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The Clements and the literal Phoenix(es)

September 19, 2012

Yesterday, while many of us were mused by the wife of Jesus, our BLT co-blogger Victoria was elsewhere (at her own blog) giving us her Impressions of First Clement. She makes this wonderful comment:

The most unusual argument here was his appeal to the phoenix as an argument for the resurrection of Christ: he does not seem to discuss it as a legend, but as natural history about this remarkable creature that lived in Arabia. One wonders whether this was one of the reasons this letter didn’t make it into the canon — Richardson notes that other writers of the time were not so credulous of the story of the phoenix. I’m not sure if I wish it had; I can’t help but wonder how that would have shaped the debates over biblical literalism!!

Some years ago, one Taylor Marshall posited where Clement of Rome must have found this whole notion:

Was Clement nuts or was he speaking from a valid tradition?

As it turns out, the tale of the phoenix is actually found in the Bible’s oldest book – the book of Job. Job 29:18 reads,

Then I said: ‘I shall die with my nest, and I shall multiply my days as the phoenix.’

Clement’s idea that the phoenix dies and its nest and the returns for a length of days has its origin here.

The Hebrew translation is debated. The Hebrew word chol is typically translated in one of three different ways:

1. sand
2. phoenix, as in the mythical bird
3. palm tree

Well, now we have to take this mythical bird literally.  Or so it would seem.  We may just want to fast forward from Rome, from the Clement there, to Alexandria, to the Clement of Alexandria.  In the later Clement’s Protrepticus, or Exhortation to Heathen, or literally his προτρεπτικὸς πρὸς Ἕλληνας, or his chiding of the Hellenes, that is, the Greeks, there are these two phrases:

1. τὴν κεφαλὴν τοῦ νεκροῦ φοινικίδι

2. τῶν τὴν Φοινίκην Σύρων κατοικούντων

And if we fast forward from the Hebrew Job to Herodotus’s histories (before we get to the Greek Job invented in Alexandria), then we find not only the Greek historian’s literal allusion to this mythical bird, but we also find a second thing, the river Phoenix:

1. τῷ οὔνομα φοῖνιξ

2. ἔστι δὲ ἄλλος Φοῖνιξ ποταμὸς

Well, this is all Greek to me.  Let’s get it into some English.

Clement of Alexandria wants his readers to know these two things at least:

1. If you wish to inspect the orgies of the Corybantes, then know that, having killed their third brother, they covered the head of the dead body with a purple cloth, crowned it, and carrying it on the point of a spear, buried it under the roots of Olympus.

2. Nor shall I forget the Samians: the Samians, as Euphorion says, reverence the sheep. Nor shall I forget the Syrians, who inhabit Phœnicia, of whom some revere doves, and others fishes, with as excessive veneration as the Eleans do Zeus.

And Herodotus has written to his readers about two things at least:

1. the bird called Phoenix

2. the river by the same name

And all through the Alexandrian Septuagint we find such references, even in the Pentateuch proper.  And into the New Testament (even Luke’s book of Acts) there are Phoenix places (such as that port of Crete, which is still to this very day so named as it was in Acts 27:12).

So part of the confusions is attributable to the ambiguities — in Greek — in this word.  It’s used by Hesiod and by Homer and by Herodotus and by Isocrates and by Plato’s Socrates and by Plato’s student Aristotle and by oh so many Greek playwrights such as Euripides and Aristophanes.  It seems to mean purply-red or reddish purple and appears to have been often associated with peoples living by water, and then of course, with this bird.  Of course, in translation into English and such, there are these confusions.  Here’s the Liddell and Scott entry on the bird word:

φοῖνιξ 1

I. appellat. a purple-red, purple or crimson, because the discovery and earliest use of this colour was ascribed to the Phoenicians, Hom.
2. as adj., ὁ, (also φοίνισσα as fem. in Pind.), red, dark red, of a bay horse, Il.; of red cattle, Pind.; of fire, id=Pind., Eur.:— φοῖνιξ and its derivs. included all dark reds, from crimson to purple, while the brighter shades were denoted by πορφύρεος, ἁλουργής, κόκκινος.
II. the date-palm, palm, Od., Eur., etc.
III. the fabulous bird phoenix, which came from Arabia to Egypt every 500 years, Hdt.:—proverb., φοίνικος ἔτη βιοῦν Luc.
So Clement of Rome’s writing to Korinth from Rome may be non-canonical because of literal beliefs about this mythical date-palm-like bird.  This sort of making problems out of metaphor and allusion in texts as non-Truth is just fascinating.  Thanks Victoria!
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UPDATE:  By the way, just to show how real all this is, here’s a picture of that port Luke writes of in Acts 27:12 –
And here’s the real River Phoenix –
And here’s the real River Phoenix –
But here’s that real troublesome bird –
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