Clement I (died 101) is believed to have been the third pope, after Saints Linus and Anacletus; some modernists who consider the apostle Paul to be the first pope refer to Clement I as the fourth pope. Although little is known about the life of Clement I, scholars believe he led the Roman Church during the turbulent years of the last decade of the first century A.D.
Clement I—sometimes called Saint Clement or Clemens Romanus—was one of the first of the Apostolic Fathers and the first pope about whom anything definite is now known. Working closely with Saints Peter and Paul, the two founding fathers of the Christian church who preached alongside Jesus prior to Christ's crucifixion in 33 A.D., he was likely a follower of the apostle Paul and was schooled by Paul in Rome. Accepting the Christian faith as a young man and working as a missionary preaching the word of the crucified Jesus, Clement I was eventually ordained a bishop by the apostle Peter and served a leadership role in the Roman church before being exiled to the Crimea, where he died in 101 A.D.
Although several letters have been attributed to Clement I throughout the ages, only one exists with definite authenticity: a letter dated circa 96 addressed to the Church of Corinth, which had become established during the reign of St. Paul and which was at the time experiencing internal dissension. Clement's epistle is noteworthy because it bridges the chasm between inspired and uninspired Christian writings. Clement's feast is celebrated on November 23.
The Life of Clement I
Because little is known of the life and death of Clement I, much scholarly speculation has resulted. Although his name is of Latin origin, his epistle to the Corinthians is written in Greek. While it is possible that, as an educated Roman, he wrote in Greek for the sake of his audience, several distinctly non-Roman elements in his letter have let some to speculate that Clement I was born outside the Roman empire. He may also have been a non-Latin dependent of a Roman household.
References to the Old Testament made in Clement's letter to the Church of Corinth have suggested to some scholars that the letter-writer was of Jewish extraction. However, because he does not appear to have been familiar with Hebrew, and because references within the epistle— including mention of the mythological phoenix that rises from the ashes of its parent—suggest a Gentile upbringing, Clement's Jewish origin remains in doubt. Some have proposed that he was a Hellenistic Jew, while still others have speculated that he was a Jewish freedman or son of a freedman of the emperor's household. Another theory holds that Clement I was a convert to Judaism who later became a Christian. In any case, the Old Testament was, during Clement's adult years, the principle sacred canon of the Christian Church; thus, it is not surprising that he would be well versed in it regardless of whether or not he had ties to Judaism.
An ancient church fresco dating to the fifth century corresponds to a legend in which Clement I was the son of a Roman nobleman named Faustinus and raised by Tiberius (42 B.C.-37 A.D.), second emperor of Rome. According to one account, when Clement I was five years old his mother left for Athens in response to a dream. After hearing nothing from his wife for a lengthy period, Faustinus went in search of his wife, leaving his young son to the care of the Roman emperor. Many years later, according to this legend, Clement I was taken to Palestine, where he met Saint Peter and rediscovered his lost family.
Second-century historian Saint Hegesippus (died 180), in his Five Memorials of Ecclesiastical Affairs, is reported by later historian Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 264-340)—a Palestinian scholar known as the father of Roman Catholic history—to write that Clement I was a contemporary of the apostles Peter and Paul. This view is echoed in the writings of Alexandrian scholar Origen (c. 185-c. 254). Greek theologian Saint Irenaeus (c. 130-200) writes that Clement I "saw the blessed Apostles and conversed with them, and had yet ringing in his ears the preaching of the Apostles and had their tradition before his eyes, and not he only for many were then surviving who had been taught by the Apostles." Tertullian, in his De Praescript of 199, writes that Clement I was ordained a bishop by Saint Peter, echoing the most widely accepted view.
Although it is traditional to refer to Clement I as "pope," early works refer to him simply as the bishop of Rome, a position he was likely granted as a reward for his missionary zeal. Although Clement I was most likely ordained a bishop by Saint Peter and appointed by Peter to be, as his successor, the first pope, he may in fact have declined the position for several decades due to his relative youth and served instead under others for many years.
Historian Saint Epiphanius (c. 315-403) was unable to verify whether or not Clement I was actually ordained by Saint Peter or whether he was perhaps appointed bishop by another church elder. In his letter Clement I refers to the deaths of the apostles Peter and Paul in a manner that suggests that these deaths were not distant events. But he also notes that many of the presbyters or elders ordained by the apostles at Corinth were already dead. It therefore appears that Clement I may have lived among those who had known the apostles Paul and Peter in Rome, if he did not know the apostles himself.
Dating Clement's Episcopate
In his letter to Corinth, Clement I himself never refers to his personal authority as a bishop of the Church, although this may have been a tactical decision in light of the fact that the churches of Rome and Corinth had not yet come to recognize a single Church leader of overarching authority. In later years the leaders of the Roman Church would become dominant within the Christian faith.
According to Eusebius of Caesarea, the first references to the dates of Clement I's episcopate are found in the writings of Hegesippus and Dionysius of Corinth (c. 180). Eusebius writes that Clement I was made bishop of Rome in the 12th year of the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitianus (reigned 81-96), whose alienation of the upper classes resulted in a period of terror and ended in his assassination. Hegesippus, who circa 160 compiled the first record of the popes and their episcopates, lists the dates of Clement's episcopate as 90 to 99, in the midst of the schism within the Church of Corinth. More recent scholars have placed the beginning of Clement's reign anywhere from 88 to 96 A.D. Eusebius also links Clement's reign with the rise in troubles at Corinth, a situation that existed through the end of the first Christian century.
Noted Church historian Saint Jerome (c. 342-420) writes that among his own contemporaries most "Latins" believed that Clement I was the immediate successor to Saint Peter, but that he was in fact the fourth pope. Hegesippus and Irenaeus also identify Clement I as the fourth pope (after Peter), but two other early sources identify him as the third pope, and one other source as the fifth pope. Hegesippus's list appears to have been used in chronologies compiled as late as the fourth century. Among twentieth-century scholars, he is most often cited as the third pope after saints Linus and Anacletus.
Epistle to the Church of Corinth
In the last decade of the first Christian century some elders in the Church of Corinth spearheaded a move against other of the church leaders, resulting in a split or schism among the region's Christians. Clement's now-famous letter was sent to urge peace and unity. It begins with a reference to the persecution of the Roman Church, presumably by Emperor Domitianus, by way of explanation of his delay in writing. In addition to being unpopular among the Roman wealthy class, Domitianus also made frequent attacks on Christians, killing or exiling some and confiscating the goods of others.
In his letter Clement I notes the high esteem in which the Corinthian Church had previously been held, and traces its current problems to jealousy. The just have always been persecuted, he notes, adding that the actions of only a few have caused the current disgraceful situation within the Church of Corinth. Clement I urges these few Corinthians to repent and asks his fellow believers to forsake evil and approach God with purity. He adds that discipline and subordination in the Church, as within an army, are necessary. The letter ends in a beautiful prayer bearing traces of Jewish devotional language: "May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you and with all men in all places, who have been called by God and through Him, through whom is glory and honor, power and greatness, and eternal dominion unto Him from the ages past and for ever and ever. Amen."
Although this letter to the Church of Corinth was written in the name of the Church of Rome, most authorities have credited it to Clement I. The style of the letter is simple and understated and, although writing in Greek, its author does not employ a classical style. The epistle makes no mention of Clement I by name, but rather identifies itself as the work of "the church of God which resides as a stranger in Rome." The fact of Clement's authorship is based on the attribution of subsequent historians, such as Irenaeus, who writes: "Under this Clement I no small sedition took place among the brethren at Corinth and the Church of Rome sent a most sufficient letter to the Corinthians, establishing them in peace, and renewing their faith, and announcing the tradition it had recently received from the Apostles."
Dating the Epistle
Many scholars place the date of Clement's epistle to the Church of Corinth at between 93 and 97, based on the document's reference to persecutions that are believed to have occurred during Domitianus's reign, as well as to the writer's reference to the church at Corinth as being "ancient" and to Christians who were persecuted under the earlier emperor Nero as being of advanced age.
Some scholars have argued for a date of around 70 for the epistle due to its author's references to events involving Peter and Paul that sound as though these event had recently occurred. Still others have argued that the document was written between 125 and 135, based on certain references to the document external to itself.
Evidence that the epistle was written at an early date in Church history comes from the fact that letter addresses a quarrel at Corinth over the authority of the presbyters, with some members of that church arguing against order or hierarchy in the church. The very nature of the dispute would only have arisen during the first Christian century when the Church was governed by a group of presbyters or elders. In fact, the word "bishop," which comes from a Greek phrase meaning "supervisor," was during Clement's day synonymous with the term "elder."
A Martyr to the Faith
The Epistle to the Church of Corinth is the only document believed to have been written by Clement I. A second letter, known as the Second Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, is considered by scholars to be spurious. Other apparently apocryphal documents once attributed to Clement I are two Epistles to Virgins, the Apostolical Constitutions, the Apostolic Canons, the Testament of Our Lord, and five other letters.
Although it is not known what effect Clement's letter had on the quarrel at Corinth, the Corinthian Church came to revere the letter and held it second in value only to the epistles Saint Paul had written. Clement's letter was for many years reopened on Sundays and read aloud to the Christian congregation. It became one of the best-known of the early Christian writings and served as a model upon which many subsequent church documents were based. It also had the effect of placing Clement I in a position second only to that of the apostles.
Clement I is believed to have died in 101, a year after the end of his pontificate, and was succeeded by Pope Evaristus. The Roman theologian Rufuinus (c. 345-410) was the first to refer to Saint Clement as a martyr, and in 417 Pope Zosimus wrote in a letter that Clement I had given his life for the Christian faith. There are at least two other references to Clement's martyrdom dating to the fifth century. Some modern scholars are of the opinion that Pope Clement I may have been confused with a martyred consul also named Clement. On the other hand, since there is no tradition that he was buried in Rome, Clement I may have died while in exile.
An apparently apocryphal account of Clement's martyrdom dating to no earlier than the fourth century relates that he converted over 400 individuals to the Christian faith before being banished from Rome to the Crimea—modern-day Russia—by an angry Emperor Trajan (c. 53-117). Trajan was a militant leader who conquered both Mesopotamia and Armenia. In the Crimea, it is said, Clement I quenched the thirst of 2,000 Christians by means of a miracle. In retribution for this act, Trajan had Clement I bound to an anchor and thrown into the Black Sea. A shrine of white marble miraculously encased his corpse; each year when the tide receded some two miles this shrine containing the martyr's bones was said to become visible to those on shore.
Around 868 Slavic apostle Saint Cyril dug up some bones in the Crimea along with an anchor, and he believed these to be the relics of Saint Clement. These relics were deposited by Pope Hadrian II in the altar of the basilica of Saint Clement in Rome, along with the relics of Saint Ignatius of Antioch. The modern church of Saint Clement at Rome was constructed as late at the early 12th century by Paschal II, following the destruction of parts of the city by the Normans. However, an older church dating to the fourth century lies under the present building.
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