The Phoenix (or: Surprising Things in the Church Fathers)

Re-post from elsewhere in 2007

Phoenix from the Aberdeen Bestiary (12th c.)

One of the things I’m contemplating studying when I grow up is Patristics, which is to say, the study of the Church Fathers, who are the church leaders, bishops, theologians, monks, writers, mystics, and whatnot, from the second through the fifth or sixth century, sometimes even later. As part of this, once Easter came and I was allowed to read books again, I read First Clement.

First Clement is a letter from St. Clement, the third bishop of Rome, on behalf of the Romans to the Corinthians. I found it in an immensely useful book called Early Christian Fathers from the Library of Christian Classics. The book gives a good introduction to the writings of the period, as well as solid introductions to each work, editions of the text, and further reading.

Anyway, one of the interesting bits is Chapter 25:

Let us note the remarkable token which comes from the East, from the neighborhood, that is, of Arabia. There is a bird which is called a phoenix. It is the only one of its kind and lives five hundred years. When the time for its departure and death draws near, it makes a burial nest for itself from frankincense, myrrh, and other spices; and when the time is up, it gets into it and dies. From its decaying flesh a worm is produced, which is nourished by the secretions of the dead creature and grows wings. When it is full-fledged, it takes up the burial nest containing the bones of its predecessor, and manages to carry them all the way from Arabia to the Egyptian city called Heliopolis. And in broad daylight, so that everyone can see, it lights at the altar of the sun and puts them down there, and so starts home again. The priests then look at their dated records and discover it has come after a lapse of five hundred years.

St. Clement concludes, Chapter 26.1:

Shall we, then, imagine that it is something great and surprising if the Creator of the universe raises up those who have served him in holiness and in the assurance born of a good faith, when he uses a mere bird to illustrate the greatness of his promise?

This is not some sort of whacked-out Christian appropriation of a pagan myth. In St. Clement’s mind, this is no myth at all. This is fact. There is a bird called the phoenix, and it operates in the following way. It is part of God’s glorious creation. Just as Jesus uses wheat as a symbol of His death and resurrection, so St. Clement uses the phoenix as a type in nature of the Resurrection.

Nor is it shocking proof of how quickly the Early Church was Hellenised, how its Hebrew roots were lost and subsumed into pagan culture. Clement was a Jew [I think?]. A Jew with a specific adjective: Hellenistic. The phoenix story shows not how Christians had been Hellenised or paganised, but how Jews living outside of Palestine for generations had become part of the culture around them. Clement knew what he was talking about. He knew this story. Sure, he’d never seen one. I’ve never seen a hippopotamus, either.

Apparently, according to footnote 66 on page 56, “Tacitus is more critical toward the legend than Clement (Ann. 6:28).” Other people who wrote about the Phoenix are Hesiod, Herodotus, Ovid, Pliny the Elder.

Does the phoenix come under the classification of cryptozoology? Or is that more for things like the brontosauroi in the Congo, and dragons?

As a thing to close. There is a story, I think it’s even in Athanasius’ Life of Anthony, about St. Anthony [actually, it’s in Jerome’s Life of Paul of Thebes]. One day he was walking to visit this one fellow monk [Paul of Thebes]. Along the way, he met a hippocentaur (that is a centaur with horse bits rather than bull bits) who was seeking the fellow monk as well. Anthony wept at the knowledge that even this creature out there in the desert was seeking knowledge of salvation. I think that’s how the story goes. I’m not going to look it up.

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Pope of the Month: St. Clement of Rome

This month’s pope is St. Clement of Rome, here to console all of you who saw St. Clement of Alexandria as Saint of the Week and were disappointed that he was not your man.

According to tradition, there are two Bishops of Rome between St. Peter and St. Clement, and their names are Linus and Anencletus.

St. Clement was a/the leader of the Church in Rome AD 96, and is most famous for his letter 1 Clement, a sermon attributed to him and transmitted as the letter 2 Clement, and a set of works falsely written under his name, ‘The Clementines’.

He is also famous for having the Roman name ‘Clemens’, because in Philippians 4:13 St. Paul makes mention of someone with such a name, and because the consul Flavius Clemens was executed by Domitian for ‘atheism and Jewish customs’ which sounds a lot like first-century circumlocutions for Christianity. Were these two figures related to our St. Clement, Bishop of Rome? Who knows? Can we ever know?

Not for certain; not with first-century prosopography of little-known Christians.

We can’t really know anything else about him for certain. The Liber Pontificalis says he consecrated some bishops and ordained some priests and deacons, but that presupposes a Late Antique/Early Mediaeval organisation for the fledgling Roman Church. As we explored last month with St. Peter, the episcopacy, let alone papacy, was still developing in this period after the Apostles — the Church’s natural leaders — died.

Indeed, that the episcopate was still a concept under development is amply demonstrated by the fact that the letter we attribute to this man is addressed from the Church at Rome to the Church at Corinth, not from Clement. Corinth seems to have been ruled by a body of presbyteroi whom restless young men had ejected, establishing their own authority instead (today they just go found their own churches instead).

Nevertheless, the Eastern Orthodox Andrew Louth sees no reason to doubt that Clement wrote the text (see the Penguin classics Early Christian Writings), while the Baptist D H Williams sees Clement as an authority figure, a pastor, but the letter as a communal effort (see Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism). Holmes, in the most recent edition/translation of Lightfoot’s edition/translation ofThe Apostolic Fathers, says that the letter displays a unity of style and thought that points to a single author, although it is meant to represent the entire community at Rome. I’ve a feeling Williams would agree.

As noted above, the Corinthian church has fallen into a state of turmoil, with young upstarts supplanting the church body’s leading elders. Clement calls them to harmony and obedience. The call to obedience at first strikes you as the sort of thing you’ll grow accustomed to in reading papal correspondence.

However, the call to harmony seems stronger. Clement calls the Corinthians to not simply be obedient to those in ecclesial authority, but to display kindliness to one another. The obedience is there to serve the homonoia of the Christian community. One is reminded of the many calls throughout the New Testament to be self-sacrificing, mutually submissive, the servant(s) of all, and full of love.

Clement makes his case for harmony through Scripture — i.e. the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament most common in ancient Church) — as he piles up biblical quotation and references one upon the other. He turns to the history of the Church, discussing the recent martyrs as well as Sts. Peter and Paul. And then he gives us classical examples.

These are all historical exempla, narratives and lessons from history used in Classical rhetoric too beef up one’s argument. My favourite is a classical exemplum, that of the phoenix. In discussing proofs of the Resurrection from the natural world, Clement writes:

Let us observe the remarkable sign that is seen in the regions of the east, that is, in the vicinity of Arabia. 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. 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 Heliopolis. 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. The priests then examine the public recoreds of the times, and they find that it has come at the end of the five hundredth year. (Ch. 25, trans. Holmes/Lightfoot)

I shall perhaps remark on the Phoenix and the world of wonders possessed by the ancient and mediaeval mind later. Someday I wish to do deeper research into the relationship between the Fathers and pagan mythology; we spend a lot of time looking at philosophy, but what of these stories which are officially condemned but often, when taken by the Fathers as actual history or natural knowledge, slip their way into their texts? What counted as ‘myth’ to an ancient mind, anyway? I digress.

Besides the fact that we associate the Phoenix with Greek myth, I enjoy its presence here. Clement sees typology and the wisdom of God everywhere, not simply in the Scriptures. All of God’s creation points us to Christ. Let us bow down in worship.

I have little else to say of St. Clement of Rome. May you be encouraged by the writings of this early Church leader, a man who walked the streets of Rome in the age of the Apostles.

Good Books Point to Others

The second great thing about Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (see original post) was the fact that it made me want to read more of the Fathers.  I think this is what most good books about Patristics should do.  Just as a book about the Bible should point us back to the Bible, a book about Homer to Homer, or a book about Tolkien to The Lord of the Rings, so books about the Church Fathers should make us ache, thirst, long, cry out for more.  This book does that.

Chiefly, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers makes me want to read in full a number of the cited texts.  Chief amongst these texts are St. Athanasius’ Orationes contra Arianos, St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ Theological Orations (on Sts. Athanasius and Gregory blowing my mind, read this), St. Augustine’s On the Trinity, St. Cyril of Alexandria’s On the Unity of Christ (I was destined to read this, anyway, given my interest in the Council of Chalcedon), St. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, St. Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church.  Not enough of us read enough of the Fathers, so anything that explains their teaching and whets the appetite for more is worth reading, in my opinion.

If you find yourself wishing to go forth, here are some thoughts:

Online Resources

-The Fathers of the Church at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, including the Ante-Nicene Fathers and both sets of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.  A very valuable resource.

Monachos.net — Orthodoxy through Patristic and monastic study.  This website has many interesting resources from the Eastern perspective.

The Fathers of the Church at New Advent.  Another collection of writings.

-There is a Patristics Bog Carnival roaming around out there, usually at hyperekperissou; this past month it was at The Church of Jesus Christ.

Primary Sources

-It’s probably a good idea, if you’ve read this book, to wrestle through some of the works that feature prominently herein and which you found yourself drawn to.  Thus, for me, I think I should especially read St. Gregory’s Theological Orations, St. Cyril’s On the Unity of Christ, and St. Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church.

-St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God.  This book is short and readable.  It presents some very compelling arguments for the incarnate Word (Jesus) being God, as well as giving the reasons why God chose to become a man.

-St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit.  This is a wonderful book about the work and person of the Holy Spirit.  St. Basil demonstrates that the Spirit is, indeed, God, using both Scripture and tradition, and then he discusses the Holy Spirit’s role in the Christian life.

-Pope St. Leo the Great, Tome to Flavian.  This short work sets forth the doctrine of two-natures Christology, which is the accepted orthodoxy of all Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox.

-The Apostolic Fathers.  These works are individually short.  I have read First Clement, St. Ignatius’ Epistle to the Ephesians, and the First Epistle of Barnabas.  They give us insight into the mind of the first generation of Christian thinkers after the Apostles, something to be valued greatly.

-Other Patristic writings worth starting off with that are not “theological” in the modern, Western sense, but in the sense that holiness can only be embodied and practised:

-St. Athanasius, The Life of St. Antony.

-St. Augustine, The Confessions.

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Secondary Sources

-Drobner, Hubertus.  The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction. Hendrickson, 2007.  This book is a “patrology.”  As an entire book, it is not an introduction to reading the Fathers.  However, it does provide concise introductions to most fathers and periods of early theological thought.

-Oden, Thomas C.  The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity. HarperOne, 2002.  In this book, Oden presents his vision of postmodern Christianity that is rooted in the premodern world of the first five centuries of consensual Christian thought, something he calls “paleo-orthodoxy.”  He believes that a rootedness in the Fathers will root us within the tradition and the Scriptures and reinvigorate the life of the Church.

-Webber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World. Baker Academic, 1999.  This is the first volume of Webber’s “Ancient-Future” series.* Webber makes a similar basic argument as Oden about revitalising the Church for the future through the wisdom of the ancients, but his audience is evangelical whereas Oden’s is mainline.  He begins the task of constructing a Christian worldview and life structured through the wisdom of the Fathers in response to the questions and new perspectives of the postmodern era.

*The others are Ancient-Future Evangelism, Ancient-Future Worship, and Ancient-Future Time.  Lots of people recommend Ancient-Future Worship; I’ve never read it, myself.