The phoenix, sometimes referred to as a “firebird,” is a brightly arrayed mythical bird that held powerful symbolism in the ancient world. After a long life, the phoenix was fabled to burn itself to ashes and then rise again to life and renewed youth. Except for a few irregular translations of a verse in Job, the Bible does not mention the phoenix.
In ancient Egypt, the phoenix was associated with the sun and considered a manifestation of deity. In the Greco-Roman world, the phoenix came to symbolize a cyclical view of history in which time was divided into periods. A new phoenix was reborn from its own remains every 540 years as a sign of political, social, and religious renewal.
While the myth of the phoenix is not based in the Bible, the legend surrounding it has been used in both Christianity and Judaism to illustrate biblical truth.
In one Jewish tradition, the phoenix was given eternal life because it resisted the temptation to eat of the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. Some Bible translations mention the phoenix as a symbol of long life in the book of Job: “I thought I would end my days with my family, and be as long-lived as the phoenix” (Job 29:18, Tanakh, 1917). The New Revised Standard Version reads the same way. This particular wording is debated, as the Hebrew word used in Job 29:18, chol, is elsewhere translated “sand.” (The Greek Septuagint translates chol as “palm tree” in Job 29:18.) The idea that Job was speaking of a phoenix comes from a Jewish midrash.
Several early Christian writers drew an analogy between the phoenix and the Christian doctrine of resurrection and life after death. Clement of Rome, a first-century priest and bishop, wrote a letter to the church at Corinth in which he employed the mythological phoenix as an illustration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“De Ave Phoenice” was a widely popular third-century poem by Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius on the spiritual significance of the phoenix. Lactantius’ writings inspired an Anglo-Saxon adaptation of the poem, “The Phoenix,” in which the bird is described as dwelling in a heavenly paradise “where the sun shines with eternal brightness as the place to which the soul ascends and where it is nourished by food reminiscent of the sacraments” (The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Vol. 5, p. 365.).
The sixth-century Coptic text “Sermon on Maria” contains a vivid description of the phoenix. In the sermon, the bird arrives on the scene at critical moments of biblical history, such as when God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The text mentions the death and rebirth of the phoenix, alludes to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and plainly refers to the phoenix as a symbol for the general resurrection from the dead and for life after death.
While most early Christians saw the phoenix primarily as an image of the resurrection, a few also considered the bird’s ability to regenerate symbolic of Christ’s miraculous conception within the virgin Mary.
A different Phoenix mentioned in the Bible is a harbor town on the southern coast of Crete where Paul and his companions were hoping to spend the winter on their way to Rome: “Since the harbor [of Fair Havens] was unsuitable to winter in, the majority decided that we should sail on, hoping to reach Phoenix and winter there. This was a harbor in Crete, facing both southwest and northwest” (Acts 27:12).