Three Voices on the Historical Jesus – No. 3: 1 Clement (with Addendum on the Epistle of Barnabas)
- Issue of the authenticity of 1 Clement
- Does 1 Clement know any Gospels?
- Christ speaking out of scripture
- Clement knows of the Passion through Isaiah 53
- Christ’s sacrificial ‘blood’ and ‘flesh’ belong in the mythical dimension
- Prophecy in scripture not fulfilled in history
- Epistle of Barnabas: still lacking a written Gospel
- Barnabas points to scripture as his source
- New Testament math: 0 + 0 = ?
- A progression from mythical to historical
Is 1 Clement in any way authentic?
Despite doubts going back to the Dutch Radicals of the late 19th century, Ehrman accepts the non-canonical epistle 1 Clement as authentic in regard to its ostensible purpose (a letter from the Christian community in Rome urging the settling of a dispute going on in the community in Corinth) and its traditional dating (the last decade of the first century), though its attribution to a Clement reputed to be the fourth bishop of Rome remains highly dubious.
With all of that I would agree, and have defended this degree of authenticity against a continuing radical view that the work is a much later forgery designed to encourage other Christian communities to acknowledge the hegemony of the Church of Rome. This issue need not be addressed here, except to say that I find the arguments for such a view quite unconvincing and unnecessary. (See the reasons given in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, note 169.) However, I will hereafter refer to the author as “Clement.”
Does 1 Clement know any written Gospels?
Some of those reasons will be evident in the present discussion. Ehrman makes the following admissions for 1 Clement:
The letter quotes extensively from the Greek Old Testament, and its author explicitly refers to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. But he does not mention the Gospels of the New Testament, and even though he quotes some of the sayings of Jesus, he does not indicate that they come from written texts. In fact, his quotations do not line up in their wording with any of the sayings of Jesus found in our surviving Gospels. (p. 104, DJE?)
If we agree on a reasonable dating of the 90s of the first century, or even the first decade of the second, we find here a similar situation to that of the Ignatian letters. At this period, even in Rome, there is no sign of actual written Gospels available in major Christian communities. When we see the same situation existing for Papias even later, we know that there is something wrong with the traditional view of the Gospels as historical documents all written before the first century was completed.
What does Clement know about a life of Jesus on earth?
Despite this situation, Ehrman argues that “the author of 1 Clement, like Ignatius and then Papias, not only assumes that Jesus lived but that much of his life was well known.” The latter two writers may indeed have made such an assumption, but there is little sign that either one of them knew very much about their assumed Jesus’ life or teachings. As for 1 Clement, both of Ehrman’s claims are suspect. Here is what he offers as evidence that the author is speaking “about the historical Jesus” (I’ve altered Ehrman’s order for better efficiency in addressing them):
(1) Christ spoke words to be heeded (1 Clement 2.1).
This is first of all a misleading translation. Literally, it is “you paid attention to his words,” which eliminates the image of Christ standing before one and speaking. In any event, considering that spiritual figures such as Wisdom and the Holy Spirit are often presented as conferring advice and guidance, this statement in any form could easily apply to a spiritual figure.
Christ speaks out of scripture
In fact, 1 Clement shares in a very common type of expression in the epistles, that Christ “speaks” out of scripture (and that he does it in the present tense, not in some past life). In chapter 22, Clement says, quoting Psalm 34:11-17:
For it is Christ himself who summons us through the Holy Spirit, with the words: “Come, children, listen to me, and I will teach you fear of the Lord.”
In 16:15 as well, he portrays Christ as speaking out of scripture (Psalm 22:6-8):
And again he says himself, “But I am a worm and no man, a reproach of men and despised of the people.”
Teachings “spoken” by Jesus
Thus, when Ehrman lists the following —
(2) Jesus taught gentleness and patience; the author here quotes a series of Jesus’ sayings similar to what can be found in Matthew and Luke (13:1-2),
— an alternative source becomes evident. All these examples fit a heavenly Jesus who ‘teaches’ through scripture (“speaking” in the same way that the Holy Spirit in scripture does) or through the voices of preachers who saw themselves as channelling his directives, just as Paul did in offering his “words of the Lord” which he believed he had received through revelation—this being a common scholarly interpretation, as discussed earlier. In the case of the “sayings” in chapter 13, they are commonplace ethical maxims (here simply enlargements on the Golden Rule), of the same sort that were traditionally regarded as given by God, as in the “Two Ways” section of the Epistle of Barnabas. Belief in the Son often led to switching the source of such teachings to him, but still through spiritual channels.
Moreover, Clement of Alexandria quotes an almost identical block of sayings as those in 1 Clement (Stromata, II, 18) but assigns them to God. And any similarity found in the sayings in Matthew is much better seen as the next step in converting such general maxims by God or the Son into teachings of the Gospel Jesus. (The epistle of James contains similar maxims with no attribution to a Jesus of any sort.)
Clement has no Gospel accounts to draw on
The author of 1 Clement, like Ignatius, is another who fails to point to a written document as the repository of these teachings, something which Ehrman admits. But neither is it likely he can be presenting them on the basis of being familiar with a Gospel, since he later (14:14) quotes something strikingly similar to a Beatitude, yet instead of allotting it to Jesus he identifies it as “written,” meaning in scripture, in this case Proverbs 2:21-2. Clement also shows himself to be unfamiliar with the Gospel teachings of Jesus on many other topics discussed in his letter.
But the clincher that 1 Clement knows no Gospel is found in chapter 16. When he comes to describe Jesus’ sufferings, he can only reproduce the Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah 53. He obviously has no oral traditions either about Jesus’ death; his knowledge of the Passion comes from scripture, just as Jesus’ words do. It is only a small step from that to realizing that Clement knows of the ‘event’ of the crucifixion through scripture, just as Paul did, and not as an occurrence he can identify in history.
(3) Another quotation of “the words of our Lord Jesus” (46.8, comparable to Matthew 26:24 and Luke 17:2).
This saying? “Woe to that man; it would be better if he had never been born, than that he should lead astray one of my chosen ones.” This sounds as though it could have begun as a prophetic utterance in the community, regarded as channelled from the Lord in heaven.
(4) Those who experience love in Christ should do what Christ commanded (49.1).
Another reference to the teaching of the Son through scripture and Spirit.
Other items offered by Ehrman:
(5) His sufferings were “before your eyes” (2.1).
(6) The blood of Christ is precious to the Father, poured out for salvation (7.4).
(7) The blood of the Lord brought redemption (12.7).
(8) Out of his love, the Lord Jesus Christ “gave his blood for us, his flesh for our flesh, his soul for our souls” (49.6).
None of this need speak of a life and death on earth. No effort has been made by Ehrman to engage with the case mythicism puts forward surrounding the epistles’ language of “blood” and “flesh” as a reflection of spiritual world counterparts, despite the extensive discussion presented in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man concerning such terminology and assorted higher world activities by divine figures. (Cicero’s “blood” and “body” of the gods and the “blood” brought into the heavenly sanctuary for Christ’s sacrifice in the epistle to the Hebrews are only two of the features of that discussion Ehrman ignores.)
(9) The Lord Jesus Christ came humbly, not with arrogance or haughtiness (16.2).
And what does Clement offer as a demonstration of this character trait of Christ? Something from the Gospels or an oral tradition about Jesus’ life, his behavior at his trial and crucifixion? Nothing of the sort. His source is “as the Holy Spirit spoke concerning him,” and he proceeds with his quotation of Isaiah 53. How can Ehrman claim that Clement knows about the historical Jesus and the events of his life when Clement points solely to scripture for everything he says about his Jesus?
Scripture as prophecy or revelation of the Christ event?
One aspect of the view that Christ speaks out of scripture is the question of prophecy. It is regularly maintained that scripture is the repository of prophecies about Christ’s life; the Gospel story represents the fulfillment of those prophecies. But in the epistles, including 1 Clement, no writer gives us the second side of this supposed prophetic equation. Does Clement quote a passage like Isaiah 53, style it a prophecy, and then give us the fulfillment of that prophecy by pointing to an actual earthly event, whether in the Gospel story or in some other historical tradition? Never.
Rather, scripture is the embodiment of the Christ event. That is all that these writers know (we will shortly see that this situation still exists in the epistle of Barnabas). There is no equation. The first side stands alone, in scripture. Christ is a “revealed” figure, as are his acts of salvation, something which the epistle writers constantly tell us (e.g., 1 Peter 1:20) with their exclusive use of revelation verbs to style knowledge of Christ and his ‘appearance’ in their own time.
(10) The Lord adorned himself with good works [and rejoiced] (33.7).
This reference to “the Lord” can only mean God, since in this chapter Clement has been entirely focused on the Genesis Creation. Compare the “and rejoiced” following on Ehrman’s quotation above, and verse 2’s “For the Creator and Master of the universe himself rejoices in his works.” Ehrman is being absurdly atomistic here, like prophecy-miners past and present, taking words out of context with no regard for their plainly intended application. Finally,
(11) Jesus came from Jacob “according to the flesh” (32.2).
This statement and its context is eerily like that of Paul in Romans 9:5, where he says that Christ is “from (the Israelites) according to the flesh (kata sarka).” This peculiarity of language common to the two is part of the picture that must be examined to recognize how the early Christ cult viewed and styled relationships between human beings and spiritual entities, and cannot be gone into here. It spans more than one chapter in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man (chiefly chapter 13 and especially p.167-171), and I recommend it to the reader.
Thus Ehrman’s confident declaration that —
Here again we have an independent witness not just to the life of Jesus as a historical figure but to some of his teachings and deeds….the author of 1 Clement had no doubt about his real existence and no reason to defend it. (p. 105, DJE?)
— has no support in the text when that text is read without Gospel assumptions being forced upon it.
What does the epistle of Barnabas say about an historical Jesus?
A little later after his discussion of 1 Clement, Ehrman revisits that epistle for a few summary comments, in which he also includes aspects of the Epistle of Barnabas. Usually dated to the first quarter of the 2nd century (though Ehrman prefers a date even later, around 135), the epistle of Barnabas carries us a step further in the development of an historical Jesus idea among the early Christian Fathers.
The writer of Barnabas again shows no knowledge of a written Gospel. For statements about Jesus’ passion he, too, can only draw on scripture (Isaiah and the Psalms). Barnabas actually states that Jesus had been on earth (5:8-11), teaching the people of Israel and performing miracles, though no examples are itemized. He says that Jesus chose apostles who were “sinners of the worst kind,” something he could hardly have taken from any Gospel portrayal of Jesus’ followers. (Dunces maybe, criminals hardly.) Rather, he bases this on a saying whose source he does not identify: “he came not to call saints but sinners,” showing that ‘biographical information’ about Jesus’ life on earth is now being produced on the basis of perceived written prophecy. (Nor could this be taken from Mark, since the latter’s application of the saying is toward Jesus’ audience, not his disciples.)
The only other Gospel-like saying he mentions is in 4:14: “It is written that many are called but few are chosen.” Here the saying is used in application to Israel’s history of falling out of favor with God culminating in their final abandonment in favor of the Christians, with no mention that this was a saying of Jesus. Those opening words indicate he is drawing from something regarded as a sacred writing (we don’t know what it was), but this is hardly a reference to Matthew which at such an early time, though probably written by then, would not yet be known or regarded as scripture.
Besides, any other knowledge of Matthew—or any other Gospel—by Barnabas cannot be perceived. He knows of no teachings of Jesus on the subject of dietary laws (on which he spends an entire chapter), or on what will happen at the End-time. Even for the Matthew-like sayings contained in the “Two Ways” teaching appended to the epistle, there is no attribution to Jesus; in fact, they are referred to as “the precepts of the Lord, as they are set forth in scripture” (21:1), a clear reference to God.
Knowledge of Jesus based on scripture
Barnabas actually seems to tell us where he gets his ‘knowledge’ about Jesus on earth:
For the scripture concerning him relates partly to Israel, partly to us, and it speaks thus: [Here a quote of two verses from Isaiah 53.] Therefore we ought to give great thanks to the Lord that he has given us knowledge of the past, and wisdom for the present, and that we are not without understanding for the future. [5:2-4]
He even suggests that we know the Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death because scripture says so:
So then the Son of God came in the flesh for this reason, that he might complete the total of the sins of those [i.e., the Jews] who persecuted his prophets to death. For this cause he endured. For God says of the chastisement of his flesh that it is from them [the Jews]: “When they shall smite their shepherd, then the sheep of the flock shall be destroyed.” [5:11-12]
Barnabas appeals to more scriptural passages (5:13-14) to illustrate how Jesus suffered. In none of these cases, just as 1 Clement had failed to do, does he offer the second side of an equation between prophecy and fulfillment. While he clearly regards Jesus as having been on earth (a clarity Clement never supplied), he has no independent source of information about the events of that earthly life. He seems to simply assume it took place because scripture is now regarded as a prophecy of Jesus’ theoretical life. Perhaps needless to say, Barnabas makes no reference to any of the characters of the Gospel story, not even to the historical Pilate as the crucifier of Jesus.
Gospels missing in action
Concurrent with Ignatius (or his forger), with Papias, with 1 Clement, the writer of the epistle of Barnabas has no written Gospel to appeal to, despite being near or at the quarter mark of the second century. To that list we could add the other surviving Father, bishop Polycarp of Smyrna, whose single surviving epistle (usually dated 120-130) shares Ignatius’ and Barnabas’ conviction of a life on earth, but fails to make any mention of a written account of it. In referring to Jesus’ passion, he, too, is limited to quoting verses from Isaiah 53.
The point Ehrman seeks to make about the epistles of Barnabas and Clement is that they, like Paul, have virtually nothing to say about details of the life of Jesus, even though they “show clear and compelling evidence that they know about Jesus and understand that he was a real historical figure.” As we’ve seen, that can be disputed in regard to 1 Clement, while needing severe qualification in regard to Barnabas, since the latter shows no sign of knowing about a life of Jesus from any other source than scripture.
Silence supporting silence
Ehrman, paraphrasing Wells, gives us a truly impressive list of a host of Gospel details on which, like Paul, both 1 Clement and Barnabas are silent, from a birth in Bethlehem to a trial and crucifixion by Pilate. This is typical New Testament math, in which a multitude of zeros adds up to a secure number. And it is based on undemonstrated assumptions that Clement and Barnabas “know” all or most of these things about a real Jesus—from historical tradition and not solely from scripture.
What do such silences show? asks Ehrman. That “these traditions about Jesus were not relevant to their purposes.” The problem is, properly applying the argument from silence shows that this is simply not the case, and such a claim (a virtual mantra through centuries of attempted explanations for the silence in the epistles) ignores elements of the texts which point in the direction of a mythical Jesus who is being gradually historicized.
A picture of progression
Ehrman’s predispositions inure him to any other but his own explanation: such as that all three writers, Paul, Clement and Barnabas, are equally ignorant on such life details, but that those three records give us a picture of a progression over time. Paul presents a cultic salvation myth of a heavenly Son sacrificed at the hands of the demon spirits, in its basic form: death, burial, resurrection. It is all known from scripture and revelation, with prophets starting to claim personally revealed “words of the Lord” to guide certain aspects of the movement.
1 Clement a few decades later still lives in that cultic, scripture-based world, but the guidance by the Lord is more comprehensively developed; he is a living force (as Bishop Lightfoot put it), speaking and teaching through scripture. The influence of the Gospel story is yet to be felt. When we reach Barnabas, scripture is still the source of information, but the idea that Jesus had been on earth has taken root, teaching and working miracles, dying and rising, even if no extra-scriptural details are known and the source of the idea is unclear.
Moving sideways to Ignatius (or his forger, either of whom would have been more or less contemporary with Barnabas, though some distance away—from Alexandria to Antioch), a source in the Gospel story can be reasonably postulated, though actual written Gospels cannot yet be sighted among any of these writers. Papias, probably a little later than Barnabas, is less dependent on scripture and betrays some influence from Mark’s allegory, but he is still lacking written narrative Gospels.
Reading into the texts
What Ehrman and other entrenched historicists cannot recognize is that their presentation of the non-Gospel writers is simply not supported by the documents themselves. It takes a vast amount of ‘reading into’ and twisting of the texts (perhaps that is what Ehrman meant by “teasing out” meanings and evidence from them) to get those documents to support historicism. Whereas, the mythicist analysis works from what the texts actually say and what we can glean from them without presupposition or importation from the Gospels.
In other words, the mythicist exercise is anything but the common accusation of ad hoc, since with it we can create across all of the documents a coherent, consistent picture of the evolution of an historical Jesus.
. . . to be continued.
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