St Clement of Rome (November 23) is traditionally classified as the fourth pope (90-100)

Clement is traditionally classified as the fourth pope (90-100). Although his contemporaries might not have recognised such a title, he was certainly a Christian leader who lived in Rome, and who sent an epistle to the Corinthians which demonstrates concern for events far beyond his own parish. As such he has been marked out as a key figure in the development of the Roman ascendancy.

He wrote his letter around 96 in the hope of healing the dissensions among the Christians of Corinth. St Paul himself had preached in that town in the early and mid-50s, leaving a congregation which had for many years proved exemplary in their faith.

Clement, however, complained that the Corinthians had become swollen with pride, and thus descended into jealousy, strife and disorder. The remedy, he urged, lay in humility, self-abnegation, obedience, love and unity: “Let us forget our self-assertion and braggadocio and stupid quarrelling, and do what the Bible tells us instead.”

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It is clear from this epistle that Clement was familiar with books of the Old Testament, from which he quotes at length, using the Greek Septuagint. He also demonstrates his knowledge of the Epistles of St Paul, as well as of I Peter, James and Hebrews.

The Palestinian historian Eusebius (c 264-340), claiming the authority of Origen (c 185-c 254), identifies Clement with the disciple who helped St Paul at Philippi (Philippians 4:3). Irenaeus (c 130-c 200) states that Clement had heard some of the Apostles preach, and had conversed with them, while Tertullian, writing in 199, asserts that he had been ordained by St Peter.

If Clement was really that close to the source of Christianity, it is interesting to find him echoing Isaiah chapter 53 in his description of the Messiah: “He had neither comeliness nor beauty; his appearance was mean, and inferior to that of other men.”

There is a tradition which identifies Clement with a Roman nobleman called Titus Flavius Clemens, who was related to the Emperors Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, and who held the consulship in 95 AD. According to the historian Dio Cassius (c 150-c 235), Titus Flavius Clemens was executed by Domitian for “atheism” (as Christianity was described). While it seems unlikely that St Clement had been a Roman consul, he may perhaps have lived in Titus Flavius’s household, and taken his name.

Another story, dating from the fourth century, relates that Clement was banished by the Emperor Trajan (98-117) to the Crimea, and set to work in the mines. There he succeeded in laying on a miraculous supply of water, and preached with such success that the authorities finally flung him into the sea with an iron anchor about his neck. 

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