The Phoenix and the Early Church

Or, how a mythical bird rose from the ashes and gave wing to some dubious thinking

The image of the mystical phoenix is widely recognized, though perhaps not everyone is familiar with the story behind the bird. Yet the myth of the phoenix was immensely popular throughout the ancient world; even early Christians were quite familiar with it.

Nothing more might need to be said about Christian involvement were it not for the fact that some early churchmen capitalized on the fable’s popularity as they shaped the developing Christian orthodoxy. In what follows we will consider the basis of their teachings about the phoenix: a letter attributed to the man who is purported to have been the earliest of the Roman Catholic Church Fathers, Clement of Rome.

One particular passage in Clement’s writings spawned a set of ideas that on the face of it may seem innocent and even helpful to believers. As is often the case, however, things are not necessarily what they seem to be.

Mysterious Missive

Several writings have been attributed to Clement, though most are believed to be spurious. However, he did leave one epistle that is widely considered to be genuine, a letter to a church in Corinth. It begins by saying that the delay in its sending from Rome was due to “sudden and successive calamitous events,” which appears to be a reference to the persecutions of the emperor Domitian. The date of the message is open to some debate, but if we make the assumption that Domitian’s persecutions ended with the emperor’s death, then it seems likely that it was writtensomewhere around96 C.E.

The letter seems to have been a response to a situation in which some members of the Corinthian church rose up and deposed certain of their elders. Clement’s exhortations to return to former behavior are derived from both the Old Testament and examples drawn from the early church. This places him in an era when the Hebrew Scriptures were still providing definitive instruction for the conduct of the church, rather than being relegated to secondary status as they were by later generations. The letter is also concerned with reinforcing the truth of Jesus Christ’s resurrection and the hope of a future resurrection for human beings.

It is in this regard that we encounter a puzzling passage. In chapter 25, Clement writes: “Let us consider the strange sign which takes place in the East, that is in the districts near Arabia. There is a bird which is called the Phoenix. This is the only one of its kind, and lives 500 years; and when the time of its dissolution in death is at hand, it makes itself a sepulchre of frankincense and myrrh and other spices, and when the time is fulfilled it enters into it and dies. Now, from the corruption of its flesh there springs a worm, which is nourished by the juices of the dead bird, and puts forth wings. Then, when it has become strong, it takes up that sepulchre, in which are the bones of its predecessor, and carries them from the country of Arabia as far as Egypt until it reaches the city called Heliopolis, and in the daylight in the sight of all it flies to the altar of the Sun, places them there, and then starts back to its former home. Then the priests inspect the registers of dates, and they find that it has come at the fulfilment of the 500th year.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia refers to this passage as “curious,” and most today would agree. What Clement actually understood about the existence of the phoenix is hard to know, though the first line of the next chapter suggests that he gave it credence. In itself that isn’t surprising; as noted earlier, the myth was popular and wide-ranging.

Not surprisingly, early Christian writers construed the phoenix as a symbol not only of resurrection in general but also of Christ himself and his resurrection in particular.”

David L. Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (1992)

In order to better grasp the significance of Clement’s use of the phoenix story, we need to uncover some additional background. Let’s first examine the context. The preceding chapter speaks of the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a proof of a future resurrection for all humanity. This is followed by examples from the natural world that suggest to Clement “the resurrection which is at all times taking place”; for example, day and night (“The night falls asleep, and day arises”) and the sowing of seeds (“out of their decay the mightiness of the Master’s providence raises them up, and from being one they increase manifold and bear fruit”). Then comes the story of the phoenix in chapter 25. Clement’s question in all of this is why followers of Jesus Christ should find His resurrection so hard to believe when the creation itself and even the secular world provide imagery relating to resurrection.

But is that all there is to it?

Lineage of a Concept

If the story of the phoenix was well known at the time Clement wrote his letter, where did it come from originally? According to 19th-century British theologian J.B. Lightfoot, “the earliest mention of the phoenix is in Hesiod,” a seventh- or eighth-century-B.C.E. Greek poet. From the Greeks the story passed to the Romans. In 47 C.E., a bird said to be a phoenix was exhibited at Rome, and Lightfoot suggested that the exhibit “may have been seen by Clement.” Although “no one doubted” that this particular bird was a fake, it seems that people nonetheless believed the stories concerning the existence of such a creature.

In 8 C.E., 88 years prior to the likely date of Clement’s letter, the Roman poet Ovid completed his Metamorphoses, an instantly popular work based on Greek mythology. In a section concerning the doctrines of Pythagoras, Ovid wrote of a similar mythical creature. In Ovid’s version, however, the phoenix built its nest in “a lofty swaying palm” before departing to “the Sun’s holy temple” in “the Sun’s great city.”

The palm may have held a combined significance with the phoenix in the pagan world. Dutch historian Roelof van den Broek notes that the ancient Greek word for phoenix sounds the same as the word for palm, a fact from which their classical association “seems to have been determined” (The Myth of the Phoenix According to Classical and Early Christian Traditions). Palms are evergreen, after all, a symbol of perpetual renewal that correlates with the imagery associated with the dying and reborn phoenix. In ancient Greece the palm tree was associated with the sun-god Apollo; his myth suggested that the goddess Leto had given birth to him under a palm. In ancient Assyrian mythology, the tree symbolized the mother goddess Ishtar. The Mesopotamian goddess Inanna, through her marriage to the fertility god Damuzi, was seen as the one who made the harvest of the date palm flourish. And to the Romans, the palm signified the goddess Victory.

Yet another version of the phoenix myth describes the bird combusting in flame, a concept that again links the bird to the sun. The fiery phoenix, just like the sun god, was associated with death and rebirth for the ancient Greeks and Romans.

However, it is specifically to Egypt that Clement’s curious example leads. Clement describes the reborn phoenix as taking its parent’s remains “into Egypt, to the city called Heliopolis.” Heliopolis, or City of the Sun, was located a few miles northeast of modern-day Cairo. Clement, like Ovid, provides the significant piece of information that the bird was supposed to deposit its parent’s remains “on the altar of the sun” for the inspection of the priests. The sun god at Heliopolis was called Atum, a god identified with Ra, who was revered as a creator bringing order out of chaos. Atum is often depicted in human form, seated on a throne, holding a staff and wearing the red and white double crown of Egypt.

The Egyptian sun god was believed to have risen from the chaos-waters as a benu (or bennu) bird at creation, and this lore appears to be the source of the myth of the phoenix. According to the Handbook of Egyptian Mythology, the word benu “probably comes from an Egyptian verb meaning to rise and to shine.” The same source notes that from “the Pyramid Texts onward, the benu bird was closely associated with the creator sun god.” David Fideler suggests that the benu bird was believed to be the “soul of Ra” (Jesus Christ, Sun of God: Ancient Cosmology and Early Christian Symbolism).

A Fable Takes Wing

Having thus been carried from Egypt to the Greek and Roman world, the pagan phoenix-in-the-palm myth—symbolizing a mother goddess and a creator/sun-god consort—was easily absorbed into Christian symbolism and artwork.

Clement was the first non-pagan writer to find new meaning in the myth. In his retelling of it, he specified that the bird’s nest was “of frankincense and myrrh and other spices.” Whether this was a conscious effort to link the myth to Christ’s birth is impossible to say, but later Christian writers similarly limited themselves to naming only these two. Yet numerous spices, most often including cinnamon, are mentioned across various traditions of the phoenix myth. So the fact that two of the Magi’s gifts are among them can have no real symbolic value.

The anonymous author of Physiologus infused these venerable pagan tales with the spirit of Christian moral and mystical teaching, and thereafter they occupied a place of special importance in the symbolism of the Christian world.”

Michael J. Curley, Physiologus: A Medieval Book of Nature Lore (2009)

A century after Clement wrote, Tertullian (an early Latin Church Father) again used the example of the phoenix in connection with resurrection. The story also featured in another piece of writing that appeared about the same time: the Physiologus, a Greek work that described real and mythical animals and outlined their allegorical significance for the developing Christian orthodoxy. Its author added a new detail to the phoenix story—that the bird died and returned to life after three days. “The motif of the three days was inserted into the existing tradition by the author of the Physiologus as a means of bringing out the typological symbolism of the phoenix: the events in the life of the phoenix are meant to reflect those in the life of Christ,” says van den Broek.

Writing a little later, another early Church Father, Origen, also thought the pagan mythological bird might be real (see Contra Celsum 4.98). He spoke of it as an example of the variety and harmony to be found in God’s creation. In the fourth and fifth centuries, Church Fathers including Ambrose, Cyril of Jerusalem and Jerome were still repeating the myth, and some began offering it as a God-given proof of the reality of (Christ’s) resurrection. In the words of Cyril, “God knew men’s unbelief and provided for this purpose a bird, called a Phoenix” (Catechetical Lecture 18). And around the sixth century, an anonymous Coptic preacher wrote a sermon in which he claimed that the phoenix had first been seen at the time of Cain and Abel, and that it was last seen just after Jesus’ birth, “which now indicates to us the resurrection.”

Little by little, Christian writers began to read more into the various references to the strange creature. They noted its uniqueness (“the only one of its kind”) and began to interpret the phoenix of pagan myth not only as a Christian symbol of virgin birth, renovation and resurrection but as a type or allegory of Jesus Christ Himself.

Other aspects of the pagan story have worked their way into Christian literature and iconography as well. For example, the Catholic Encyclopedia records that Origen dubbed the palm tree “the symbol of victory in that war waged by the spirit against the flesh.” This source further asserts, “In this sense it was especially applicable to martyrs, the victors par excellence over the spiritual foes of mankind; hence the frequent occurrence in the Acts of the martyrs of such expressions as ‘he received the palm of martyrdom.’” It’s hard to avoid making a connection between Origen’s words and the Roman view of the palm as a symbol of the pagan goddess Victory.

Van den Broek notes that “in early Christian art the phoenix was often shown on a palm-tree,” symbolizing “the triumph of Life over death.” For example, the Museo di Roma houses a fragment of a 13th-century mosaic from Old St. Peter’s in Rome, which shows the image of a phoenix. The mosaic decorated the basilica’s apse and depicted Christ enthroned with the apostles Peter and Paul on either side. Antonio Iacobini, in an essay titled “Est Haec Sacra Principis Aedes: The Vatican Basilica from Innocent III to Gregory IX,” relates that within the mosaic “the phoenix rested on the palm tree” behind the image of Pope Innocent III.

Van den Broek remarks on early Christians’ ability “to preserve ancient conceptions deeply rooted in Classical culture, adapting them to their new experience of faith and life.” In a sense, none of this should be surprising. After all, members of the dominant Christian sect based in Rome would have been eager to find common ground not only with their own roots but with the pagan masses they hoped to convert.

Still, though the adaptation of the phoenix myth may have appealed to prospective pagan converts, it is at odds with the divinely inspired Scriptures that Christendom claims as its own. The apostle Paul pointed out to a group of listeners in Athens that we shouldn’t think of God in terms of “an image formed by the art and imagination of man” (Acts 17:29, English Standard Version); while the context here is carved idols, the principle surely applies to viewing Christ’s death and resurrection through the characters and story line of a pagan myth.

There is no way to prove that Clement—whatever he may have believed about the existence of the phoenix—intended anything more than to offer a well-known illustration of “resurrection” to point out the disingenuousness of those who rejected the very concept as strange and unknown and on that basis rejected Jesus Christ’s resurrection; yet his use of the mythical phoenix as a “sign” became the basis of a fable about the reincarnation of Jesus Christ as what amounts to the ultimate sun god. It exemplifies the eventually widespread rewriting of “the Christ story” in pagan terminology, a practice known as syncretism.

Clement’s letter provides an interesting historical perspective on the state of Christianity at the end of the first century. His extensive use of the Hebrew Scriptures is in keeping with the early New Testament Church, founded by Jesus Christ and based in the same Hebrew Scriptures—the only ones available to Him and His earliest disciples.

What emerges from this study of Clement’s letter and later forms of Christianity is the progressive reduction of the original teachings of the New Testament Church, founded on the ancient Scriptures, to pagan conceptions. This fact alone severs any meaningful link between what has come to be called Christianity and the teachings of Jesus Christ and the apostles. In departing from a deep appreciation of the Hebrew Scriptures and often borrowing instead from pagan themes, Christianity in fact departed from the founding principles of the New Testament Church.