No Place Like Rome? Refuting Papal Primacy With Clement of Rome

Although ancient Christian pseudepigraphy (that is, the practice of writing under the name of another, usually better known author) often raises theological and ethical red flags because of the apparent deceit involved, students of early Christianity can ill-afford to discount the contents of these spurious or “apocryphal” sources. (Readers should note that “apocrypha” here does not include the so-called deuterocanonical books of the Greek Old Testament, which were typically categorized as a different class of literature by ancient commentators).[1] Historically, Protestants have been more thoroughly skeptical of early Christian apocrypha than their Catholic and Orthodox counterparts. For example, the latter will often invoke apocryphal texts such as the mid-second-century Protevangelium of James or the (possibly) fourth-century Six Books Dormition Apocryphon to demonstrate how certain Mariological traditions were at least known in the early church, even if they came into widespread prominence later in the Middle Ages.[2] In many cases, like that of the Protevangelium traditions, this invocation hangs awkwardly alongside the sharp denunciations of prominent Fathers such as Jerome and Augustine.[3]

Spurious though they are and frequently birthed from eccentric theology, early Christian apocrypha still serve as indispensably useful witnesses to what some ancient Christians thought in certain places and particular times. The Pseudo-Clementine literature—named for Clement of Rome, the semi-legendary successor of Peter—offers one such collection of written material. In these Pseudo-Clementine books, we have a hodge-podge of different genres: homilies, letters, and adventure stories that roughly correspond to the tropes of the ancient novel. Although they have come down to us in a single collection today, their constituent elements appear to have been written and edited at different points in time. Put bluntly, it’s a messy conglomeration. The entry of most interest to us, the Letter of Clement to James (Ep. Cl.) belongs to a section probably dating to the mid-third century.[4]

There are a number of interesting theological snippets in this letter. One assessment describes the author/editor’s own theology as “Judaizing.” It is certainly not much like the asceticism that often cropped up in early Christian Syria. For example, Ep. Cl. 7–8 shows a comparatively enthusiastic, “high” view of married sexuality, which contrasts markedly with the exaltation of virginity in the aforementioned Protevangelium of James, which probably came from encratite circles in Syria.[5] More central to the text, we find major sections laying out a theory of episcopacy. For most of the letter, “Clement” is merely relaying Peter’s own words to him and the Roman congregation, much of which concerns Peter’s impending martyrdom and the mechanics of the office to which Clement will soon ascend. Unsurprisingly, we get a rather illustrious understanding of the Roman episcopacy, vested in the person of Peter and his imminent successor Clement. For example, “Clement” writes that Peter was “ordained as a foundation [θεμέλιος] of the church”; he further reports that Peter had himself passed on to Clement the power of “binding and loosing,” which comes with office of bishop and its “seat of teaching” (Ep. Cl. 1.2, 2.1–4), a very clear reference to the Matthew 16.

Cleary, the third-century author was no critic of Peter, nor does he seem intent on undermining the lofty status of Rome’s bishop—quite the opposite in fact. One scholar has even proposed that Jerome’s friend-turned-bitter-rival Rufinus translated the document into Latin in the first years of the 400s to boost the growing institution of the papacy vis-à-vis other major sees in the East.[6] Judging by these sections, then, we seem to have a nascent tradition of Roman primacy on our hands. Particularly, if one accepts Newman’s theory of doctrinal development, one can read this Pseudo-Clementine epistle as anticipating the more mature papal framework exuded in, say, Boniface VIII’s bull Unam Sanctam (1302), which famously reads in the final line, “we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”[7]

But there’s a problem with reading a fledgling doctrine of Roman primacy in Ps. Clement’s letter: it overlooks the very first lines. Following ancient epistolary conventions, the text begins with a polite address to James the Just.[8] The epistle opens:

Κλήμης Ἰακώβῳ τῷ κυρίῳ καὶ ἐπισκόπων ἐπισκόπῳ, διέποντι δὲ τὴν Ιερουσαλὴμ ἁγίαν Ἑβραίων ἐκκλησίαν καὶ τὰς πανταχῆ θεοῦ προνοίᾳ ἱδρυθείσας καλῶς, σύν τε πρεσβυτέροις καὶ διακόνοις καὶ τοῖς λοιποῖς ἅπασιν ἀδελφοῖς. εἰρήνη εἴη πάντοτε.[9]

Clement to James, the master and bishop of bishops, who governs the holy church of Jerusalem of the Hebrews and the (churches) everywhere well-established by the forethought of God, as well as to the elders, deacons, and all the rest of the brothers. Peace be to you always.

In other words, it is James—not the bishop of Rome—whom Clement calls the “bishop of bishops” who oversees not only Jerusalem but all the churches everywhere established by God. And lest we have any doubt about what entities exactly James was supposed to be governing that are “everywhere well-established by the forethought of God,” two other versions of this letter, the Latin translation and a Greek textual variant, explicitly include the word “churches.”[10] If anyone comes across as a universal pontiff in this text, it is James.

This imaginative “remembrance” of James’ tenure as Jerusalem’s primate probably draws from the impressive description of Acts 15:12–19, where James appears to have the decisive word, rather than Paul or Peter. There may also be an echo of the general tradition recorded by the second-century historian Hegesippus (preserved only in fragments for us by Eusebius), who referred to James and Jude as Jesus’ brothers “according to the flesh” and stressed the role Jesus’ relatives played in the management of the church of Jerusalem and wider Palestine.[11] In other words, forger though the author was, Ps. Clement was probably not making up this version of James from whole cloth. Moreover, the fact that the rest of the letter also conveys immense respect for the Roman episcopacy makes the address even more meaningful historically, because it suggests the third-century writer was not writing a polemic against either episcopacy broadly or Roman prerogatives per se. Given that the general theology of the letter registers as conventionally proto-orthodox or “mainstream” and that the author was definitionally elite and obviously well-read in the history of the earliest church, the forger himself was probably not a lone, flamboyant outlier here. Rather, there is a good chance that a decent number of Christians in his world either shared or otherwise found unobjectionable his view of James and the major episcopacies.


In the end, it seems the Newmanian turn will not do here. That is to say, if doctrine develops, then it appears to have been developing in the wrong direction in the mid-200s. This third-century forgery does not attest to a widely shared perspective that somehow anticipates the rather ultramontane ecclesiology of Boniface VIII. Instead, Ps. Clement’s letter to James rather challenges it, or qualifies it beyond recognition. One easily imagines that, had the papal chancellery of 1302 addressed any other prelate of the day with such grand titulature in a letter, Boniface and most other Latin Christians would have been quite put out indeed. But we perhaps get ahead of ourselves here. Just a year after he had officially declared obedience to the Roman pontiff to be a prerequisite for salvation, Boniface narrowly escaped lynching in his own hometown, instigated by the king of France and two deposed cardinals while drawing support from a significant contingent of the locals.[12] Apparently, these actors all had missed the memo.

Andrew Koperski is a doctoral candidate in ancient history at The Ohio State University. His fields of focus include Late Antiquity, Early Christianity, and Byzantium. Much of his current research examines the formation of the biblical canon and the reception of apocryphal literature.

  1. Edmon L. Gallagher, “The Old Testament ‘Apocrypha’ in Jerome’s Canonical Theory,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 20, no. 2 (2012): 213–33.

  2. See the popular-level debate between Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson, Mary: A Catholic Evangelical Debate (Leominster, UK: Gracewing Publishing, 2003), 58–60. Charitably described, Longenecker has marked confidence in the historicity of the Protevangelium’s Vorlagen.

  3. See Jerome’s Contra Helvidium 10 and Augustine’s Contra Faustum 23.9. See also Ambrose’s subtle embarrassment to cite the text directly in De Virginibus 1.3.10: Nam etiam templo Hierosolymis fuisse legimus uirgines deputatas.

  4. Georg Strecker, ed., Die Pseudoklementinen I: Homilien (Berlin: Akad.-Verl, 1992), vii. An accessible translation is available here:

  5. See David Hunter’s assessment of the Protevangelium in Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy in Ancient Christianity: The Jovinianist Controversy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 179, calling it a “novelty” and “oddity” in the second century.

  6. Bronwen Neil, “Rufinus’ Translation of the Epistola Clementis ad Iacobum,” Augustinianum 43, no. 1 (2003): 25–39.


  8. Strecker, 5.

  9. Rufinus’ Latin: Clemens Iacobo domino et episcopo episcoporum, regenti Hebraeorum sanctara ecclesiam Hierosolymis, sed et omnes ecclesias quae ubique dei prouidentia fundatae sunt, cum presbyteris et diaconibus et ceteris omnibus fratribus. pax tibi semper.

  10. The Latin: sed et omnes ecclesias quae ubique dei prouidentia fundatae suntκαὶ τὰς πανταχῆ. The Greek variant: Θεοῦ προνοίᾳ ἱδρυθείσας καλῶς Χριστοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ ἡμῶν ἐκκλησίας.

  11. For the major planks, see Ecclesiastical History 2.1, 2.23, 3.19–20, 4.22.

  12. William Hundelby’s contemporary, pro-papal account of the episode deserves reading in its entirety:


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