Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty
 Supplementary Articles - No. 12: Crossing the Threshold of History: Jesus in the Apostolic Fathers at the Turn of the Second Century

Did Jesus exist? Are the origins of Christianity best explained without a founder Jesus of Nazareth? Before the Gospels do we find an historical Jesus or a Jesus myth?

Enlarging on the Main Articles, this section of The Jesus Puzzle web site examines a wide range of topics in New Testament scholarship. Each one adopts the viewpoint that such problem questions or documents relating to the subject of Jesus and Christian origins are best solved when approached from the position that there was no historical Jesus. These studies will help provide a greater insight into the nature of early Christianity, the object of its worship, and the source of its ideas.

The author reserves all re-publication rights. Personal copies may be made as long as author identification is preserved.

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Supplementary Article No. 12

Jesus in the Apostolic Fathers at the Turn of the Second Century

Part One: 1 Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas


     In other Supplementary Articles, I have examined the documents of the New Testament outside the Gospels and Acts, attempting to demonstrate that they make no identifiable link between the Christ Jesus they worship and preach, and the human figure Jesus of Nazareth known to us through the Gospels. Paul and other epistle writers seem to speak of a divine being very similar to aspects of Jewish personified Wisdom and the Son and Logos in Greek philosophy (as in 1 Corinthians 8:6 and Hebrews 1:2-3), without linking such a being to the Gospel figure or events. These earliest Christians believe in a Son of God, not that anyone in the recent past was the Son of God. This Son is a spiritual entity with whom believers enter upon a mystical relationship. He is an intermediary between heaven and earth, between God and humanity, between the spiritual and the material realms of the universe. And he is for most early Christian sects a savior deity who has undergone a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins and humanity’s redemption. All these features are common elements of contemporary religious philosophy and salvation religions.

     Only three passages in the epistles give the appearance of linking to an earthly, Gospel-like setting. First, 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16 speaks of “the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus,” but this is part of a passage which makes a clear allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem, an event which happened after Paul’s death, and many critical scholars have long regarded it as an interpolation. (See Supplementary Article No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus?)

     Second, 1 Timothy 6:13 makes a passing reference to Pilate, but critical scholars in general regard the Pastorals as the product of the 2nd century, and thus this reference could reflect an early development of belief in an historical Gospel Jesus. Also, some scholars see problems in the fit of this reference within its context, and although none of them opt for interpolation, there are good arguments to be made for assuming this possibility. (See the Appendix to Article No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus?)

     Third, the so-called Lord’s Supper scene in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 bears a resemblance to the Last Supper of the Synoptic Gospels. Yet Paul declares (verse 23) that he has received this information directly “from the Lord” which conflicts with the standard reading that this is an item of historical tradition about a Eucharist established by Jesus, a tradition missing in all other first-century documents outside the Synoptics. This type of sacred meal is very similar to the sacred meals of the mystery cults, and thus Paul’s Supper may be relegated to the realm of myth, something he has come up with himself under the influence of perceived revelation. (See the “Sacred Meal” section of Article No. 6: The Source of Paul’s Gospel.)

     To address two other, minor, references. The phrase “brother of the Lord” which Paul uses of James in Galatians 1:19 cannot be demonstrated to mean “sibling of Jesus” and other considerations argue against it. Finally, Paul’s two little directives in 1 Corinthians (7:10 and 9:14) which he says he has received “from the Lord” again suggest personal revelation. Their subject matter is paltry compared to the vast silence on Jesus’ ethical teachings found throughout the epistles. (On these and other references see The Sound of Silence: Appendix.)

     Thus, in the absence of a ministry of preaching, miracles, apocalyptic prophecy or the events of the Passion story, nothing in the New Testament epistles can be reliably linked to the Gospel picture. When this pervasive silence is set alongside the positive statements the epistle writers do make, that Christ is a newly revealed “secret/mystery” of God hitherto hidden for a long period of time, and that knowledge about him comes from scripture and revelation (e.g., Romans 16:25-26, Colossians 1:26 and 2:2, Ephesians 3:5), that the critical events and God’s actions in the present age are solely this process of revelation through the Spirit (e.g., 2 Corinthians 1:22 and 5:5), when it is God who is spoken of as providing the gospel and appointing apostles (e.g., Romans 1:1, 1 Corinthians 12:28), when it is God who is said to have instituted the love command and other ethical teachings (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 4:9, 2 John 6 and several times in 1 John), when Paul says that it is he, not Jesus, who has been given the task of establishing the new covenant (2 Corinthians 3:5), when all the epistle writers speak of Christ being “revealed” and “manifested” in these final days (e.g, 1 Peter 1:20, Hebrews 9:26), or of their expectation of Christ’s future appearance on earth, giving no suggestion that he had already appeared here in the recent past (e.g., Hebrews 10:37, 1 Peter 1:7)—then we have a clear picture of a faith movement that was not started by any figure in living memory, but one based on revelation and a new interpretation of scripture, all of it governed by the dominant philosophical and religious ideas of the age.

     Finally, in regard to those handful of human-sounding references to Christ’s “body,” his sacrifice of “blood” or his activities in the realm of “flesh,” even his characterization as “man” (as in 1 Corinthians 15 or Romans 5:15), two observations must be made. First, not one of them makes a link with a recent historical person or includes a context of historical time and place. Two, these features can be interpreted in a Platonic manner, in that elements in the material world had their corresponding higher counterparts (such as Philo’s Heavenly Man) in the supernatural dimension, the ascending layers of ever purer spiritual forms and activities in the heavenly realm. Indeed, the salvation thinking of the day was centered on a system whereby those two portions of the universe, the spiritual and the material, interacted with one another. A savior deity could operate entirely in that upper dimension, descending through its layers to take on an ever-increasing “likeness” to material forms and thereby undergo death and resurrection, acts which guaranteed salvation and other benefits for their devotees in the material world. (See Article No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus?) The activities of the Hellenistic savior gods, such as Attis, Adonis and Mithras, are every bit as human and earthly sounding as those of Paul’s Christ (even more so, since they have more developed stories), yet they were in this period placed in the realm of myth in a Platonic upper-world setting, having evolved out of a more primitive primordial-time conception. There is nothing to prevent us from viewing Paul’s Christ in just such a setting. (For a full discussion of this Platonic picture in early Christianity, see Article No. 8: Christ As “Man”: Does Paul Speak of Jesus as an Historical Person? and Article No. 9: A Sacrifice in Heaven: The Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews.)

     Other features of the Pauline spiritual Christ were no doubt concluded from scripture, such as the fact that he was “of David’s stock” in Romans 1:3 (Paul points to the prophets as his source), or that he was “born of woman” in Galatians 4:4 (probably from Isaiah 7:14). This was in keeping with the general view, as evidenced in documents like Hebrews and 1 Clement, that Christ and his activities were to be found in the sacred writings and that many passages therein were to be regarded as his “voice.” Scripture was God’s window onto the unseen, true reality, and the agencies and workings of salvation.

     Even some documents extending into the second century (some of them well into it) can be shown not to contain the concept of an historical Jesus, such as 2 Peter (often dated a decade or two beyond the year 100 CE), and the Pastoral epistles. (For the former, see Article No. 7: Transfigured on the Holy Mountain: The Beginnings of Christianity. On the Pastorals, see The Sound of Silence: 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. (See the Sound of Silence files for detailed discussion of the silences in all the New Testament documents.) Many of the major apologists writing throughout the second century do not present an historical Jesus as part of their picture of the faith, and one, Minucius Felix, goes so far as to scoff at the claim that Christians worship a crucified man and his cross. (See Main Article No. 6: The Second Century Apologists.) Finally, to round out the picture, the lack of an historical Jesus in the final book of the New Testament, Revelation, is presented in Supplementary Article No. 11: The Gospel According to the Prophet John.


     Hopefully, the reader has indulged me this brief overview in preparation for the present article. If so much of the evidence points to the lack of an historical Jesus in the thinking of the earliest Christians and an only gradual and piecemeal adoption of the historicity of the Gospel picture through the course of the second century, can we follow the evolution of this adoption through some of the surviving non-canonical documents that covered the critical crossover period beginning around the turn of the second century? Four of these I regard as lying on the antecedent side of that ‘threshold of history.’ Two have been dealt with at some length in other articles and will not be repeated here: The Odes of Solomon in Article No. 4: The Odes of Solomon, and the Didache, whose lack of an historical Jesus I have argued in my book review of John Dominic Crossan’s The Birth of Christianity.

     That leaves the epistle 1 Clement and The Shepherd of Hermas. On the threshold itself lies the Epistle of Barnabas. And just beyond it, a few steps into the new Christian world of a Jesus born of Mary and crucified by Pilate, we find the letters of Ignatius of Antioch. (This does not mean that these documents were necessarily written in that order.)

     Close dating of these documents is not critical to the argument, nor is the ‘authenticity’ of their authorship. Nevertheless, these questions will be addressed, particularly in regard to the dating of 1 Clement. Many radical scholars over more than a century have called into question the basic authenticity of 1 Clement and the letters of Ignatius, often relegating them to much later periods, as late as around 160. We know, of course, that the so-called “Longer Recension” of the Ignatian letters is a later forgery, in which a host of Gospel features have been inserted (a prime example of the blatant Christian forgery and doctoring of writings which infests the overall documentary period). But what of the “Shorter Recension” which has a less detailed and more primitive character? I’ll address these points without making a firm decision on precisely where to locate such documents. The main purpose will be to survey the evolution of certain strands in the picture of the early Christian Son throughout a period of, say, up to thirty years, probably spanning the last years of the first century and the first part of the second.

— I —
The Epistle 1 Clement

Considerations of Dating

     Traditional mainstream scholarship has for more than a hundred years tended to date 1 Clement to the 90s of the first century, sometimes even pinpointing it to the year following Domitian’s death in 96. This is chiefly on the basis of the somewhat enigmatic reference in the first sentence to “the sudden and repeated calamities which have befallen us,” something that has delayed the writer’s attention to his letter. The assumption has been that this refers to the reputed persecution of Christians under Domitian in the latter years of his reign. But the evidence for such a persecution is scant and uncertain, as some commentators admit. Kirsopp Lake, for example, in the Loeb Apostolic Fathers (vol.1, p.5), allows that “we know very little about the alleged persecution in the time of Domitian, and it would not be prudent to decide that the epistle cannot be another ten or fifteen years later.” R. M. Grant (The Apostolic Fathers, vol.2, p.16, n.1) notes that “little is known about such persecutions,” while William R. Schoedel in his chapter “The Apostolic Fathers” (in The New Testament and Its Modern Interpreters, p.461), refers to “an important study” by Gerbert Brunner who denies that 1 Clement 1:1 must refer to a persecution.  If that is the case,  “a wide range of possible dates for 1 Clement is thus opened up.”

     Schoedel suggests, however, that a date as early as around 69 (put forward by a few commentators, including recently Alvar Ellegard in his Jesus—One Hundred Years Before Christ) is based on “strained” evidence. (I discuss this question in my website review of Ellegard’s book.) If 1:1 does refer to a persecution, the letter of Pliny to Trajan around 112 shows that persecution, even if local and spottily carried out, must have been fairly frequent during the period, as Pliny asks for advice of an emperor who was expected to have some familiarity with a general policy on the matter.

     Other indications within the epistle seem to push the date to a point no earlier than the late years of the century. At least a generation has passed since the time of the apostles (44:2-3); those who carry the letter to Corinth “have been with us from youth to old age” (63:3); and the Corinthian church is “ancient” (47:6). References to Peter and Paul in chapter 5 apparently place them at some distance from the writer’s time. Thus it is probably a safe compromise to date 1 Clement sometime in the period 90 to 110. For the purposes of this article, a more specific date is not necessary. (The position that the epistle is a much later “forgery” and not what it purports to be, namely a letter from a Roman congregation to one in Corinth in response to difficulties being experienced by the latter community, but is instead a mid-second century product designed to further a later agenda, will be looked at in the final part of this section.)

     On the matter of authorship, its assignation by late second century commentators like Irenaeus to the purported third “bishop of Rome” (in line from the apostle Peter), one Clement of Rome, is today not generally accepted as having much reliability, but as this question is irrelevant to the present article, I will not spend space discussing it here. In any case, the picture of the authority structure in the epistle’s community seems primitive, lacking a strong, monarchical head. “Bishops” and “presbyters” are almost on the same footing. This, together with the implication (as in chapter 44) of a not-too-distant link to the age of the original “apostles” who began the principle of apostolic succession—if this is not simply a device within the ‘later forgery’ scenario—would recommend limiting the date of the epistle to a point not too far into the second century.

     Note: I will primarily use the translation of Maxwell Staniforth in the Penguin Classics edition (though I have dropped his capital H’s), because he captures a more natural sense for modern readers than does Kirsopp Lake’s greater formality in the Loeb edition. But I will occasionally dip into the latter for a more literal rendition and to make specific points, identifying it as such.

The Nature of Christ in 1 Clement

     Whoever the author was, he is steeped in Jewish traditions and a knowledge of scripture, though this is of the Greek Septuagint. This no doubt reflects the character of the Christian community in Rome of which he was a part, although it does not require that the community was composed primarily of Jews. As R. M. Grant points out (The Apostolic Fathers, p.37), much of the tone of the epistle is Greek, even Stoic, and at the very least it would have to be styled as belonging to Hellenistic Judaism. But is the author steeped as well in a knowledge of the historical Jesus? Assuming, quite naturally, that the community in Corinth could not have been too different in this respect from the writer’s own, what picture of Jesus do we find in the key centers of Rome and Corinth around the turn of the second century?

     This overlong, rambling letter is generally regarded as the earliest surviving Christian document which is not part of the New Testament, although core parts (if not all) of the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas may be roughly as old or older. If we accept the letter at face value, the Corinthian church was experiencing a dispute over leadership, a younger group rebelling against the authority of the appointed elders, so someone from the church at Rome wrote a letter attempting to mediate and restore tranquility. That the circles which 1 Clement represents are approaching the moment when an historical Jesus was to crystallize in their thought seems evident, even though they have not quite reached that point. If a 90s dating for the epistle is accurate, Ignatius’ arrival in Rome to be martyred in the arena lay only a decade or two in the future. Whether the Roman community itself was in the process of adopting an historical Jesus by that time we cannot be sure from the Ignatian epistle to the Romans. (Perhaps Ignatius himself was to bring them that conviction!)

    The claim that the writer of 1 Clement possessed the concept of a recent historical Jesus may have some grounds in the letter, but this impression is compromised by other passages which suggest a different interpretation. Like much early Christian expression, the main focus by Clement (I will refer to the author by that name) is on God the Father, his goodness and mercy, his wishes and commandments (e.g., 29:1, 38:4). In 35:5, the writer fixes his mind “trustfully on God”; he finds out “what is pleasing and acceptable to him”; he does “whatever agrees with his perfect will.” Clement’s emotions, his love and respect, are almost entirely given to God, not to the figure of Christ. The name “Jesus” is never used by itself, but only in conjunction with “Christ” or “Lord” and usually as part of the phrase “Our Lord Jesus Christ” or a variant. When a single name is used, it is always “Christ.” When Clement focuses on this Christ, he says things like (7:4), “Let us fix our gaze on the Blood of Christ, and let us know that it is precious to his Father, because it was poured out for our salvation and brought the grace of repentance to all the world.” The closest he comes to expressing a feeling toward him is 21:6: “Let us reverence the Lord Jesus Christ, whose blood was given for us.” The largely abstract, even formal, way that the writer deals with the figure of Jesus, taken together with the vast silence on almost every aspect of an earthly career, does not speak to the memory of a vital historical figure in their recent past to whom believers feel a close personal and human bond.

     This is not to say that Christ is not a prominent entity in the epistle. But the relationship between the Father and Son sounds like an echo of Paul, with his concept of “in Christ” and “through Christ,” phrases which Clement also uses frequently. “[We] have fled for refuge to his [God’s] mercies through our Lord Jesus Christ…” (22.11). Employing other echoes of Paul and Hebrews, Clement says (36): “…even Jesus Christ, the High Priest by whom our gifts are offered, and the Protector by whom our feebleness is aided…through him we can look up to the highest heaven and see, as in a glass, the peerless perfection of the face of God…through him the Lord permits us to taste the wisdom of eternity.” Such passages suggest that Clement sees Christ as a spiritual entity, an intermediary between God and humanity, one who serves as the revealer of God and his agent of redemption.

     Like Paul, too, Christ is joined to Clement’s community in a mystical way, closely in parallel with God himself. “Have we not all the same God, and the same Christ? Is not the same Spirit of grace shed upon us all? Have we not all the same calling in Christ? Then why are we rending and tearing asunder the limbs of Christ, and fomenting discord against our own body?” (46:6-7) That all inhabit the same celestial and spiritual sphere, and share the same nature, seems evident from 58:2: “As surely as God lives, as Jesus Christ lives, and the Holy Ghost (on whom are [presumably plural, the Greek is unspecific] set the faith and hope of God’s elect)…” As with Paul, there is never any question about having faith that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact the Christ, or that he rose from the dead in flesh in the Gospel context, or that such an historical act was indeed an act of redemption. The process of God revealing himself through Jesus, saving humanity through Jesus’ blood, or even the “teaching” of Our Lord Jesus Christ himself (which we shall examine presently), is never related to an earthly, historical setting or human character. Christ is a present power, not a past personality.

Speaking Through Scripture

     How does this Christ communicate with Christians? Clement seems to give us two different kinds of answer. One is reminiscent of Hebrews, where the Son was conceived as speaking through scripture. (See Article No. 9: The Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews.) Clement presents the identical view. It is most clear in chapter 22:

“All these promises [by God] find their confirmation when we believe in Christ, for it is he himself [i.e., Christ] who summons us through the Holy Spirit, with the words: ‘Come, children, listen to me, and I will teach you the fear of the Lord…’ ”
     Scripture, as always, is regarded as “the authentic voice of the Holy Spirit” (45:2), and here the Spirit speaks a passage from Psalm 34 (11-17). Clement regards these words as a personal summons from Christ himself. Christ, in the medium of the Spirit, speaks through the sacred writings, and because of the way Psalm 39 is phrased, Clement presents the lines as though Christ is telling Christian readers that he will teach them the fear of the Lord (i.e., God). Christ is a spiritual entity who communicates with the world through scripture, and one of his roles is to reveal God. This is in the same vein as the somewhat more abstract Logos in thought like that of Philo of Alexandria, a force which serves as the medium to present to the mind of humanity an otherwise unknowable Deity who dwells in the highest, purely spiritual realm of heaven. It is similar to the Son and Word in the Odes of Solomon, a Revealer entity with no sacrificial dimension, also not linked to an historical figure on earth. And it is close to the “Son of God” in the Shepherd, as we shall see.

     Following the passage in chapter 36 quoted above, in which Jesus Christ provides (in the present time, an intermediary function) the “glass” through which one can “look up to the highest heaven and see the peerless perfection of the face of God,” Clement goes on to say:

“For it is written, ‘He makes his angels into winds…’ but of the Son the Lord declares, ‘You are my Son, this very day have I fathered you…’ Again, God says to him, ‘Sit down at my right hand until I make your enemies a cushion for your feet.’ ”
Like the writer of Hebrews, Clement sees God speaking of and to the Son in the writings. Scripture is a window onto the heavenly realm where Father and Son are seen to converse. Like Hebrews, Clement shows no knowledge of any tradition that some of these words had been spoken out of heaven to the human Jesus at the time of his baptism at the Jordan.

     If Clement regards Christ as a revealer of God, of his wishes and intentions toward the world, why is the vast tradition on these subjects attached to the teaching Jesus in the Gospels never put forward in the epistle? In the two or three passages in which Clement suggests a teaching Jesus, are these essentially different from those implying spiritual communication? Defenders of Jesus’ historicity, of course, claim that they are. Chapter 13 contains the most significant. (I have slightly altered Staniforth’s translation of the first sentence to make it closer to the literal Greek.)

“Let us remember the words of the Lord Jesus which he spoke (elalêsen) when teaching gentleness and longsuffering. For he said this: ‘Be merciful, that you may obtain mercy. Forgive, that you may be forgiven. What you do yourself, will be done to you; what you give will be given to you; as you judge, so will you be judged; as you show kindness, so it will be shown to you. Your portion will be weighed out for you in your own scales.’ ”
     There is no denying the close similarity of these sentiments to parts of the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, but neither the words nor their sequence are anywhere near identical to a Gospel passage. Clement’s phrasing, in fact, is pretty basic and smacks of the field of popular maxims. We know that this type of moral directive belonged among the ethical commonplaces of the day. (Both the Didache and Epistle of Barnabas, not to mention Paul and the epistle of James, quote maxims similar to Jesus’ Gospel teachings which are never attributed to him.) It is quite possible that such maxims were now regarded by communities like Clement’s as having been revealed by a heavenly Christ through prophets. Wherever such directives may have come from, scholars such as R. M. Grant (The Apostolic Fathers, vol.1: An Introduction, p.40) acknowledge that Clement’s source is probably oral, rather than any written version of a Gospel. (Grant appeals to Helmut Koester, who is generally regarded as the leading authority on the subject of the Fathers’ dependence on oral tradition rather than on written Gospels: see his Ancient Christian Gospels, p.14-20.)

     That Clement knew any of the Gospels has never been satisfactorily demonstrated. This in itself is an indicator that the Gospel of Mark was not likely written as early as 65-70, or intended as an historical account. For how could one explain why the prominent Christian community in the capital of the Empire would not have received a copy of it, or that one of its leaders would not be familiar with key parts of its text, even after the passage of some three decades? If Matthew and Luke were both written before 90, this should indicate that interest and knowledge of the Gospels was spreading throughout Christian communities. And yet Rome, apparently, has yet to hear of them.

     Too much in this epistle indicates that Clement has no knowledge of important Gospel traditions, even in oral form. A few verses later, in 14:4, he says: “It is written, ‘the kind-hearted will inhabit the earth, and the innocent will remain upon it, but the transgressors will be rooted out of it.’ ” Who does not hear in that first phrase the ringing opening verses from the Sermon itself, one of those Beatitudes which surely impressed themselves on all who knew anything of Jesus’ teachings? Yet Clement introduces these words with “It is written,” referring to scripture; and in fact he is quoting two verses from Proverbs (2:21-22) to which he goes on to add several more quotations from the Old Testament.

     We read other passages in the epistle: on giving versus receiving (2:1), on repentance (8:1), on the promise of resurrection (26:2); yet Clement shows no sign of being aware that Jesus had said anything on these topics. On repentance, Clement goes so far as to offer a number of lengthy quotes from God himself found in scripture, but not a word from Jesus’ own catalogue, as in Mark 1:15 or Luke 13:3-5. Similarly, Clement appeals to scripture and the ‘sayings’ of God as guarantee of the resurrection, while remaining silent on such Gospel teachings as Luke 14:14 or Matthew 22:31. He can make direct quotation of the “promises” of resurrection in 26:2, but they are only God’s words, not those of Jesus. Clement can offer his own parable of a sower (24:5) without reminding his readers that Jesus had spoken one, too. In his great panegyric on Christian love in chapters 48 to 50, he has neither room nor interest, it seems, to quote Jesus’ own inspiring sayings on the subject.

     When Clement urges his readers to believe that God’s purpose to establish his Kingdom will be accomplished swiftly, he appeals solely to Old Testament prophecies about the Day of the Lord, ignoring all of Jesus’ Gospel pronouncements about the coming End and his own Parousia (arrival at the End time). Indeed, the latter seems unknown to this writer, despite all the Gospel predictions (as well as Q’s) about the Son of Man and his imminent coming, for in several passages (23:5, 34:3, 35:4) Clement speaks only in terms of the more traditional Jewish expectation of the coming of God himself. Could this writer have any knowledge of the Gospels and its prominent feature of Jesus’ predicted return? Could the entire tradition on the Son of Man in Q and the Gospels have any authenticity in regard to Clement’s Jesus, and Clement be ignorant of it? How could he be ignorant of oral traditions about Jesus’ imminent coming or return, if this was a widespread and prominent feature of Christian expectation, as it surely should have been? In 23:5, Clement addresses himself to “scripture’s own testimony” that the Day of the Lord is imminent: “He will surely come quickly; he will not delay,” and “With no warning the Lord, the Holy One you are expecting, will come to his temple.” Clearly the expected arrival is that of God, not of Jesus.

     In chapter 53, after a long dissertation on forgiveness, Clement searches for words to sum up his case. They are not words of Jesus on the cross, but the plea of Moses to God that he forgive the disobedient Israelites. Clement extols Moses’ benevolence: “What immeasurable love…a minister speaking up boldly to his Lord and demanding pardon for the multitude!” Would he have chosen words from the Old Testament had he known of Luke’s saying?

     Now, it has been suggested that some of these objections on Clement’s silence amount to “straw men.” Jesus’ words on the cross, “Father forgive them…” are found only in Luke, whose invention they may certainly be. The Beatitude popularly known as “Blessed are the meek,” to which I have compared Clement’s appeal to Proverbs, appears only in the Sermon on the Mount, and may be an enlargement by Matthew over the version appearing in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. We should not, they say, expect elements in the Gospels now regarded as unhistorical to be known to early Christian commentators.

     Even if Matthew’s specific beatitude is confined to him, the general sentiment that the lowly and disenfranchised will prove to be the inheritors when the Kingdom arrives, that the humble shall be exalted and the mighty humbled, is a central feature of Jesus’ preaching in the Gospels. Any sentiment in such a direction should have attracted an attribution to him. In general, however, there is a further consideration that is consistently overlooked.

     If a sectarian movement were begun, or even regarded as begun, by a famous teacher, it is clear that teachings on important matters that later arose would be put in his mouth; that practices later adopted by the sect would be regarded as established by him; that warnings, predictions of the future, promises to send a Spirit which authenticates later views, and so on, would be imputed to him. This can be said to be “clear” because the entire Christian record from Q and the Gospels onward witnesses to this universal phenomenon of sectarian behavior. All sorts of sayings and deeds were attributed to Jesus which critical scholarship now regards as inauthentic.

     Clement should have possessed some word of Jesus to support key issues like repentance and forgiveness, the promise of resurrection, the coming of the Kingdom and his own return, whether in fact a real historical Jesus had said anything about them or not. Any movement following teachings of an historical figure, and certainly of the historical Jesus supposedly behind Q and the Gospels, should have possessed a much richer body of tradition associated with such a figure than Clement displays. Indeed, his catalogue is threadbare.

Other Silences in the Epistle

     Nor does Clement possess traditions about Jesus raising the dead, which would have been a powerful argument in urging his readers to believe in the feasibility of resurrection. Q apparently had such traditions (note Luke/Q 7:22), decades earlier and they are prolific in the Gospels. How much more powerful would Lazarus have been than the rather strained example of the phoenix (25) as proof of God’s intent to resurrect humans? Clement should also have had traditions about Jesus’ healings. And yet in chapter 59, he makes this appeal to God:

“Save those of us who are in affliction, have mercy on the lowly, raise the fallen, show thyself to those in need, heal the sick, turn again the wanderers of thy people, feed the hungry, ransom our prisoners, raise up the weak, comfort the faint-hearted.”
     If Clement is in the same line as Q and the Gospels, if he was exposed to those oral traditions we would regard as mainstream in the early Christian movement, how could he not know that Jesus had reputedly done many of these very things, and at least make some passing mention of them? Such mention would be absolutely natural, even if his readers were familiar with them. Why, indeed, not appeal to Jesus himself to effect these things in the community now?

     Q and the Gospels are also centered on John the Baptist. Was the latter figure not a part of mainstream Christian tradition? We would have to think not, to judge by the total body of the New Testament epistles which never mentions him, nor the baptism of Jesus himself by John. Clement makes that silence more resounding when he focuses on those who “went about in sheepskins and goatskins heralding the Messiah’s coming” (17:1) but leaves out John the Baptist, mentioning only Old Testament figures like Elijah, Elisha and Ezekiel. His “other famous names” are limited to Abraham, Moses and David.

     Another missing figure is Judas, when we might expect that treacherous apostle to be offered as an example of how envy and jealousy had adverse effects on famous figures, this one Jesus himself. In chapters 4 and 5, Clement itemizes many Old Testament luminaries who suffered at the hands of betrayers, and follows that up with the more contemporary examples of Peter and Paul who were “assailed by envy and jealousy.” On Judas he is silent, as also in 45:7 when telling of “iniquitous men…who delivered over to torments” the pious and the innocent. And if martyrdom is in view in chapter 5, why is there no mention of Acts’ Stephen who was stoned for his championing of Jesus by the envious Jews?

     But there is a void even more dramatic in Clement’s apparent knowledge of Jesus’ life. Even without a written Gospel, his community should have possessed traditions about the historical event of the crucifixion, about Jesus’ trial and sufferings. In chapter 16 he presents Christ as a pattern for humility: “The coming of our Lord Jesus Christ…was in no pomp of pride or haughtiness…but in self-abasement.” Does he go on to provide his readers with an account of Jesus’ silence and humility during his trial and crucifixion? This is the context he wants to present (to judge by the content of the material he does offer), but he seems to have no details about the historical event itself, for he simply quotes the entire Suffering Servant song of Isaiah 53 from start to finish, with its references to the servant “who carries the burden of our sins and suffers pain on our behalf,” who “through all his ill-treatment…never opened his mouth,” who “was led away like a sheep to be slaughtered.”

     This ‘song’ contains much that relates to suffering and perhaps even death, and it was the source (in other circles) of many of the details of the passion story, but it hardly makes a good substitute for the real thing. Clearly, this was the only type of repository available to Clement for information about Christ’s crucifixion. Jesus’ blood sacrifice was known only through scripture. For how could a Christian center of the stature of Rome, even if it had no written Gospel, not possess some traditions, some details about the historical crucifixion, accurate or not. How could Clement not have wanted to make use of such details, if only as a supplement to the passage in Isaiah, which would then have served as a prophecy of the event? Indeed, we would expect him to call attention to this fact—as the evangelists and many later Christian writers were to do—that the events had fulfilled the prophecies, the passages in the sacred writings. No such idea is even hinted at.

     Clement supplements Isaiah 53 with verses from Psalm 22 (7-9), another source for the Gospel scene on Calvary. Once again he introduces them as Christ himself speaking through scripture:

“And elsewhere, he himself says: ‘I am…an object of contempt to the people. All who saw me derided me, they spoke with their lips, nodding their heads and saying, He set his hopes on the Lord; let him deliver him…’ ”
These words from the Psalm are presented as Christ telling of his experiences through scripture. But again, where is the comparison with history? Did the fixation on comparing the “historical record” found in tradition and the Gospels with the “prophecies” in the Old Testament begin only after Clement? (It will be found in a very primitive form in the epistle of Barnabas.) Would one of the heads of the church at Rome, by the end of the first century, not have been aware of any tradition, such as in Matthew 27:39-43, that people witnessing Jesus’ crucifixion had, in fulfillment of prophecy, acted and spoken exactly like the words of the Psalm?

     The long passage from Isaiah 53 is introduced with these words: “…as the Holy Spirit spoke (elalêsen) concerning him, saying…” As in Hebrews, the significance of this is evident. Clement knows Jesus was humble because the Holy Spirit, in scripture, tells him so. (Barnabas, we shall see, still shares this attitude.) The sacred writings are not the prophecy of an historical Christ’s life; history does not fulfill scripture. The quotations Clement offers are not used as “proof-texts,” confirming or illuminating historical events. History is never interpreted in the light of the scriptures, a practice later commentators such as Justin were to revel in. Rather, for Clement, scripture is itself the embodiment of the Christ event. Christ inhabits the higher spiritual world and scripture provides a window onto it. When Clement sums up in chapter 16 by saying, “See what an example we have been given” (of the Lord’s humility), he is pointing squarely to Christ’s activities in this spiritual realm as seen through the sacred writings, not to any events in Palestine some three-quarters of a century earlier, events to which he never casts a glance. The example is in scripture itself, and this Suffering Servant is equated with Christ, not a prophecy of him.

Teaching and Remembering

     It should be noted that the Holy Spirit in chapter 16 “spoke” (elalêsen) using the same verb with which Christ was said to speak when “teaching” in chapter 13, to which we can now return. In view of the extremely limited nature of any such teaching by Jesus known to Clement, and his preponderant reliance on scripture, we are entitled to see the passage as a string of maxims which are viewed as coming from the spiritual Christ, somewhat as Paul’s “words of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:10 and 9:14) are regarded by one stream of scholarship as perceived communications from Christ in heaven. (For example, Werner Kelber, The Oral and the Written Gospel, p.206; Rudolf Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, p.127. Such scholars, of course, acknowledge these ‘dominical sayings’ of early Christian prophetic practice, but style it as communication from the “Risen Christ” after his departure from the world. But it is never presented in those terms by any epistle writer.)

     A similar situation would fit the other passage (46:8) in which words are given to Jesus:

“Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said: ‘Woe to that man, it would have been a good thing for him if he had never been born, instead of upsetting one of my chosen ones. It would be better for him to be pitched into the sea with a millstone hung round him, than to lead a single one of my chosen astray.’ ”
This quote, similar to a conflation of Synoptic sayings (e.g., Matthew 18:6, Mark 9:42), has all the ring of an admonition thundered out by some early Christian prophet, claiming to speak in the name of Christ, or perhaps simply of God. Clement may know it from some body of inspired pronouncements, passed on as “words of the Lord Jesus.”

     The idea that gods “teach” is a universal phenomenon in the world’s religions. Clement’s use of the term “when teaching” need imply no more than this. Other Christian epistles reflect this idea. In 1 Thessalonians 4:9, Paul says (astonishingly) that “You are taught by God to love one another” (my italics). In 1 John 2—possibly written around the same time as 1 Clement—the writer declares that “all knowledge” has come from the sect’s ‘anointing’ ceremony, which is the gift of “the Holy One” (God). In the Roman community, some body of teaching is now being imputed to the heavenly Christ, as reflected in Clement’s reference to “the precepts of Christ” in 49:1. We should note that in chapter 22 (quoted above) the writer presents, through the words of Psalm 34, Christ as offering to “teach”—using the same verb as in chapter 13—the fear of the Lord, and this is presented as a teaching in and through scripture. In other words, through spiritual channels from a spiritual source.

     The use of the word “remember” in Clement’s introduction to these two passages is commonly claimed to be an indication of the practice of remembering and passing on the words spoken by Jesus in his ministry, and so it can be used in other literature. But such tradition and terminology could exist within any context of adhering to a body of teaching, and there seems no reason to exclude teaching proceeding from a revelatory or prophetic source. Compare two other epistle passages. In Hebrews 2:1-4, the author speaks of the revelatory experience in the sect’s past—probably marking its beginning. (That it is a revelation he is referring to and not the ministry of Jesus, I have argued in Article No 7: Transfigured on the Holy Mountain). He urges his readers to “pay heed” to what they have learned. In the 1 John passage, the readers’ knowledge, which they acquired “at the start” from the Father, is to be “kept in their hearts,” just as Clement reminds the Corinthians that Christ’s word has been “stored in their hearts.” In any case, the point may be moot. How else was Clement to express himself in these passages? In speaking of “remembering,” he is simply urging his readers to recall to mind certain teachings attributed to “the Lord Jesus” which are pertinent to the arguments he is making. There is no context of discussion about passing on tradition here, and too much is read into a simple word used in a simple manner.

     It has also been noted that in those passages reputed to be the words of Christ on earth the past tense is used, whereas in other cases it is the present tense. But this overlooks the governing distinction. All other instances of “saying” by God or Christ are taken from the bible. Scripture is an ever-existing, concrete repository of ongoing revelation. The voice of Christ speaks every time they are read. Not so with ethical maxims regarded as proceeding from or revealed by Christ. They exist only in oral form, coming out of the past, presumably through supposed revelations made to someone connected with the movement, and thus the use of the past tense would be natural.

     One final point in this connection. The distinction has been noted that only in the case of the two quoted words of a teaching Jesus, together with 32:2’s reference to “kata sarka” (to be examined later), does the identification “the Lord Jesus” appear. These are the only instances in which the word “Christ” is not used in conjunction with “Jesus.” It may be difficult to say why this particular combination of terms appears only in these cases, but two suggestions do not commend themselves. One is that it represents a lower or more primitive christology derived from oral tradition. Yet any use of the title “Lord” cannot be spoken of as low or primitive. “Lord” is one of the titles previously given to God alone, and as such is more exalted even than “Christ” which simply means an anointed one, traditionally applied to a human figure. (This is not to say that in early Christian thought it has not been pressed into service as a name for the faith’s divine salvation figure or aspect of God.)

     The second is the claim that the similarity of the maxims in chapter 13 to those of the preaching movement which produced Q (and the related earlier stratum of the Gospel of Thomas) should tie Clement’s tradition to that milieu, where the likelihood of an historical teaching Jesus is allegedly strong. But this fails to work as well. The Q tradition never speaks of its Jesus as “Lord” or “Christ.” These terms appear in neither document. Nor does that tradition speak of a salvific role for the Jesus we can see in the final stages of Q, let alone of his death and resurrection. All those elements found in 1 Clement are notably missing from the Q tradition. On the other hand, Clement lacks the prominent Q element of the Son of Man expectation, and he never expresses any of the more distinctive ethics of the Sermon on the Mount derived from Q, such as “love your enemies.”

     Thus it is less likely that Clement stands in the line of the Q tradition. And when one considers that the maxims which appear in chapter 13 are little more than expansions on the Golden Rule, an ancient and widespread idea, such similarity to the Q dimension ceases to be either surprising or significant. Preaching of the imminent Kingdom of God was also widespread at this time.

A Chain of Apostolic Authority

     But there is one important passage in 1 Clement which allegedly supports the case for the writer’s belief in an historical Jesus. It comprises an appeal to the idea of apostolic tradition, a chain of authority that began at the onset of the movement and now culminates in those leaders whom the rebels in Corinth have challenged. Clement uses this apostolic chain to argue for the illegitimacy of the rebels’ actions. Yet even in this passage there are anomalies and silences which are almost universally overlooked.

     Here is the first part of chapter 42, as translated by Kirsopp Lake:

“The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ, Jesus the Christ was sent from God. The Christ therefore is from God and the Apostles from the Christ. In both ways, then, they were in accordance with the appointed order of God’s will. Having therefore received their commands, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with faith confirmed by the word of God, they went forth in the assurance of the Holy Spirit preaching the good news that the Kingdom of God is coming.”
     1 Clement 42 is probably the earliest example in Christian correspondence of the idea of tracing authority and/or doctrine back to earlier periods in an authoritative chain. This is something that even Ignatius lacks, as do the Johannine epistles. But what is it that the writer is tracing back to?

     It would be instructive to compare this passage with Revelation 1:1-3:

“This is the revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to him to show his servants what must soon take place, and he [Christ] sent it through his angel to his servant John who, telling everything he saw, has borne witness to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.” [Conflating parts of the NIV and the NEB]
     God makes a revelation to Jesus, who in turn communicates it through an angel to the prophet John. John, in setting it all down in writing, is passing on Christ’s revelation to him. The figure of Christ communicates entirely through spiritual, revelatory channels. For John, Christ is an exclusively heavenly figure, a portrayal consistent throughout Revelation. (See Article No. 11: Revelation: The Gospel According to the Prophet John.)

     If John is an apostle of the Christ, he would claim to have derived his preaching authority and message from Christ—through an angel—while Christ in his turn has received his message from God, both spiritual channels. I suggest that this is precisely the pattern we see in 1 Clement (a work, by the way, probably close in time to the writing of Revelation, which is most often dated in the 90s.)

     Verse 42:1 says that Jesus the Christ was sent from God. The root verb “sent” is used many times throughout Christian epistles in contexts which imply a spiritual sending. It is the same verb used—including by Clement—to talk of the sending of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing in this epistle which says that Jesus preached the Kingdom of God while on earth. In fact, it is notably lacking. Verse 1 says that the apostles received their gospel from the Lord Jesus Christ in a chain clearly stated: the message passed from God to Christ, then from Christ to the apostles. The apostles go out preaching the good news as though they are the first to carry the message. There is a notable silence on any idea that such a message had previously been preached by Christ himself, to a much wider audience than the apostles themselves. God tells Christ, Christ tells the apostles, the apostles tell the world. It is the same narrow sequence as in Revelation.

     And in Paul. In Galatians 1:12 Paul speaks of receiving his gospel—the gospel of God, as he and other epistle writers style it—through a revelation of Jesus Christ (which could mean “from” or “about” Christ). The Son has been revealed ‘in and through’ himself (Gal. 1:16), and he is passing it on through his preaching message. Nothing prevents us from interpreting Clement’s meaning in the same revelatory way, especially as at the beginning of the next chapter he proceeds to eradicate any sense of a physical commissioning of the apostles by Jesus in his ministry: “And what wonder is it if those who were in Christ, and were entrusted by God with such a duty, established those who have been mentioned?”

     First of all, the phrase “in Christ” is suspiciously like the Pauline motif “in/through Christ” which (regardless of whether one believes he knew an historical Jesus or not) meant the spiritual presence of the heavenly Christ within people or situations. It is very suggestive of the mystical cult atmosphere found in Paul, which I maintain is devoid of an historical Jesus. More importantly, if the writer of 1 Clement just had in mind Jesus’ commissioning of the apostles, either during his ministry or following the resurrection in flesh, it is hardly likely he would have reverted to saying that the apostles were “entrusted by God” with their mission. If, however, Christ were simply a spiritual force acting as God’s channel, and not the object of human memory, expressing things this way would be understandable.

Christ’s Resurrection

     Before pursuing Clement’s chain of authority argument further, let’s go back to the idea of the resurrection, as alluded to in 42:3. Most translations, of course, assume the Gospel background and imply that the apostles went out to preach full of encouragement having just witnessed Jesus’ return from the grave. But is this overlooking a more natural meaning in the text itself? The verb for “fully assured” (plêrophoreô) implies “filled with confidence, faith, determination, etc.” (colloquially, “pumped up”), but it is followed by the preposition “dia” which means “on account of, by reason of”). This is general enough to make possible the meaning that the apostles were filled with confidence at the thought of the resurrection, in the sense of an article of faith. In fact, this is the sense in which Ignatius uses this verb and idea in the opening of his epistle to the Philadelphians, where he says that his readers “have sure and certain conviction in the resurrection of our Lord”; and it is used in the same sense in the enumeration of Jesus’ biographical elements in Magnesians 11.

     But there is more to support the meaning of ‘convinced by faith.’ Following on the statement that the apostles are “fully assured by/on account of the resurrection,” the writer adds that they are “filled with faith in the word of God.” What is it that they feel an assured belief in, if not the resurrection just referred to? That such a thing is designated “the word of God” would indicate that this is in fact an article of faith, the product of revelation, and not something known through eyewitness. (This second phrase has been curiously dropped from Staniforth’s Penguin translation.)

     Paul, too, confesses his and others’ conviction of Jesus’ resurrection in terms suggesting faith, not historical eyewitness, as in Romans 10:9 and 1 Thessalonians 4:14. And in 1 Corinthians 15:12-15, in urging the assurance of resurrection on his readers, Paul declares that if there is no general resurrection, then Christ himself cannot have been raised, and he and other apostles have been lying about what God has said. This implies that the source of what Paul preaches about the resurrection of Jesus has come from God, not from history and tradition. In other words, it is an article of faith, revealed from divine sources.

     The whole passage in 1 Clement 42:1-3 seems to be saying this: the apostles, having received the gospel, by (spiritual) revelation from God through Christ, and pumped up by the thought of the resurrection of Christ and fully believing God’s word (through revelation or scripture) that it was true, set out to preach to the world (which hears it for the first time) the coming Kingdom of God.

Appointment of Apostles

     After saying that the apostles had gone out, having been “entrusted by God” to preach the Kingdom, Clement goes on to provide further evidence that he intended no picture of Christ commissioning apostles during an earthly ministry. The main purpose of Clement’s letter is to impress upon the rebel Corinthians that they must accept the authority of their appointed elders, and he marshals all manner of evidence, mostly drawn from scripture, to support the principle of this authority. While there may be some distinction of roles between appointed apostles and appointed bishops and deacons, this passage (chapters 42-44) is one in which Clement is addressing the concept of delegation—from God through Christ to the apostles. The flow of thought, right up to 44:3, indicates that the God-Christ-apostles chain is being extended through the apostles’ appointment of bishops and deacons in the communities they converted. Clement goes on to search for a sacred foundation for the legitimacy of these appointments. He finds a foundation and precedent in the books of Moses and the prophets, where those figures under divine guidance set down instructions for such proceedings. For proof that appointment of church ministers is inviolable, Clement has recourse to Moses’ appointment of Aaron and a prophecy in Isaiah.

     But a missing precedent should be evident: the record of Jesus’ personal appointment of the Twelve (or however many) and their authority to do everything in his name. Where are the words he would have spoken on such an occasion—even if developed in later church imagination? Where is Matthew’s directive to Peter himself—supposedly the first bishop of Clement’s own community, which would have seized on any such tradition—that here was the rock upon which the church was to be built, giving Peter powers to bind and loose? If the Roman community possessed no tradition of the dramatic appointment of Peter (because it was an invention of the Matthean evangelist and his community somewhere in Syria, and perhaps at this time not yet set down on paper), I have argued earlier that the Roman church should not have failed to preserve or develop specific traditions concerning Jesus’ teachings and directives, and this would include an appointment of apostles. The very occurrence of situations which this epistle addresses would guarantee such a thing.

     Even given the technical distinctions between apostles and community leaders, one would think that such precedents as these, such foundations of authority, would have struck Clement as pertinent and would have accompanied his scriptural arguments. The bare reference in chapter 42 will not do, as we have already seen; further, because there are none of the particulars we would expect if this represented a tradition of appointment on earth by Jesus. Look at the details Clement supplies in the matter of Moses in the next chapter.

     Finally, Clement rounds off his discussion here (chapter 44) with this statement: “Our apostles also knew, through (dia) our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be dissensions over the title of bishop.” This would be an odd way of expressing the idea that Jesus during his ministry or resurrection appearances had given the apostles this forecast, but perfectly natural if the meaning is of a revelation gained from the spiritual Christ. As Lightfoot points out (The Apostolic Fathers, vol.1, p.398), “dia” is frequently used by Clement to denote the mediatorial channel which Christ in heaven represents; “dia toutou” (through him) occurs five times in chapter 36 alone with precisely this meaning. The plain sense of the statement quoted above in 44:1 is one of communication from the heavenly Jesus. If so, since it ties itself (through the word kai) to what has come previously, this casts the same meaning back upon the entire discussion about the apostles and their commission from God through Christ. We may say that given such a meaning, no thought of an historical Jesus can be present in the writer’s mind, for the first apostles of Christ were not likely to have been characterized as being appointed in any other way than by the earthly Jesus himself.

     A century ago, bishop Lightfoot, a British clerical scholar, made this perceptive comment (op.cit., p.398): “To Clement Jesus is not a dead man whose memory is reverently cherished or whose precepts are carefully observed, but an ever living, ever active Presence, who enters into all the vicissitudes of Clement’s being.” What Lightfoot is saying, inadvertently, is that there is no sign in Clement’s mind of the historical Jesus who said and did things in the past, no sign of a now-dead human being who was supposedly the foundation of his present faith. For Clement and his predecessors, Jesus was no historical person but an ever-living spiritual being who provides a channel to God and the means for salvation. Deities in heaven have ever filled this role, and until the Gospels came along, this Son of the Jewish God in the spiritual realm was all anyone believed in or needed.

     That said, one should reemphasize the observation made earlier, that Clement’s thoughts and emotions are mainly theocentric, and that Lightfoot may be exaggerating the role Jesus plays for the writer of this epistle. After outlining all the promises and indicators that the Creator has supplied to give us assurance of resurrection (26), Clement’s devotion and love remain on God, and are expressed for him alone: “Seeing then that we have this hope, let us knit fast our souls to him who is ever true to his word and righteous in his judgements…let us rekindle the ardour of our belief in him…” And only a few verses later (29), it is God “we must approach…in holiness of spirit, lifting up pure and undefiled hands to him in love for the gracious and compassionate Father who has chosen us to be his own.” Even in the little ‘ode’ to love in chapter 49, which echoes 1 Corinthians 13, the writer speaks only of “love for God,” and that “love binds us fast to God,” while the passage at the end of this chapter, the only seeming reference in the epistle to Christ’s love for us, is in fact grammatically ambiguous, and may be saying, “…because of the love he [God, as God is the only one hitherto referred to] bore us, our Lord Jesus Christ, at the will of God, gave his blood for us, flesh [sarx] for our flesh, his life [psychê, literally, soul] for our lives.”

“Kata Sarka”

     This reference to “flesh” will lead us to consider one further passage in 1 Clement. Those who maintain that the writer does indeed envision an historical Jesus say it constitutes a fly in the ointment. Verse 32:2 refers back to the reference to Jacob in the preceding chapter:

“For it is from him [Jacob] that all the priests and Levites who minister at God’s altar have since descended. From him, too, according to the flesh, has come the Lord Jesus. From him there have issued kings and princes and rulers, in the line of descent from Judah.”
Actually, none of the English words of descent or coming appear in the Greek, which is literally “From him, the priests/Lord Jesus/kings and princes…” The reference to Jesus is a bare one: “From him, according to the flesh [kata sarka], the Lord Jesus.” Again, let’s consider the nature of this statement. It makes no perceivable connection to the Gospel figure, and its context is scriptural. And once again, it uses that curiously stereotyped and cryptic phrase found throughout early Christian correspondence: kata sarka or en sarki, or sometimes just the dative sarki: “in, according to, in relation to,” perhaps even “in the realm of, the flesh.” (See the discussion on this terminology and its appearances in the epistles in The Sound of Silence: Appendix.)

     Beginning in Ignatius and coming to full flower in Justin and just about everyone beyond, discussion of Jesus and his life is put in unmistakably human, historical terms, based on the Gospels. The phrase “kata sarka” is no longer pressed into service. What force, what mode of thinking, led every earlier letter writer to speak of Jesus, a more vivid and recent figure in their past than he was to men like Justin, in such an obscure and non-committal way, devoid of all sense of circulating historical tradition? We might accept it as a quirk of expression if such a thing stood beside other, more natural expressions of a recent human figure and his life story. But this is all we get, from Paul and the christological hymns, to 1 Clement at the end of the century, and even beyond.

     In Romans 1:3, the Son is “kata sarka” of David’s stock, which Paul identifies as part of the gospel of God about his Son found in the prophets. In Romans 9:5, the reference is almost identical to that in 1 Clement: “and from whom [the patriarchs] the Christ, according to the flesh [kata sarka].” In the hymn of 1 Timothy 3:16 (which may be earlier than the rest of the epistle), the “mystery” of the faith is that Christ Jesus was “manifested/ revealed in flesh [en sarki]” with no other activities on earth stated. Even in referring to “the days of his flesh” in Hebrews 5:7, Christ’s activities are based on scripture. 1 Peter 3:18 has Christ “put to death in the flesh [sarki]”—and raised “in the spirit,” as does the 1 Timothy hymn. (1 Peter, as in 1 Clement 16, describes Christ’s sufferings (2:22) by paraphrasing Isaiah 53, silent on any historical traditions found in the Gospels.)

     This strange and universal pattern of expression in almost the first hundred years of Christian letter writing (and more formal treatises like Hebrews) cannot be dismissed out of hand. It is part of a clearly perceptible evolution throughout the documentary record from silence on a human, Gospel figure to the gradual integration of such a figure and story into Christian thinking. In the earliest period, the use of a phrase like “kata sarka” represented a philosophical concept. It refers to the theoretical state which divinities inhabited or entered when they performed their work of redemption, when they lived out the elements of their myths. “Flesh” and “spirit” were the great opposites within the view of the universe held during the centuries dominated by Platonism and other mystical philosophies. The former was the world of humanity, the latter the realm of Deity. The whole tradition of myth said that certain gods and supernatural beings in their dealings with humanity took on human form—sometimes it is explicitly stated that it is only a “likeness” to that form—and underwent human-like activities. In any system where the saving deity suffered, he had to leave the more spiritual layers of heaven and do so within a human setting. For the early Christians, “flesh” was the commonest designation for that setting, but this encompassed a number of the universe’s levels, including the lowest spirit layer of the air, which possessed characteristics very like the level of matter and were inhabited by evil spirits with corporeal type ‘bodies.’ (These matters are discussed at length, with references, in Articles No. 3 and No. 8.)

     In early Christian circles, a further element was introduced and this was the Jewish scriptures. The concept of a divine “Messiah” had evolved out of this body of writing and tradition, and aspects of such a figure in scripture had to be applied to the new savior god Christ Jesus: thus, all these “descents” from David or the patriarchs or the line of Judah, or even from the “woman” of Isaiah 7:14. In the early literature, when Christ comes to the “sphere of flesh” he does only what scripture tells of him. To convey the idea, the stock formula “kata sarka” and its variants was apparently developed, woolly at best because it had no historical foundation on which to base itself. But it conformed to that flesh/spirit dichotomy of prevailing thought about the workings of the universe. And the phrase itself is ambiguous enough that it could encompass the connotation of referring to acts that have an effect on the human dimension, so that in some instances it may entail only the thought of being or acting “in relation to the flesh.” This more general application is seen in Paul’s use of kata sarka in 2 Corinthians 5:16 (in the NEB translation): “With us, therefore, worldly standards have ceased to count in our estimation of any man…” As well as of Christ, whose “flesh” here is not in view.

Postscript: Could 1 Clement Be a Mid-Second Century ‘Forgery’?

     Since the days of the Dutch Radicals (such as W. C. Van Manen), the ‘authenticity’ of 1 Clement has been called into question, much more than in regard to its author or specific occasion. While the letter purports to be a reaction by a Roman community to vicissitudes in Corinth, such alternate interpretations regard it as something written at a later date, 140 to 160 perhaps, using the scenario of discord at Corinth to provide a homily with a different, broader agenda. That agenda is seen as relating to the issue of authority, and is most often characterized as reflecting the Roman Church’s developing ambition to exercise some form of authority over the wider Christian community.

     In the convoluted world of early Christianity and its complex documentary record, one has to admit that almost anything is possible. Cases have been made for the mid-second century provenance of 1 Clement, and it would be foolhardy to say that they have no merit. Thus, I am not going to argue at length over the issue here, but simply offer observations that lead me to believe it is unlikely.

     First, if the letter is not what is presented on the surface, an “agenda” must be in mind. Whatever that agenda is thought to be, there must be fairly obvious indicators in the text which throw a spotlight on it. If the ‘forger’ intends his creation as support for a claim of authority by some body such as the Roman church, the elements in the letter which argue this cannot be so subtle as to be virtually undistinguishable. And we know from experience that Christian forgers and interpolators are rarely subtle, which is why their handiwork is usually so easily identifiable. The issues and agendas they are addressing are right there in plain view (as, for example, in the Pastorals). In 1 Clement, the issue of some centralized authority beyond the appointed elders of any individual community is nowhere in evidence.

     No mention is made of the rebels in Corinth submitting to an outside group; guidance is all that is being offered by the writer. He focuses on the “rivalry and dissension” (63) within the Corinthian community, not on any failure to render obedience to some larger network. The epistle never implies that Corinth owes fidelity to Rome. In 56:1, the writer urges that the rebels “surrender themselves, not to us but to the will of God.” In chapter 65, the writer is praying for “news of the truce and unity” in Corinth, nothing else. He has certainly made his epistle one of unconscionable length and repetition of its main themes, but there is no compelling reason to see this as any more than an expression of his own volubility, along with perhaps a measure of vanity in demonstrating his knowledge of scripture.

     If even the subtlest agenda advancing Roman authority were in the mind of the writer, we would surely not encounter the situation we see in chapter 5. Later Roman claims were heavily based on Peter and Paul’s precedent in having come to Rome, both of them to be martyred there, the former to become its first bishop and establish a chain of authority that would culminate in the Papacy. But Clement, in discussing Peter and Paul’s activities, is maddeningly vague, if not completely silent, on such later traditions. He does not even state clearly that either of these apostles ended their lives in martyrdom, and certainly there is no mention of Rome as the place of such events. In fact, his statement that “after reaching the furthest limits of the West, and bearing his testimony before kings and rulers, he passed out of this world…” might even imply that the legend of Paul as it then stood was that he had died in the distant west of the empire. There is no sense that Clement is familiar with the last days of Paul as portrayed in Acts.

     As for Peter, the writer’s failure to play up any martyrdom in Rome, and his complete silence on any connection of the apostle to that city, let alone that he had been its first bishop, not only belies later Petrine tradition on such things, it makes it impossible to believe that this writer has any concept of Roman hegemony, since Peter’s role in support of this would be something he could not have passed up. In this connection, we should note Ignatius’ silence on any linkage of Peter and Paul to Rome in his epistle to the Romans (4:3), even when he refers to them by name while discussing his impending martyrdom. In fact, the contrast he draws between himself and those illustrious figures virtually rules out the later traditions about their martyrdom. “They were apostles, and I am a condemned criminal,” is not something he would likely have said if both Peter and Paul met the same kind of fate (execution) in Rome which Ignatius is on his way to. “They were free men, and I am still a slave,” (the latter not meant literally) makes no sense if both men were no freer than Ignatius in the concluding stages of their lives.

     Second, the lack of reference—indeed, knowledge, as I have argued—concerning an historical Jesus in the epistle of Clement, makes it difficult to place it in the mid-second century, especially in a community such as Rome. Even though the record of the second century, from Apostolic Fathers to apologists, indicates that acceptance of an historical Jesus progressed gradually and unevenly, if any community was at the forefront of that development, it was Rome. Justin testifies to that, and so does everything we think we know about Marcion. He came to Rome sometime around 140, adopted a gnostic view of Jesus and formed what was probably the first canon of documents (ten epistles of Paul and an Ur-Luke) to make his case about Jesus’ preaching of the true God. And since the Roman scene, as the mid-second century arrived, was characterized by the Marcion-orthodoxy conflict, any letter written at that time with a ‘hidden’ agenda would surely have wanted to focus on the burning issue of the day, perhaps purporting to find ammunition from the earlier period to counter Marcion’s gnostic threat. Of the latter, there is not a hint in 1 Clement.

     One of the issues in the struggle with Marcion and gnosticism was that between the principle of ecclesiastical authority and the less-structured attitudes of gnostic spirituality and individual self-reliance, but even of this no sign can be detected in Clement. The rebel community is not one that resists authority structures in principle, since the community was previously in harmony; there is no sign that any faction come out of a different background, and the writer does not argue from the perspective of conflict with gnostic standards (as Paul might be said to do in parts of his Corinthian epistles). To observe that 1 Clement’s advocacy of appointed authority in the community is general enough to apply to a range of situations, and that it was indeed used in the later second century to support orthodox positions, does not demonstrate that it was designed to do so, especially when the specifics of those situations are conspicuously absent.

     There is no particular reason to believe that the epistle was later written in some more distant Christian community, one that was far from these issues and from the knowledge of an historical Jesus, with the letter being cast in the Rome to Corinth scenario simply as a vehicle. But even if this were so, it would still mean that the only ‘agenda’ in view would be the one the letter puts forward: obey the elders in your community who have been appointed over you. Since this would involve no issue of centralized authority beyond the community itself, and since the picture of that communal hierarchy is a primitive one, nowhere near the “monarchical bishop” model we find later (or even the one advocated by Ignatius), there would be no compelling reason to date such a ‘forgery’ to the mid-second century. Such an epistle could as easily come from the end of the preceding century, even if we are not in a position to prove it.

     Thus, whether the epistle is what it purports to be, or is simply someone else’s homily on community harmony and government cast in a Rome-to-Corinth setting, nothing changes in our analysis of the epistle and its knowledge of an historical Jesus. Since the more primitive nature of its environment and thought would tend to mitigate against a later provenance, there seems little justification in rejecting it as providing a window onto the period under examination.

— II —
The Shepherd of Hermas

     The Shepherd of Hermas is the longest and probably least familiar surviving Christian document before Justin. It seems to have taken shape over a few decades in the early second century, involving perhaps three different authors. Editing is evident and ideas are not always consistent throughout. Later tradition identified the author as “Hermas” (the name given to the recipient of the visions), who was regarded as the brother of Pius, bishop of Rome around 148 CE. But most if not all of the work was likely written before that time. Some scholars have even placed it in the late first century, which would fit its primitive theology and predominantly Jewish character.

     F. L. Cross, for example (The Early Church Fathers, p.24), dates the Shepherd to the end of the first century, due to its crude theology, undeveloped church organization and the overall primitiveness of the work. R. M. Grant (The Apostolic Fathers: An Introduction, p.85) notes that the Muratorian list’s assignment of the work to the bishopric of Pius after 140 “does not explain how Pius could be bishop of Rome if presbyters and bishops were practically identical and those called presbyters governed the church.” He subscribes to the view that the Shepherd is a composite work, with earlier parts coming soon after the accession of Trajan (97 CE). Simon Tugwell (The Apostolic Fathers, p.63) agrees that the post-140 dating is problematic and opts for the 60s or 70s of the first century. All of them accept a Roman provenance.

     The work is a series of revelations to Hermas by angelic and other celestial figures. One of these is “the shepherd,” angel of repentance, which gives the writing its name. The book is divided into three large sections: 5 Visions, 12 Commandments, and 10 Parables. The genre is apocalyptic. The author’s central concern is the question of sin after baptism: is forgiveness available to Christians for sins committed following their conversion? Hermas argues that repentance is still possible—though only once.

     This is indeed a strange Christian document. For all its length, the names of Jesus and Christ are never used. (The sole appearance of “Christ” in one manuscript of the second Vision, in 2:8, is thought to be a later emendation of “Lord”—meaning God—which appears in other manuscripts of the passage.) Instead, the writer refers to the “Son of God.” He is by no means the central figure, however; once again, this is a thoroughly theocentric piece of writing. “Lord” is always God. The author speaks of glorifying the name of God (Vision 3, 4:3); those who suffer persecution do so for the name of God (Vision 3, 5:2). It is the ordinances of God which must be kept (Vision 1, 1:6).

     It is difficult to believe that this author could have possessed any sense of a Jesus on earth who began the Christian movement. Hermas treats the “church,” the body of believers, as a mystical entity. It is God himself who has created the church (Vision 1, 1:6), including its pre-existent prototype in heaven. There is constant reference to the “elect of God,” with no tradition in sight of a church established by Jesus. Nothing which could fit the Gospel ministry is referred to. The central section, the Commandments (or Mandates), discusses a great number of moral rules, some resembling the teachings of the Gospels, but to Jesus no attribution is ever made. The writer can speak of “apostles,” but never associate them with an historical figure who appointed them; there is no tradition of anything going back to such a figure. Instead, “apostles and teachers preach the name of the Son of God” (Parable 9, 16:5), in the same way that Paul and other Christian prophets preached the divine Christ.

The Son in the Shepherd

     And who or what is the Son? The writer describes him in highly mystical language. He is older than all creation, the Father’s counselor (Parable 9, 12:1). He “supports the whole world” (14:5). Parable 9 tells of the building of a heavenly tower representing the church. The Son is the foundation rock and the gate; one cannot enter this tower, this Kingdom of God, except through his Son. All this is a reflection of that underlying concept encountered at every turn throughout the early Christian period: that God is known and accessible only through his emanations, through the intermediary Son. Salvation comes to those who are “called through his Son” (Parable 8, 11:1). Of a death and resurrection there is not a whisper in the entire document.

     This Son, Parable 9 goes on to tell, “was made manifest” in the last days of the world: “phaneros egeneto,” he became known. Once again we meet the universal language of the earliest Christian writers: not a coming to earth to live a life as a human being in recent history, but a revelation by God today, in these last times before the End.

     Hermas equates the Son with the Holy Spirit (Parable 9, 1:1, and in Parable 5 which we shall examine in detail below). This is the more traditional Jewish manner of speaking of the communicating aspect of God. Elsewhere (Parable 8, 3:2), it is the Jewish Law that is God’s Son. This writer has no sense of a Son with a distinct personality, biography or role separate from longstanding ways of thinking about God’s dealings with the world. He is part of the paraphernalia of heaven, the way Wisdom is in other circles of Jewish expression.

The Parable of the Son

     Let’s take a closer look at the fifth Parable. Commentators claim to see an account both of the incarnation and of the ministry of Jesus. An angel has told Hermas a parable in which the servant of a rich landowner is given charge to tend a field. As the angel explains it, the field is the world, the landowner God, and the servant is the Son of God who labored in this field for the benefit of its plantings, the people of God. In chapter 6 the angel goes on to further elucidate the parable this way (K. Lake, in the Loeb Apostolic Fathers, volume 2):

2God planted the vineyard, that is, created the people, and gave it over to his Son. And the Son…cleansed their sins, laboring much and undergoing much toil… 3When, therefore, he had cleansed the sins of the people, he showed them the ways of life and gave them the law which he received from his Father… 4But listen why the Lord took his Son and the glorious angels as counselors concerning the heritage [or heirs: see below] of the Servant. 5The Holy Spirit…did God make to dwell in the flesh which he willed [or chose]. This flesh in which the Holy Spirit dwelled served the Spirit well, walking in holiness and purity, and did not in any way defile the Spirit. 6When, therefore, it had lived nobly and purely, and had labored with the Spirit…he [God] chose it as companion with the Holy Spirit; for the conduct of this flesh pleased him, because it was not defiled while it was bearing the Holy Spirit on earth. 7Therefore he took the Son and the glorious angels as counselors, that this flesh, having served the Spirit blamelessly, should have some place of sojourn and not lose the reward of its service. For all flesh in which the Holy Spirit has dwelt shall receive a reward if it be found undefiled and spotless.”
     F. L. Cross (op.cit., p.26) has called the author of the Shepherd “a man of no great intelligence,” and all who have studied this work speak of its “confusion.” The writing is often unclear, to say the least, and in this particular Parable there is a striking inconsistency between the parable itself and the explanation of it, which we need not go into. Even in the above passage there are obscurities between the Son, the Servant and the Holy Spirit which make analysis difficult. But let’s focus on some key points.

     If the author is familiar with even a general concept of Jesus’ historical life and death, why in verse 3 does the Son’s “cleansing of the sins of the people” precede his “showing them the ways of life and giving them the Law”? The “cleansing” is through the labor and toil spoken of in verse 2, but neither here nor anywhere else is this put in terms of suffering and atonement, let alone a death and resurrection. As for “giving them the Law,” this is clearly through spiritual channels, for a later Parable states that the angel Michael (who in Parable 9 is equated with the Son of God) has “put the Law into the hearts of those who believe.” There is no preaching by an historical Son in evidence anywhere in this work, and in the above Parable such things as vineyards and toil are best seen as a symbolic description of the workings of God through his intermediaries.

     To find a reference to the incarnation in verses 5 to 7 is to draw water from a stone. First of all, despite an identification of the Son with the Holy Spirit in Parable 9 (which is often regarded as a later layer of this work by a different writer), there is in Parable 5 no obvious link between the Son and the Spirit; in fact, verses 4 and 7a make them distinct. It seems, therefore, that it was not the Son who was sent to dwell in flesh. Verse 7 further fails to link the Son with the “flesh” under discussion. In any event, the manner in which this flesh is spoken of cannot fit an incarnate Christ’s human side, unless it be given a peculiarly gnostic interpretation which is nowhere in evidence in this book. Instead, it has a decidedly ‘human’ character, in the sense that the writer is speaking here of ordinary human beings.

     Thus, there is no thought of incarnation in this passage. The writer is speaking of the Holy Spirit being sent by God to dwell in certain humans. Such men and women are those who stay pure and holy, who do not defile the Spirit while it dwells in them; they will be given a place of sojourn as a reward. The “all flesh” of verse 7b shows that the writer does not have the specific flesh of an incarnate Christ in mind. Besides, Christ’s human side hardly enjoys a continued existence after his incarnation so that it can be given a reward.

     Such an interpretation requires one simple adjustment. In verse 4, Lake and others give the word “klêronomia” the usual translation of “heritage” or “inheritance” as though the writer is about to detail the fate of the servant who in the parable is identified as the Son. But as Bauer’s Lexicon points out, a word like this can be given an abstract translation, so that here it may signify those who receive the inheritance. In other words, the writer is about to describe the rewards received by the heirs of the servant/Son, namely the believers in whom God has sent the Holy Spirit to dwell.

     This interpretation is hardly a leap of faith or wishful thinking. For the writer in the next chapter (7) goes on to spell it out for us. I need only quote part of the first three verses:

“Listen, now,” (the angel) said. “Guard this flesh of yours, pure and undefiled, that the Spirit which dwells in it may bear it witness, and your flesh may be justified… For if you defile your flesh you defile also the Holy Spirit, and if you defile the flesh you shall not live.”
     Only the need to find some trace of Christian orthodoxy somewhere in this book would lead to a failure to make the obvious connection between these verses and the meaning of those which have immediately preceded them. Nor does the writer give us any indication that he is drawing some kind of parallel between the believers and the incarnated Christ. The “flesh” spoken of in chapter 6 is not that of Christ on earth, but of the believers whom the writer is addressing. In sum, the longest early Christian document in existence presents us with a divine Son who is never referred to by the names Jesus or Christ, is never said to have died or risen, and who never shows sign of having been to earth.

     The “confusion” the scholars speak of in Hermas is not that of the author but rather is a product of the attempt to impose the Gospel background on him. This writer is rooted in Hellenistic-Jewish mythology with its picture of a heaven in which different forces form part of the workings of divinity. The Son is one figure in the class photo which includes the Holy Spirit and angels of several ranks, and these are occasionally allowed to merge into one another. The Son sometimes seems identified with other figures, and angels such as Michael are at times involved in the work of redemption. As Charles Talbert puts it (“The Myth of a Descending-Ascending Redeemer in Mediterranean Antiquity,” New Testament Studies 1975, p.432), “the Savior is described basically in terms of an angelology which has coalesced with the categories of Son and Spirit.” Talbert’s choice of the word “category” is perceptive, for Hermas is dealing with philosophical concepts here, not a historical figure who was God’s incarnation. Had he possessed any idea of the Son as a human personality who had walked the earth in recent memory, suffered and died and resurrected to redeem humanity, he could never have buried him in this densely obscure heavenly construct and allowed the entire picture ‘recorded’ in the Gospels to evaporate into the mystical wind.

At the Threshold

     As we stand on the threshold of historical awareness of a human Jesus, we can look back over a consistent picture. Amid much variation, the early Christian documents lying outside the Gospels and Q display a common denominator: a spiritual divine Son who acts as God’s intermediary in the work of saving humankind or an elect portion of it. They are consistent in their view of the medium through which this work is done: an ongoing realm of the spirit which inspires apostles and teachers to impart the divine truth. The Shepherd of Hermas is perhaps the best example to show that this was an age saturated with mystical thinking and heavenly imaginings. This is how religious minds saw the world around them. To ignore that consistency, that common picture, to fail to account for universally missing elements like apostolic tradition going back to Jesus, or an historical ministry which served as the ultimate source of Christian teaching and prophecy, to seek to paper over the widespread absence of any concept of death and resurrection and so much else, is simply a burying of the head in sand.

     Our picture of early Christian diversity, when looked at with eyes unobscured by orthodox lenses, provides a fascinating view onto the religious world of the first and early second centuries, an amalgam of a Judaism which has stepped adventurously beyond its mainstream paths, and a Hellenism which has brought its established philosophy into a Jewish embrace. (It matters not whether these adventurers were Jew or Greek.) Such syncretism still inhabits a rich spiritual realm. The Shepherd is not the only Christian or Jewish writing to lay before us a world of angels, heavenly churches, celestial figures representing forces between God’s heaven and man’s earth, a universe where vibrations from the unseen spiritual side of reality can be felt by the mystic, absorbed by the believer, sought and discovered in the sacred writings from whose pages God, his emanations and his messengers speak. Until we can allow ourselves an unbiased reading of what lies plainly in view in the early Christian documents, we will deny ourselves a proper knowledge of that important transitional period in the religious evolution of the western world which led to the modern era of faith in an incarnated Son who trod the land of Palestine.

     The Son’s journey to earth was inevitable, perhaps, for western society is the human branch most responsible for developing science, beginning with the Greeks, and science requires substance in matter, things observable in a tangible universe. Western philosophy and religion could not long subsist on a diet of pure spirit, on myth which never touched real ground. That offspring of Judaism and Hellenism needed to embrace a Son in flesh, to touch his wounds and see the love and sacrifice in his eyes. Ignatius craved his violent end in the arena because he saw it as a parallel to the real suffering of a human Christ under Pontius Pilate, and his fury at those who denied a genuine suffering Christ in the flesh came from the fear that without such a thing, his own fate would be meaningless and “for nothing.” That view, that need, is still with us today. And so in the space of a few critical decades around the turn of the second century the human Jesus crystallized out of his spiritual predecessor, though it would take the better part of a century before all Christian circles were converted. By the time of Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria, our hybrid western religion had completed its creation and for the next eighteen centuries the new church was to preserve the “memory” of the Son who had lived and worked among us.


     In the second part of this article, we will go on to cross the threshold itself, and view the new coalescing landscape through the eyes of the writer of the epistle of Barnabas and the letters of Ignatius.

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