Clement of Alexandria

Yesterday (December 5) was, in the Episcopal Church Calendar, the feast of Clement of Alexandria. Clement was removed from the Roman Catholic Calendar in the late sixteenth century, but the Anglicans have given him no such demotion. Regardless of whether Clement deserves to be seen as a saint or not, he has been acknowledged as one of the earliest of Christian mystics.

Born in the middle of the second century, Clement lived some 170 years after Philo; that not-quite-two-centuries was a critical time, when Christianity went from being a small sect within Judaism to a significant mystery religion within the civilized world. But we need to remember that at the time Clement was writing, Christians had no political power derived from their faith, and so were vulnerable to persecution, depending on the whim of whoever happened to be emperor. Christianity’s chief “competition” would have been the mystery cults of the pagan world, and its most significant internal problem would have been the anti-materialistic theology of gnosticism.

Based on what little we know about him, Clement probably was not a native of Alexandria but may have been an Athenian by birth. Like Philo, he was educated in Greek philosophy, but apparently found his greatest teacher in Pantaeus, the chief catechist (teacher of the Christian mysteries) in Alexandria. Sometime around 190 CE, Clement took over the position of head of the Alexandrian Catechetical School, a position he held until persecution by the Emperor Severus (no relation to Snape) forced him to flee the city in 202 CE. Following his exile, little is heard from him; it is conjectured that he died c. 210 CE. Clement became renowned as a Christian apologist writing to both pagans and Christians. His knowledge of the pagan mystery religions suggests that he may have been an initiate of one or more of them, and it is his attempts to show that Christianity is a better mystery religion that places him in the tradition of Christian mysticism. In general, Clement is quite positive in his regard for Greek philosophy, but draws a strong distinction between philosophy and the popular religions of the masses, of which he is merciless in his criticism. Clement’s attitude toward gnosticism is similar to his attitude toward paganism: he felt that orthodox Christianity did provide true gnosis (knowledge), but he rejected the world-denying extremes held by the gnostics.

Clement’s best known student also has achieved renown as an early Christian mystic: Origen, whose work I’ll be reading next month.

The book of Clement’s work that I’m reading comes from the Loeb Classical Library, with the original Greek on even numbered pages and the English translation by G.W. Butterworth on the odd pages. This book includes three texts: “An Exhortation to the Greeks,” “The Rich Man’s Salvation” and “To the Newly Baptized.” “An Exhortation to the Greeks” provides the meat of Clement’s criticism of the mystery religions and his insistence that Christianity provides the “true” mysteries leading to the vision of God. “The Rich Man’s Salvation” is a commentary on the passage in Mark where Jesus notes how difficult it is for the wealthy to attain salvation. “To the Newly Baptized” is the shortest work in this volume (4 pp.) and appears to be a simple exhortation to perseverance in the faith.


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