To “kick off” our Early Christian Authority Series, we begin with First Clement, which is the earliest non-canonical, specifically Christian, and still extant writing available to us today. First Clement claims to have been written from the Church at Rome to the Church at Corinth, and seems to have been written around 95-96 CE (though I hasten to note that it could have been composed almost anytime between 64 and 99 CE). Since at least the mid- to late- second century, First Clement was thought to have been written by Clement of Rome, who was the second or third bishop of Rome, holding office from around 92 to 99 CE. Additionally, from at least the mid-second century until sometime in the fifth century, First Clement was used a “scripture” by various Christian communities, being read aloud during corporate worship in Corinth and other Christian communities. This is attested to by Dionysius of Corinth and Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History, 4.23), as well as the letter’s inclusion in the fifth-century Codex Alexandrinus. This post broadly examines First Clement’s use of existing sources of authority.
The First Epistle of Clement addresses a division in the Corinthian church in which elders had been forcibly deposed from their ecclesiastical offices and replaced. To remedy this situation, this epistle urges the Corinthian church to remove their new leaders and reinstate the old. Clement outlines an early understanding of “apostolic succession,” forming a theological argument using a variety of Old Testament sources concerning envy, which he argues has long moved sinners to oppose the righteous, in this case those who had been rightfully chosen by the Apostles. Though Clement’s case rests mainly upon texts taken from what are now termed the Old Testament, he cites and alludes to several New Testament passages as well.
The vast majority of Clement’s citations of and allusions to what is now canonical material come from the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, a good number of which are rather lengthy and many of which would today be understood as “proof text” interpretations. J.B. Lightfoot’s critical edition of Clement (The Apostolic Fathers, Edited by Harmer, Baker: 1988) notes 85 uses of material that are clearly references to Old Testament literature, almost all of which are from the Septuagint. Additionally, there are five uses of material from the Old Testament Apocrypha, plus two unknown uses of material, likely from Pseudo-Ezekiel and the Assumption of Moses. Finally, there are seven uses of material that may be from either of the two testaments, that is, use of language which appears in both the Jewish scriptures and Christian writings. In addition to literary and linguistic connections, Clement displays an extensive knowledge of the narrative of the Old Testament, consistently referencing Biblical characters and narratives. Of the 85 clear literary uses of Old Testament material, 19 are clearly formulaic uses of scripture, introduced with “it is written”, “scripture says”, and the like. An additional 42 uses of material are used without formulaic introductions. The final 24 uses of OT material use a variation of “said”, where the speaker is sometimes God and sometimes ambiguous.
Turning to the New Testament, Clement’s use of materials becomes more difficult to distinguish, as his language and writing exude similarities with now canonical works, especially those of Paul. Bruce Metzger, for example, finds almost all of the New Testament cited or alluded to in Clement. For Lightfoot, in addition to the seven uses of material that may from either the Old or New Testament, there are seven clear uses of material now included in the New Testament canon. Of these fourteen potential uses of New Testament material, one is introduced with “it is written”, six use “said” introductions, and seven have no formal introduction. No passage that is clearly from only New Testament sources is introduced formulaically. Of the seven passages that are clearly New Testament sources, six are short sayings or phrases from Acts, Titus, two from the Synoptics (most likely both from Matthew, I would argue), I Peter, and Hebrews. The remaining citation is considerably longer, comes introduced as words that Jesus spoke, is granted to have the status of commandment, and apparently stems from Clement’s knowledge of Matthew, Luke, or the hypothetical Q. Uses that may be from Old or New Testament sources come from James and/or I Peter, Revelation, I Corinthians, and four uses of Hebrews. Additionally, moving from textual concerns to what the text actually says, Clement holds apostolic succession holds a high regard (ch. 42 and 46), knows of Peter and Paul’s martyrdoms (ch. 5), knows of at least one letter of Paul to the Corinthians (ch. 47), and holds scripture as authoritative (ch. 53).
By way of offering some tentative conclusions concerning this letter’s use of scripture and authority, Clement clearly holds certain writing as authoritative and scriptural, at the very least those he introduces with an “it is written.” However, it is not immediately clear which writings Clement holds as authoritative and/or scriptural. By virtue of his extensive use of certain Jewish scriptures, numerous Old Testament writings seem to be understood as both scripture and authority, especially works such as the Psalms, Job, and Isaiah which Clement almost certainly had copies of when writing his letter. Likewise, the oral/written traditions regarding the words of Jesus are certainly viewed as authoritative for Clement. Apostolic traditions, especially apostolic succession, and the writings of Paul to the church at Corinth are understood to hold some level of authority. Other writings of the New Testament are clearly cited less than the writings of the OT and typically in less formally authoritative ways.