 or 97 (the end of Domitian's reign or the beginning of Nerva's) is the correct date.
THE OCCASION OF THE LETTER
The occasion of the letter was a schism in the Corinthian church. The same factious spirit that Paul had encountered there had once again provoked serious dissension. It appears that some young men had been the ringleaders of a revolt which had succeeded in deposing the ruling presbyters (chs. 3:3; 44:6). Exactly what lay behind this action is not altogether clear. It may be that these youths, restless under the rule of clergy considerably older than themselves and who held office for life, sought to introduce a more flexible system into the ministry. Following the custom of the cults, they may have wished for annual elections and for a constant change of officers. It is probable, however, that an even deeper issue was involved. There are hints in the letter that the rebels claimed to have particular spiritual gifts which (in their judgment) were not receiving adequate recognition. They were ascetics observing continence (ch. 38:2). They boasted of "gnosis"—secret knowledge of the faith, that is, revealed only to the elite (ch. 48:5). Perhaps, too, they spoke with tongues, though the references are equally open to the interpretation that they were persuasive and powerful speakers (chs. 21:5; 57:2). These slight indications might lead us to suppose that the strife was between charismatics and the regular ministry. In the course of the Church's history those with special spiritual gifts have not seldom felt slighted if they received insufficient recognition or failed to be elected to office. This is the reverse of the situation reflected in the Didache, where the visiting prophet is held in high esteem and it is the claims of the local ministry that have to be pressed (chs. 11:3 ff.; 13; 15:1, 2).35
News of the dissension seems to have reached Rome through hearsay (ch. 47:7). It is possible that some traveling Romans had not been accorded the usual welcome, as visitors, by the rebellious faction, and on returning home had spread the report. This would account for the emphasis on hospitality (chs. 1:2; 11; 12). In any case there is no evidence that Corinth applied to Rome for a judgment in the matter. Rome's intervention is to be explained from other factors.
It was nothing extraordinary for leaders of one church to send a letter of advice and warning to another congregation. The apostolic prerogative exercised by Paul had set a wide precedent which was followed by the author of the seven letters in the Revelation, by Ignatius, by Polycarp, by Dionysius of Corinth,1111Eusebius, Hist. eccl., IV, ch. 23. by Serapion,1212Ibid., V, ch. 19; VI, 12:3–6. and by many others. Each Christian community seems to have felt a sufficient sense of responsibility for the others so that its leaders could admonish them with solicitude. In some instances, of course, the authors claimed a special right to speak. The seer of the Revelation and the martyr Ignatius are examples. But the point to bear in mind is that the local churches did not conceive of themselves as isolated and autonomous units. They were part of the wider Church, and were not unconcerned with what happened in other congregations. This is most forcibly brought home to us by the style of our document. For it is not written in the name of an individual, but of a congregation. It is very far from a papal decree, though it was doubtless written by one of the leaders of the Roman church. It makes no claim to superior authority, but, basing itself on the authority of Scripture, it tries to persuade an errant congregation to return to the right way.
Furthermore, that Rome should intervene in the internal affairs of the Corinthian church is partly to be explained by the close relations between the two cities. Refounded as a Roman colony in the middle of the first century, Corinth had built up a peculiarly intimate connection in trade and culture with the mother city. Indeed, excavations have made clear how exactly Corinth tried to mimic Rome—in its sculpture, architecture, organization, and even its names. Neither the church at Rome nor that at Corinth was, it is true, Latin in race or language. The predominant element in both congregations was doubtless converted Hellenistic Jews. Yet these affinities between the two cities help to explain even the 36 Christian connections. Corinth, moreover, by being a natural halt on the route between Rome and the East would be in constant touch with the imperial capital.
Yet it cannot be denied that these two explanations do not fully account for the tone of the letter. Rome very definitely regards it as her duty to intervene (ch. 63) and sends envoys to see that matters are put right (ch. 65). Something of her unique place as the church of the imperial city, and the church of Peter and Paul (ch. 5), must surely have been in the writer's mind. Among the Roman clergy (as we learn from Hermas, Vis., II, ch. 4) there seems to have been one who acted as a sort of "foreign secretary" for the church, sending abroad various advices and exhortations as well as gifts of charity.1313The far-flung charity of the Roman church is noted by Ignatius, Rom. 1:2. Cf. Dionysius of Corinth apud Eusebius, Hist. eccl. IV. 23:10. This implies more than a casual relation with other churches; and while this should not be pressed to vindicate much later papal claims, it does indicate that the Roman community took most seriously its responsibility as a sister church for the welfare of other congregations. Here, in germ, is that exercise of authority which was to become the papal primacy.
While the letter was written in the name of the church of Rome and its subscription did not originally mention Clement, there can be little doubt that he was the author. The Greek manuscripts attribute it to him, and, as early as A.D. 170, Dionysius of Corinth ascribes it to him. He speaks of it as the letter "which was previously written to us through Clement," and he mentions the fact it was still read publicly in the Corinthian church on Sundays ( Eusebius, Hist. eccl. IV. 23:11).
Precisely who Clement was is not altogether clear. The earliest episcopal lists, those of Irenaeus and Hegesippus, make him the third bishop of Rome. This tradition, however, implies that the monepiscopate was very early established in that city, and doubtless reads back a later situation into the more primitive period. Certainly the terms "bishop" and "presbyter" were not yet clearly distinguished in Clement's time, for he uses them as synonyms or at any rate to refer to the same class of persons, the church rulers (cf. chs. 42:4; 44:4, 5; 47:6; 57:1). Exactly what the situation was in those early years we do not know. The only hint we derive is from the Roman prophet 37 Hermas, who in the course of his visions relates rather epigrammatically that he is bidden to write "two little books and [to] send one to Clement and one to Grapte. Clement must then send it to the cities abroad, for that is his duty, and Grapte shall exhort the widows and orphans" (Hermas, Vis. II. 4:3). The date of this vision is the late first century, and it doubtless refers to our Clement, among whose duties was that of acting as a kind of foreign secretary for the church. That he had some of the functions later vested in the episcopate may well be true; but that he was exactly a "bishop" in the later sense is open to doubt. It must suffice to call him a leading—perhaps the leading—presbyter-bishop of the Roman church.
More than that we do not know of Clement. The attempts to identify him with the Clement mentioned in Paul's Philippians (ch. 4:3),1414Origen, Com. in John 6:36 and Eusebius, Hist. eccl., III, ch. 15. or with the family of the consul Titus Flavius Clemens, are only conjectures. The name is a very frequent one in this period, especially in military circles. Yet it must be conceded that the hypothesis that has been elaborated by J. B. Lightfoot, that Clement was a freedman of the Flavian family, is attractive and not entirely lacking in substance. The consul Titus Flavius Clemens was a cousin of Domitian, and according to Dion Cassius he was executed by the emperor on the charge of atheism. This may possibly mean that he was a Christian, since the accusation of atheism was frequently brought against the new faith. Furthermore, his wife Domitilla was exiled; and it appears that one of the oldest Roman catacombs, the Coemeterium Domitillae, was situated on an estate belonging to her. Slight as these indications are, they do lend support to the theory that the consul and his wife were Christians. By virtue of his position he certainly could never have been a church official; but it is not altogether unlikely that someone connected with his household and bearing his name was the author of our letter.
The most striking feature of Clement's letter is its blending of Old Testament and Christian themes with Hellenistic ideas and expressions. Its author is saturated in the Old Testament, citing the Septuagint with frequency and finding in the heroes of Israel the patterns of Christian conduct. He is familiar with Pauline writings, especially with I Corinthians, which he uses 38 as a model for his own letter, imitating its hymn on love (chs. 49; 50) and enlarging on its teachings regarding the resurrection (ch. 24) and schism (ch. 47). But these Jewish and Christian elements often take on a Stoic dress (e.g., chs. 20; 21); and while sometimes Clement speaks in the very tones of Paul, as for instance on justification by faith (ch. 32:4), his leading convictions are somewhat different.
There is a strain of moralism in his religion, which links him on the one hand with Hellenistic Judaism and on the other with Stoicism. Where, for Paul, Abraham was the hero whose faith alone made him right with God, for Clement, he is the pattern of obedience, of hospitality, of humility, and of righteousness (chs. 10:1, 7; 17:2; 31:2). Again, while our author is aware of the grave issue raised by the doctrine of justification by faith, viz., that men might continue to sin that grace should abound, the answer he gives to this dilemma is very different from Paul's. Where the latter in Rom., ch. 6, emphasizes the mystical dying of the Christian to sin, Clement stresses the moral imitation by the Christian of the Creator's good works (ch. 33). Once again, in defending the doctrine of the resurrection, Clement, like Paul, can base his case on a natural theology (ch. 24.; cf. I Cor. 15:36), and is well aware that Christ is the first fruits of those that slept (ch. 24:1; cf. I Cor. 15:20). Yet his crowning argument is not the victory won by Christ over sin and the law, but the incredible tale of the phoenix (ch. 25)! Finally, where Paul reaches to the very heart of the issue of schism by asking the incisive question, "Is Christ divided?" Clement expatiates on the orderliness of nature (ch. 20) and the consequences of envy and rivalry (chs. 4 to 6).
These instances must suffice to indicate the extent to which Clement has moved away from the Pauline gospel into an atmosphere more concerned with the moral life, and in particular with the virtues of humility and order. Where ethical injunctions are secondary to Paul's letters, they are primary in Clement. We observe, too, a tendency, very evident in chs. 20; 24 to 25, to emphasize natural theology. All these are marks of that later Romanism to which Clement's Letter points.
It is, however, in the treatment of church order that Clement most clearly foreshadows later Catholicism. The deposition of the local Corinthian rulers leads him to set forth a hierarchical view of the ministry and to stress the need of submission to the duly elected clergy. It is claimed (chs. 42 to 44) that the apostles appointed their first converts as presbyter-bishops 39and provided for a future ministry should these eventually die. It is not entirely clear how the new clergy were to be installed, save that the congregation was to elect them. It is possible that they were to be ordained by the remaining presbyter-bishops, though it is more likely that Clement intends something different, viz., that they were to be ordained by a special class of ministers who succeeded to the apostolic prerogatives (see note on ch. 44). Here we have in essence the doctrine of apostolic succession. Emphasis, moreover, is laid upon the liturgical functions of these presbyter-bishops who stand in the apostolic line. It is they who lead worship and have the right to "offer the gifts" (ch. 44:4), just as the duly appointed priests of the Old Testament performed the various sacrifices (chs. 42 to 44). The sacrificial understanding of the Lord's Supper here comes to the fore and is clearly connected with the theme of apostolic succession.
It has been already observed that Clement still uses the terms "presbyter" and "bishop" for the same class of persons, the church rulers, and we are not therefore to suppose that the monepiscopate has been fully established. The local church seems to be governed by a board of presbyter-bishops, though one of its number may have had special powers and privileges. What, however, is important to note is that the main lines of the later development are so plainly prefigured.
To summarize: Clement's Letter reflects the movement away from the Pauline faith to a type of Christianity in which ethical interests and concern for law and order predominate. This does not, however, exclude both acquaintance with, and some grasp of, the Pauline gospel. The cleavage is not so sharp as is sometimes made out. Nor do the Stoic expressions to be found in Clement or his interest in, and familiarity with, the pagan world (note chs. 37 and 55:1), indicate that he has capitulated to an alien culture. Rather must we say that Roman Christianity is giving evidence of its background in Hellenistic Judaism, and adapting itself to the imperial capital.
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