Clement I Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Roman bishop{$I[g]Roman Empire;Clement I} Clement was the first of the Apostolic Fathers about whom anything is known and, according to tradition, was the third successor to Peter as bishop of Rome. Clement was also the author of the earliest and most valuable surviving example of Christian literature not included in the New Testament.

Early Life

Of the life of Clement (CLEH-mehnt) very little is known with absolute certainty. He is called Clement of Rome (Clemens Romanus) to distinguish him from the later Clement of Alexandria (Clemens Alexandrinus). No reliable source gives even the approximate date or place of his birth. An early Christian work attributed to him titled Recognitions (third century c.e.) states that he was born in the city of Rome and that he was from his early youth given to meditating and sober reflection on such serious subjects as the nature of life, whether there was a preexistence, and the possibility of immortality. According to that work, he was converted to Christianity by the disciple Barnabas, who came to Rome to preach and thereafter introduced him to Peter, who received him with great joy.

Such a story is not inconsistent with other information now known about Clement. Nevertheless, true authorship of Recognitions cannot be ascribed to Clement himself because most scholars believe that it was penned more than a century after his time. Despite this doubt, however, the work is not completely without value; indeed, it seems to preserve traditions that contain some kernels of truth.

Undoubtedly, Clement was a younger contemporary of Peter and Paul. The early church scholars and theologians Origen (c. 185-254), Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-339), Epiphanius (c. 315-403), and Saint Jerome (c. 331/347-420) all identify Clement of Rome as the Clement spoken of in Philippians 4:3. This Scripture calls him Paul’s fellow laborer. Similarly, Saint Irenaeus (c. 120/140-202) states that Clement saw the Apostles and talked with them, that their preaching was so fresh in his mind at the time he rose to prominence that it still rang in his ears, and that many of Clement’s generation had been taught personally by the Apostles. Clement himself intimates that he was closely associated with Peter and Paul.

Clement was probably of Jewish descent. His close association with the Apostles, who were all Jewish, and his wide use of and familiarity with the Old Testament, as demonstrated in the one surviving authentic Clementine work, lend support to this inference. Clement’s style of writing is colored with Hebraisms, but he probably possessed no real understanding of Hebrew, knowing only the Septuagint (Greek) translation of the Old Testament, as many Jews of the day did.

An ancient tradition identifies Clement with a certain Flavius Clemens, a distinguished Roman nobleman who held the office of consul in 95 c.e. and was the nephew of the emperor Vespasian. It is difficult to believe that the same man held both the consulship and the bishopric, as these times were difficult ones for the Church because of Roman antagonism.

It is also unlikely that the Hellenistic Jewish style of Clement’s epistle would be as prominent if Clement came from the Roman classical culture of a court circle. It is more likely, then, that the future church leader was a freedman or former slave belonging to the house of Clemens and that, in accordance with custom, he assumed the name of his patron when fully liberated.

Life’s Work

At some point in his life, Clement became a leader in the Roman church and was ultimately ordained bishop of that Christian community about the year 90 c.e. While Tertullian, writing about 199 c.e., says that Clement was ordained by Peter before the Apostle’s death (c. 64 c.e.), other ancient, reliable authorities state that Clement was preceded by two other successors to Peter (Linus and Anacletus) and thus was the fourth bishop of Rome. Clement’s fame rests on both his designation as the first known Apostolic Father and his authorship of the epistle to the Corinthian church.

The expression “Apostolic Fathers” seems to have been used first by Severus of Antioch, patriarch of Alexandria in the sixth century and scholar of early Christian literature. The phrase referred to those who were not Apostles but disciples of the Apostles and who authored writings contemporaneous with or prior to those of Irenaeus in the second century. The Apostolic Fathers, then, were the earliest orthodox writers outside the New Testament. Clement was the first, chronologically, of this group, which includes Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Barnabas, and Hermas. Klementos pros Korinthious epistola prōtē (first century c.e.; The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, also known as First Clement, 1647) is the earliest extant Christian document outside the New Testament.

The epistle to the Corinthians was Clement’s most important achievement. Although...

(The entire section is 2076 words.)