Cardinal Brandmüller: Persecuted in very recent times (2011)


The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, which speaks of the persecution suffered by Christians “out of envy and jealousy”, was written not long after the death of Nero, and therefore very few years after the martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul in Rome.

Persecuted in very recent times

By Cardinal Walter Brandmüller
President Emeritus of the Pontifical Committee of Historical Sciences

Clement of Rome: “Most modern critics suppose him to have been the Titus Flavius Clemens, brother of the Emperor Vespasian, and first cousin to the Emperor Domitian, whose niece, Flavia Domitilla, he married. This Clement was Counsul in A.D. 95, but at the close of his year of office was arrested, with his wife, on a charge of “atheism” – a charge which, we are told, was brought against some others who had made converts to Judiasm ; he was condemned to death, and his wife was baniched. There is little doubt that by “Judaism” is meant Christianity. (The Epistle of St. Clement of Rome, p. vi)

Saints Peter and Clement, detail of the twelfth century mosaic in the apse of the basilica of San Clemente in Rome

Saints Peter and Clement, detail of the twelfth century mosaic in the apse of the basilica of San Clemente in Rome


Of the written testimonies of the early Church that have come down to us, the First Epistle of Clement is the closest in time to the New Testament texts. It is hardly surprising, therefore, if it has for a long time stirred the special interest of scholars. But this text has been, and is, discussed in all of its smallest details especially because the Catholic tradition sees in it the very first extra-Biblical evidence in favor of the primacy of the Roman Church within Christianity. The date of its composition is therefore of particular importance. It is generally accepted that the First Epistle of Clement was written towards the end of the first century of the Christian era. On the basis of the reference to the persecution of Christians it is thus dated to the time of the Emperor Domitian, who reigned from 81 to 96.

But doubts have long arisen about this dating and more careful studies have shown that there was no persecution of Christians under Domitian.

Chapters 3 to 5 of the Epistle, which is a call for unity and love within the Church, speak of the dire consequences of the jealousy of the Christian community. The author cites a number of relevant examples from the Old Testament, and then continues: “But leaving the ancient examples, we come to the protagonists of very recent times. Out of envy and jealousy, pillars of maximum greatness and righteousness were persecuted and fought to the death. Take for example the valiant Apostles: Peter, who because of unjustified envy, suffered not one or two but many pains… Faced with envy and strife, Paul displayed the palm for patient endurance… He retired from the world therefore, and reached the holy place as sublime model of patience”.

Immediately afterwards the Epistle speaks of the martyrs of the persecution at the hands of Nero, and mentions – as Tacitus did later (+117) – the way in which they died, also stating explicitly that all this happened “among us” (in Rome ) and, specifically, “in very recent times“.

But this means that the persecution of Nero was part of the direct experience of the author. The Epistle therefore must have been written not long after the death of Nero (68), whereas the year of the massacre of Christians is not yet certain (64/65).

Here the question also arises as to whether the outbreak of envy and jealousy of which Clement speaks, and of which the apostles Peter and Paul were victims, arose out of the conflicts within the Christian community of Rome. The well-known quarrels concerning Marcion, Valentino and Cerdon are all a generation later.

The tensions between Christians and Jews are a much more likely cause. One should not forget that the separation between Jews and Christians was at its height in those decades, a situation more than favorable to envy and jealousy.

We also know from Josephus Flavius that the wife of Nero, Poppea, was a proselyte, that is to say a convert to Judaism, and must therefore have had close ties with the Jewish circles in Rome.

Thus, is it really unthinkable that in the search for scapegoats for the burning of Nero’s Rome, it was she who diverted attention onto the Christians, so hated by the Jews?

In all of these approaches caution is however required, given the lack of certain evidence from the sources.

It is, however, time now to address the question of the author. It is evident that our text – that is presented as an exposition in epistolary form – is not the work of a community: that “the Church of God that lives in Rome in a foreign land” writes to the Church of Corinth is just a formal expedient. The author is believed to have been ‘Clement’, a name which – as far as we know – first appears in a letter of reply from Bishop Dionysius (Denis) of Corinth to Pope Soter (166-174 ca.). Dionysius (Denis) writes: “Today we celebrate the holy day of the Lord and in this same day we read your letter, which, like the previous letter sent us by Clement, we always read as an admonishment”.

If this Clement is named next to Soter Bishop of Rome and his letter is read like a Pope’s letter during the liturgy, we may assume that with that this Clement refers to another Bishop of Rome. Probably as suggested also by the Clement of Rome mentioned in the Shepherd of Hermas, written in the first half of the second century, since the context shows that that Clement was a person of high authority.

It should not be forgotten that up to the fourth century, then as in the past, the Epistle of Clement was in public use in most churches. In Egypt and Syria, in particular, it was attributed almost canonical authority.

The ‘graffiti wall’ with the opening leading into the tomb that houses the relics of Peter, the necropolis under St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City [© Venerable Fabric of Saint Peter’s]

The ‘graffiti wall’ with the opening leading into the tomb that houses the relics of Peter, the necropolis under St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City [© Venerable Fabric of Saint Peter’s]

The Codex Alexandrinus, the famous fifth-century manuscript of the Bible now preserved in London, contains the First Epistle of Clement along with the New Testament.


Now, as has been said, all these debates, or indeed controversies, have a background: can the First Epistle of Clement be considered the first post-biblical evidence in favor of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome in the leadership of the universal Church? The answers differ according to the diverse confessional points of view.

It should be clear what kind of glaring anachronism it would be to wonder whether the primacy of Rome, as formulated by the two Vatican Councils, is testified to by the First Epistle of Clement. It is fair to ask, however, whether responsibility for the whole Church of the Ecclesia Romana does not emerge here.

For this purpose a look should first of all be taken at the motive and content of the letter. Why was it necessary to write it?

From the text one sees that there had been a split in the community of Corinth, because young people had rebelled against the elders of the community and had removed them from office.

The intervention of Rome, in this situation that threatened the life of the Church of Corinth, is a noteworthy fact. It is entirely unknown whether it was in response to a request for help from the ousted leaders of the Church or whether Rome took the initiative motu proprio. For our question it is completely irrelevant, because in the former case, if it was the elders who made recourse to Rome, it means that they recognized its authority and competence to safeguard their rights; in the second, the intervention of Rome is evidence that the Ecclesia Romana exercised authority in an obvious way over the whole Church.

The fact is even more remarkable when one considers that at the time of sending the Epistle to Corinth – no matter if you date it before or just around the end of the first century – one of the Twelve, John, was still alive at Ephesus. In addition, Ephesus was about 1,300 kilometers by land from Corinth – less than half by sea – while, again by land, Rome was 2,500 kilometers away. Therefore there must have been a reason why it was not the last of the Twelve, but the Bishop of Rome who was consulted and intervened in the situation.

The hypothesis therefore that recourse was made to the Successor of Peter as last court of appeal may not be at all mistaken.

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