The Legend Of The Phoenix In The Epistle Of 1 Clement

Many contemporaries are aware of the legend of the phoenix.  Fans of the Harry Potter series will note that J.K. Rowling integrated this legend into her novels in a variety of ways, with having both Harry Potter and Tom Riddle (aka Lord Voldemort) having wands with phoenix feathers which happen to be from Albus Dumbledore’s phoenix Fawkes, who plays a pivotal role in several of the novels.  In particular, I would like to draw attention to a time where a young Harry Potter is present in the Headmaster’s office when Fawkes is in one of his regeneration cycles, dying and then being reborn as a baby phoenix.  Surprisingly enough (or not), we find that the legend of the phoenix has a place in ancient literature as well, and in ancient Christian literature no less, in the Epistle of 1 Clement.   Today I would like to discuss how this legend is presented in 1 Clement and what context the legend appears in this work, and what use the author makes of it in his rhetorical appeal.

First, let us note what Clement says about the Phoenix.  The reference seems to come out of the blue close to the middle of the letter, when Clement says:  “Look at that strange portent that occurs in the East (in the neighborhood of Arabia to be precise).  There is a bird known as a Phoenix, which is the only specimen of its kind and has a life of five hundred years.  When the our of its dissolution and death approaches, it makes a nest for itself out of frankincense and myrrh and other fragrant spices, and in the fullness of time it enters into this and expires.  Its decaying flesh breeds a small grub, which is nourished by the moisture of the dead bird and presently grows wings.  This, on reaching full growth, takes up the nest containing the bones of its predecessor and carries them all the way from the land of Arabia into Egypt, to the city called Heliopolis.  There, in the full light of day and before the eyes of all beholders, it flies to the altar of the Sun, deposits them there, and speeds back to its homeland; and when the priests consult their time records, they find that its arrival has marked the completion of the five-hundredth year.  Now, when the Creator of all things has even made use of a bird to disclose the magnitude of His promises to us, need we find it such a great wonder that He has a resurrection in store for those who have served Him in holiness and in the confidence of a sound faith (33-34)?”

What are we to make of this strange reference.  For one, we may note that the image that Clement makes of the Phoenix is not far from that of the Harry Potter portrayal of Fawkes, except that in 1 Clement the “burning day” of a Phoenix only takes place once every 500 years.  Nevertheless, it is possible that 1 Clement was among the sources that J.K. Rawling used to aid in her portrayal of this imaginary bird.  Perhaps it is more worthwhile to wonder where indeed it is that Clement picked up his mistaken information about the bird.  Perhaps Clement was too credulous in accepting what he had read in an ancient bestiary, in fact.  As Clement is among a suite of ancient writers, including Ovid, Herodotus, Pliny the Elder, and Tacitus who make reference to this creature, it is quite possible that Clement simply adopted a reference from the accepted historians and scientists of his day, not realize that such a reference was in fact bogus and that it would be considered an odd if not troubling aspect of his writing that adds nothing to his defense of the biblical doctrine of the resurrection.  Perhaps contemporary writers who sprinkle their writings with references that are state of the art with contemporary scientific myths will find the same thing happens to them as future readers must separate between what is sound and what is unsound in their writings.  We can only hope that in the future references to primordial ooze and chemical evolution and various imaginary missing links between vast gulfs of kingdoms and phyla will be viewed in the same light as Clement’s reference to the phoenix.

Beyond its use in cautioning writers against adopting fashionable scientific language that is sure to become embarrassingly obsolete, this reference may also grant us some insight into some of the symbolic importance of the phoenix to Clement beyond its pseudoscentific nature.  For one, the phoenix is connected with Arabia (where Paul learned of Jesus Christ after his Damascus conversion) and Egypt (which was a home of the Hellenistic beliefs and gnosticism that would greatly imperil Christianity and where the myth of the phoenix may have originally come).  The image of the phoenix dying on a bed of frankincense and myrrh reminds the reader of these spices being given by the wise men of the East to Jesus Christ at his birth, adding to its christological significance.  Indeed, it is quite possible that the significance of the Messiah being called out of Egypt and Israel coming from Egypt added to the mystique of this bird and made it worthwhile to add as an argument for Clement’s thoughts about the resurrection.  After all, before the phoenix is mentioned, Clement’s attention is on building proof for the resurrection, as he mentions:  “Think, my dear friends, how the Lord offers us proof after proof that there is going to be a resurrection, of which He has made Jesus Christ the first fruits by raising Him from the dead (33).”

It is perhaps strange that the congregation of Corinth should need to be reminded of the veracity of the resurrection.  After all, it is no coincidence that Paul wrote some particularly moving words where he too piled proof after proof of the resurrection as follows in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8:  “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve.  After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep.  After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles.  Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.”  Not only this, but by pointing not to an imaginary bird but to (then) living witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Paul then gives some very pointed consequences of the resurrection not being true in verses 12-18:  “Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?  But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen.  And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty.  Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise.  For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen.  And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!  Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.”  It is very striking that even after this powerful discussion of the resurrection that Clement still felt it necessary to convince the Corinthians of the reality of the resurrection decades later, when the ringing of Paul’s rebuke of them in his letters may have still been ringing in their ears.  Even so, Clement found it necessary not only to mention the resurrection [1] but to attempt to bolster the Corinthians’ belief in it by making reference to a legendary bird whose behavior is a picture of death and rebirth.  Too bad the bird is not in existence.

[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.
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4 Responses to The Legend Of The Phoenix In The Epistle Of 1 Clement

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

  2. Pingback: A Lament For Clement | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: S. Clement Of Rome | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: The Last Enemy That Will Be Destroyed Is Death | Edge Induced Cohesion

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