Clement of Rome’s Mediterranean Travels, the First Christian Novel, and the Character of Early Christianity

James Carleton Paget on F. Stanley Jones’s Pseudoclementina Elchasaiticaque inter Judaeochristiana

F. Stanley Jones, Pseudoclementina Elchasaiticaque inter Judaeochristiana: Collected Studies, Peeters, 2012, 547pp., $105
F. Stanley Jones, Pseudoclementina Elchasaiticaque inter Judaeochristiana: Collected Studies, Peeters, 2012, 547pp., $130

F.C. Baur is regarded as the founder of the modern study of Christian origins and, in particular, of the New Testament. From the 1830s, he began to develop a new thesis about Christian origins from late seventeenth century ideas. For Baur and then others, Christian history had been dominated by a conflict between Gentile/Pauline Christianity and Jewish Christianity. This conflict extended well into the second century and was only resolved when both parties, in the face of the external threat of Gnosticism, came together to form what became catholic Christianity. The Pseudo-Clementines, with their apparent adherence to a form of Jewish Christianity and their opposition to gentile Christianity, were important to Baur’s thesis. They were witnesses both to the enduring character of the dispute and to its early manifestation. Potentially they preserved material pertinent to Jewish Christianity as it manifested itself at the dawn of Christian origins.

A good deal has happened in the study of the Pseudo-Clementines since Baur’s day, and few now would hold on to his rather simplistic reading of these sources. But his shadow, not least as this relates to the study of Christian origins, hangs over their study.

The Pseudo-Clementines—as constituted by the Homilies and Recognitions—relate Clement of Rome’s adventures around the Mediterranean seaboard. He becomes a convert to Christianity (a term which is never used in the texts) and reunites with his family, which, for various reasons, had become estranged from each other. While a romance, this narrative contains much theological discussion and engagement.

Explaining the similarities between the two works (Homilies and Recognitions), scholars have come to the view that both made independent use of an earlier source, which they called the Grundschrift. Much work on the Pseudo-Clementines has been occupied with determining the constituent parts of that earlier source as well as a number of broadly related issues. Such an account can make the study of the Pseudo-Clementines seem dry and unappealing; and yet potentially they throw interesting light upon a multiplicity of important questions. Some of these are the origins of the Christian novel (after all, the tale of Clement and his reuniting with his lost family is the first evidence we have of a Christian novel), the relationship of Christians to non-Christian Jews, with its satellite concern with the subject of Jewish Christianity, and by extension Christian identity, and finally the character of early Syrian Christianity.

Of living scholars, no one is more qualified than F. Stanley Jones to write about the Pseudo-Clementines, and many of the issues I have mentioned above he addresses in this thick tome. That he has spent a lifetime engaged with the subject is an indication of its complexity.

Jones is clear that the novelistic dimension of the work was an original part of the Grundschrift, in which case we have before us the first known Christian novel. Not least by picking up on the importance for the work of astrology, he shows that the narrative dimension is integral to the theology of the work. Like many before him, Jones argues that the source was written in Syria, possibly at the beginning of the third century. The author is identified as a Jewish Christian (of which more below), who for whatever reason wanted to bring together traditions relating to a Christianity that did not accord with the Christianity with which he was familiar. Jones is clear that the community for which he is writing has broken with Judaism; and Jones also argues for the anti-Marcionite dimension of his writing. In the author’s distinctive attitude to the Old Testament scriptures—convinced that the so-called false pericopes have been added to the latter—the Grundschrift has adopted an idea associated with one of Marcion’s followers, Apelles. This thesis suggests that the Pseudo-Clementines are a potentially helpful source for those interested in the history of Marcionism.

There are two other sources important to the Grundschrift. Jones argues that the so-called Anabathmoi Iakobou, the Ascents of James, is a kind of reworked version of the Acts of the Apostles from a Jewish Christian standpoint in which Paul comes under sharp criticism. The other is the Book of Elchasai, which Jones takes to be a type of early church order, rather than an adapted Jewish apocalypse from the time of the Trajanic revolt in Mesopotamia. The Dutch scholar Luttikhuizen had strongly argued for the latter position. (Jones’ review of his book is reproduced in this collection.)

While Jones does not spend much time, except in the history of research, on the question of the original context of the recensions of the Grundschrift in the form of the Recognitions and the Homilies, he is clear that the writer of the Homilies has emphasized and taken further the Jewishness of the Grundschrift. He sees this point demonstrated in Hom. 4-6. Here Clement is presented as a convert to Judaism rather than to the worship of Jesus, a view that accords with ideas found in Hom.8.5-7, where the ideas associated with Moses and Jesus appear to be treated equally. Here Jones goes against a well-supported view that in fact Hom. 4-6 has its origins not in the redactional activity of the Homilist but in an earlier Jewish source, possibly used by the writer of the Grundschrift.

The section of the book devoted to the vexed issue of Jewish Christianity comes only at the end. The concept has been referred to many times in the preceding essays but often with no definition. This is rather odd, given that the study of Jewish Christianity has experienced a notable efflorescence in recent times and in many ways accounts for the interest in the Pseudo-Clementines. Jones seeks to define the term in relation to certain practices that might be thought to be distinctively Jewish, though he is not ready to state which ones. Against some he argues for the view that the author of the Grundschrift was circumcised, and that, while not necessarily requiring circumcision of those who joined his community, he requested that they listen to circumcised people. Jones attributes greatest significance in this description to the insistence on purification. The community of the Grundschrift is not part of the non-Christian Jewish community or the gentile Christian community. Because the author has made use of a number of earlier Jewish Christian texts, the Pseudo-Clementines remain “a gold mine for Syrian Jewish Christianity in the early third century.” Though it is not a clear witness to the so-called Jewish Christian group of the Ebionites, as some from Baur onwards—following the work of the fifth-century heresiologist Epiphanius—have argued.

This is in many ways a welcome collection, bringing together a welter of previously published material on a massively complex corpus of literature. Most of the major subjects in Pseudo-Clementine research are covered and in lucid prose, however complex the subject. Inevitably there is a good deal of repetition between essays, with at least two containing very similar material. I also wonder whether some of the essays should have been reproduced at all, not least the rather short book reviews. The volume could also have been better structured by placing the material on Jewish Christianity—at least the more general material dealing with issues of definition—at the beginning rather than the end.

While the book is very long, I believe that it would have benefited from a discursive conclusion in which Jones passed authoritative judgment both on the point we have arrived at in research on this involved and contested set of documents (the failure to bring his account of previous research on the matter into the present is to be regretted), and more particularly on the question of the Pseudo-Clementines’ ongoing importance for the study of early Christianity. For Baur they were of considerable moment; for others the amount of effort needed to master the fantastically complex, and often German, scholarship connected with them is barely commensurate with the paltry historical benefits derived from such a laborious exercise. One’s judgment on this point will depend in part upon whether one sees the mooted sources connected with the so-called Grundschrift as reflective of an early and popular form of Christianity, or even a widespread early Christian movement in Syria. Jones could perhaps have dedicated an essay to those who have expressed themselves skeptical on the existence of such a source. Judgment will also depend in part, and possibly more importantly, on how one understands the popularity of the Homilies and Recognitions. The fact that Rufinus felt the need to translate the latter into Latin, and that translations of either work exist in Syriac, Armenian, and Arabic, might point to some degree of popularity at a time when John Chrysostom was fulminating against Judaizing Christians in Antioch. Such a temporal convergence raises intriguing questions about the durability of forms of Christianity which some, perhaps controversially, think should be described as Jewish Christian.