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Examining the Authenticity of the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians

Gustaaf Adolf van den Bergh van Eysinga, 1908

This is Klaus Schilling's summary and translation of the work by Gustaaf Adolf van den Bergh van Eysinga, "Onderzoek Naar De Echtheid Van Clemens' Eersten Brief Aan De Corinthiers".  Leiden -- 1908  J. Brill.  Full original version: http://www.radikalkritik.de/Bergh1Cl.pdf.  Formatted, uploaded, and partially copyedited by Michael Hoffman.



Prologue. 1

I  Introduction. 1

II  External Witnesses. 1

III  Proscription Against Christians Under Domitian. 2

IV  Cause for the Writing of the Letter 3

V  The Roman Catholicism of the Letter 5

VI  Closer Time Determination. 7



At the beginning of last century, vdBvE had discussion with his colleagues about the impact of the Roman Stoic philosophy on earliest Christianity, especially the parallels between Epictetus and some NT passages. Unlike his opponent Kuiper, vdBvE does not assume that Epictetus was familiar with the NT. In the course of the dispute, Kuiper got involved the letter of Clement. Another incentive was a recent work from Voelter's on the same letter.

I  Introduction

The authenticity question is ambiguous. The letter itself is anonymous. Church history around 170 started to date the epistle in the times of Domitian, but only a generation later it is rumorously assigned to Flavius Clemens, the martyr bishop and third pope, also known as a relative of the emperor, an assistant of Paul in Philippans, an evangelic messenger in the shepherd of Hermas, and so on. So we must distinguish two levels of authenticity.

An imagined scenario: Your Daily News publishes an anonymous article. the readers ask about the author. Many suspect a certain person. Now someone comes and doubts that general suspicion. Does he doubt the authenticity of the article itself? Certainly that's not the same issue. We should rather speak about trustworthiness of a tradition vs. the lack thereof. The letter pretends to be from the church of Rome to its sister church in Corinth, written in a certain situation, and we have to examine this claim independently from the name of the author which is not part of the writing's claim.

II  External Witnesses

According to Eusebian church history, Hegesip went to Rome and stayed there from the episcopacy of Anictetus through that of Eleutherius, the latter usually being dating as starting around 174. It's during Eleutherius' rule that Hegesip wrote his Hypomnmemata, which mention the letter of Clement to the church in Corinth. It may not be securely said that already hegesip named the epistle after said Clement, for this may be Eusebius' comment. So we have the first external witness for the epistle around 175. Eusebius identifies furthermore the author of the epistle with the third bishop of Rome and Paul's helper in Philippans 4:3. He praises the letter and sees it as a genuine writing from the church of Rome to its sister community in Corinth during the rule of Domitian. The letter is said to have been well-known throughout the Christian churches until Eusebius' times.

Kuiper tries to construes from Eusebius' words that the letter must be blatantly prior to 150. But that's an illicit conclusion, given that there are still over 2 decades left from there until the episcopacy of Eleutherius. Now it isn't even clear, whether Eusebius correctly mirrors Hegesip's words, because he screwed it upo several times, leading to inconsistencies. In IV:23:9 of the Church History, E. talks about a letter of a certain Dionys of Corinth to Soterius, the immediate precedessor of Eleutherius. Alas, the letter itself refers to the death of Soterius, making Eusebius' words smell fishy. This gives us appr. 174 as the earliest date for the letter of D.

Ireneus writes that there was a great sedition within the Corinthian church during the episcopacy of Clement, urging Rome to intervene by means of an epistle to the Corinthian brethren. Yet this does not say that Clement is the author. Irenean's list of Roman bishops, where the comment is found, can't predate the episcopacy of Soter. This shows that around 170 the letter was seen as an epistle from the Roman church to the Corinthian fellows, without specified author.

Church traditions of the above sort are not much above the level of mere speculations. We see this from Dionys of Corinth who sees Rome and Corinth linked by the 'fact' that both communities are joint foundations of the martyr apostles Peter and Paul. Dionys refers to Clement's letter as well to Paul's to the respective communities. Loman concluded from this that the canonical epistles does not respond to a particular situation in Corinth, but is a general teaching about community discipline and against heresy. This readily would carry over to Clement's letter.

These and some other inconsistencies show that the external arguments have no power for confirming the tradition of the letter being by Clement of Rome in Domitian's time to the Corinthian church.

III  Proscription Against Christians Under Domitian

The epistle starts mentioning recent suddenly emerging troubles for the church in Rome. Conservative exegets interprete these as proscriptions by the current emperor. The earliest one recorded by the patrists were under Nero, then Domitian, Traian, and Hadrian. Usually that under Domitian is chosen, as it confirms most with the list of earliest popes. [P. Kirby once listed arguments for dating it to Nero's time]

We have to study the historical reports about proscriptions by Domitian, the main sources being Dio Cassius and Suetonius. Both know a relative of Domitian named Flavius Clemens who found no mercy by his cousin and was executed, while his wife Domitilla, also reported as a member of the imperial bloodline, was exiled.

Kuiper does not identify Flavius Clemens with pope Clement of Rome, but nonetheless holds that Flavius and his wife were Christian martyrs. The sources don't mention Christians explicitly, so it is to be reasoned why this should be implied.

Dio Cassius mentions 'atheotes' as the charge Domitian brought against his relative. Another charge often used was 'asebeia'. Nerva found no mercy for either of these. Suetonius says that Domitian's fatal verdict against his relative, out of mere rumour, was for 'contemptissimae inertiae'. We find, much later, Mark Aurel equating barbarian peoples with 'inertores'. Jews seem to have been called the worst of all barbarians, an obstacle to (Roman) civilisation and progress. This is especially seen from Tacitus who blames Jews for godless, asocial behaviour. So it is reasonable to conclude that Flavius Clemens was sentenced for being sympathetic with Jews and their diet, Ioudaikos Bios. Making him and many others executed under Domitian into christians is too much of a stretch, so already Dr. Hartman. Kuiper is sure that Domitilla was a christian, and uses this in order to show that Flavius Clemens also was one.

Alas, christian sources are silent about Domitilla as a wife of Clement. We here about a holy virgin Domitilla who was a niece of Clement. Eusebius calls Domitilla the daughter of Clement's sister. The style of Eysebius' statement makes in unlikely that he used a pagan source for that claim, plus there's none extant that could confirm his claim. That's too much pseudo-incidence to consider e.g. the existence of two Domitillas, one the niece of bishop Clemens, theo other the wife of Flavius Clemens. Evidently the notes about the illoyal relatives of Domitian just served after several generations as a backgroiund for christian 'martyristory' [term coined by discussion group member Jay Raskin].  

Hegesip is the first, before some Bruttius or Brettius who gave an extensive list of christian martyrs under Domitian, to mention these proscriptions. But we see the parallel to the mass infanticide by Herod, out of fear of messianic oracles, which is such a haltless fiction that serious historical critics can't consider it. It's safe to assume that Hegesip tried to give  historical reports about Domitian's brute policy a christian martyrist face. Hegesip already declared Judah the Galilean as Jesus' brother, making him uncle of various seditioneers (Menahem, ben Yair) against Roman occupation who still in Domitian's times may have caused trouble to the emperor.

Hegesip, Tertullian, Melitos, and Eusebius all depend on a tradition that declares Domitian as a bloody proscriber against christianity. Hartman notes that Domitiuan has been made intentionally into the summit of all perversions and evils, including proscription against christianity. Christian tradition distinguihed two types of evil emperors: the insaner type of Nero, and the coldblooded despotic type of Tiberius, and subsequently Domitian. Hartman also recognises the proscription under Nero as a lie, and its Tacitan witness as a mystification.

After mentioning all the stretches and speculations, vdBvE turns to listening to what the text of the epistle properly has to say.

IV  Cause for the Writing of the Letter

In the middle of 19th century, it was ok to doubt the authenticity of patristic writings, or their dating, as done e.g. by the Tuebingen school around Baur. But since late 19th century, this critical attitude toward church tradition is outlawed. According to Harnack, one has to take all of church history at face value as it doesn't violate common sense. This lead to a major regress in the study of early christian history.

The writing claims to be a letter by the christian community of Rome to that of Corinth, and dealing with critical events on the side of the recipient. But looking closer, it's recognisable that the form of the letter is deceptive, and actually we have a tractate on communal peace and unity.

This is the situation for the church in Corinth described by the letter: the office of bishops or leading priests and diacons, which have been brought into their office by the authority of the apostles and their legitimate successors for the sake and on behalf of the whole community. is questioned and endangered by rebelling community members. One may not conclude that the apostles were known alive by the current community members, for 44:5-6 opposes the current times with the good old times of the apostles where there was no twist in the community endangering its existence and questioning of the men in office.

Church hierarchy is justified by apostolic authority and succession. Former presbyters of the church did not have to experience the troubles tormenting the current community. There has been partisanship already in apostolic times, but it was not to an extent comparable to now. It is alluded to 1Cor. The charism of Paul was enough to suffigate any serious schism. The apostolic authority to select bishops for a community is seen as automatic, like Moses who did not need the order of Aaron to found his hereditary levitic office. The deeds of the apostles are seen as exemplary. The older partisanship in Corinth is seen as just a choice between various apostles and apostolic disciples. The seditioneers of the writer's days have no such legitimacy. Unlike Hilgenfeld, who sees the danger of the situation as one of the image that christianity enjoys in its pagan environment, vdbve sees it as a moral perversion and decadence maiming the christian church from within.

About the rebels it is not said much more than that they rebel against the apostolically legitimated priesthood. 1:2 - 2:8 describes the idyllic situation of the old community, which is now in danger of being corrupted. The members were obedient observants of the community rules and submitting to the bishop's authority - a typical Roman Catholic community. The rebels are deemed as louts and enemies of order, as modernists. They are exhibiting various types of immoral behaviour. Also anarchist ascetism, a self-inflating purity, is frowned upon in 38:2. In 40:4, the wise is characterised by good works, in refutation of the adversary 'Gnostic' attitude. A domestified in-church gnosis seems to be justifiable, 1:2. 51:1 emphasises the universal, catholic character of the Roman church. Gnostic elitism is thus not tolerated.

God is begged to make the rebels devote and regretful. The rebels are begged to tone down and submit to the legitimate bishops. Otherwise they risk losing their salvation.

The impact of one or two nuts on the stable community is described as desastrous, which is quite unrealistic.

We have no clear picture of what happened in Corinth. The Roman church intervenes without explaining clearly why.  The seduced masses are insulted. In a real letter to a community in such a critical situation, the consequence would be  that the majority of the community becomes upset about the audacity of the Roman priests meddling with their affairs in such a tone. There's no way that it would be helpful for the legitimate priesthood the letter pretends to vindicate. And church history tells us that the Roman plot was successful. Scholars are not in agreement whether only some or all legitimate presbyters are assumed to be brought pout of office. The text appears contradictory in this respect.

The bulk of the problems dissappear onces we don't assume anymore that the "letter" was written to a particular community in a concrete situation, but that we have to deal with a didactic tractate. The schism in Corinth thus is not the concrete situation for the letter, but it belongs to the imaginary framework. The "letter" teaches against arrogance, its consequence being disobedience. The goal is unanimous submission to legitimate authority. Legitimate priests do not need the justification by higher knowledge and ascetism. While the latter two are tolerable in a domesticated framework, they don't imply any special award.

Also the homiletic expression "let us gather ..." in 34:7 makes only sense in a general tractate, for how would the Roman writers and the Corinthian believers regularly come together. Reville already figured that we have here typically Roman Catholic affirmation of communal eucharist, as opposed to private eucharists in smaller circles. Also, the hasty interpretation of the troubles recently and suddenly appearing for the Roman church as proscription by the Emperor are out of warranty. First, knowing the general Roman atmosphere, proscriptions did not rise suddenly and disappear that fast again. Even more, many other cases of troubles are to be thought: Natural death of important community members, diseases and famine ...,

After having already recognised the pseudoepistular character of the writing, the Roman troubles also find smoothly a better explanation. In order to be didactically efficient, the situation in Corinth must be depicted as particularly progressed, which does not happen instantaneously. The unspecified troubles serve as an excuse why the Romans did not intervene earlier. Also Rome sees itself as being immune to schismatic events as assumed in Corinth, even if, like anywhere in the christian world, schismatic tendencies appear. This underlines the supremacy claim of Rome.

Already Loman noticed that a lot of stuff that bears no evidently significant relation to the Corinthian schisms is subject of a larger sermonal part of the text.

Thus it's Voelter who noticed that the epistle does not with the Corinthian case in its particularity, but with general topoi of discord and disobedience under religious aspects. Voelter sees in it an admonishing, preventive character. Fo otherwise, the community is praised in the letter.

General sermons about piety, faith, humility, and so on sure won't help in a particular situation of a progressed schism, nor do the generous wishes of the writer.

The result of this chapter could be that the author tries to give a constructive tractate on the necessity of unity of the community and faithful obedience and submission to the legitimate bishops.

V  The Roman Catholicism of the Letter

We've already wagered that the writer's perspective is that of the Roman Catholic understanding of clerical hierarchy. Hilgenfeld noted the sharp distinction between clergy and laymen [we know heresies that cast dice for determining the bishop of the day!] The Roman clergy sees itself as decreing humbly and generously the will og God, while the rebels follow their own will. vdBvE extends Hilgenfeld's observation based on 39:1 that this draft of thought is present and fundamental for the whole epistle.

40:5 distinguishes the rights and duties of clerics from those of laymen. The clerical body derives its authority from the wise decision of the apostles who brought the first clergimen into office. We can't use it as a trustworthy historical statement concerning the apostolic days, nevertheless about the times of the writer. The author obviously knows that the authoritarian apiscopacy is not all that old, and sees urged into proving that it is. 42:5 uses Isaiah 60:17 for this purpose. Apostolic succession is explained and established: God empowered the Christ, the Christ empowered the apostles, and those inturn the legitimate bishops, priests, and diacons. Chaper 43 employs Moses for the apostolic succession. Voelter sees 43 as secondary, but it doesn't have to be so.

What the letter tries to witness is that the apostles did not act out of audacity when establishing the first cleric body, but that the major precedence is found in the Old Testament. Like Moses, in an episode involving the sprouting staff of Aaron, the apostles foresaw wisely future twists about the title of the clergy and made the correct choice of the first clerical body and gave orders concerning their succession.

We find no exact mention of a monarchic episcopacy. This was often taken as a sign of earliness, i.e. predating the times when an urbs had no more than one legitimate bishop at a time. But the first monarchic episcopacy even in Rome cannot be witnessed before mid second century, when Anicetus came into office.

We also see the strong influence of military language. The author obviously saw the discipline in the Roman army as an example for oder and organisation of the church. Women and young men were excluded from having anything to say, for they were most suspicious for heresy.

Schweegler [of the Tuebingen school] already noted that the author was striongly influenced by the epistle to the Hebrews, the latter being also assigned to Clemens Romanus by some of the church historists, and concluded that the name Clement has become already early symbol for a theological tendency. It's the Catholic trend to mediate between judeochristianity and gentile christianity. Pauline topics are found hand in glove with judaising work justice. Equally inconsistant is the explanation of the reconcilatory death of Jesus. Voelter already declared Clementine theology as a restored Judaism. Uhlhorn interprets the switches between ultrapauline and judaising topics as the shift from apostolic doctrine to that of the Catholic Church, where Paulinic thought is watered for the sake of the mediocre. Abraham is justified by faith according to Paul, by works according to James, Clement combines the two of them. The view of Rahab is similar.

Paul's epistle to the Roman is seen as common possession of both communities. Assuming authenticity of the main letters, it's hardly plausible how within one or two generations such a poor understanding and watering may appear as is present in Clement's letter. If, following van Manen, one postpones the epistles into early second century and thinks it a pseudoepigraph [some of van Manen's works are online on http://www.depts.drew.edu/jhc  read especially the one dedicated to Romans], Clement's letter must be of course later than Paul's, but the distance doesn't have to be all that large. Yet the arguments of van Manen's have not been rebutted in their essential core [van Manen died in 1905, and even until now there have been only corrections in details, but no real arguments against the main cause The canonical Paul is already toned down. This explains the sympathetic feelings of Clement for Pauline stuff.

The Catholicism of the letter is typically Roman, as seen from the self-representation of the Roman community as supreme  supervisor over churches far away. The Roman church remains in its original brillant state, while elsewherea community sinks into decadence and corruption. The leading bishop of Rome is the supreme voice of the apostolic tradition. The epistle is written on the church's behalf, but this does not imply an early dating, as also an epistle of Soter is written on behalf of the community, not of Soter.

Voelter noted that the old testament has outstanding priority and authority. Christian stuff is just seen as the icing of the OT cake. VdBvE rather says that christian piety is assimilated to the OT. On the one hand, the OT serves as an authority to those who would not trust the authority of the Roman clerics on their own. On the other hand, we see a tacit polemics against the devaluation of the Ot in certain heretic circles. This has its parallels in the writings of Irenaeus and Justin Martyr who equally emphasise the necessity to see the church as legitimate guardian of the OT tradition. The OT is an arsenal for dogmatic weapons of the church.

Voelter deemed the epistle of Clement as a Jewish writing, reworked in christian sense. He uses the strangeness of the psalm quote in 22:1. But we see a parallel also in Justin Martyr's writings. This allegorical usage of the OT was important in the conflict with Gnostic heresies beginning with mid second century. Also the emphasis of creator and father of Jesus is ostentatively emphasised, which alludes to knowledge and deprecation of the Gnostic/Marcionite distinction thereof. Also Irenaeus' usage of the epistle in Adv. Haer., appearing quite natural, alludes to this relation. The early dating is thus just a church statement for underlining their claims of being legal successors of the apostles, while indeed the letter was written in the course of the conflict with the heretics.

Tertullian complains about the openness of the Marcionite church, and that women and young men are not properly discriminated. Many other topics of Marcionism as described by Tertullian are tacit subject of the polemics in Clement's letter.

49:6 emphasises the sacrifice of Jesus in flesh and blood, apparently against heresies who deny that. Conservative critics would have to hold that Clement just babbled without cause.

Trinity is already alluded to.  We also see traces of knowledge of patripassianism.

VI  Closer Time Determination

Volkmar praised the letter of Clement as an oasis in the desert interval of anonymous and pseudonymous writings extending between Paul and Justin Martyr.

Alas, we've seen that the identity of Clemet as the author is only result of church tradition, whose first external witness is not before 173. Dionys of Corinth knows that the letter is read publically in community, which also hints at it not being known long before his times. The legend assigning it to the time of Domitian's proscription also was the result of a longer evolution. The traditional dating was promoted by the convenient habitude of using it as witness of the priority and apostolic legitimation of the Roman church tradition over those of heretics, as shown by the usage by Irenaeus. Army-like discipline, submission to clerical authority, and the like are all Catholic topics defended in struggle with diverging heresies.

Many deem the lack of an explicit naming of Gnostic heresies as a sign for the old age of the letter. But we've seen that the emphasis of Roman Catholic topics makes only sense as a refutation of known heresies that behave differently. This shows the absurdity of the argumentation from silence. Further topics of this sort are the strict discrimination of clerics and  laymen, as well as the denigration of ascetism and gnostic-type revelation that are only tolerated in a strictly domestified environment.

The author sees the apostolic time as something recent, but it is so of course when compared to the times of Moses, who are invoked prominently as the forerunners of apostolic times. Still Diognetus summarises the time passed since beginning of Christianity as 'now', when compared to the old history of Israel. We see a parallel between the mention of the Danaids and Dirke, and that of Blandina in Irenaeus writings, as women who were proscribed and tortured to death. We've seen that a proscription against Christians under Domitian is not affirmable from the sources.

A connection between the address of the epistle and some passages of the first epistle of Peter 2:11 has been assumed since many centuries. It appears strange to find a term employed here in an address [Eysinga presents details here involving certain koine terms -ks].

Chapter 47 gives a few more hints. For v2 there are diverging variae lectio in manuscripts. Clement of Alexandria divided the history of early christianity into two phases, the first being from Jesus to the end of the lifetime of the apostles in Nero's reign, the second being the struggle against heresies starting with Hadrian's reign. Assuming this usage of language, the good old times when the gospel began to be preached thus refer to the first period, opposing them to the current times means thus not before the rule of Hadrian where heresies befell the churches. This also explains the community of Corinth to be called ancient in the same chapter: It was before the heresies appeared.

Voelter showed how Clement depends in many ways on Paulk's letter to the Romans. Second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippans, and Ephesians are not reflected. The usage of Hebrews is evident. Voelter reverses the common view that Clement depends on I Peter, with weak evidence, so vdBvE. I Peter 1:2ff vs. I Clem. 64 hint towards the classical assumption - Clement summarises Peter.

James depends straignt on Clement, acc. to Voelter, best evidenced by James 2:21-23 vs. I Clement 10:1-7.

After all, the difficult dating of the catholic letters and Hebrews doesn't suggest a closer dtaing.

The synoptics are frequently quoted, and not quite in the canonical form, but rather in a mixed manner. This is best explained by unintentional mixing when quoting from the backhead. Tatian's gospel harmony, the Diatesseron, exhibits a similar trend.

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