Some Notes from Clement of Alexandria

by Jimmy Akin

in Bible, Bible History, Church Fathers

clementalexClement of Alexandria was a figure who flourished in the second half of the second century and the beginning of the third (c. A.D. 150 – c. 215).

We have some of his works, some are lost, and some are preserved in fragments.

Among the fragments, he makes a number of interesting claims.

All of what follows is to be taken with a grain of salt, as indicating possibilities, not necessarily probabilities or much less certainties.


On Mark

He writes:

Mark, the follower of Peter, while Peter publicly preached the Gospel at Rome before some of Caesar’s equites [i.e., knights], and adduced many testimonies to Christ, in order that thereby they might be able to commit to memory what was spoken, of what was spoken by Peter, wrote entirely what is called the Gospel according to Mark.

Key points: Says that Mark (1) wrote at Rome, (2) based on Peter’s preaching, (3) while Peter was preaching.

In another fragment, he writes (according to Eusebius):

So, then, through the visit of the divine word to them, the power of Simon [Magus] was extinguished, and immediately was destroyed along with the man himself.

And such a ray of godliness shone forth on the minds of Peter’s hearers, that they were not satisfied with the once hearing or with the unwritten teaching of the divine proclamation, but with all manner of entreaties importuned Mark, to whom the Gospel is ascribed, he being the companion of Peter, that he would leave in writing a record of the teaching which had been delivered to them verbally; and did not let the man alone till they prevailed upon him; and so to them we owe the Scripture called the Gospel by Mark.

On learning what had been done, through the revelation of the Spirit, it is said that the apostle [Peter] was delighted with the enthusiasm of the men, and sanctioned the composition for reading in the Churches. Clement gives the narrative in the sixth book of the Hypotyposes.

Key points: Says that Mark wrote (1) after the fall of Simon Magus (in his conflict with Peter at Rome), (2) was asked to produce the Gospel of Mark based on Peter’s oral preaching, (3) received approval afterward from Peter, who was therefore still alive.


On the Gospels in General

According to Eusebius:

Again, in the same books Clement has set down a tradition which he had received from the elders before him, in regard to the order of the Gospels, to the following effect. He says that the Gospels containing the genealogies were written first, and that the Gospel according to Mark was composed in the following circumstances:—

Peter having preached the word publicly at Rome, and by the Spirit proclaimed the Gospel, those who were present, who were numerous, entreated Mark, inasmuch as he had attended him from an early period, and remembered what had been said, to write down what had been spoken. On his composing the Gospel, he handed it to those who had made the request to him; which coming to Peter’s knowledge, he neither hindered nor encouraged. But John, the last of all, seeing that what was corporeal was set forth in the Gospels, on the entreaty of his intimate friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel.

Key points: He says that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (“the Gospels containing the genealogies”) were written first. This view is uncommon today, but it is endorsed by what is known as the Griesbach hypothesis. Other patristic sources do not hold Clement’s position but advocate either Mark being written first or the canonical sequences of Matthew, Mark, Luke.

As before, Mark is said to have written upon request based on the preaching of Peter. However, there are two additional points: (1) He was asked to write because he “remembered what had been said” and (2) Peter “neither hindered nor encouraged” this.

The first point differs from the Griesbach hypothesis, which holds either that Mark combined and shortened Matthew and Luke or, in one variant, that Peter did so and Mark had Peter transcribed. Both of these differ from what Clement says, which is that Mark wrote it, apparently without Peter’s involvement, because “he remembered what had been said” by Peter in his preaching.

In view of this, it would appear better to describe Clement as an advocate of the Independence hypothesis who appears to have held to the same order proposed by the Griesbach hypothesis.

His previous statement about Peter endorsing it would presumably be explained by supposing that Peter initially did not endorse it but later did.

On John, Clement holds that he wrote last of all, with knowledge of what was written in the other Gospels. He further holds that he did so based on the requests of friends, and that he wrote a deliberately different sort of Gospel (a “spiritual” rather than a “corporeal” one).


On Luke

He writes:

As Luke also may be recognized by the style, both to have composed the Acts of the Apostles, and to have translated Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews.

Key points: Regards Luke as being putting Hebrews in its final (Greek) literary form, with Paul ultimately behind it.

In another fragment, he writes (according to Eusebius):

And he says that the Epistle to the Hebrews is Paul’s, and was written to the Hebrews in the Hebrew language; but that Luke, having carefully translated it, gave it to the Greeks, and hence the same coloring in the expression is discoverable in this Epistle and the Acts; and that the name Paul an Apostle was very properly not prefixed, for, he says, that writing to the Hebrews, who were prejudiced against him and suspected, he with great wisdom did not repel them in the beginning by putting down his name.

Key points: Reinforces above claim, indicating that the original was written in “Hebrew” (probably Aramaic). Claims that Paul’s name was not affixed because of Jewish prejudice against him.

This latter seems unlikely, as the author of the letter expects the readers to know who he is, as he conveys greetings to them from various people, including Timothy. Would an anonymous person convey greetings from mutual acquaintances and not expect the readers to know or ask who wrote the letter? Giving the greetings from these acquaintances–and Judaizers would be equally hostile to Timothy as a companion of Paul–would only raise the question of the identity of the author and undermine the attempt to win them by impersonal argument. If Paul had a role in this letter, his name was omitted for some other reason.


On Jude

He writes:

Jude, who wrote the Catholic Epistle, the brother of the sons of Joseph, and very religious, while knowing the near relationship of the Lord, yet did not say that he himself was His brother. But what said he? Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ,— of Him as Lord; but the brother of James. For this is true; he was His brother, (the son) of Joseph.

Key points: Regards Jude (and by implication, James the Just) as sons of Joseph and thus step-brothers rather than cousins of Jesus.


On 1 John

He writes:

Following the Gospel according to John, and in accordance with it, this Epistle also contains the spiritual principle.

What therefore he says, from the beginning, the Presbyter explained to this effect, that the beginning of generation is not separated from the beginning of the Creator.

Key points: He may be regarding the author of 1 John (or even the Gospel of John) as John “the Presbyter,” who a number of Fathers (including Jerome) regarded as the author of 2 and 3 John (see Jerome’s Lives of Illustrious Men ch.s, 9 and 18). Former Pope Benedict XVI concurs on John the Elder writing 2 and 3 John and holds that he was the final author of the Gospel of John, though he holds it was based on the memories of John son of Zebedee (see Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 1).


On 2 John

He writes:

The second Epistle of John, which is written to Virgins, is very simple. It was written to a Babylonian lady, by name Electa, and indicates the election of the holy Church.

Key points: He holds that the epistle was written to a specific lady (a “Babylonian”–Roman? Chaldean?) named “Electa” (Greek, “chosen”). This view is not generally held today, and it is supposed that the “Elect Lady” or “Chosen Lady” is a symbol of a local church and that the reference to her “children” are a reference to her members (this would work better than the idea that the letter was written to “to virgins,” as represented by a woman named Electa if Electa had children).


On the Baptism of the Apostles

He writes:

Yes, truly, the apostles were baptized, as Clement the Stromatist relates in the fifth book of the Hypotyposes. For, in explaining the apostolic statement, I thank God that I baptized none of you  [in 1 Corinthians] he says, Christ is said to have baptized Peter alone, and Peter Andrew, and Andrew John, and they James and the rest.

Key points: This would answer a longstanding question of whether the apostles were baptized. The importance of baptism being such that Jesus himself was baptized, and it being a universal command among Christians, one would think that they were, but the Gospels are silent on this matter. (Though Acts does record that Paul was baptized.)

Whether it happened, and, if so, whether Clement’s account of how it happened, though, is another matter.


On Barnabas

He writes:

To James the Just, and John and Peter, the Lord after His resurrection imparted knowledge (τὴν γνῶσιν.) These imparted it to the rest of the apostles, and the rest of the apostles to the Seventy, of whom Barnabas was one.

Key point: Identifies Barnabas as one of the Seventy mentioned in Luke’s Gospel. This is not the way Luke introduces Barnabas in Acts. There he presents him as a native of Cyprus (Acts 4:36). Other traditions also may suggest he was not one of the Seventy, though it is possible.


On James the Just

We saw above that he identified James the Just as a step-brother of Jesus.

He also records this concerning the death of James the Just:

And of this James, Clement also relates an anecdote worthy of remembrance in the seventh book of the Hypotyposes, from a tradition of his predecessors. He says that the man who brought him to trial, on seeing him bear his testimony, was moved, and confessed that he was a Christian himself. Accordingly, he says, they were both led away together, and on the way the other asked James to forgive him. And he, considering a little, said, Peace be to you and kissed him. And so both were beheaded together.


On the Date of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion Relative to Passover

Passover was the 14th of Nisan, and John presents the Crucifixion as happening on this day and the Last Supper on the previous day. Yet the synoptics present the Last Supper as a Passover meal. How this can be squared is a longtime subject of discussion.

According to Clement:

Accordingly, in the years gone by, Jesus went to eat the passover sacrificed by the Jews, keeping the feast. But when he had preached He who was the Passover, the Lamb of God, led as a sheep to the slaughter, presently taught His disciples the mystery of the type [i.e., the Passover lamb] on the thirteenth day, on which also they inquired, Where will You that we prepare for You to eat the passover? (Matthew 26:17) It was on this day, then, that both the consecration of the unleavened bread and the preparation for the feast took place. Whence John naturally describes the disciples as already previously prepared to have their feet washed by the Lord. And on the following day our Savior suffered, He who was the Passover, propitiously sacrificed by the Jews. . . .

Suitably, therefore, to the fourteenth day, on which He also suffered, in the morning, the chief priests and the scribes, who brought Him to Pilate, did not enter the Prætorium, that they might not be defiled, but might freely eat the passover in the evening. With this precise determination of the days both the whole Scriptures agree, and the Gospels harmonize. The resurrection also attests it. He certainly rose on the third day, which fell on the first day of the weeks of harvest, on which the law prescribed that the priest should offer up the sheaf.

Key point: Clement sees Jesus as performing the Last Supper on the 13th of Nisan and teaching the disciples “the type” of the Passover lamb on this day. That is, he held the Last Supper as an anticipation, or early celebration, of the Passover meal–pointing to what would happen the next day, when the Passover lambs would be slaughtered and he would be Crucified.

This is my understanding as well. (It also is former Pope Benedict XVI’s.)


On the Candlestick/Menorah of the Temple

He writes:

The candlestick which stood at the south of the altar signified the seven planets, which seem to us to revolve around the meridian, on either side of which rise three branches; since the sun also like the lamp, balanced in the midst of the planets by divine wisdom, illumines by its light those above and below. On the other side of the altar was situated the table on which the loaves were displayed, because from that quarter of the heaven vital and nourishing breezes blow.

Key points: He identifies the seven branches of the candlestick/menorah with the seven classical planets (i.e., celestial bodies that change their position relative to the fixed stars). These were the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn–the only ones visible to the naked eye. He identifies the sun, the most important of the seven, with the middle branch of the lamp, with three on each side.


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{ 1 comment }

Rob Flammang March 28, 2014 at 3:34 pm

Hi Jimmy,

The ancients commonly listed their planets from highest to lowest (remember, they were geocentrists), and so their list would have read, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the SUN, Venus, Mercury, and lowest, the Moon.

So you can see why Clement thought that the Sun, the biggest, belonged in the middle.

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