The Bible is kind of a big deal, anyone with awareness of Western literature knows that. To the Christian, the Bible is the most important volume ever compiled. It is the ultimate sourcebook of our knowledge of God, and the Gospel of his salvation for us sinners. It clarifies things we should already know (such as sin) and it guides and teaches the reader about navigating this fragile life in light of eternity and perfection.
Something that can make the Bible difficult to read, however, is its sheer uniqueness. It is so very different from everything else we read today, utilizing literary styles and techniques that have been effectively dead for centuries, even millennia. Wouldn’t it be handy if we could read something else that’s similar to the Bible in style and content? Wouldn’t that give us a fresh sense of the “reality” of the Scriptures? It would demonstrate that the Bible is not simply an isolated document for a world that might as well be a fairy tale, but an actual chronicle of literature about actual events in the very same world that we live in!
Enter the Epistle of St. Clement of Rome. Just a decade or two after the death of the last of the Apostles, the third-ever bishop of Rome, Clement, wrote a letter to the church in Corinth. This was, maybe, fifty years after St. Paul’s letters to them, so a generation had passed, and you know what? The Corinthians were experiencing much the same problems that they’d been having before! Here’s an outline of the letter, with chapter numbers:
1-3 Introductory thanksgivings
3-4 Purpose: Corinthian sin of rivalry & schism
5-23 Great Cloud of Witnesses
- 5-12 Examples of godly living
- 13-15 Imitate good people, not bad people
- 16-18 Though even good people still sin
- 19-20 All this is rooted in God’s patience and care
- 21-23 So obey God and seek after Him
24-39 Life in God’s grace
- 24-27 The resurrection is the source of our hope
- 28-32 We are God’s own people, live like it!
- 33-38 Obey God according to your station in life
- 39 But people who mock God are ignorant
40-61 Reconciliation & Love
- 40-44 God has always set an Order for his people
- 45-47 The Corinthian rebels violated that Order
- 48 We all must repent for this!
- 49-53 Love intercedes for the guilty
- 54-56 So be willing to intercede sacrificially!
- 57-58 And if you’re guilty, humble yourself!
- 59-61 Clement’s prayer of intercession
62-65 Summary and Conclusion
(I feel I should reassure you that in this book the “chapters” are extremely short, usually about one paragraph in length.)
It’s remarkable how many of St. Paul’s themes Clement restates, and it’s remarkable how much of the New Testament (not just Old) that Clement is able to quote, so early in Church History. Critics sometimes argue that the New Testament was virtually unknown to the Early Church until it was codified in the 4th century. But this epistle shows how well-circulated the New Testament texts already were by the end of the 1st century.
So if you’re a Christian who likes to think, or has particular interest in the historical reality, context, or setting of the Bible, reading the epistle 1 Clement is a highly-recommended exercise. It is delightfully Bible-like in its style and contents. In fact, a couple of the earliest compilations of New Testament writings included 1 Clement among them – a testament to both its popularity and its teaching value!
Let’s take a look at chapter 13 as an example of Clement’s writing.
(1) Let us then, brothers, be humble and be rid of pretentions and arrogance and silliness and anger. Let us act as the Scripture us. For the Holy Spirit says, “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man in his might or the rich man of his wealth. But let him that boasts boast of the Lord; and so he will seek Him out, and act justly and uprightly.” Especially let us recall the words of the Lord Jesus which he uttered to teach considerateness and patience. (2) For this is what he said: “Show mercy, that you may be shown mercy. Forgive, that you may be forgiven. As you behave to others, so they will behave to you. As you give, so will you get. As you judge, so you will be judged. As you show kindness, so will you receive kindness. The measure you give will be the measure you receive.” (3) Let us firmly hold onto this commandment and these injunctions so that in our conduct we may obey his holy words and be humble. (4) For holy Scriptures says, “On whom shall I look except on him who is humble and who trembles at my words?”
On the whole, this is a solidly normal piece of Christian ethical teaching. Specifically, he uses three quotes from the Scriptures. The first (in verse 1) is primarily from Jeremiah 9:23-24, with edits from St. Paul’s writings (1 Corinthians 1:31 and 2 Corinthians 10:17). The third quote is from Isaiah 66:2 almost verbatim. These show us Clement’s familiarity with the Old Testament and free ability to proclaim the Gospel through those texts. In that aspect he is just like the New Testament authors, taking up the ancient writings and pointing to Christ and his teachings. The second quote, however, is rather more complex. This is a collection of the sayings of Jesus, hinting at the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:7, 6:14-15, 7:1-2, 7:12) as well as some of its Lucan counterparts (Luke 6:31, 36-38). Some scholars take this jumble as evidence that there were “Sayings of Jesus” in circulations that predate or parallel the Gospel books themselves. After all, word-of-mouth and 1st-century-versions-of-pamphlets probably spread much more quickly and easily than entire scrolls or books. But it’s also possible that Clement simply already had in hand much of what we know as the New Testament and was already beginning the work of synthesizing their witness, as Christian preachers and teachers have done throughout history since.
Either way, St. Clement of Rome is a handy reference and read for us today, demonstrating the normality of some of the biblical writing styles, bringing us just a little bit closer to that faraway world of apostles and pharisees and centurions and so forth.
If you want to read the full epistle, 1 Clement, you can find it free online here, or bought in any number of books of the Apostolic Fathers or Early Christian Writings.
And if you want to read a little more about Clement himself, check out the bio I wrote up a couple years ago: https://leorningcniht.wordpress.com/2018/11/23/st-clement-of-rome/