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.

The next step …

In “This Week in Patristics” for May 30 – June 4, Phil Snider ponders, “It does make me wonder what the next step is, now that we have so many competant introductions.” This is a good question. I, myself, have read a few good introductions of various types, such as Thomas C. Oden’s The Rebirth of Orthodoxy which is a call for mainline Protestants to rediscover the Church Fathers, Christopher A. Hall’s three volumes from IVP, Robert E. Webber’s Ancient-Future Faith, and Boniface Ramsey’s Beginning to Read the Fathers.

One answer, of course (and I’m pretty sure Phil thought of this), is to read more and more of the Fathers. The Age of the Fathers contains an enormous volume of content, much of which is worth reading more than once, spanning the Mediterranean world and beyond, covering a multitude of genres both prose and poetic, and providing wisdom for many different aspects of our lives.

If the bigness of the Patristic world overwhelms you, I recommend working through something like Ramsey’s “Patristic Reading Program” as at the back of Beginning to Read the Fathers. I also recommend, if you’ve read a lot about the Fathers but not much from the Fathers, that you get Henry Chadwick’s translation of St. Augustine’s Confessions, the SVS translation of St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, and the Penguin Classics edition, by Maxwell Staniforth and Andrew Louth, of the Apostolic Fathers called Early Christian Writings. These will give you a variety of different writings from East and West in different genres. You can move on from there based on what you found of interest.

If you are already reading the Fathers but are looking for guides, a good idea is to get a book of essays on Patristic themes. One of my first introductions to the secondary material on the Church Fathers was Ancient and Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-orthodoxy in the 21st Century, ed. Kenneth Tanner and Christopher A. Hall, a collection of essays about patristic themes and the question of orthodoxy in today’s Church. A similar volume, also from IVP, was Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future, a collection of conference papers on Patristic questions and their application to today’s situations.

Another, similar, idea is to find authors of series of books on Patristic questions, such as Robert E. Webber’s series that began with Ancient-Future Faith but also includes Ancient-Future Evangelism and Ancient-Future Worship. These books tend to point you towards others, both primary material and secondary sources, that may interest you.

I have a friend who is a missionary in Cyprus, and because St. John Chrysostom is such a big deal in the Greek Orthodox world, he got his hands on J.N.D. Kelly’s book Goldenmouth. If you are a Jerome enthusiast, Kelly also has Jerome.

Along similar lines to a modern biography/study of an ancient Christian figure is the Routledge series The Early Church Fathers. Who has caught your eye, but the bibliography seems too big? St. Leo? No problem! Or Severus of Antioch? Or Evagrius Ponticus? Or Ambrose of Milan? Or Cyril of Alexandria? Or Athanasius? No problem!

Alternatively, browse through a handbook to see what material there is. I realise that non-specialists with not a lot of time on their hands will be less excited by Daniel Hombergen’s The Second Origenist Controversy than I am, but handbooks also point you less weighty, more readable material along the way; there is Quasten’s multi-volume Patrology as well as Hubertus Drobner’s single-volume The Fathers of the Church. If a book looks like it will kill you from boredom, don’t be ashamed to put it down! The whole point of Patristics is edification and drawing nearer to Christ. We only have so many hours in our lives, so wasting time with boring or excessively long books that will profit us little is not to be recommended.

Finally, why not take your daily Bible readings and the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and read along that way? And if a passage is particularly striking, see if you can find it in context and find more Church Fathers and connexions that way. You will learn more about Scripture at the same time! To save time, for those who use the Revised Common Lectionary, the companion volumes Ancient Christian Devotional (Year A doesn’t specify the year, Year C is out, and I hope to see Year B by Advent) are aligned with the Lectionary. Also interesting may be Hendrickson’s Day by Day with the Early Church Fathers.

This is all for now, but even if you choose a single one of these, you will have taken an important step beyond reading introduction to the Fathers after introduction!