The writings of the early Christians provide invaluable insights into the beliefs and practices of the Church in the first few centuries A. D. Here we can read the first theological reflections on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; we can examine early formulations of doctrines, and follow along as Christians attempt to articulate, for the first time in history, the foundational beliefs of Christianity; and we can consider the difficult task of organizing the hierarchy of Church leadership. There are many documents preserved from this early stage of Christianity, but the oldest of these texts are the rarest and often the most valuable for providing information closest to the source of Christian faith. These texts were written by men who knew and were taught by the Apostles themselves. They give us a glimpse of Apostolic Teaching in its earliest form (besides Scripture itself). To read a letter written in the First Century by a man who learned the faith from Peter or Paul or John, is to read an account of the faith from men who heard the Gospel proclaimed from the Apostles’ own lips.
One of the chief examples of First Century Christian writing is the First Letter of Clement to the Corinthians (or 1 Clement). Though the letter itself does not identify the author by name, it is nearly universally acknowledged (by both ancient sources and by modern scholars) that this text was written by the same Clement of Rome who is listed as a successor to Peter as bishop of that city, and thus an early “pope.” Until recently it was believed that 1 Clement was written around the year A. D. 96, which would correspond to the reign of Clement as Bishop of Rome. However, recent scholarship has tested that conjecture and proposes to push the date of authorship back to the year 70 or even earlier. If this is true, then the implications could affect greatly our understanding of ancient Christianity. In his book, Clement and the Early Church of Rome, the late Fr. Thomas J. Herron puts forward a strong argument for just such an early dating of 1 Clement.
1 Clement was written from the Church of Rome to the Church of Corinth insisting that the Corinthian Christians reinstate their presbyters who had been forcibly removed from their office of authority. Insisting on proper order within the Church and referencing the Old Testament as well as Apostolic teaching, the author makes his case that the Corinthians had wrongly removed the presbyters and that they should follow Rome’s directive to restore the rightful men to their place.
The main reason for the traditional 96 dating of 1 Clement stems from the historic evidence purporting that Clement held the office of Bishop of Rome at the end of the First Century, and that this letter then represents an early exercise of papal authority. The year 96 certainly corresponds to Clement’s episcopate, and so it is thought that he must have written it when he was bishop. However, as Herron points out, the letter itself does not claim an episcopal authorship. In other words, the letter does not specifically state that a single man (a bishop) is addressing the Church of Corinth. Rather 1 Clement states that it is from “the Church of God which sojourns in Rome.” That is to say, it is a letter from the “Church of Rome” not necessarily from Clement as “Bishop of Rome.”
This does not mean that we must question Clement himself as the legitimate author. There is ample documentation of Clement as a real, historic person, a presbyter in Rome around the year 70 who then became bishop later in the First Century. It is plausible to assume then that as presbyter, Clement was assigned the task of writing this letter to Corinth in order to correct their abuses. And he did so with the authority of the Roman Church (if not as Bishop of Rome then at least with some force of authority that Rome held in early Christianity). Fr. Herron presents the details of such a theory, providing historic references to Clement (including a possible biblical reference in Philippians 4 as a companion of Paul), and ancient sources which seem to agree with such a scenario.
One of the most compelling arguments in favor of an early dating for 1 Clement is found in the letter’s references to Old Testament style Jewish Temple Worship. Historians know that the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed around the year 70 A.D. Clement seems to be unaware of this fact in his writing. He even uses the Temple sacrifice to bolster his argument with the Corinthians. He views favorably the sacrifices of the Temple as commanded by God, and he writes as though these ceremonies are being carried out in his own time. He points to them as a proper ordering of divine things, and he uses the Temple worship as a point of reference to show that the Corinthians should not tamper with divinely instituted structures. None of this would make sense if the Temple had been destroyed. Clements argument would be nullified. So he must have written prior to the Temple’s destruction.
An early dating for 1 Clement makes sense when coupled with what we know of First Century Christianity. Before the destruction of the Temple many Christians (mostly Jewish converts) participated at least to some degree in Temple and synagogue services. If Clement wrote at this time (at or prior to 70 A.D.) then it would make perfect sense that he would link Temple worship with Christianity. But a 96 A.D. dating would seem odd, since Jewish-Christian ties had been largely severed and the Temple was no longer a point of reference that could be maintained as an example of God’s divine ordering of things.
This Temple example is not in itself enough to solidify a 70 A.D. dating. But Fr. Herron gives many other crucial bits of evidence to make his case. In all eleven specific details within the text of 1 Clement are cited as corroborating an early dating hypothesis. Fr. Herron also examines external historic documents as well as Scriptural references that provide data for further study and tend toward a circa A.D. 70 date of authorship. As Fr. Herron points out, no single bit of evidence itself prove the point, but taken together they provide an abundance of proof that point to an early date.
So what does all of this mean? It certainly weighs heavily on the Catholic-Protestant debate over Roman authority. While Clement was not a “bishop” of Rome at the time he authored 1 Clement, the letter does suggest a certain Roman primacy at a much earlier date that previously thought. Rather than the year 96, it was perhaps 65-70 when Rome intervened in the Corinthian Church’s dispute. This was less than a decade after the deaths of Peter and Paul, and less than forty years after Jesus’ death.
As for Church hierarchy, we see an insistence on the part of Clement (at a very early date) that presbyters should be inline with Apostolic appointment (Apostolic Succession). And while the role of “bishop” is not mentioned nor is it clear whether such an office had fully emerged, (this should be expected from a document that comes from such an earlier time in Christian history) it certainly fits within the Catholic understanding of the development of the Holy Orders.
But this only scratches the surface. Fr. Thomas Herron assembles some essential data for further research, while admitting that his own work simply lays the groundwork for others to build on. He suggests that with further reflection his theory may eventually change our understanding not only of ancient Christianity, but of the New Testament itself. Fr. Herron nicely sums up the implications of his early dating hypothesis:
“With the earlier dating, 1 Clement could be studied now, not as the product of the New Testament period, but as a rare, even unique, example of one who made a contribution to the writing of the New Testament itself.” (page 81)
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(Note that this book, Clement and the Early Church of Rome, On the Dating of Clement’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, is a rigorous and serious scholarly work. Throughout the book, texts in Greek, Latin, French, and German are cited without translation. While Fr. Herron’s book is still very informative and readable by those who are unfamiliar with these languages – present author included – some of the finer points of his analysis would be better understood by laymen with English translations.)
This review was written as part of the Catholic book reviewer program from The Catholic Company. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on Clement and the Early Church of Rome . They are also a great source for serenity prayer and baptism gifts.