Judean wisdom: Pseudo-Clement on a journey to Peter the Judean sage (third century CE and on)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judean wisdom: Pseudo-Clement on a journey to Peter the Judean sage (third century CE and on),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 22, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=12325.

Ancient author: Pseudo-Clement (second-third centuries, but 406 CE in this Latin translation), Recognitions 1.1-19 (link; link to Latin text of Rufinus’ translation)

Comments: The theme of the young man seeking after wisdom and truth – and trying every local sage or philosophical sect without any luck – is somewhat common. Sometimes that narrative progression or even autobiographical pattern is accompanied with the idea that the young man finds that truth where it is least expected: in some exotic place among the “barbarians.” This can be seen in Thessalos’ journey to Egypt in the ostensibly autobiographical introduction to his medicine manual (link) and it can be seen in the stories of young upper-class men’s journeys in pursuit of wisdom related by Plutarch (link) and Lucian (link), for instance. It was also taken on by Christian authors like Justin Martyr (link coming soon) and the ones who developed tales about Clement’s journeys to wisdom (likely written in Syria in the third century, but based on earlier materials and subsequently reworked).

The Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions were translated from Greek into Latin by Rufinus of Aquileia (around 406 CE), which is the version of Clement’s story used below. The narrative is presented in the form of Clement writing to James, the brother of Jesus, telling his story. Clement is, therefore, the first person narrator of his own life story.

In the early part of the narrative (presented below), Clement outlines how he tried each of the philosophical sects, and even planned to make a trip to Egypt to gain foreign wisdom. It is at this point that Clement encounters in Rome a man named Barnabas from some far off place in the east, Judea, where an extraordinarily wise man, named Peter, was teaching about the true prophet and about true wisdom itself. While most of the Greeks listening to Barnabas in Rome dismiss this “barbarian” knowledge and mock the Judean messenger, Clement sees potential answers to his life-long anxieties about life, death, and, he hopes, immortality. Clement ultimately makes the trip to Judea himself in order to learn the details of this foreign wisdom.

You can read more about journeys in pursuit of foreign wisdom in the following articles: Harland 2011; Harland 2013.

Further resources and bibliography: F. Stanley Jones and Patricia Duncan. “Pseudo-Clementines,” e-Clavis: Christian Apocrypha. Accessed January 11, 2023 (link).


[Clement seeking answers about life and death]

(1.1-19) I, Clement, who was born in the city of Rome, was from my earliest age a lover of chastity. At the same time, my way of thinking held me bound with chains of anxiety and sorrow. For a thought that was in me – I’m not sure where it came from – constantly led me to think of my condition of mortality and to discuss such questions as these: Would I have a life after death or be completely annihilated? Did I exist before I was born? Will I remember this life after my death? So the boundlessness of time will consign all things to oblivion and silence with the result that we will not only cease to exist, but there will be no memory of us ever existing. This also went around in my mind: When was the world made? Or what was before it was made? Or what has existed from eternity? For it seemed certain, that if it had been made, it must be doomed to dissolution. And if it was dissolved, what would happen afterwards? Unless, perhaps, all things will be buried in oblivion and silence, or something will exist which the mind cannot now conceive.

While questions like these were continually going around in my mind without knowing where they came from, I was pining away excessively with grief. What was worse is, if at any time I thought to set aside such worries as being of little use, the waves of anxiety rose all the higher in me. For I had in me that most excellent companion, who would not allow me to rest: the desire for immortality. For, as subsequent developments showed and the favour of almighty God directed, this way of thinking led me to the quest for truth and the acknowledgement of the true light. So it happened that, before long, I felt sorry for those who I had formerly, in my ignorance, believed to be happy.

[Pursuit of wisdom among philosophers]

Therefore, having this way of thinking from my earliest years, the desire for learning something led me to attend the schools of the philosophers. There I saw that nothing else was done except that doctrines were asserted and argued about without end, contests were waged, and the arts of syllogisms and the subtleties of conclusions were discussed. If at any time the doctrine of the immortality of the soul became prominent, I was thankful. If at any time it was questioned, I went away sad. Still, neither doctrine had the power of truth over my heart. The only thing that I understood was that opinions and definitions of things were evaluated as true or false in relation to the talents of those who supported them rather than in accordance with their nature and the truth of the arguments,. And I was all the more tortured in the bottom of my heart, because I was neither able to take on any of those things which were spoken as firmly established, nor was I able to leave aside the desire for inquiry. But, as I have said, the more I tried to neglect and despise them, the more eagerly did a desire of this sort take possession of my heart and mind, creeping in upon me secretly like some kind of pleasure.

[Ongoing internal questions of purpose]

Being therefore held back from discovering things, I said to myself, “Why do we pointlessly labour, since the end of things is clear?” For if after death I will not exist anymore, my present torture is useless. But if I am going to have a life after death, let us keep for that life the excitements that belong to it in case, perhaps, some sadder things happen to me than those which I now suffer, unless I will have lived piously and soberly. Furthermore, according to the opinions of some of the philosophers, I would be consigned to the stream of dark-rolling Phlegethon, or to Tartaros, like Sisyphos and Tityos, and to eternal punishment in the infernal regions, like Ixion and Tantalos. And again I would answer to myself: “But these things are fables, or if it be so, since the matter is in doubt, it is better to live piously.” But again I would think to myself, “How should I restrain myself from the lust of sin, while I am uncertain about the reward of righteousness? This is even more the case when I have no certainty what “righteousness” is, or what is pleasing to God, and when I cannot determine whether the soul is immortal, and is such that it has anything to hope for. Nor do I know what the future will be with certainty. Yet still I cannot rest from thoughts of this sort.”

[Plan to go to Egyptian wise men with Magian skill]

What, then, will I do? This is what I will I do. I will go to Egypt, and I will cultivate the friendship of the revealers of sacred things or prophets who preside at the shrines when I am there. Then I will win over someone with Magian skill (magus) by money, and entreat him, by what they call the necromantic art, to bring me a soul from the infernal regions, as if I were desirous of consulting it about some business. But this will be my consultation: whether the soul is immortal. Now, the proof that the soul is immortal will be beyond doubt, not from what it says, or from what I hear, but from what I see: for seeing the soul with my eyes, I will forever hold the surest conviction of its immortality. And no false words or uncertain things heard will ever be able to disturb the persuasion produced by sight.

However, I related this project to a certain philosopher with whom I was intimate, who counselled me not to try this. he said that, “If the soul would not obey the call of the person with Magian skill, you will live even more hopelessly afterwards, thinking that there is nothing after death while also having tried things that were illegal. If, however, you seem to see anything, what sense of obligation (religio) or what piety can arise for you from illegal and impious things? For they say that transactions of this sort are opposed to the deity, and that God sets himself in opposition to those who trouble souls after their release from the body.” When I heard this, I was indeed hindered in my purpose. Yet I could not at all either lay aside my longing or get rid of the distressing thought.

[Reports about a figure from the east in Judea]

Not to make a long story of it, while I was tossed upon these waves of my thought, a certain report which started in the regions of the east in the reign of Tiberius Caesar gradually reached us. Gaining strength as it passed through every place, like some good message sent from God, it was filling the whole world, and did not allow the divine will to be concealed in silence. For it was spread to every place, announcing that there was a certain person in Judea who, beginning in the springtime, was preaching the kingdom of God to the Judeans. He was saying that anyone that received the message should observe the ordinances of his commandments and his doctrine and that his speech might be believed to be worthy of credit and full of the divine. He was said to perform many mighty works, wonderful signs, and prodigies by his mere word. The result was that, as one having power from God, he made the deaf hear, the blind see, and the lame stand up. He expelled every ailment and all demons from everyone. Yes, that he even raised dead persons who were brought to him, that he cured lepers, looking at them from a distance; and, that there was absolutely nothing which seemed impossible to him. These and other things like this were eventually confirmed, not now by frequent rumours, but by the plain statements of persons coming from those regions. Day by day the truth of the matter was further revealed.

[Barnabas arrives at Rome and meets Clement]

Ultimately, meetings began to be held in various places in the city, the subject was discussed in conversation, and it was a matter of amazement regarding who this might be who had appeared and what message he had brought from God to humanity. Until, about the same year, a certain man, standing in a most crowded place in the city, made a proclamation to the people, saying:

“Listen to me, you citizens of Rome. The son of God is now in the regions of Judea, promising eternal life to every one who will hear him on the condition that the person will control his actions according to the will of one who sent him, even God the Father. So turn from evil things to good things, from temporary things to eternal ones. Acknowledge that there is one God, ruler of heaven and earth, in whose righteous sight you unrighteous people inhabit his world. But if you change your ways and act according to his will, then you will enjoy his unspeakable blessings and rewards, arriving in the world to come and being made immortal.”

Now, the man who spoke these things to the people was from the regions of the east, by people (natio) a Hebrew, by name Barnabas. He said that he himself was one of his [the Judean prophet’s] disciples, and that he was sent for this end, that he should declare these things to those who would hear them. When I heard these things, I began to follow him with the rest of the crowd and to listen to what he had to say. Truly I perceived that rather than using debating skill he expounded with simplicity, and shared without any craft of speech things he had heard from the Son of God, or things he had seen. For he did not confirm his assertions by the force of arguments, but produced, from the people who stood around him, many witnesses of the sayings and marvels which he related.

Now, inasmuch as the people began to assent willingly to the things which were sincerely spoken and to embrace Barnabas’ simple discourse, those who thought they were educated or philosophic began to laugh at the man, and to scoff him, and to throw the grappling-hooks of syllogisms at him, like bullies. But he was not afraid and he regarded their subtleties as mere ravings. So he did not even judge them worthy of an answer, but boldly pursued the subject which he had set before him. Eventually, someone proposed this question to him as he was speaking: “Why is a gnat formed so that, though it is a small creature and has six feet, it still has got wings in addition, whereas an elephant, though it is an immense animal with no wings, has only four feet?” Paying no attention to the question, Barnabas went on with his discourse, which had been interrupted by the badly-timed challenge, only adding this admonition at every interruption:

“We have a responsibility to declare to you the words and the wondrous works of him who has sent us, and to confirm the truth of what we speak. We do so not by artfully devised arguments, but by witnesses produced from among yourselves. For I recognise many standing among you whom I remember to have heard along with us the things which we have heard, and to have seen what we have seen. But you have the choice to receive or to reject the news which we bring to you. For we cannot withhold what we know will be to your advantage because, if we remain silent, woe to us. But if you do not accept what we speak, destruction. I could, in fact, very easily answer your foolish challenges, if you were asking for the sake of learning truth –I mean regarding the difference between a gnat and an elephant. But now it would be absurd to speak to you about these creatures when the very creator and framer of everything is unknown by you.”

[Reaction of the crowd of Greeks in Rome to the “barbarian” message – and Clement’s speech]

When he had spoken like this, everyone in unison and rudely shouted in derision to put him to shame and to silence him, crying out that he was a barbarian and a madman. When I [Clement] saw matters going on in this way and was filled with a certain zeal (but not knowing where it came from) and inflamed with moral enthusiasm, I could not remain silent but cried out boldly:

“Most righteously does almighty God hide his will from you, whom he saw ahead of time would be unworthy of the knowledge about him. This is clear – to those who are really wise – from what you are now doing. For when you see that preachers of the will of God have come among you – because their speech does not demonstrate rhetorical knowledge, but in simple and unpolished language they present to you the divine commands so that everyone who hears may be able to follow and to understand the things that are spoken – you deride the ministers and messengers of your salvation, not knowing that it is the condemnation of you who think yourselves skilful and eloquent that rustic (agrestis) and barbarous men have the knowledge of the truth. Whereas, when the truth has come to you, it is not even received as a guest, while, if your lack of self-control and your lust did not hinder you, the truth should have been received as a citizen and a native. So you are convicted of not being friends of truth and philosophers, but followers of boasting and vain speakers. You think that truth dwells not in simple words, but in ingenious and subtle ones. You produce countless words which do not even have the value of one word. What, then, do you think will happen to you, you crowd of Greeks, if there is to be a judgment of God, as he says? But laugh at this man to your own destruction, and let any one of you who pleases answer me because, in fact, by your barking you even annoy the ears of those who desire to be saved and with your loud shouts you turn aside to the fall of faithlessness the minds that are prepared for faith. What mercy can there be for you who deride and do violence to the messenger of the truth when he offers to you the knowledge of God? Even if he did not bring you truth, you should still welcome and receive him with gratitude because of the kindness of his intentions towards you.”

[Barnabas leaves for Judea to celebrate a festival]

While I was urging these and similar arguments, the bystanders became very excited. Some were moved with pity as if towards a stranger, and approving of my speech in keeping with that feeling. Others who were bad-tempered and rude incited the anger of their undisciplined minds equally against me as against Barnabas. But as the day was declining to evening, I took Barnabas’ right hand and led him away, although reluctantly, to my house. I made him remain there in case, by chance, anyone from the rude mob would seize him. While we were relating for a few days in this way, I gladly heard him talking about the word of truth. Yet he sped up his departure, saying that he must make sure to celebrate a festival in Judea which was approaching, and that he would remain there in the future with his countrymen and his brothers, evidently indicating that he was horrified by the wrong that had been done to him.

Lastly, I said to him: “Only explain to me the doctrine of that man who you say has appeared. I will arrange your sayings in my language, and will preach the kingdom and righteousness of almighty God. After that, if you want, I will even sail along with you, because I am extremely eager to see Judea, and perhaps I will remain with you always.” He replied: “If, in fact, you wish to see our country and to learn those things which you desire, set sail with me right now. Or, if there is anything that detains you now, I will leave with you directions to my home, so that when you choose to come you may easily find me. For tomorrow I will leave on my journey.” When I saw him determined, I went down with him to the harbour, and carefully took from him the directions which he gave me to find his home. I told him that, except for the necessity of collecting some money which was due to me, I would not at all delay, but that I would quickly follow him. Having told him this, I commended him to the kindness of those who were in charge of the ship and returned sad. I was possessed of the memory of the interaction which I had had with an excellent guest and a great friend.

[Clement follows after Barnabas to Judea and meets the Judean wise man Peter]

After staying for a few days and finishing some of the business of collecting what was owed to me (for I neglected many things through my desire to hurry, that I might not be hindered from my purpose), I set sail directly for Judea. After fifteen days, I landed at Caesarea Stratonis, which is the largest city in Palestine. When I had landed and was looking for an inn, I learned from people’s conversation that one Peter – a most approved disciple of him who appeared in Judea, and showed many signs and miracles divinely performed among men – was going to hold a discussion of words and questions the next day with one Simon, a Samaritan. Having heard this, I asked to be shown his lodging. Having found it, and standing before the door, I informed the doorkeeper who I was and where I came from. Barnabas came out as soon as he saw me and rushed into my arms, crying for joy. Grabbing me by the hand, led me in to Peter. Having pointed him out to me at a distance, he said: “This is Peter about whom I spoke to you as being the greatest in the wisdom of God, and to whom also I have spoken constantly about you. Enter, therefore, as one well known to him. For he is well acquainted with all the good that is in you and he has carefully made himself aware of your devout purpose, and he really wants to see you because of this. Therefore I present you to him today as a great gift. At the same time, presenting me.” He said, “Peter, this is Clement!”

[Peter’s speech]

But when Peter heard my name, he most kindly and immediately ran to me and kissed me. Then, having made me sit down, he said:

“You did the right thing in receiving as your guest Barnabas, preacher of the truth, and not fearing the rage of the insane people. You will be blessed. For as you have considered as worthy of honour an ambassador of the truth [i.e. Peter], so the truth herself will receive you as a wanderer and a stranger and will enroll you a citizen of her own city. Then there will be great joy to you, because, imparting a small favour, you will be written down as heir of eternal blessings. Now, therefore, do not trouble yourself to explain your mind to me, because Barnabas has accurately informed me regarding everything about you and your dispositions, almost daily and without ceasing, recalling the memory of your good qualities. I want to point out to you shortly, as to a friend already of one mind with us, what is your best course: if there is nothing hindering you, come along with us and hear the word of the truth, which we are going to speak in every place until we even arrive at the city of Rome. Now, if you want anything, speak.”

[Clement’s explanation of his experiences]

Having detailed to him what purpose I had conceived from the beginning, and how I had been distracted with pointless inquiries, and all those things which at first I intimated to you, my lord James, so that I need not repeat the same things now, I willingly agreed to travel with him. For, I said:

“that was what I was most eager to do. But first I wanted the overall plan of truth to be explained to me so that I would know whether the soul is mortal or immortal. If immortal, whether it will be brought into judgment for those things which it does here. Further, I desire to know what form of righteousness is pleasing to God. Then, furthermore, whether the world was created and why it was created. Whether the world is to be dissolved, and whether it is to be renovated and made better, or whether after this there will be no world at all. Not to mention everything here, but I wanted to be told what is the case with respect to these and other similar things.”

[Truth explained in more detail by the wise man Peter]

To this Peter answered:

“I will briefly impart to you the knowledge of these things, Clement. So listen. 15 The will and counsel of God has for many reasons been concealed from humanity. First it was concealed through bad instruction, wicked associations, evil habits, unprofitable conversation, and unrighteous assumptions. On account of all these things, I say, first error, then contempt, then untrustworthiness and hatred, covetousness, and pointless boasting, and other similar evils have filled the whole house of this world, like some enormous smoke. This has prevented those who live in it from accurately seeing its founder and from perceiving what pleases to the founder. What, then, is an appropriate response from those within this world except to cry for his help from their inmost hearts, to cry for help from the one who is the only one not trapped in the smoke-filled house, asking that he would approach and open the door of the house so that the smoke may be dissipated which is within and the light of the sun which shines outside may be let in.”

[Peter explains about the true prophet]

“So the one whose help is needed for the house filled with the darkness of ignorance and the smoke of vices, is the one, we say, who is called the ‘true prophet.’ Only he can enlighten the souls of men, so that with their eyes they may plainly see the safe way. For otherwise it is impossible to get knowledge of divine and eternal things, unless one learns of that true prophet. This is because, as you yourself said a little while ago, belief in things and the opinions about causes are evaluated in proportion to the talents of their advocates. So, also, one and the same cause is at one point thought just and, at another, unjust; what now seemed true soon becomes false on the assertion of some other person. For this reason, the cause of devotion and piety demanded the presence of the true prophet, so that he himself might tell us regarding each particular thing how the truth stands and might teach us how we are to believe concerning each thing. And therefore, before all else, the credentials of the prophet himself must be examined with great care. Once you have ascertained that he is a prophet, you are responsible from then on to believe him in everything, and not further to discuss the particulars which he teaches. Rather, you are to maintain the things which he speaks as certain and sacred. These are things which, although they seem to be received by faith, are believed on the ground of the probation previously instituted. For once the truth of the prophet is at the outset established on examination, the rest is to be heard and held on the ground of the faith by which it is already established that he is a teacher of truth. And as it is certain that all things which pertain to divine knowledge should be held in keeping with the rule of truth. So it is beyond doubt that the truth can be known from no one but the true prophet.”

[Clement composes a book summarizing about the true prophet]

Having spoken in this way, Peter presented to me [Clement] so openly and so clearly who that prophet was, and how he might be found, that I seemed to have before my eyes and to handle with my hand, the evidence which he produced concerning the prophetic truth. I was struck with intense astonishment how a person does not see, even though placed before one’s eyes, those things which everyone is seeking after. By his command and summarizing in order what he had spoken to me, I compiled a book concerning the true prophet and sent it to you [James] from Caesarea by his command. For he [Peter] said that he had received a command from you [James] to send you every year an account of his sayings and doings.

Meanwhile, at the beginning of his discourse which he delivered to me the first day, when he had instructed me very fully concerning the true prophet, and very many things besides, he added also this. Peter said:

“For the future, be present at the discussions I will hold with those who contradict, whenever any a necessity arises. When I dispute with them, even if seem to be losing the argument, I will not be afraid that you will be led to doubt those things which I have said to you, because, even if I will seem to be beaten, yet those things will not therefore seem to be uncertain which the true prophet has delivered to us. Yet I hope that we will not be overcome in disputations either, if only our hearers are reasonable and friends of truth. These are hearers who can discern the force and bearing of words and recognise what discourse comes from rhetorical skill, not containing truth, but an image of truth. These are hearers who can discern what the truth is, which, uttered simply and without skill, depends for all its power not on show and ornament, but on truth and reason.”

To this I [Clement] answered:

“I give thanks to God almighty, because I have been instructed as I wished and desired. No matter what, you may depend upon me so far that I can never come to doubt those things which I have learned from you. So much so that even if you yourself would at any time wish to transfer my faith from the true prophet, you would not be able because I have drunk in with all my heart what you have spoken. And that you may not think that I am promising you a great thing when I say that I cannot be moved away from this faith, it is a certainty to me that whoever has received this account of the true prophet can never so much as doubt of its truth afterwards. And therefore I am confident with respect to this heaven-taught doctrine, in which all the art of malice is overcome. For in opposition to this prophecy neither any skill can stand, nor the subtleties of sophisms and syllogism. Rather, every one who hears of the true prophet must by necessity long instantly for the truth itself, nor will he afterwards, under pretext of seeking the truth, endure diverse errors. So, my lord Peter, do not be anxious about me anymore, as if I was a person who does not know what he has received, and how great a gift has been conferred on him. Be assured that you have conferred a favour on one who knows and understands its value. Nor can I be easily deceived on that account, because I seem to have gotten quickly what I long desired. For it may be that a person who desires something gets it quickly, while another person does not even slowly gain the things which he desires.”

Then Peter, when he heard me speak in this way, said:

“I give thanks to my God, both for your salvation and for my own peace, because I am greatly delighted to see that you have understood what is the greatness of the prophetic virtue, and because, as you say, not even I myself, if I would wish it – God forbid! – would be able to turn you away to another faith. From now on, begin to be with us and tomorrow be present at our discussions, for I am to have a contest with Simon the Magian (Magus).

When he had spoken like this, he retired to take food along with his friends. But he ordered me to eat by myself and, after the meal, when he had sung praise to God and given thanks, he rendered to me an account of this proceeding, and added, “May the Lord grant to you to be made like us in everything so that, receiving baptism, you may be able to meet with us at the same table.” Having spoken in this way, he ordered me to go to rest, for by this time both fatigue and the time of the day called to sleep. . . [remainder of Clement’s adventures omitted].


Source of the translation: T. Smith, “The Recognitions of Clement,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, Volume 8, eds. J. Donaldson and A. Roberts (Buffalo: The Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1916), 75-211, public domain, adapted and modernized by Harland.

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