Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Case for the Real Jesus (8): Clement of Rome

You may call me a cock-eyed optimist, but I have this dream that someday I am going to go look up some source that some apologist has cited and find that it actually says what the apologist claims it says and actually supports the apologist's argument. When it happens though, I'm pretty sure it won't be anything cited in any of Lee Strobel's books.
I recently decided to read the earliest known Christian writing outside the New Testament canon, the Epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians 1 written about 95 A.D. In part, my curiosity was piqued by Mike Licona's claim that Clement confirmed the gospel accounts of the resurrection:
In his letter to the Corinthian church, which was written in the first century, he writes: "Therefore having received orders and complete certainty caused by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and believing in the Word of God, they went with the Holy Spirit's certainty, preaching the good news that the kingdom of God is about to come." (TCFTRJ p. 117 citing 1 Clement 42:3)
A minor quibble here is that Licona quotes from a translation that he and Gary Habermas made. It is not that the translation I found on line is dramatically different, it just seems like citing your own translation is like citing your own book as authority for your argument.

My major quibble is that Clement’s letter reflects little if any familiarity with any of the four gospels. Clement quotes extensively from the letters of Paul and from the Old Testament, but only quotes two of Jesus’ sayings. These sayings are similar to ones found in the synoptic gospels, but they vary enough that it is hard to believe that he is quoting from any of the canonical texts.2 If the church tradition cited by Licona is correct and Clement was ordained by Peter himself, why doesn’t Clement quote from the gospel that was supposedly written by Peter’s secretary Mark? If Clement has so many of Paul’s letters and knew Paul personally, why doesn’t he quote from the gospel that was supposedly written by Paul’s traveling companion Luke?
More significant than the variation in the two quotes is the fact that Clement found nothing else from Jesus' life and teaching relevant to his message to the Corinthians. Clement’s purpose was to urge the Corinthians to reinstate certain church elders whom they had deposed. In his letter, he advises repentance, humility, obedience, faith, love and other Christian virtues and he illustrates his points with the Old Testament stories of Jacob and Esau, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, David, Rahab, Lot, Moses, Job, and Jonah. Yet he never uses a single story from the life of Jesus to drive home a point. He exhorts the Corinthians with admonitions from Psalms, Proverbs, and Paul’s letters, but never mentions the Sermon on the Mount or a single parable. When it comes to the resurrection, he cites the legend of the phoenix rising from the ashes but completely neglects the Passion narratives. It just seems ludicrous to cite Clement as confirming anything in the gospels when he does not demonstrate the slightest familiarity with them.

I realize that arguments from silence need to be taken with a grain of salt. The fact that an event or an earlier document is not mentioned in a particular writing does not prove that event did not take place or that the author was unaware of the earlier document. In fact, I have often criticized apologists for using similar reasoning, e.g., arguing that the traditional authorship of the gospels can be accepted because we have no record of competing claims. Nevertheless, I would challenge anyone to read Clement’s letter and explain why he includes nothing from the Gospels of Luke and Mark if in fact he was familiar with them and believed that they were authoritative eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus.
I have not read much about how scholars estimate the composition dates for the gospels, but Clement's Epistle to the Corinthians seems like pretty powerful evidence that they were not known in Rome in 95 A.D. This would in turn seem to rule out Mark and Luke as the authors of the books attributed to them.3

1 There are in fact two letters to the Corinthians attributed to Clement but scholars only believe the first one to be authentic.

2 “Be ye merciful, that ye may obtain mercy; forgive, that it may be forgiven to you; as ye do, so shall it be done unto you; as ye judge, so shall ye be judged; as ye are kind, so shall kindness be shown to you; with what measure ye mete, with the same it shall be measured to you.” 1 Clement 13 (Similar but not identical to Matt. 6:12-15, Matt. 7:2, and Luke 6:36-38)

“Woe to that man [by whom offences come]! It were better for him that he had never been born, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my elect. Yea, it were better for him that a millstone should be hung about [his neck], and he should be sunk in the depths of the sea, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my little ones.” 1 Clement 46 (Similar but not identical to Matt. 23:6, Matt. 26:24, Mark 9:42, and Luke 17:2)

3 I gained many valuable insights from Richard Carrier's The Formation of the New Testament Canon.


  1. If, “Clement’s purpose was to urge the Corinthians to reinstate certain church elders whom they had deposed,” why would he feel the need to quote from gospels or Christ’s’ teaching? Also, didn’t he cite Matthew and John somewhere about the same time period? Lastly, didn’t he cite Mark in some of his other writings?


  2. Jesus had a lot of good things to say about humility, duty, obedience, and love, all of which Clement recommends to the Corinthians. Can you imagine any Christian teacher who would not have thought that Christ's own deeds and teachings made these points well enough to be included along with all the Old Testament stories that Clement thought?