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The Letter of 1 Clement

The letter of 1 Clement was an important document in the early church.1 Some proto-orthodox Christians quoted it as canonical Scripture; it was included in several manuscripts, including the famous fifth-century Codex Alexandrinus, as one of the books of the New Testament. Eventually, though, the book fell into disuse and was lost from view until rediscovered in the seventeenth century. The letter was sent from “the church of God that temporarily resides in Rome” to “the church of God that temporarily resides in Corinth” (1:1). Although traditionally ascribed to Clement, thought to have been the third bishop of Rome, the letter itself never names its author or mentions Clement. The purpose of the writing, in any event, is perfectly clear. There has been a division in the church in Corinth, a “vile and profane faction” (1:1) in which the elders of the church were forcibly deposed from their office and others took their place (3:2–4). For the Roman Christians, this is an alto­ gether unacceptable arrangement: “It is shameful, loved ones, exceedingly shameful and unworthy of your conduct in Christ, that the most secure and ancient church of the Corinthians is reported to have created a faction against its presbyters, at the instigation of one or two persons” (47:6). The letter urges the congregation to do something about the situation: they are to remove the new leaders and reinstate the old. At the core of the letter’s argument against the Corinthian usurpers lies one of the earliest expressions of the notion of “apostolic succession,” which came to play such a significant role in theological controversies of the second century. According to this view, the original leaders of the Christian churches had been appointed by the apostles, who were themselves chosen by Christ, who was sent from God. Anyone who deposes these leaders, therefore, is in direct rebellion against God himself (chaps. 42–44). Much of the argument revolves around the history of the people of God as known from the Jewish Scriptures. According to 1 Clement, from the time of Cain and Abel onwards, envy and strife have always been


For further discussion, see Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 141–43.

Translation by Bart D. Ehrman, in The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 1 (Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003); used with permission.


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