Scripture in 1 Clement: Composite Implications

This post is part of an ongoing series examining the function and use of scripture in the early Christian writing known as 1 Clement.

Saint Clement of RomeBy way of summary, I briefly outline some of the implications of the argument that Clement compositely cited the Gospel of Matthew. First, this citation suggests Clement knew and had read Matthew’s Gospel. This is contrary to perspectives like that of Helmut Koester which reject Clement’s knowledge of written gospel accounts.[1] While he almost certainly did not have a copy of Matthew’s Gospel open before him while writing his letter, Clement was certainly familiar enough with that text to cite it from memory with at least allusive accuracy.

Second, the manner in which Clement uses Matthew suggests that while he found it useful for the construction of his theological argument, the ultimate reason he cites that gospel is to get to the words of Jesus. That is, Clement conceived of Matthew’s writing not as the final authority for life and faith, but as a means to access the final authority for the Christian—the words of the Lord Jesus. This is not to suggest that Clement did not accord any measure of authority to the written texts of the Church, but rather indicates that he subjugated the interpretations of these texts to the authority of Christ, whose cross and resurrection were the “inviolable charter” of the faith.[2]

Apostolic Fathers IconThird, composite citation offers insights into Clement’s interpretive hermeneutic and conception of the malleability of now-New Testament texts. For Clement, specific citation information (addresses, authors, speakers) did not matter nearly as much as if those speaking were inspired by the Spirit of God to utter the truth. Even then, the contents of what was spoken were not beyond stylistic and rhetorical modification or quotation from memory. As noted earlier, these practices place Clement very much in line with other writers of this period. These factors suggest that Clement found now-New Testament writings meaningfully authoritative—that is, appropriate guides for the Christian life—but not yet universally binding.

Finally, Clement’s practice of composite citation sheds light on post-Apostolic conceptions of scripture by showing one method of literary citation and pointing toward what really mattered for Christians during this period. The practice of composite citation—by no means limited to Clement, but certainly most evident in his letter—indicates that meaning rather than form was the primary impetus for citing sources during this period. Our standards of copyright and attribution simply did not exist in the ancient world and the practice of composite citation is one consequence of that fact. Additionally, we must recognize how motivations impacted approaches to scripture. Clement was primarily interested in resolving a schism in the Corinthian church by appealing to the authority of Christ, not trying to create the New Testament canon. While his use of scripture can provide evidence for his wider theology of scripture, these concerns must always be considered in light of the practical theological matters being addressed in early Christian writings.

[1] Koester, “Apostolic Fathers,” 136-7.

[2] A striking parallel to the view expresses by Ignatius of Antioch in his Letter to the Philadelphians 8.2.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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