Clement of Alexandria
A Minority Apostolic Tradition from Egypt
This section comes from Chapter 2 - Request
It is an unfortunate and well-known fact that our knowledge of Egyptian Christianity until the time of Clement is scant. We do not have any early orthodox literary witnesses clearly linked to Egypt like we do in other regions (such as Ignatius, Polycarp and Justin Martyr). No doubt this is part of what fuels the fires of scepticism towards Clement's claim to an apostolic oral tradition; there is simply no sure way to verify his claim. There are, however, four strands of data which point to an early apostolic tradition emanating from Alexandria, three of which have a testimony from Clement:
1. The tradition that St Mark founded the church in Alexandria
2. Clement's appellation of "apostle" to Barnabas and his reference to the epistle bearing the same name as being "Scripture"
3. The NT letter to the Hebrews
4. The Lukan description of Apollos in NT Acts of the Apostles.
In this section we will briefly examine these four strands of data. The nature of our study will not allow us too much room for critical analysis, but we will consider a theory as to how these data impacts our understanding of both Clement's testimony and early Christianity in Egypt.
2.3.1 The Church in Alexandria founded by St. Mark
The testimony of the beginnings of Christianity in Egypt is presented to us by Eusebius. He records that Peter went to Rome in order to oppose Simon Magus and that Mark was asked to put Peter's gospel in writing (the text seems to indicate that he did this in Rome). In this same passage Eusebius records that Clement had given this story in Hypotyposeis and that Papias had also recorded this same tradition. The next statement from Eusebius, "Now it is said..." introduces the tradition that Mark traveled to Alexandria and was the first to preach the gospel which he had written. The use of the word phasin suggests that Eusebius is moving from Clement to another source, probably an accepted oral tradition, but possibly a written one. This tradition of Mark coming to Alexandria agrees with the datum in Clement's Letter to Theodotus. One piece of data which seems to contradict this is the Pseudo-Clementine Homily which records that Barnabas is the first person to preach in the streets of Alexandria. However, it is possible that Barnabas and Mark could have traveled together to Alexandria; this would account for Barnabas (the elder of the two) being named as the first to preach. The documentary evidence is sketchy, but we do have at least three ancient witnesses to an early "apostolic" presence in Alexandria.
2.3.2 Barnabas and the Epistle of Barnabas
Clement refers to Barnabas as "the apostle" on two occasions and cites Barnabas as Scripture. Koester maintains, "the suggestion that Barnabas, Paul's fellow missionary in Antioch, wrote this book [Barnabas] is not entirely impossible," yet few scholars would take this position. Clement however, seems to have viewed Barnabas as the author of the writing. With the inclusion of Barnabas in the Codex Sinaiticus it is clear that this writing had authority early in the Egyptian Church; this also adds more evidence for why Barnabas is referred to as an "apostle" by Clement. Authorship aside, Barnabas is generally accepted as having an Alexandrian provenance; many scholars would also place the writing in the same genre as that of the NT Hebrews.
2.3.3 The NT letter to the Hebrews
The Letter to the Hebrews represents another strand of data pointing to an early Alexandrian tradition. According to Eusebius, both Clement and Origen attributed Hebrews to the apostle Paul. The West was much more reluctant: Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Hippolytus were among the early fathers who did not attribute authorship to Paul. The debate of authorship is not as relevant here, but there is another aspect of this NT document which has direct bearing on our discussion - that of content and provenance. It has been suggested that Hebrews shares ideas which are clearly reflective of Philo. F.F. Bruce says the writer was "not a Philonist, although he shares Philo's intellectual background...the writer to the Hebrews did not absorb Plato's doctrine into his system as Philo did." The consensus among scholars is that the author was most likely in the Hellenistic Jewish group, familiar with Philonian thought, possibly an Alexandrian. With scholars coming to this conclusion, it is curious that Apollos was never considered until Martin Luther first suggested him as the author - which takes us to our final strand of data.
2.3.4 The appearance of Apollos in the NT
In Acts 18 we have the enigmatic introduction of Apollos onto the scene:
Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John....he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus.
Numerous items come to our attention: first, Apollos comes from Alexandria; he was educated; he knew the Scriptures; he strongly refuted the Jews; and finally, he seems to be a Christian, but only knew John's baptism. Our study will only allow us a brief look at this curious man, but his significance in the understanding of Christianity in Alexandria is currently being reconsidered by some scholars. There is some discussion as to whether Apollos originated from Alexandria. The Western Codex D adds to 18:25 that he had been instructed "in his home city." The description of Apollos as aner logios deserves some attention. Winter shows that this adjective, along with Luke's descriptive dunatos (18:24) and epideiknumi (18:28) "have rhetorical connotations, so that the Acts account of Apollos would have conveyed to the readers that this Christian Jew from Alexandria depended on his rhetorical skills..." But Luke makes it clear that Apollos was not just a rhetorician; "he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately." (Acts 18:25) Luke also says that "he had been instructed (han katechemenos) in the way of the Lord." The use of katecheo here seems significant; the context demands that Apollos had been well-trained in the Christian faith prior to his arrival, yet needed further instruction about baptism. We do not know how Apollos came to faith, but if "we wish to solve this particular difficulty, Luke's account is very important because it shows a type of pre-Pauline Christianity..." [Beatrice, ANRW 26.2] The only other NT information we get about Apollos is in the first Corinthian letter where some of his followers are apparently guilty of inappropriate conduct. We will conclude our section on Apollos with Bruce's concluding comments on the same discussion (which is the end of his chapter on the Hellenists),
Any attempt to reconstruct the course of early Alexandrian Christianity, and of Hellenistic Christianity in general, must reckon seriously with the implications of the little we are told about Apollos, this cultured Alexandrian Jew with a mastery of the scriptures and an accurate knowledge of the story of Jesus, who for a brief space traverses the Pauline circle and endears himself to its members and their leader, makes a powerful impression on fellow-Jews and fellow-Christians in Ephesus and Corinth, and then vanishes from our sight.
2.3.5 Conclusions concerning the Minority Apostolic Tradition
We have four strands of data here which all point to Alexandria. We have Clement's testimony concerning three of them (he says nothing of the NT Apollos). We have at least two early "apostolic" documents (Epistle of Barnabas and NT Hebrews) for Clement which seem to have an Alexandrian provenance. The tradition of the founding of Christianity in Alexandria involves two men of apostolic authority from Clement's point of view, Barnabas and Mark (as was Luke to Paul) as the author of Peter's gospel. The history of Apollos (the little we know), his Alexandrian/Hellenistic-Jewish connections, go without comment by Clement, but point to an early non-Pauline witness which had some impact in Corinth as well as in Ephesus, and originated in Egypt. Each individual strand of evidence has only a small amount of significance, but when taken together as indicators, form an argument not easily dismissed.
I would suggest the following scenario as a possible way the Egyptian Church was established: taking the Lukan account, Egyptian Jews (probably some from Alexandria) were in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:8-11). They are exposed to a primitive gospel which they take back to Egypt. At a later time Barnabas and Mark travel to Egypt to bring "apostolic" authority to the region (Acts 15:39). After the parting of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36-40) it would make sense that Barnabas would want to take a closer look at the Hellenistic Jewish Christianity which seems to have stirred earlier conflict (similar in nature to the Gentile problem) in the Christian community - the problems mentioned in Acts 6 with the Hellenist widows and Stephen's speech in Acts 7. Thus, after the separation, Barnabas heads with Mark to Cyprus and then goes on to Alexandria. [Travel and trade between Cyprus and Alexandria were well established; it would have been a natural route for Barnabas to take. See Cambridge Ancient History VII-1, pp.134, 161.] Clement's testimony might not be completely grounded in historical fact, but it seems likely that the traditions are based on some kind of visit by these two men. The description of Apollos (Acts 18:24) indicates the presence of an Egyptian Christianity with some kind of philosophical background. This could be Jewish Christians who had been influenced by Philonian thought prior to coming under the influence of the Christian gospel. Acts 18:24-28 says Apollos makes a positive contribution into the Pauline circle; it is plausible that Paul took some interest in the Philonian ideas presented by Apollos. This might explain the presence of Paul's allegorical use in Galatians 4:21-31 and the "milk...meat" analogy in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3. What if Paul has been influenced by Philonic thought which included ideas about prayer and theoria? What if those ideas were developed by Paul and his circle? or by Apollos? Or maybe Beatrice is correct in his exegesis of 1 Corinthians - Apollos is the problem because he stressed the philosophical (including theoria) too much for Paul's liking.
There are some real problems with this theory besides the fact that it is based on one speculation on top of another. We do not know enough about the background of Apollos - whether or not he had been exposed to Philonian philosophical thought. The lack of any real evidence in Paul of this contemplative prayer presents a problem. But there could be room in his "message of wisdom" for such ideas. [See 1 Cor. 2:6-15. Also, he says in 2 Cor. 12:4 he "heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell." The whole "milk...meat" presentation (1 Cor. 3:1-3) seems to fit this idea as well.] We must not deny the possibility that he kept some of his ideas out of his letters. I agree with Lilla on this point.
This data urges reconsideration of Clement's claim to an esoteric apostolic tradition. This does not mean that we assume Clement's oral tradition to be exactly what he claims; it is entirely possible that his oral tradition comes from an Encratic Christianity corrupted by Philonian ideas (something like what Beatrice has suggested) and that he has wrongly been taught that it originated from Jesus. If so, then Hanson is correct. It is also possible that this oral tradition represents an "apostolic" strain which is in a minority tradition such as NT Hebrews, Barnabas, and Apollos (the Hellenists) represent. As Beatrice said, this could be a "pre-Pauline Christianity." This might help to explain why the Alexandrian "school" stands out from the rest of early Christianity and also why it persisted (and still persists). It is also possible (however unlikely) that this tradition is exactly what Clement claims it to be: a tradition "handed down" from Jesus to His main apostles. More work will have to be done in this area (and maybe some additional documentary evidence will surface) before a definitive answer can be found.
Whatever the source for this oral tradition, Clement says he will record it in Stromateis, yet makes it clear that he will do so in a way which will keep the unlearned from finding it. Though now written, he is following the ancient examples for keeping truth hidden.
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Clement of Alexandria and Christian Spirituality
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oral tradition II
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- theoria and oral tradition
- the threefold pathway
- theoria - spirituality
- stromateis book VII
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- egyptian christianity
- clement's theoria
- clement's influence