A minor adventure has been at work in my mind some while, it first arose some years back but has arisen again as I have read and studied more avidly a certain, ancient document.
After studying Paul’s two letters to the church in Corinth I remembered a third letter that was written to them, not by Paul, but nevertheless by one known and commended by Paul. In Philippians 4 v 3 he mentions a fellow labourer Clement whose name with others are ‘in the book of life’.
From the years 89 to 98 this Clement, not to be confused with others by that name, was bishop of Rome. Representing the hierarchy of the church he wrote to the church in Corinth a long and beautiful letter, which Eusebius endorses:
‘There is extant an epistle of this Clement which is acknowledged to be genuine and is of considerable length and of remarkable merit. He wrote it in the name of the church of Rome to the church of Corinth, when a sedition had arisen in the latter church. We know that this epistle also has been publicly used in a great many churches both in former times and in our own. And of the fact that a sedition did take place in the church of Corinth at the time referred to Hegesippus is a trustworthy witness.’(Book 3 History of the Church)
Clement wrote the letter when persecution in Rome, under the emperor Domitian, was particularly severe. One theme of the letter which Paul also wrote extensively about in his first epistle to the Corinthians is the subject of the resurrection. The subject of truth and myth is highlighted when Clement uses what he understands as truth to give credibility to the resurrection, but the allegory he uses is now categorically in the library of myths! Are you curious? I hope so, for here are Clements words which I find powerfully edifying:
'1Clem 24:2 - 26:1
Let us behold, dearly beloved, the resurrection which happeneth at its proper season.
Day and night show unto us the resurrection. The night falleth asleep, and day ariseth; the day departeth, and night cometh on.
Let us mark the fruits, how and in what manner the sowing taketh place.
The sower goeth forth and casteth into the earth each of the seeds; and these falling into the earth dry and bare decay: then out of their decay the mightiness of the Master's providence raiseth them up, and from being one they increase manifold and bear fruit.
Let us consider the marvelous sign which is seen in the regions of the east, that is, in the parts about Arabia.
There is a bird, which is named the phoenix. This, being the only one of its kind, liveth for five hundred years; and when it hath now reached the time of its dissolution that it should die, it maketh for itself a coffin of frankincense and myrrh and the other spices, into the which in the fullness of time it entereth, and so it dieth. But, as the flesh rotteth, a certain worm is engendered, which is nurtured from the moisture of the dead creature and putteth forth wings. Then, when it is grown lusty, it taketh up that coffin where are the bones of its parent, and carrying them journeyeth from the country of Arabia even unto Egypt, to the place called the City of the Sun; and in the daytime in the sight of all, flying to the altar of the Sun, it layeth them thereupon; and this done, it setteth forth to return. So the priests examine the registers of the times, and they find that it hath come when the five hundredth year is completed.
Do we then think it to be a great and marvelous thing, if the Creator of the universe shall bring about the resurrection of them that have served Him with holiness in the assurance of a good faith, seeing that He showeth to us even by a bird the magnificence of His promise?'
The Phoenix has inspired and continues to inspire: from artist to heating engineers!
When a phenomena occurs only once in 500 years, documentary evidence is unlikely to be reliable. But in Clements day there was a great deal of documentation we no longer have. Who is to say that the phoenix was not a real bird? Interestingly another mythical beast is mentioned nine times in the Old Testament, namely the Unicorn, are those references to be doubted?
In Clements letter it does not explicitly mention fire. In a Coptic sermon dated the 6th century however more detail is given regarding the appearances of the phoenix and its life cycle. For those familiar with the book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price the opening paragraph will be of particular interest:
Further, every 500 years the Phoenix, this great bird, comes flying in the height and it goes into the temple and places itself on the altar where they sacrifice. It goes first to Paradise and takes three twigs from the fragrant trees and lays them on the altar. Then fire comes from heaven and consumes the fragrant twigs and the body of the bird. After three days however there appears a small worm; then it becomes covered with feathers and assumes its former shape. This bird indicates to us the resurrection of the Lord. Just as the bee eats the flowers of the field which are wax to it, so too the Phoenix lives on the dew of heaven and the flowers of the trees of Lebanon.
At the time now that God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt by the hand of Moses, the Phoenix showed itself on the temple of On, the city of the sun. According to the number of its years it was its tenth time since its genesis after the sacrifice of Abel that it made sacrifice of itself: in this year now the Son of God was born in Bethlehem. And on the day that the priest Zechariah was killed, they installed the priest Simeon in his place and the Phoenix burned itself on the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem. On the eighth day after the holy Virgin had brought forth our Saviour, she took him with Joseph to the temple in order to make sacrifice for him as firstborn, and he was named Jesus. From that moment now no one has ever seen that bird to this day. Our fathers have born witness: God shames the idol worshippers on the day of judgement because of this bird which after three days lives and assumes its former shape. This bird now indicates to us the resurrection.’ (The Myth of the Phoenix R Van Den Broek)
The above quotation and translation is from fragments of ancient documents so no great reliance on its accuracy should be made, however, the bones of the myth of the Phoenix was once not myth at all, but truth that could be used to support faith in God. When it comes to the natural world almost anything can be believed, the life cycle of the Phoenix bird, perhaps, could be given the benefit of the doubt.
‘Joy has come to the whole world because of the birth of Christ. For the blood of Abel cries from the day that Cain killed him to the blood of Zechariah and the young Adam, when He expelled him from Paradise:
“You shall not be able to enter this place in the flesh that has transgressed, unless you are born from water and the Holy Spirit”.
For the sake now of Christ, whom the Virgin brought forth from the Holy Spirit, He has opened the gates of Paradise; He has brought there the souls of the children of men and the soul of Abel, so that his blood became silent.
At the time that Abel made sacrifice God had more regard for his sacrifice than for that of wicked Cain’s. There is a bird called the Phoenix, this bird, when fire came from heaven and consumed the sacrifice of Abel the righteous, the fire of that sacrifice also now consumed that bird at the same time and reduced it to ashes. On the third day a small worm came out of the ashes of the bird. It grew little by little until it was covered with feathers and has again assumed its former shape.