Reflection: 1 Clement and Justin Martyr

This paper was initially written for the course Early and Medieval Christianity in Winter 2011.

In the early years of the Christian movement, the first major theological question to arise was this new movement’s relationship to its Jewish roots.  While the first generation of Christians were almost all Jewish, and would not even think of themselves as a new religious group, a splintering began to occur with the uprising in Judea from 67 through 73 CE and would be complete by the middle of the second century.  In this time, two prominent texts illustrate how Christians now viewed Judaism from which they emerged.  The letter traditionally titled 1 Clement, likely written near the end of the first century, sees the Jewish Scriptures as great examples for their own life – both good examples and bad ones – but also fundamentally incomplete without the role of Jesus.  The early apologist Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho takes a more divisive tone on the same idea.  While much of their theology would agree, the two letters do show a distinct growth in the divide of the two religions, and are also written to very different audiences for very different purposes, a fact which exaggerates the differences.

1 Clement clearly views the Jewish past, especially the Hebrew Scriptures, as a good thing.  Based on the footnotes of the translation used for class, Clement references 146 Hebrew Scripture texts through his 65 chapters of this letter.  The characters of the Hebrew Scriptures are used as examples to learn from in this letter.  He begins an extensive look at figures of the Hebrew Scriptures with Cain and Abel in Chapter 4.  He speaks of Jacob and Esau (4:8), Joseph (4:9), Moses (4:10), Aaron and Miriam (4:11), and David and Saul (4:13), and that is still only in Chapter 4.  The list of those referenced later would be unnecessary to reproduce, but include Enoch (Chapter 9), Abraham (10), Lot (11), Rahab (12), and many more.  Chapter 16, verse 17 summarizes how he thinks these figures should be viewed: “You see, dear friends, the kind of example we have been given.”  Similarly, Hebrew Scripture is repeatedly quoted as teaching which is applicable to those in Corinth.  Having used a variety of Scriptures to support his statements, Clement says in 22:1 that “now Christian faith confirms all this.”  While the interpretations may not always line up with Jewish interpretation, it is clear that Clement is treating the Jewish background for his Christian faith very seriously in the area of authority of Scripture.

Chapters 40 and 41 praise the “orderly fashion all that the Master has bidden us to do at the proper times he set” (40:1).  Clement’s purpose of this is to move forward to his defense of apostolic succession, since God has always moved in these structured ways.  However, he never indicates that he thinks those rituals are obsolete.  This could be taken either way: he may be implying they are obsolete because of the new structure of apostolic succession or he may be still promoting them as good despite not being the main way to do things anymore.   My sense of his tone would suggest the latter, but after 1900 years and a language translation, I could easily see him meaning the former as well.

In a similar way, Clement does distinguish the Christian “nation” as the true nation of God, although he does so without explicitly saying that Israel is not (29).  Clement also refers to “our father Abraham” (31:2) which makes the claim that Christians are Abraham’s real descendants, not Jews.  As with the rituals, however, he doesn’t discredit Israel as a nation of God; he merely sets them aside, so it is hard to say whether he would have thought that Israel was also a nation of God in some other way.

Justin Martyr, in contrast, focused on the differences in interpretation of Jewish Scripture.  He does claim that they are worshipping the same God, so he is not disregarding the Jewish roots.  Quickly after making this claim of the same God at the beginning of chapter XI, however, he also says that Christians “do not trust through Moses or through the law; for then we would do the same as yourselves.”  This is at the centre of the difference between Jews and Christians, says Justin, and it is a distinction which was not made by Clement.  He argues quoting Jeremiah 31:31-32 (XI) that while they are worshipping the same God, and while he admits that Christianity has its roots in Judaism, the Jews are essentially missing the point by insisting on the old covenant.

He also uses a variety of prophetic texts from Hebrew Scripture to claim that they are speaking about Jesus.  He quotes from Isaiah’s servant songs, making the claim that they are referring to Jesus, as many Christians still argue for today (XIII).  Using Isaiah he continues to argue that righteousness is not found in the Jewish rites but only through spiritual baptism in Christ.  Justin refers to Christians as the true Israel, and that the fasting of the Jews is not true fasting (XV).  Similarly he claims the true circumcision is a circumcision of the heart.  Chapter XVI and XVII provide a particularly harsh attack, taking the step from the Jews being wrong in their interpretation to actually calling them evil, a statement that Clement likely would not have accepted.

Clement and Justin would have agreed on some things about their Jewish roots, especially the importance of the Hebrew Scriptures which they both quote often.  Clement mostly quotes it in ways that it continues to exert authority over Christian living, even to the extent of possibly still promoting the rituals. Justin, on the other hand, is usually quoting in order to show how Christian interpretation is correct and Jewish interpretation is wrong.  They both see themselves as distinct, but Clement seems to allow for much more respect and familial conversation with Judaism than does Justin who is more eager to be entirely separate and for Jews to “suffer that which [they] now justly suffer” (XVI).

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.