[Note: At times, publishers supply me with books for review. However, I actually purchased this book, it was not supplied for review. If you would like to supply me with a book for review, please feel free to email textgeek at gmail dot com.]
That’s the question Reverend Thomas J. Herron seeks to answer with Clement and the Early Church of Rome: On the Dating of Clement’s First Epistle to the Corinthians (amazon.com). Most folks in this post-J.B.-Lightfoot world consider the date of First Clement fairly well set at 95 or 96 AD. Thomas Herron says “not so fast!” and makes what is perhaps the best case for an early dating of First Clement, before 70 AD but after the deaths of Peter and Paul.
I will not comprehensively review Herron’s argument here. His book is short (just over 100 pages to the bibliography) and relatively cheap (12 bucks new, at least that’s what the Amazon widget said when I published this post). If you are interested in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, I’d encourage you to get the book yourself and give it a read.
One of Herron’s more persuasive notions in the book is his appeal to the thought that Clement didn’t have to be pope when he wrote the letter attributed to him. The standard date of 95–96 AD, persuasively argued by Lightfoot and others, is built around testimony from Eusebius about the order and dating of the first popes and comments about the reigning emperors during each papacy. Herron doesn’t dispute that at all; instead he asks:
If this is so, that the author does not write as the single bishop of Rome, then the date of circa AD 95 is no longer tenable since that date rests on one simple piece of information, namely that Eusebius tells us that Clement of Rome was single bishop of Rome toward the end of the reign of Emperor Domitian, whose death, we know, was in AD 96. Take away the belief that Clement wrote the letter known as 1 Clement while he was bishop of Rome, and the dating of circa AD 95 is seriously undermined. The issue is not whether Eusebius is correct about Clement’s tenure as bishop, but whether that information has any possible relevance for the dating question. (Herron 3, italics his)
Herron exploits this apparent discrepancy between the authorship of First Clement (apparently from the church at Rome and not from a single bishop) with the dating of Clement’s papacy provided by Eusebius, when it is obvious that Clement is the bishop in power. Why, if Clement is bishop, doesn’t he write the letter as bishop — like both Ignatius and Polycarp do, to some degree?
Anyway, this is his entry to the argument, and it is enough to catch one’s attention. It makes it possible in the informed reader’s mind that perhaps Clement did write it earlier than 95-96 AD. Then the question arises, “when?” And Herron appeals largely to internal evidence he sees that would move the date to before 70 AD.
He progresses the argument to 1Cl 40-41, and discussion of the temple. If Herron can prove references contemporary with a temple in Jerusalem, then he’s almost all the way to a pre-70 AD date for the letter.
Unfortunately, he turns to the temporality of the Greek verb in an effort to prove that Clement’s mention of the temple in 1Cl 40-41, by using present tense verbs, must be contemporaneous with a pre-70 AD temple. How can Clement use present tense verbs discussing the temple if the temple is actually destroyed (as it would be in 95-96 AD)?
Here’s the relevant text, 1Cl 40.1–41.4:
40.1 Therefore since these things are evident to us, and we have looked into the depths of the divine knowledge, we ought to do in sequence everything whatever the Master commanded us to accomplish, at the times appointed. 2 Both the offerings and services should be accomplished, and he commanded them not to be done thoughtlessly or disorderly, but at appointed times and hours. 3 Both where and by whom he wants them to be accomplished, he himself has appointed by his most supreme will, that all things being done devoutly in good pleasure, may be acceptable to his will. 4 Therefore those who make their offerings at the appointed times are both acceptable and blessed, for following the lawful ways of the Master they do not sin. 5 For the proper services are given to the high priest, and the proper position has been appointed to the priests, and the proper ministries have been imposed upon the Levites. The lay person is bound by the laity’s commands.
41.1 Each of us, brothers, in his own group, must be pleasing to God, being in good conscience, not going beyond the appointed rule of his ministry, with dignity. 2 Not everywhere, brothers, are the sacrifices continually offered, or vows or ⌊sin-offerings and trespass-offerings⌋, but only in Jerusalem, and even there, offerings are made not in every place, but before the temple, at the altar, the offering being examined for blemishes by the high priest and those doing the previously mentioned service. 3 Therefore those who do anything contrary to ⌊the duty imposed⌋ by his will, they experience the death penalty. 4 You see, brothers, as we have been considered worthy of greater knowledge, so we will be exposed to more danger.
The Apostolic Fathers in English ( trans. Rick Brannan; (Logos Bible Software, 2012)).
Herron takes the emphasis on appointed times and hours and references to services and high priests/levites, and then references to the four types of offerings in 41.2 (sacrifices, vows, sin-offerings and trespass-offerings), and the use of present tense verbs throughout the passage, as possibly meaning two things. Either all the present tense verbs are historical presents, and this is a recollection; or the presents imply present-time references contemporaneous with the author, thus the temple must have been standing when Clement wrote it if sacrifices are being made in Jerusalem.
I don’t buy it. First, temporal reference with Greek verbs is never so neat. Language is flexible, and you can use presents for stuff like this, even if the events discussed are not contemporaneous with the speaker/author. Call it a historical present if you want (I leave that to the grammarians); my rough conception of the Greek verb is that it is not so neatly binary when temporal reference is at stake, or any other time for that matter.
Second, I just spent a lot of time in the Pentateuch of the LXX; particularly Leviticus and Numbers. The way the sacrifices are discussed here in Clement is pretty standard fare in comparison. Clement aligns pretty well with the LXX. See Lev 7.18–28 (BHS/Eng 7.28–38) for starters. Herron makes a great deal about the specificity of Clement’s language regarding the sacrifices and the temple; I think Clement could’ve gotten all of it from the LXX if he’d read it. And, based on his citations of LXX elsewhere, I think that’s pretty likely.
Further, this talk of present tense in recollection of known/documented events makes me think of other things Clement discusses with present tense verbs. You know, like the sign of the phoenix in 1Cl 25. Are these all historical presents? Can we also make the argument that Clement must’ve believed (and perhaps actually witnessed?!) a 500-year-old phoenix entombing itself, dying, spontaneously generating a worm which feeds on the carcass, grows wings, and then rises from its death cocoon and flies off carrying the remnants of the bones back to Heliopolis?
I didn’t think so. He was using the phoenix as an illustration of resurrection, likely because the legend was known to both him and his hearers. Whether he believed it or not is a different matter.
So, Clement’s references could be contemporaneous with a temple in Jerusalem, but I don’t think they have to be. Herron’s argument regarding present-tense verbs is non-determinative here. I don’t think it is as strong as he makes it out to be for reasons stated above. Clement doesn’t have to be talking about a real, existing temple to make his point regarding order here; he is appealing to the temple and its practices which he knows to be common knowledge between himself and his audience. And his information is, in my opinion, obtainable from the LXX.
I won’t go through all of Herron’s points. I think the most persuasive portion of the book was the introduction, clarifying that the question wasn’t about Clement’s papacy, but instead about when Clement wrote the letter. That’s genius because it leaves known things known (Clement as pope near end of Domitian’s reign) and clarifies that a 95-96 AD date means you’re saying Clement wrote it when he was pope, and there are some seemingly non-popish things about the letter you then have to deal with.
Reading the argument from that point, after the temple piece, was more like seeing circumstantial evidence that could be interpreted a few different ways piled up to the point of hoping it would tip the scales.
I think Herron probably makes the best possible case for an early date of First Clement. I think future work on First Clement will have to interact with Herron instead of simply blindly cite Lightfoot as authority for a 95/96 AD date. But I don’t think Herron’s work will or should cause the scholarly consensus on the date of First Clement to change. The book is inexpensive and accessible, so you do need to give it a look if you’re into this stuff.