The letter from the Christians in Rome to their fellow believers in Corinth known as I Clement is one of the earliest extant Christian documents outside the New Testament. There is widespread agreement in dating this letter 95-96 CE, in the year of the emperor Domitian or the first of his successor, Nerva. The letter reveals something of both the circumstances and attitudes of the Roman Christians, and how they differ from those of their fellow Christians in Asia Minor to whom the Revelation of John was addressed. Whereas in the Revelation of John, Rome is presented as the great harlot whose attacks upon the Church must be resisted, in I Clement one finds a much more positive view of the Roman government, and the elements of peace, harmony, and order that are so important to the author of this letter reflect some of the fundamental values of Roman society.
While the letter, which was sent on behalf of the whole church, does not name its writer, well-attested ancient tradition identifies it as the work of Clement, although precisely who he is is not clear. Tradition identifies him as the 3rd bishop of Rome after Peter, but this is unlikely because the office of monarchical bishop, in the sense intended by this later tradition, does not appear to have existed in Rome at this time.
Despite the popularity of this document in antiquity, relatively few manuscripts have survived. It was not until 1873 that a complete copy of the text was discovered by Bryennios in codex Hierosolymitanus that also includes II Clement, Epistle of Barnabas, and the Didache. The sources for the English translation in [LHH] 28-64 are:
- codex Alexandrinus (5th century, lacks 57.7-63.4)
- codex Hierosolymitanus (1056 CE)
- Latin translation (in a single 11th century MS)
- Syriac translation (in a New Testament MS, 1169-70 CE)
- Coptic translation (in 2 MSS, 4th and 7th century)
- English Translation of 1 Clement by J. B. Lightfoot
- English Translation of 1 Clement by Charles Hoole
- English Translation of 1 Clement by Roberts-Donaldson
- A Study in 1 Clement
Information on First Clement
On the internal evidence for the dating of 1 Clement, Welborn writes (The Anchor Bible Dictionary, v. 1, p. 1060):
The epistle is customarily dated to the end of the reign of Domitian (95 or 96 C.E.). In the first sentence of the letter, the author explains that the Roman church has been delayed in turning its attention to the dispute at Corinth by “sudden and repeated misfortunes and hindrances which have befallen us” (1:1). This statement is usually interpreted as an allusion to a persecution through which the church at Rome has just been passing. Since chap. 5 speaks of the Neronian persecution as something long past, the sporadic assaults of Domitian must be meant. But the langauge of 1:1 is so vague that one may doubt whether it refers to persecution at all (Merrill 1924: 160); and the evidence for a persecution under Domitian is tenuous (Merrill 1924: 148-73). In letters and speeches on concord, one often finds an apologetic formula like that which introduces 1 Clement; it was customary for one who gave advice on concord to excuse his delay by reference to personal or domestic hindrances (e.g., Dio Chrys. Or. 40.2; Aelius Aristides Or. 24.1; Socratic Ep. 31).
Laurence Welborn writes about the dating of 1 Clement (op. cit., p. 1060):
Thus one must rely upon more general statements in the epistle and in tradition. The account of the deaths of Peter and Paul in chap. 5 is not that of an eye-witness. The presbyters installed by the apostles have died (44:2), and a second ecclesiastical generation has passed (44:3). The church at Rome is called “ancient” (47:6); and the emissaries from Rome are said to have lived “blamelessly” as Christians “from youth to old age” (63:3). Thus the epistle cannot have been written before the last decades of the 1st century. There are references to the letter by the middle of the next century in the works of Hegesippus and Dionysius of Corinth (apudEuseb. Hist. Eccl. 3.16; 4.22; 4.23). Thus one may place the composition of 1 Clement between A.D. 80 and 140.
Loisy maintains that the author of 1 Clement was a distinguished Roman elder who flourished 130-140 and that this Clement was named in the Shepherd of Hermas (Vision, 8:3), which is also to be dated to the mid second century. Notably, a writing is mentioned in 1 Clement 23:3 in which the challenge is quoted, “These things we did hear in the days of our fathers also, and behold we have grown old, and none of these things hath befallen us.” Because this source document for 1 Clement must have been written when the hope of the imminent parousia was waning, and because 1 Clement itself must have dealt with the same issue, the document can scarcely be dated to the time of the first Christian generation. Other indications of lateness include the tradition in chapter 5 that Paul traveled to the extremities of the west (i.e., Spain) and the emphasis on the appointment of “bishops and deacons” (42:1-5). Most notably, there is stated to be “a rule of succession” for bishops and deacons who have “fallen asleep” (44:2). This suggests a second century date for 1 Clement.
Alvar Ellegård has argued for a date as early as the sixties of the first century for a few reasons in his Jesus: the Temple cult is mentioned in the present tense (pp. 38-39), Peter and Paul are mentioned as of “our generation” (pp. 39-40), and the letter seemed to have been written during a persecution, perhaps that of Nero (p. 40). On the other hand, as is pointed out with Hebrews, a mention of the Temple cult in the present does not prove that the author was writing before 70 CE. The reference to “our generation” is simply a contrast between the Christian era and the previously mentioned era of ancient Judaism. Finally, the supposed reference to persecution may be a literary device, as pointed out by Welborn. Besides, there were also persecutions under Domitian, Trajan, and other emperors.
The author writes because certain factions in Corinth have not given proper respect to the bishops and deacons and have set up new leaders in their place. On the occasion of the epistle, Welborn states (op. cit., p. 1059):
Whatever the causes of the conflict in Corinth, money seems to have been involved. Contrasting the former humility of the Corinthians with the ambition which has now given rise to strife, the author states that the Corinthians had once been ‘satisfied with the provision (ephodios) of Christ’ (2:1). Dionysius of Corinth, in his letter to Soter, observed that it had been the custom of the Roman church from the beginning ‘to send contributions (ephodia) to many churchs in every city’ (Euseb. Hist. Eccl. 4.23.10). From the Roman point of view of Clement, the younger generation of leaders at Corinth are dissatisfied with the provision for their church. What role did this play in the revolt against the presbyters? Were the established presbyters accused of embezzlement? Did the new leaders seek another contribution, to replace the funds their predecessors stole? Polycarp reports that the presbyter Valens was deposed from office for “avarice” (Ad Phil. 11). The unrest of the 1st and 2d centuries almost always had economic causes; and the agreements which brought strife to an end usually included concrete provisions which served the interests of all parties.
Related: Non Canonical Text
Related: Early Christian Writings