Midweek Blog: 1 Clement and the Phoenix?


Well, I am back after a bit of a hiatus. I must apologize to my readers, but my wife and I welcomed our daughter on Mother’s Day, so life has been a bit of a whirlwind lately. I wanted to start a new series of blog posts going through the Apostolic Fathers. I aim to post once per week about a passage or book from the Apostolic Fathers over the next several weeks. As always, if you have any topic you want me to touch on, please let me know and I will give it a go. All the texts come from the Michael Holmes translation, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.

This week’s post examines the book of 1 Clement. This is one of the earliest Christian texts written outside of the Bible. It is a letter from the Church in Rome to the Church in Corinth. Tradition says it was authored by the bishop of Rome, Clement. It takes a typical epistolary format, similar to a lot of the New Testament letters. The author, who for convenience’s sake we will call Clement, discusses many aspects of Christian living in his epistle, including hospitality, which appears to be a favorite of his. However, I want to look at a passage that I have always found fun in 1 Clement: the discussion of the mythical bird, the phoenix.

1 Clement 25 continues the discussion from chapter 24 which looks for signs in nature that allude to the resurrection. For example, Clement points to the “night falling asleep and the day arising” (1 Clem. 24:3) as well as the example of crops: seeds becoming plants which decay and leave seeds behind which become plants anew (24:5). However, in 25:2-5 Clement draws the reader to the phoenix. I quote this passage at length below:

“2 There is a bird that is named the phoenix. This bird, the only one of its species, lives for five hundred years. When the time of its dissolution and death arrives, it makes for itself a coffin-like nest of frankincense and myrrh and the other spices, into which, its time being completed, it enters and dies. 3 But as the flesh decays, a certain worm is born, which is nourished by the juices of the dead bird and eventually grows wings. Then, when it has grown strong, it takes up that coffin-like nest containing the bones of its parent, and carrying them away, it makes its way from the country of Arabia to Egypt, to the city called Hierapolis. 4 There, in broad daylight, in the sight of all, it flies to the altar of the sun and deposits them there, and then it sets out on its return. 5 The priests then examine the public records of the times, and they find that it has come to the end of the five hundredth year.”

People reading this today will look at this passage and after asking, “Does the author actually believe this?” will just assume this is one reason why this isn’t included in our Bibles today (aside from its potentially late date, 90-100 AD, compared to much of the rest of the NT). The author clearly incorporates this image in his epistle with a strong inclination that he believes the phoenix is a real bird. He even further notes in 26:1 that God “shows us-by a bird, no less- the magnificence of his promise.” It is therefore evident that while this could just be a rhetorical construction, the author probably believes that the phoenix is indeed a real bird.

Holmes, in his translation has an interesting note that states, “The story of the phoenix, well known in antiquity, was widely used by early Christian writers; sanction for this usage was found in Ps. 92:12 (LXX 91:13), where in the Greek LXX phoinix meaning ‘palm tree’ was confused with phoinix meaning ‘phoenix bird'” (Holmes, 79-81). Such a “Biblical precedent” for this possibly gave Clement the green light to include it in his epistle. After all, much of 1 Clement describes Biblical heroes and their virtues in order to exhort its audience to right living.

So is this just an instance of a mistake? Does the author show a misreading of Psalm 92? Is the author still holding on to an earlier life in the world of pagan rituals, myths, and stories? The answer may be elusive, but if nothing else, it gives us as readers in the 21st century a glimpse into the first century when Christianity was still co-existing (sometimes in secret and without legal protection) with the Greco-Roman religious system and mythos. While there is much to like about 1 Clement, I actually like Chapter 25 the most for these reasons. What do you think? I’d love to hear your responses to this early Christian text.

One thought on “Midweek Blog: 1 Clement and the Phoenix?

  1. Pingback: A Godly Gladiator: The Martyrdom of Polycarp as a Fragrant Offering | The Historical Christian

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