During this frantic, hopping process, I came across 1 Clement, an early Christian epistle believed to be written around the turn of the first century by Pope Clement 1. You can read the text, in full, here.
For the most part it's what you would expect from a church leader writing to a congregation of believers, exhortation, warning, encouragement, and the reiteration of doctrine and practices and the faithfulness of the biblical characters. In the middle of all this, though, there is this nugget:
CHAPTER 25 -- THE PHOENIX AN EMBLEM OF OUR RESURRECTION.
Let us consider that wonderful sign [of the resurrection] which takes place in Eastern lands, that is, in Arabia and the countries round about. There is a certain bird which is called a phoenix. This is the only one of its kind, and lives five hundred years. And when the time of its dissolution draws near that it must die, it builds itself a nest of frankincense, and myrrh, and other spices, into which, when the time is fulfilled, it enters and dies. But as the flesh decays a certain kind of worm is produced, which, being nourished by the juices of the dead bird, brings forth feathers. Then, when it has acquired strength, it takes up that nest in which are the bones of its parent, and bearing these it passes from the land of Arabia into Egypt, to the city called Heliopolis. And, in open day, flying in the sight of all men, it places them on the altar of the sun, and having done this, hastens back to its former abode. The priests then inspect the registers of the dates, and find that it has returned exactly as the five hundredth year was completed.
CHAPTER 26 -- WE SHALL RISE AGAIN, THEN, AS THE SCRIPTURE ALSO TESTIFIES.I was not expecting an early Christian leader to use the phoenix as a proof of God's resurrection power. Clement speaks about the bird as a real, factual, natural example of resurrection. It's intriguing because it is so removed from the Gospel accounts, or even Paul's description of resurrection. Instead of directly appealing to the Resurrection story, or Paul's assurances that 500 people witnessed a resurrected Jesus, Clement is using examples in nature as proofs for the resurrection of Christ and resurrection in general. He discusses the renewal of the sun each day, or the growth of plants from "dead" seeds and ultimately goes on to this final example with the phoenix.
Do we then deem it any great and wonderful thing for the Maker of all things to raise up again those who have piously served Him in the assurance of a good faith, when even by a bird He shows us the mightiness of His power to fulfil His promise? For [the Scripture] says in a certain place, "You shall raise me up, and I shall confess to You;" and again, "I laid down, and slept; I awaked, because You are with me;" and again, Job says, "you shall raise up this flesh of mine, which has suffered all these things."
First, it's interesting to note that Clement doesn't reference the miraculous in any way. He's writing to the Corinthians, a congregation with whom Paul spends a lot of time discussing tongues and healings and miraculous powers. Yet, now, there is no whiff of the supernatural in this letter. The transition is being made from a belief system based on experiential, emotive, supernatural events to a belief system that is moving towards an authoritative, literature-based system. The text's subtle feel places it in a different category than Paul's writings.
I'm not sure what it means. It seems somewhat removed from the immediacy of the apostles even though Clement supposedly was alive when some of the apostles were still alive and is claimed to have been installed by Peter himself, though, as always, there is much uncertainty when it comes to dates and succession during this time period.
Second, it's always disappointing to come across these bizarre examples or reasoning in the founders of the Christian faith. Intellectually, I know that Clement believed that phoenixes were real and he was probably not strange in doing so and it shouldn't bother me. However, it does make the point that many of Christianity's founders were incredibly credulous, maybe no more so than the average person in their culture, but still.....the implications further erode my confidence.
I experienced a similar deflation when reading St. Augustine's Confessions. One of the many pivotal moments he writes about concerns St. Anthony and the book Life of Anthony, which Athanasius wrote. He and his companions are set on fire by the book and its tales of Anthony's battles with demons and the strong, radical faith which caused Anthony to seek a solitary existence in the desert.
Off I went to read Life of Anthony in order to get a better understanding of what was so moving for Augustine and his friends. What I read sounded like the ravings of a schizophrenic experiencing hallucinations. Demons spontaneously appear to Anthony and torment him, not only mentally, but also physically. It's one extreme episode after another.
Discovering this text as a seed of inspiration for Augustine is disturbing. What does it say about his mental state? About what motivates him? About the credulity with which he accepts these tales?
When you find that those who hold such prominent influence over the shaping of Christianity have faulty premises and facts at the inception of their faith, how do you walk with them further down the path and take what they say with unpolluted trust?
Reading the early writings has become an act of torture for me. I'm always finding stuff that I wish wasn't there, and I'm frequently appalled at the influences which guide the influential.