Pastors, theologians, and other Christians have written thousands of Bible commentaries throughout the 2,000-year history of the Church. People from all generations, and from all around the world, have used commentaries to study God’s Word, which is a tradition that continues today.
The oldest Bible commentary dates to 96 A.D. Referred to as “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians,” Clement of Rome, a disciple of the Apostle Peter, wrote the letter to address disharmony in the church. In the letter, he comments on Old and New Testament texts.
Who is Clement of Rome and what exactly does his letter say? Does it align with New Testament teaching or contradict it? Keep reading to learn more.
Interested in Bible commentaries? See Best Bible Commentary Series: The Top 50 for more.
Is a letter a commentary?
Historians and theologians have long-considered letters that mention, describe, and explain Scripture to be a type of Bible commentary. Broadly, “Bible commentaries” are pieces of literature that “comment” on biblical texts. Though letters aren’t verse-by-verse commentaries that scholars later in history would write, and are common today, they are still post-biblical explanations of Scripture.
Did you know that there are also different types of Bible commentaries? When people use the term “Bible commentary” is can refer to more than approach to explaining Scripture; for example, there are exegetical commentaries, critical commentaries, technical commentaries, expositional commentaries, and much more.
See What are the Different Types of Bible Commentaries? A Guide for Bible Readers to learn more.
Who was Clement of Rome?
Clement of Rome (died 99 A.D.) was an Apostolic Father. The Apostolic Fathers — not to be confused with the Early Church Fathers — were the first Christian pastors and theologians of the post-New Testament era.
These “fathers,” so-called because they were leaders in the Church, lived in the first and second century. The term the “Early Church Fathers” generally refers to the leading pastors and theologians up until the time of Augustine who died in the early 5th century.
The Apostolic Fathers are called “apostolic” because many of them knew one of the 12 apostles that Christ himself appointed, as recounted in the Gospel narratives. Though the New Testament doesn’t record all the details of the apostles’ ministries, historical records indicate that they ministered by preaching the gospel and making disciples, as Christ instructed.
Early Church Fathers, Origen and Eusebius, wrote that the “Clement” mentioned in Philippians 4:3, was Clement of Rome, though there is no way to verify that:
“Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.”Philippians 4:3 (NIV, emphasis added)
As their earliest letters and sermons show, the apostles discipled men, like Clement of Rome, to lead the Church and teaching God’s Word, which they were faithful at doing.
Some of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers paralleled the last-written New Testament writings. John’s writings (i.e. The Gospel of John, 1-3 John, and Revelation) are conventionally dated to the mid to late 90’s. Clement of Rome’s letter to the church at Corinth is also dated to the mid to late 90’s.
The First Epistle of Clement, which dates to 96 A.D. of the first century, is the oldest Christian writing outside the New Testament itself, making it the oldest Bible commentary. Some historians date the epistle to as early as the 70’s, but that is the minority viewpoint.  Historians consider the letter authentic (see more below). 
In the epistle, Clement comments on Old and New Testament texts, providing the first post-biblical teaching and explanations of Scripture in the history of the Church. Clement comments on books of the Bible, the authors who wrote them, including Paul, and the instructions within them.
The book of the Bible people most want a commentary on is Revelation. See Best Revelation Commentaries to learn more.
Why wasn’t Clement’s letter included in the New Testament?
Only the writings that the apostles themselves produced are in the New Testament. The one exception to this is when a writer was acting as a biographer, like Mark and Luke. Scholars believe the Gospel of Mark is Mark’s record of Peter’s experiences and the book of Acts is partially a record of Paul’s experiences.
Otherwise, even if a writing was considered theologically orthodox, and could even be connected to an apostle, such as through one of their disciples or students, it would not be included in the New Testament. Such a writing may be considered theologically sound, spiritually edifying, and historically accurate, but still not be part of the New Testament.
Is Clement’s letter authentic?
Historians, no matter their theology convictions, consider Clement’s letter authentic. Since there is so much writing from the era of the Apostolic Fathers that isn’t considered authentic, it’s extraordinary that scholars generally agree about the authenticity of this first-century letter. One historian writes,
“Of the authenticity of this epistle there is no doubt. Its author was the Clement mentioned fourth (after Peter, Linus and Anencletus) in the most reliable lists of the Bishops of Rome.”Early Christians Writings. Penguin Publishing Company. p. 19.
What does the letter say?
The context of the letter regards disharmony at the church in Corinth. Paul wrote two letters to the same church, 1 and 2 Corinthians, which shed light on the many problems it had. Apparently, at the time Clement wrote to them, they still had not achieved the harmony Paul desired for them.
Like Paul, Clement is imploring the church to make wise decisions for the health of the body and for effectiveness in proclaiming the gospel. He criticizes the church at length for their improper removal of certain leaders. The letter is approximately the size of the book of Matthew, making it longer than any of Paul’s New Testament epistles.
Clement encourages the Corinthians to read several of Paul’s letters as well as other New Testament books:
- 1-2 Corinthians
- 1 Timothy
- possibly Acts; some of the allusions are too vague to know for sure
- possibly the Gospels; Clement encourages the recipients to remember the words of Jesus
Old and New Testament books are cited as authoritative instructions on the matters under discussion, which is a commentary on the nature of the biblical books.
Whole-Bible commentaries are great resources to use no matter a person’s knowledge of Scripture. See Best Whole Bible Commentaries: The Top 25 to learn more.