God’s sanctioning of Roman authorities
90 CE to 100 CE
Title of work:
60.4 – 61.3
Keywords in the original language:
Thematic keywords in English:
The text known as 1 Clement is in fact an epistle written from the Christian community in Rome to that in Corinth, and is one of the earliest extant Christian documents outside the New Testament. The identity of the author remains very indefinite, and scholars have offered various suggestions over the years. One plausible, but by no means certain suggestion is that the “Clement” to whom the letter is ascribed was a freedman or son of a freedman of the house of Domitian’s cousin, Titus Flavius Clemens, and as was customary had taken his name from that of his owners. This theory is based on the fact that Dio Cassius, Roman History 67.14.1 informs us that Titus Flavius Clemens was executed and his wife, Domitilla, banished for “atheism,” a charge often levelled at those who “drifted into Jewish ways” (for the connection with Titus Flavius Clemens, see James Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers, p. 61, D. W. F. Wong, “Natural and Divine Order,” p. 87, and James Jeffers, Conflict at Rome, p. 31-34). It could be therefore that the pair were Christian sympathisers or even converts. Moreover, archaeological and inscriptional evidence suggests that there was a Christian burial ground on Domitilla’s land (see Jeffers, Conflict at Rome, p. 48-89).
The letter is contemporaneous with Revelation, also composed towards the end of the first century CE, and provides an interesting comparison with this apocalyptic source, written to the Christians of Asia Minor, due to the differing attitudes that 1 Clement reveals about the Roman church at this time. One of the most significant divergences is that while Revelation portrays the Roman empire as an ally of Satan, the antichrist and “whore” comparable to Babylon (see the discussions of Revelation 13:11-18; 16:1-19; 17:1-18), 1 Clement is much more positive of Roman rule, and promotes the advantages of security and peace which became a powerful selling point for Roman government (see 1 Thessalonians 5:3, where Paul criticises those who over-rely on Rome for “peace and security” rather than looking to God). Some have suggested that the opening of the letter (1.1) implies persecution (“sudden and successive calamitous events which have happened to ourselves”), but as Laurence Welborn argues (“On the Date of First Clement,” p. 35-48), the evidence for significant “persecution” of Christians under Domitian (during whose reign the letter was very possibly written) is not well-evidenced, and the troubles of which the author speaks more likely refers to internal problems in the Roman church. Regardless, 1 Clement is an important source for understanding that the early Christians were not uniform in their response to Roman rule, and while some were taught to oppose it at all costs, others were encouraged to embrace the benefits it brought, and see Roman authorities as legitimate, or as the present passage asserts, divinely sanctioned.
Christian Eggenberger (Die Quellen der politischen Ethik, p. 189-193) argues that there was no real occasion for the composition of 1 Clement – there was no specific crisis to speak of that the author felt needed an immediate response. Rather, the letter is an apologia to the imperial regime assuring the Roman authorities that the church was loyal, and wanting to secure the government’s favour. While Eggenberger’s thesis was not widely accepted in relation to the overall purpose of the letter, he certainly makes a strongly defensible point about the political stance of the author, which is clear from 60.4-61.3, where the Roman governing authorities are confirmed as God’s authorised agents on earth, which the Christian community must submit to. There is a general concern expressed in 1 Clement with the maintenance of proper order (see David Horrell, Social Ethos, p. 255-258). The natural universe is used as an example of how God’s creations co-exist just as their creator intended. Day and night commence when they are supposed to, the sun, stars, and moon all keep their proper courses, and the earth produces sufficient food for all its inhabitants. The sea does not flow beyond its proper boundaries, and the seasons change at their given times. Every aspect of the cosmos exists in “harmony and peace” (20.1-12). As Louis Sanders recognised (L’Hellénisme de Saint Clément, p. 109-130), there is strong reminiscence of Stoic writings here (see Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 2, for instance; for an insightful exploration of the concepts of order and disorder in the first century, see F. Gerald Downing, Order and (Dis)order). The structure of the army is used by the author in 37.1-5 as an example of how subordination and obedience work to the advantage of social order, and this theme of submission carries through to the present passage, where the Roman authorities, themselves under God, must be dutifully respected by the Christians.
As David Horrell notes in his examination of the issues which were apparently causing ructions in the Corinthian congregation (Social Ethos, p. 272), while it is not the primary focus of the author “his ‘political attitude’ largely determines his response to the Corinthian στάσις, viewing dissension and rebellion as evil and dangerous.” The present passage is part of a larger prayer for peace (59.3-61.3), which keeps God firmly at the centre, and sees obedience to rulers as a vital expression of reverence to God. It is God who has given rulers their sovereignty, glory, and honour, and so one cannot properly serve God without respecting those whom he has deemed worthy of granting power. The author prays for the Roman authorities themselves, asking that they might govern in a manner which God finds acceptable. The author is not completely uncritical of the authorities, however, praying that they rule “blamelessly/without causing harm or offense” (ἀπρόσκοπος) (61.1). The authorities require God’s guidance (even if they do not realise that they are subject to it) in order to ensure that their actions are in accordance with his divine plan. While the church is urged to give to the ruling authorities the honour that is due to them, God’s superiority is always kept in view. For Klaus Wengst (Pax Romana, p. 108), by referring to the authorities as “sons of men” (υἱοί τῶν ἀνθρώπων) (which Michael Holmes renders very generally as “human beings”) in 61.2, the author aims to distance himself from imperial cult ideology, which connected the emperor with divinity. However, this particular clause actually speaks more generally about all humans, whom God has granted dominion over other creatures; it is making a broader point about the order of the created world, and not solely referring to the Roman authorities at this point. Granted, the governing authorities are still undoubtedly in focus in 61.2, but it might be stretching the rhetoric a little to read a specific critique of the imperial cult here. In any case, the text is certainly not negative towards Roman rule – the prayer ultimately asks for the empire to be conserved, with the rulers being granted health and stability. Essentially, the author of 1 Clement gives “theological legitimation” to Rome (Wengst, Pax Romana, p. 107). The passage contrasts with Paul’s line of argument in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, where he chastises the Corinthian congregation for using civil courts to settle disputes that he believes would be better kept within the Christian community, and arbitrated by wise members from within. It may be, then, that when 1 Clement was received in Corinth the attitude was quite noticeably different from the previous teaching that the church there had been given (see Horrell, Social Ethos, p. 274-275). Of course, Paul gives quite a different message in Romans 13:1-7, where obedience to the authorities is encouraged. 1 Clement takes up a line of argument that was already very much present in Christian thought (see also 1 Peter 2:13-17), and utilises this rhetoric in order to support his vision for the Christian community, which would function much more efficiently if each member respected their position in the social hierarchy – peaceful existence is only possible if the scale of superiority is respected by all, and this goes for those in positions of power just as much as those who are under that power.