2 Clement, Hebrews, And The Metadata Problem Of Homilies

For those who may not be aware, a homily is another word for a sermon that is focused on spiritual edification rather than doctrinal instruction.  Most of the people reading this will probably have listened to many sermon messages that encouraged moral living on the part on their readers and that drew insights from a wide variety of scriptures that fit according to a larger theme in the speaker’s mind.  As someone who both listens to a lot of sermon messages and has spoken relatively frequently in my own religious life thus far, homiletics [1] is a subject that I care about greatly.  When we look at 2 Clement, though, we are looking at one of if not the first example of a homiletic work that survives from the Christian era.  On those grounds alone this would make 2 Clement a significant work, since sermons are not a very popular genre of literature in terms of surviving ancient historical writings.  Even to this day, writing sermons or books of sermons is sufficiently unusual of a matter that those who do so are likely to be at least somewhat eccentric or out of the mainstream.

I do not wish to discuss here the nature of the message of 2 Clement, but rather some of the issues that it faced as a homiletic work.  Since most readers have likely heard many sermons in their lives, I want you to think of what happens if a sermon text is preserved without a great deal of metadata attached to it.  In general, a sermon speaker does not refer to themselves a great deal.  Rather, they speak to cultural or historical or biblical stories and arguments that the listener be familiar with and the speaker is introduced before the message by someone whose job it is to do so.  In the religious tradition I come from, for example, the person giving the sermonette or (split) sermon (all of which have different lengths but are the same sort of rhetorical exercise in small, medium, or large size) is introduced usually by the song leader, who may include some personal information as well as the identity of the speaker.  This information is not generally included in the sermon notes of the speaker.  In 2 Clement we have a case of a written treatise that reads like someone’s sermon transcript but without any information about the author or the date/time the sermon was given.

This is not an unusual problem.  However, we in the modern world deal with this problem through the use of metadata attached to the notes or transcript of a message.  For example, if am looking for the information about a sermon for the church that I attend, I can search a message and the website will tell me who gave the message, where the message was given, and when the message was given, along with the transcript to the message and an audio recording of the message.  If someone wanted to look on my personal blog site for sermonette or sermon messages I have given (all helpfully labeled with the sermonette tag, regardless of their message length), the fact that it is on my website and also labeled with my username as the one posting it clues the reader into the fact that it was I who wrote this message.  Even if one’s messages are aimed at a logos argument of reason, there are quite a few people for whom the ethos aspect of the character and personality of the speaker or writer is of particular interest as well.  And in lacking this information, 2 Clement is not always an easy book to appreciate, since we have to read it without knowing the context about the mind that conceived of the message and sought to arrange it according to some purpose.

It is worthwhile to note here that 2 Clement is not the only ancient work in which this is a problem.  In the book of Hebrews, for example, it is clear that we are dealing with a treatise, but it is a treatise which bears many of the elements of a very skilled homily.  For one, the text lacks the introductory material that we associate with epistles that shows who the letter is from or who it is directed to.  Likewise, aside from a single comment that the author conveys to the readers that Timothy has been freed from prison, the author has written nothing that betrays his own personal identity.  This is metadata that would have been known by the original listeners and/or readers of the message, but they do not remain for us today.  Just as only God knows who wrote Hebrews, only God knows who wrote 2 Clement because both works lack the associated metadata that includes the contextual information of when the message was written by whom and precisely to whom that would be necessary to understand the text better.  At least with 2 Clement we have a strong inference that the message was given to the Church of God at Corinth by someone who was a Gentile believer with scant knowledge and/or interest in the Old Testament and a great deal of interest in using the Gospels (including at least one non-canonical Gospel) in urging his audience to live godly lives.  In the case of Hebrews, the text itself conveys the immensely deep and layered interest of the writer in the Sabbath and in somewhat esoteric aspects of the Psalms as well as the Law given his detailed exegesis of the very phraseology of the verses and passages cited, like Psalm 110 or 95, for example.

When we look at the text of 2 Clement, then, it behooves us to understand that this text is an example of a surviving homily that has survived without information that would tie it to a specific person.  It must be admitted, though, that even if we knew precisely the gentleman (for it was likely a gentleman) who gave the message, we would likely know nothing else about him except for his name because it has not been in the habit then or now for collections of sermons to contain more than the barest amount of biographical information about the speakers of sermons.  Most of the time people are introduced with very short discussions of who they are and perhaps a bit more of an elaboration if one is dealing with an honored guest rather than a familiar local presence, and that was almost certainly the case with 2 Clement as well.  Be that as it may, it is helpful to remember when we are looking at 2 Clement that the reason for the formal anonymity of the text (along with that of the book of Hebrews) is that as the text was not a letter, it lacked an obvious hook for the author to add his own name, since the message was likely originally circulated among people who would have known him and thought highly of him, or else the work would not have been preserved in the first place.  It is we, later readers who have no personal knowledge of the identity of the people whose texts we are reading, that are the poorer for the metadata problems of the ancient world with with regard to treatises and homilies like Hebrews and 2 Clement.  For us, the authors remain unknown and a subject of considerable controversy.

[1] See, for example:







About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 2 Clement, Hebrews, And The Metadata Problem Of Homilies

  1. Pingback: An Introduction To The Apostolic Fathers Series | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: The Character Of The Church | Edge Induced Cohesion

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