ECA: Second Clement

This post is part of our ongoing series examining Early Christian Authority.
The Apostolic Fathers

The Apostolic Fathers

The Second Epistle of Clement represents the oldest extant non-canonical Christian homily, a sermon that urges followers of Christ to recognize their debts to God and repent of their sins while displacing themselves from the sinful world and committing themselves to self-control and good works. This writing’s identification with Clement of Rome appears to have come from the letter’s connections with the Corinthians church, its early composition (understood generally as coming from the early second century), and perhaps with the shared quotation of an unknown scriptural source (see I Clement 23.3-4 and II Clement 11.2-4). In the extant texts Second Clement tends to follow First Clement, as in Codex Alexandrinus and Codex Hierosolymitanus and likewise follows the pattern of First Clement  in attributing the homily to Clement of Rome. Many scholars have rejected this view based primarily upon stylistic and citation differences and Second Clement’s relatively uncommon usage in the early centuries, especially among proto-orthodox fathers. As such, the author of this work is unknown, as is the place of its writing. Common suggestions place its composition in early second century Corinth or Alexandria.

Second Clement is considerably shorter than First Clement and subsequently draws far less on outside literary sources. However, the variety of sources cited are far more diverse than those drawn upon in First Clement. Writings of the Old Testament are clearly cited eight times (about half as often as in First Clement), and of these five are introduced with a formal citations, indicating the author’s understanding of the authority and scriptural status of the writers that he was using. However, New Testament sources are clearly utilized fifteen times, eight of which use a formula introduction or with an attribution to the teaching of the “Lord.” This represents the one of the first times in early Christian non-canonical literature where the words and teachings of Jesus are consistently and explicitly referenced. Regarding the six citations that may have been drawn from either Jewish (OT) or Christian (NT) sources, two are formulaic and two use “saying” introductions.

Coptic Gospel of Thomas

Coptic Gospel of Thomas

In addition to references to material now found in the Christian Bible, there are several additional uses of material, all of which use a “saying” attribution. These are typically agrapha, sayings attributed to Jesus in the early Church that are not found in the canon of the New Testament. Of these, at least one seems to have come from the Gospel of Thomas (or at least the oral tradition now included in Thomas), though some scholars have argued that all six of these agrapha may have been included in the now mostly lost Gospel of the Egyptians. In addition to these clear references to written/oral materials, there are a number of allusions in Second Clement to the general writings and works of Paul, including an ethics list (4.3), references to athletes (7.1-3), potter and clay (8.2), and the Church as the body of Christ (14.2). Despite all of these references (some of which have been authoritative references) to written and oral materials, the clearest authority in this sermon belongs to the Lord Jesus, whose words are relied upon even in now unknown and non-canonical works. The writer of Second Clement seems to have had a high Christology, as Jesus is referred to as God (13.4), his words as scripture (2.4), and a variety of synoptic and unknown gospel sources referencing his words are utilized.

From our examination of this letter, we offer some tentative conclusions as follows: For the writer of Second Clement, the words of Jesus were authoritative wherever they may be found. This Christian’s understanding of Jesus Christ appears to be quite high for those suggesting extreme Christological development between the first and fourth centuries. Some have argued that this letter’s comments on the flesh and spirit have given this letter a Docetic flair, but this seems a highly unnatural way of reading Second Clement. The author appears to have access to portions of Isaiah and perhaps Ezekiel, though most of the references to the Old Testament could easily have come from memory of readings in a synagogue or early church. Additionally, the author was likely familiar with a collection of Pauline writings, which may have included the letters to Rome, Corinth (I and II), Galatians, Ephesians, I Timothy, and the Hebrews, as these works seem to be clearly referenced. Additionally, several phrases employed seem to reference I Peter, though these appear to be common enough within the wider range of early Christian writings to indicate their location within the general oral teachings of the church and not any specific letter.

Gospel Writers

Gospel Writers

The author of Second Clement  has a complicated relationship to the materials found in the now canonical Gospels, a feature that is fairly common among early Christian writings. In addition to having knowledge of the words of Jesus seemingly having come from materials that are now lost, the author has knowledge of either multiple synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, or Luke) or perhaps one of the synoptics along with a healthy dose of oral tradition that found its way into the gospels. Given the dating of the sermon in the second century, reliance upon, or at least familiarity with, a written gospel seems highly likely. I would posit that the author of Second Clement had access to Luke’s Gospel, as all but two possible gospel citations find parallels in the third gospel and two of the most authoritative citations of the words of Jesus can be clearly found in Luke’s Gospel (8.5 and 13.4).

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