Howard Ingham: Unholy Writ

January 2001
Clement recognises some people
Previous Unholy Writs

Comment on this column UNHOLY WRIT is not a column that shrinks from obscurity. This is good, because they don't get more obscure than this month's apocryphal story, which is about Clement, a man who is, in biblical terms, so obscure that he only gets mentioned by way of comparison.

Notwithstanding this, Clement is the narrator of an autobiographical work of staggering length. It's called "The Homilies", and word for word, its 20 books are longer than the whole of the New Testament. Thankfully, there's a shorter version, called "The Recognitions", which is a mere pamphlet in comparison, being only 10 books long, and which includes all the plot details.

The story tells how Clement is converted and introduced to St Peter, who takes Clement on his travels around the world, along with two strapping young men, Niceta and Aquila. Everywhere they go, Peter heals some people and preaches a bit. Then he goes somewhere else, heals some people and preaches a bit, and then...

And that's about it, until Book 8, when Something Happens.

SOMEBODY ASKS Clement why he doesn't have a family, and he tells them the sad story of how, as a boy, he was separated from his mum and his two baby brothers, and how shortly after that, his dad went off somewhere and didn't come back.

At which Niceta and Aquila say, "Funny, that. We got separated from our mum, dad and big brother, too."

As soon as they've finished telling their story, Peter goes out to preach and meets this old lady with a sad story about – you'll never guess – how she lost her family at sea. Peter suddenly twigs, and immediately takes the old lady back to his friends' lodgings. Picture the scene:

Peter: Here, Clem, I've got someone I want you to meet.

Clement: Mum!

Clement's mum: Clement!

Niceta and Aquila: Mum!

Clement's mum: Niceta! Aquila!

Clement: Could it be? Brothers!

Niceta and Aquila: Clem!

So they all realize that they were related all along, and Clement's mother is so pleased she decides to convert to Christianity too.

HUGS ARE EXCHANGED and Peter decides to leave them to it. Who should he run into but an old man called Faustinianus, who has a Sad Story.

Peter, being an apostle and therefore unfazed by anything, says, "Wait here a second, will you?" and goes and gets Clement, who, of course realises that it's his dad. Who decides after a long philosophical discourse with Peter (written down in full) that he's going to be a Christian too.

So they all go home, have an argument with Simon Magus (that happens a lot in apocryphal New Testament books) and live happily ever after.

It turns out that Clement ended up as Peter's successor as Bishop of Rome, and wrote a lot of letters and things. Ironically, the one thing that historians are positive that he didn't write was his autobiography, since references to stuff built in Rome show that it had to have been written at least 10 years after he died. And the content of the long and lengthy sermons show it to have been written by members of an extreme Jewish Christian sect called the Ebionites, who just shoehorned their propaganda into Clement's story to make it more believable.

All of which meant that there was never any question of this one making it into the New Testament canon.

Which is a relief, frankly.

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