A Question I Was Asked:

What About 'The First Epistle of Clement'?

Through your comments about the Didache, you have recently interested me in other early but non-canonical church writings. 'The First Epistle of Clement' seems to have good authority, Can you tell me more?

UK Apologetics Reply:

Yes, there is indeed a First Epistle of Clement which is available to be read. It is not part of the New Testament canon but seems to be a genuine letter penned by Clement, a leader at Rome somewhere around 70-100 AD. By the way, the claims by certain Catholic writers that Clement was an 'early pope' are complete nonsense as far as one can tell; today we would call him a senior elder but some would use the term 'bishop.' There are actually two epistles of Clement but it is the first which has the strongest authority and the second one has been much questioned regarding its origination from the same author (rightly or wrongly).

The First Epistle does not contain Clement's name, instead being addressed by "the Church of God which resides in Rome to the Church of God which resides in Corinth." The phrase "sudden and repeated misfortunes and hindrances which have befallen us" (1:1) could be a reference to persecutions under Domitian, dating it to the 90s AD, but this is not certain. Another possible indication of the date comes from the fact that the church at Rome is called "ancient" and that the presbyters installed by the apostles have died (44:2), and a second church leading generation has also passed on (44:3). However, scholars certainly hold to a wide possibility of dates but usually limit the possibilities to the last two decades of the 1st century, and absolutely no later than AD 140. So it is earlyish, but probably not as early as the Didache.

The letter was occasioned by a dispute in Corinth (my, they seemed to have had their fair share!), which had led to the removal from office of several presbyters. It seems, however, that none of the presbyters were charged with moral offences and Clement seems critical of their removal. In chapter numbers, the book might initially appear quite long, but this is deceiving because most chapters are extremely brief. Clement also includes many references to the Old Testament, of which he demonstrates a sound knowledge, which one would expect. He also repeatedly refers to the Old Testament as 'Scripture' (again, as one would expect).

New Testament allusions include Clement's admonition to "Take up the epistle of the blessed Paul the Apostle" (47:1) which was written to this Corinthian audience; a reference which seems to imply written documents available at both Rome and Corinth. Clement also alludes to the First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians and may also possibly refer to Paul's epistles to the Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and Philippians, numerous phrases from the Epistle to the Hebrews, and very possibly - but less clearly - some material from Acts, James, and I Peter.

The letter is - without question - doctrinally somewhat thin which certainly indicates it is not a document of any of the early heretical groups which sought to persuade on some 'new teaching,' yet a few have thought that this doctrinal thinness legislates against it coming from a major early church senior elder. I disagree, I cannot see anything here but a genuine early church letter which is not, however, canonical.

This epistle can be read in the J.B. Lightfoot English translation here. Give it a read!

Robin A. Brace. September 5th, 2015.