Clement of Rome was the first Apostolic Father of the church—a title given to Christian leaders who personally knew the apostles. He was also one of the earliest popes, and the patron saint of mariners.
Not to be confused with Clement of Alexandria, who lived during the second and third centuries, Clement of Rome is most known for the letter he wrote to the church in Corinth, simply called 1 Clement. It is one of the oldest surviving Christian writings outside of the New Testament.
Tradition holds that Clement of Rome is the same Clement who Paul mentions in Philippians 4:3, and that after being imprisoned, he was martyred by being thrown into the sea with an anchor chained around his neck.
When and where did Clement of Rome live?
Clement of Rome was born around 35 AD, about the time scholars believe Jesus died. He grew up as the early Christian church was first spreading throughout the Roman empire. Early Christian writers suggest that he knew some the apostles personally, and that he was directly influenced by their teachings.
In Against Heresies, Irenaeus of Lyons says “this man [Clement of Rome], as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes.”
“Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life” (Philippians 4:3).
Scholars have no way of confirming or denying this claim, but church tradition has generally accepted it. In any case, as the church grew in Rome, Clement developed into one of its most notable leaders, and as the apostles were martyred, Clement encouraged the church to trust in the leadership the apostles helped establish.
Apostolic authority was one of the main topics in his letter to the Corinthians, which scholars believe was written around 96 AD, when John was the only living apostle.
Clement of Rome died in either 99 or 101 AD.
First Epistle of Clement
The apostles were the first leaders of the Christian church. And as their influence spread, they designated leaders at each of the churches they established: deacons, bishops, and presbyters. (Clement uses the titles “bishop” and “presbyter” interchangeably, but these are typically separate roles.) By the late first century, the church in Corinth had removed some of the leaders the apostles put in place. So Clement of Rome wrote to them, urging them to reinstate these leaders and trust in the authority the apostles had handed down to them.
This letter was so important to the Corinthians that they read it in church alongside Scripture. While it didn’t become part of the Christian canon, it played a pivotal role in the church during a time of uncertainty, and pointed them to the truths found in Scripture, including the unifying work of love, the dangers of division in the church, and that we are not justified by our own righteousness, wisdom, or effort.
“And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart,” Clement wrote, “but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
Echoing the apostles
Some of his words closely parallel those of Paul and the other apostles, revealing a leader who was deeply attuned to the tradition and teachings of the Christian church:
“Love admits no schisms: love gives rise to no seditions: love does all things in harmony.”
Insights into the early church
Today, Clement’s encouraging letter also gives scholars a glimpse into first-century church ministry and the relationship between Rome and the surrounding churches. We get a sense of the perspectives, decisions, and behaviors that shaped the church as the apostles were giving way to new leaders, and we see how their teachings were expressed in the life of the church.
While the New Testament tells us that the early church readily shared their resources with those who needed it, even selling their possessions to help the poor (Acts 2:45, 4:32–35), Clement shows us that some in the church went so far as to become slaves for the sake of others:
“We know many among ourselves who have given themselves up to bonds, in order that they might ransom others. Many, too, have surrendered themselves to slavery, that with the price which they received for themselves, they might provide food for others.”
References to Scripture
Like Paul and others, Clement weaves in references to the Old Testament throughout his letter, using the Greek translation of the original Hebrew known as the Septuagint. Some of these references are made in passing or to point out prophecies that have been fulfilled in the church, but Clement also uses summaries and key points from Old Testament stories to support his argument about the dangers of division in the church. Clement also references Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, 1 Corinthians, Matthew, and Luke.
An argument for Roman primacy
Some have argued that this letter proves that the Roman church already held authority over other Christian churches, because Clement wrote from a position of authority and told another church what to do. At one point in the letter, Clement says: “For ye will give us great joy and gladness, if ye render obedience unto the things written by us through the Holy Spirit . . .”
This could be interpreted as an explicit demand for obedience, but scholars can’t be sure what kind of authority Clement had here. Patrick Granfield and Peter Phan suggest that “Most scholars would now regard 1 Clement as an impressive example of fraternal correction rather than an authoritative intervention” (The Gift of the Church).
This influential letter is Clement of Rome’s only surviving work (though others were falsely attributed to him), and it represents some of the earliest authentic Christian teachings to emerge from the church.
You can read 1 Clement online through Archive.org and a handful of other sites that provide access to public domain resources (fair warning: it’s in Old English).
Second Epistle of Clement
Church tradition used to hold that Clement wrote another important letter in the late first century. It became known as 2 Clement, or the Second Epistle of Clement. But even Eusebius—who has been criticized for accepting sources too easily—was skeptical about the authorship of 2 Clement:
“But it must be observed also that there is said to be a second epistle of Clement. But we do not know that this is recognized like the former, for we do not find that the ancients have made any use of it” (Ecclesiastical History).
Today, scholars believe this letter is a transcript of an anonymous sermon. Instead of the lengthy greeting like we see in 1 Clement, 2 Clement begins like this:
“Brethren, we ought so to think of Jesus Christ, as of God, as of the Judge of quick and dead.”
It immediately launches into the topic. Later, the author says this:
“Therefore, brothers and sisters, after the God of truth hath been heard, I read unto you an exhortation to the end that ye may give heed to the things which are written, for that ye may save both yourselves and him that readeth in the midst of you.”
In case you missed that, the speaker is announcing that they’re about to read out loud from Scripture, which would be a pretty weird thing to say in a letter.
If 2 Clement is a sermon, that would make it the oldest Christian sermon found outside the New Testament.
But it wasn’t written by Clement of Rome. (And we don’t know who actually did write it.)
How do we know about Clement of Rome?
Aside from what is perhaps a passing reference to him in Philippians 4:3, we have a handful of sources that tell us about Saint Clement of Rome, without revealing much about him.
Clement of Rome was included in some of the earliest lists of popes and accounts of early church leaders. The second-century chronicler Hegesippus listed him among the popes, and years later Irenaeus of Lyon and several other ancient writers passed this list around in a game of ancient telephone. Eusebius followed suit in his famous Ecclesiastical History.
Centuries later, the Liber Pontificalis provided a biography of popes from Peter until the fifteenth century, which includes Clement of Rome. This is also the first text that claims Clement knew Peter directly.
It’s worth noting, though: scholars still debate what these lists really tell us about Clement’s role in the church.
A second-century text known as the Shepherd of Hermas makes a passing mention of a man named Clement, who has a role within the church that allows him to distribute information to other churches. Scholars believe this is a reference to Clement of Rome:
“And thou shalt write two books, and send one to Clement and one to Grapte. For Clement shall send it to the foreign cities, because it is permitted for him to do so . . . ” (Vision II).
Clementine Homilies and Clementine Recognitions are two versions of an early Christian romance which claims to be written by Clement himself. (But it’s not.) This is an example of what scholars call pseudepigrapha, or as I like to put it, “ancient identity theft.”
Once again, Eusebius defies his reputation for trusting his sources too easily. He knew that something was fishy about this heroic autobiographical tale, writing in Ecclesiastical History:
“And now some have only the other day brought forward other wordy and lengthy compositions as being Clement’s, containing dialogues of Peter and Appion, of which there is absolutely no mention in the ancients.”
When it comes to deciding on something’s authority, Eusebius generally asks: “What did the apostles think of it? What did the early church fathers think of it?” That’s a good approach, but perhaps one of the most telling signs that the work is fiction comes from the byline: the author claims to be two separate people: Pope Clement I and Titus Flavius Clemens, the cousin of Emperor Domitian.
Even though no ancient writers connected these two people, as late as the nineteenth century, many still assumed they were the same person, possibly due to the influence of this strange text.
Today, we have translations of each text from the fifth century, and while scholars used to debate which version copied the other, they now believe these are two versions of an original work that was lost. The author’s cleverly disguised Arian theology leads scholars to believe the original was written sometime during the reign of Constantine (early third century), after the church rejected Arianism at the First Council of Nicaea.
This fictional account is stacked with known biblical characters including the Apostle Peter, James the Just, Barnabas, Cornelius the Centurion, Zacchaeus the tax collector, Simon the Sorcerer, and others. It’s addressed to James, and describes how Clement crossed paths with Peter and joined him in his travels.
At best, it’s a creative exploration of traditional Christian beliefs surrounding Clement and the early church. At worst, it’s a complete fabrication. But it definitely was not written by Clement of Rome—and probably not the emperor’s cousin, either.
How did Clement of Rome die?
Scholars don’t know how Clement of Rome died, but church tradition tells us he was martyred in exile. Some have argued that this tradition was based on a mistake, because his identity was confused with Titus Flavius Clemens (Emperor Domitian’s cousin), whom we know was a martyr. Clement of Rome wasn’t mentioned as a martyr until the fifth century.
The Acta Martyrii Clementis, an apocryphal Greek text from the ninth century, gives us a detailed account of the events leading up to his death, but again, none of the oldest Christian writers who talk about Clement even mentioned his martyrdom. The text tells us that after Clement of Rome converted more than 400 noteworthy people, Emperor Trajan banished him to a prison in Chersonesus. There, Clement performed a miracle to provide water to thirsty prisoners. Many of the prisoners and others who witnessed the miracle converted to Christianity and began establishing churches.
So the Romans tied an anchor around his neck and threw him into the Black Sea.
The legend claims that every year the sea miraculously recedes to reveal a shrine with his bones inside. In the ninth century, Saint Cyril found bones buried with an anchor in Crimea (where the legend says Clement was imprisoned and martyred), and believed they were Clement of Rome’s.
These relics are currently held in a basilica dedicated to Pope Clement I in Rome.
A mysterious, but much needed leader
While there’s a lot we may never know about Clement of Rome, what we do know is this: he delivered a much needed message to the Christian church at a time when they needed to hear it most. Few disputed the authority of the apostles, but the Corinthians struggled to follow the leaders they put in place.
Even when Peter and Paul were alive, this church quarrelled about which leader they followed (1 Corinthians 1:12). In their absence, the church was once again rejecting leadership and embracing divisions.
Clement of Rome played an integral role in reuniting the church with its rightful leaders, putting them back on track at a time when persecution could have easily crushed them. As a result of the church’s unity, Christianity continued to thrive despite oppression from the most powerful empire in the world.