Sunday, 10 February 2019

1 Clement v. Tradition

Biblical scholars have often like to cast ourselves as critics of received tradition. Given that self-conception, it is fascinating to note just how frequently we tend to unreflectively repeat the received traditions of our scholarly heritage. A sterling example of such repetition is the standard date given for 1 Clement (not a biblical text per se, but certainly biblical adjacent), namely c. 95. This date was first proposed in 1633, by Patrick Young, Royal Librarian to Charles I, who was the first western scholar in the post-medieval world to have access to a(n incomplete) copy of 1 Clement, and was given the not-insignificant imprimateur of J.B. Lightfoot in the latter's magisterial study of the Apostolic Fathers. In 1633, we were two centuries away from the advent of modern historical consciousness, and almost two-and-a-half away from having a complete text of 1 Clement. Neither of these realities shows the date to be wrong, of course: persons operating before the nineteenth-century's "Copernican Revolution" in historical thinking were altogether intelligent and quite capable of reaching conclusions that we now on a more solid basis know to be correct, and the portions of 1 Clement most significant for purposes of establishing its date were already available to Young. What is more significant is that the two primary bases for the standard c. 95 date are now known to be almost certainly false.

The first of these bases begins from 1 Clement 1.1, which speaks about "sudden and repeated misfortunes" recently suffered by the Roman church. Young confidently concluded that this is a reference to the Domitianic persecution, and thus argued that the letter must date to the very end of Domitian's reign (81-96). There are two problems here, which E.T. Merrill brought convincingly to our attention in 1924. First, the "Domitianic persecution" seems to have been limited to the execution of the emperor's cousin, Flavius Clemens, and the exile of Clemens' wife (also the emperor's niece), Flavia Domitilla (III: both her mother and grandmother appear to have borne the same name), who may or may not have been Christians. Second, 1.1 probably does not refer to a persecution at all. More likely, it is just a typical rhetorical move common to the sort of letter that 1 Clement represents. In other words, 1.1 probably doesn't reference a persecution that didn't happen. 1 Clement 1.1 probably contains no data usable for chronological purposes.

The second basis for the c. 95 date is the dual supposition that Clement must have written this letter while he was monarchical bishop of Rome, and that on the basis of ancient succession lists his episcopacy can be dated to the 90s. There are again (at least) two problems here. First, as there probably wasn't a monarchical bishop in Rome until the second century, Clement probably never held such a position. Certainly, 1 Clement does not seem to envision a monarchical bishop in Rome. Now, I don't necessarily think that the succession lists are without historical value, and think it entirely plausible if not probable that figures such as Linus, Anacletus, and Clement (the second, third, and fourth "popes" respectively) held some sort of privileged position that was in retrospect recognized as standing in succession with the later monarchical bishops. But that brings us to the second problem with this basis: it is not clear that Clement was associated with the letter because of his episcopal office. Here Shepherd of Hermas Vis. 2.4.3 (8.3) is potentially relevant, as it says that a certain man named Clement was responsible for sending letters abroad from the Roman church. This coheres remarkably well with the evidence furnished by Dionysius of Corinth, who c. 170 wrote that the Corinthian church still regularly read the letter that the Roman church sent to them through Clement. We might rather suspect that Clement became associated with the letter not because he was bishop when it was written, but rather because he was a sort of chief scribe for the Roman church. In such a case, the possibility that the letter predates Clement's "episcopacy" is very real. And this is before we even address the matter of authenticity, for if the association with Clement is spurious then there would be no reason to connect it with the particulars of his biography.

Now, of course, the c. 95 date could be correct, but if so it would be correct for reasons other than those which were most instrumental in establishing that date in the first place. Young and Lightfoot would have been correct by accident. Until alternative and compelling arguments for this date are put forth, it would be best if we caught up with 1924 and stop treating it as a given.

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