The Phoenix in Rabbinic Literature
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The Phoenix in Rabbinic LiteratureAuthor(s): M. R. NiehoffSource: The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 89, No. 3 (Jul., 1996), pp. 245-265Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Harvard Divinity SchoolStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1510046 .Accessed: 10/11/2014 08:24
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lthe Phoenix in Rabbinic Literature*
M. R. Niehoff The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
g ontact between cultures is a complex phenomenon that often involves \_accepting foreign ideas until these become new ways of self-expres- sion. The case of the phoenix is of special interest in this respect, because in antiquity it was associated with the sun temple at Heliopolis and miracu- lous forms of rebirth.1 The phoenix motif also appears in a variety of early Jewish and Christian writings, thus allowing for a comparative appreciation of its rabbinic reception. In light of these other intercultural encounters, it becomes clear that the rabbis were familiar with the details of the Helle- nistic phoenix myths,2 and not only adapted the story to their own values
*I delivered an earlier version of this essay at the Institut fur Judaistik at the Freie Universitat Berlin (May 1995, at the invitation of Prof. Peter Schafer), at the Institutum Judaicum at the University of Tubingen (December 1995, at the invitation of Prof. Martin Hengel and Prof. Herman Lichtenberger) and at the Agyptologisches Institut at the University of Heidelberg (December 1995, at the invitation of Prof. Jan Assmann). I thank all those who attended for the stimulating discussions. I also wish to thank Professors Michael Fishbane, Moshe Idel, and Yehuda Liebes for their helpful comments on a draft of this paper.
IFor a survey of the ancient sources, see R. van den Broek, The Myth of the Phoenix According to Classical and Early Christian Sources (Leiden: Brill, 1972).
2Saul Lieberman established the notion of rabbinic receptiveness to Hellenism for this century, thus reviving a concept that had been generally accepted in the nineteenth century. See esp. Saul Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1950); idem, Greek in Jewish Palestine (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1942); and more recently also Z. W. Harvey, "Rabbinic Attitudes Toward Philosophy," in Herman G. Blumberg, et al., eds., "Open Thou Mine Eyes. . . " Essays on Aggadah and Judaica Presented to Rabbi William G. Braude on His Eightieth Birthday and Dedicated to His Memory (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1992) 83-101.
HTR 89:3 (1996) 245-65
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246 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
but even enhanced its mythological dimension. In this way, the rabbis con- tinued the Hellenistic practice of reactivating an ancient Egyptian myth.3 In contrast to the symbolic approach of early Christianity, the rabbis charac- teristically chose to accommodate the phoenix on a literal level, interpret- ing it mythopoeically, that is, by creating myth. Their interpretation of the phoenix moreover illuminates important, yet hitherto unnoticed aspects of rabbinic mythology.
The nature and significance of these rabbinic interpretations emerge especially clearly in light of early Christian reactions toward the phoenix.4 While Jews and Christians engaged in reciprocal controversies on such subjects as the Song of Songs and the Akeda,s the two communities parted ways regarding the phoenix. The church fathers interpreted the pagan myth as a symbol of the dogma of Jesus' resurrection, while the rabbis accepted the Hellenistic stories in their literal sense and numbered the phoenix among other primordial monsters. The rabbis, moreover, enhanced the ontological status of the myth by refusing to confine the phoenix to Urzeit and eschaton and insisting that he is rather a part of their own life experience. Indeed, the rabbis' own inclination toward mythical thinking shaped their reception of the Hellenistic phoenix motifs.
In order to appreciate properly the rabbinic interpretations of the phoe- nix, it is initially necessary to clarify the notion of rabbinic mythology. I shall subsequently outline the early Christian interpretations of the phoenix and then examine the rabbinic sources, focusing especially on two herme- neutic moments: the initial adaptation of the phoenix story to a specifically Jewish framework and the secondary reinvestment of the story with mytho- logical force. This transformation of a Hellenistic myth into a rabbinic myth illuminates important aspects of rabbinic mythopoesis, which differs from the type of mythology found in scripture.
1111 Rabbinic Myth Modern scholarship has from its inception in the late eighteenth century
been fascinated with the question of myth in Judaism,6 initially from the
3Hans Blumenberg called this type of myth "art myth"; see Hans Blumenberg, Work on Myth (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985) 174-214.
4Compare Dan Pagis, who deals in his study of the phoenix with a variety of rabbinic sources. He focuses, however, on such late and unusual works as the Alphabet of Ben Sira and Genesis Rabbati and evaluates rabbinic sources as an expression of the same, mostly symbolic idea found in Christian and modern literature. Dan Pagis, "The Bird of Immortality: The Motif of the Phoenix in the Midrash and the Aggadah," in The Hebrew Gymnasium in Jerusalem: Jubilee Book (Jerusalem: The Association of the Friends of the Hebrew Gymnasium in Jerusa- lem,l962) 74-90 [Hebrew].
sSee esp. Reuven Kimelman, "Rabbi Yochanan and Origen on the Song of Songs: A Third Century Jewish-Christian Disputation" HTR 73 (1980) 567-95; and Alan F. Segal, The Other Judaisms of Late Antiquity (Providence: Brown University Press, 1987) 109-30.
6Johann Gottfried Eichhorn introduced the notion of the myth to the academic study of the Hebrew Bible. Relying on Heyne's psychological-phenomenological investigations into clas-
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M . R . N I EHOFF 247
point of view of the Bible and more recently from that of kabbalah.7 Both of these fields seemed, at least in the eyes of some beholders, to contain obviously mythological material. Scholars, however, often excluded rab- binic sources from the discussion of myth in Judaism. Even the more Romantic treatments of aggadah in the nineteenth century tended to define rabbinic stories as "saga" and "legend" but not as myth.8 In the second half of the nineteenth century, Max Grunbaum and to some extent also Ignac Goldziher explored new avenues for the research of rabbinic aggadah. Both defined aggadah as a particularly rich form of mythology that revives sto- ries suppressed by the biblical narrators.9 The achievements of these two scholars, however, have not received sufficient acknowledgment. Rational- istic approaches to rabbinic aggadah prevailed instead in the twentieth century.
The notion of rabbinic mythology has resurfaced in recent scholarship. It is perhaps not surprising that its main proponents, Michael Fishbane and Yehuda Liebes, have been trained in the respective fields of Bible and kabbalah. Approaching rabbinic aggadah from these comparative perspec- tives, both scholars have made important contributions that deserve closer consideration.
Liebes demonstrated the importance and continuity of myth throughout Judaism.l He understood myth as a sacred story about the deity and high- lighted the affinity between kabbalistic and rabbinic myth, regarding the latter as a less systematic predecessor of the former. For Liebes, the most significant development from biblical to kabbalistic myth is an increasing internalization of divine activity: whereas biblical myth depicts God in fights with external forces such as the monster leviathan, rabbinic and especially kabbalistic myth projects such confrontations increasingly into God's inner life. The rabbinic sources mark an intermediate stage of this ongoing process and constitute a significant step toward the full emergence of the kabbalistic notion of the ten sefirot or emanations of God. Liebes's
sical mythology, he defined myth as a story with a historical kernel that expresses the primi- tive worldview of ancient peoples. See esp. his seminal study of Genesis: D. Johann Philipp Gabler, ed., Johann Gotttried Eichhorns Urgeschichte (Altdorf and Nurnberg: Monath & Kussler,1793). See also Christian Hartlich and Walter Sachs, Der Ursprung des MythosbegrifOfes in der modernen Bibelwissenschaft (Tubingen: Mohr, 1952).
7See esp. Gershom Scholem, "Kabbala und Mythos," in idem, Zur Kabbala und ihrer Symbolik (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1981) 117-58.
8See M. R. Niehoff, "Zunz's Concept of Aggadah as an Expression of Jewish Spirituality," Tarbi; 64 (1995) 423-59 [Hebrew] (the English version is forthcoming in Leo BaeckInstitute Yearbook).
9Max Grunbaum, Beitrage zur vergleichenden Mythologie aus der Haggadah, in idem, Gesammelte Aufsatt.e tur Sprach-und Sagenkunde (ed. Felix Perles; Berlin: Calvary, 1901) 1- 237. See also Ignac Goldziher's youthful and somewhat fantastic book Mythology among the Hebrews (1877; New York: Cooper Square, 1967).
tSee esp. Yehuda Liebes, "Der Natura Dei: On the Development of the Jewish Myth," in idem, Studies in Jewish Myth and Jewish Messianism (New York: SUNY Press, 1993) 1-64.
248 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
discussion naturally focuses on mythologoumena which are relevant to later kabbalah. His work deserves continuation with a view to types of myth that are specifically characteristic of rabbinic aggadah.
Fishbane, meanwhile, examined the nature of rabbinic mythopoesis in the context of biblical exegesis.ll Highlighting the hermeneutical dynamics of midrash, he showed how midrash often invests earlier texts with a mytho- logical dimension. He also investigated the mythopoeic interplay between exegesis and its nontextual inspiration, such as fearsome events in nature, and demonstrated the occurrence of the reverse process of domesticating original nature myths in the rabbinic framework. 12 Two converse hermeneutics thus emerge, and it becomes clear that, while the rabbis often mythologize the biblical texts, certain tensions might arise between tradi- tional rabbinic values and nature myths.
Rabbinic aggadah contributes to Jewish mythopoesis in a variety of ways. The rabbis initially continue the biblical type of myth stories depict God as an all-too-human figure subject to both external limitations and internal conflicts,63 enriching God's personality with specifically postbiblical fea- tures. The rabbis thus attribute to God deep sorrow, a sense of shame and humiliation in face of the destruction of his temple,64 as well as humor, when generously agreeing to the rabbis' blunt appropriation of his Bible.15 Rabbinic sources enhance the notion of divine struggle against competing forces including, for example, the mythological dimension of the biblical verse regarding humanity's creation in the image of God. 16 Taking the plural expression ';let us make man in our image and in our likeness" as a reference to a controversy with his heavenly entourage, the rabbis depict
l ISee esp. Michael Fishbane, "'The Holy One Sits and Roars': Mythopoesis and the Mid- rashic Imagination," in idem, ed., The Midrashic Imagination: Jewish Exegesis, Thought and History (New York: SUNY Press, 1993) 60-77; idem, "Arm of the Lord: Biblical Myth, Rabbinic Midrash and the Mystery of History," in Samuel E. Balentine and John Barton, eds., Language, Theology, and the Bible: Essays in Honour of James Barr (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994) 271-92; Michael Fishbane, "The 'Measures' of God's Glory in the Ancient Midrash" in Ithamar Gruenwald, et al., eds., Messiah and Christos. Studies in the Jewish Origins of Chris- tianity Presented to David Flusser on the Occasion of His Seventy-Fifth Birthday (Tubingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1993) 53-74.
See esp. Fishbane, "'The Holy One Sits,"' 62-66. I3See also David Stern, "Imitatio Hominis: Anthropomorphism and the Character(s) of
God," Prooftexts 12 (1992) 151 -74. Stern stresses the prevalence of anthropomorphism in the rabbinic sources and rightly interprets this phenomenon as an indication of the r2bbis' posi- tive, prephilosophical attitude toward anthropomorphism. Stern nevertheless betrays a ratio- nalistic tendency when separating the issue of anthropomorphism from mythology and insisting on the difference between anthropomorphic expressions (found in rabbinics) and anthropo- morphic conceptions of God (not actually found in rabbinics).
4Eikha Rabbah, proem 24. lsb.B.Me.59b.
M. R. NIEHOFF 249
God as literally fighting with Truth, who objected to the creation of hu- manity.l7 God can only proceed with the plan to create humanity by knock- ing down his adversary. Yet instead of acknowledging God's victory, the heavenly company criticizes God for humiliating his prime principle, and God consequently has to rehabilitate Truth.l8
Rabbinic myth is, however, not confined to stories about God. It in- cludes other imaginative stories that reflect in culturally significant ways upon supernatural or other existential issues.l9 The rabbis thus tend to animate and personify nature. The earth is, for example, a female figure who is "bewildered and astonished" at her relatively low status in creation. She complains that "the celestial beings and the terrestrial ones were cre- ated at the same time, yet the celestial beings are fed by the radiance of the Shekhina, whereas the terrestrial beings, if they do not toil, they do not eat."20 The rabbis similarly suggest that the moon and the sun were fighting for dominance until God separated them and clearly defined the role of each light.2l
Rabbinic literature, unlike scripture, does not confine the mythological conception of nature to Urzeit and eschaton. Myth has rather become a natural and intimate part of history and even of everyday life.22 Indicative of this development toward more pervasive mythological thinking is the rabbinic conception of the animal world.23 In scripture, animals tended to lack a distinctly personal or supernatural dimension and were instead ob- jects of human investigation, testifying to the divine order of the cosmos.24
7Gen. R. 8.5. I8Ibid. For the gnostic background of this myth, see esp. Alexander Altmann, "The Gnostic
Background of the Rabbinic Adam Legends," in idem, Essays in Jewish Intellectual History (Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 1981) 1-16. Compare Ithamar Gruenwald, "The Problem of Anti-Gnostic Polemic in Rabbinic Literature," in R. van den Broek and Maarten Vermaseren, eds., Studies in Gnosticism and Hellenistic Religions (Leiden: Brill, 1981) 171- 89.
I9For this broader definition of myth, see esp. Geoffrey S. Kirk, Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970) 1-41.
20Gen. R. 2.2. 2lIbid. 3.6. 22Regarding the move from a more historical orientation in scripture to a more mythologi-
cal orientation in rabbinic literature, see also Yosef Haim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982) 5-26.
23See also Victor Aptowitzer ("The Rewarding and Punishing of Animals and Inanimate Objects: On the Aggadic View of the World," HUCA 3  117-55) who stresses the personification of the animal world as a characteristic feature of the rabbis' more organic worldview. See also Malachi Beit-Arie, "Perek Shira: Introduction and Critical Edition" (Ph.D. diss., The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1966) 57-64.
24For example, Prov 30:24-31; Num 22:23-24:25.
250 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
Mythological monsters existed in Urzeit and eschaton, in myth but not in history.
The interpretations of the leviathan in biblical and rabbinic literature indicate a significant change of mentality. The biblical God receives post facto praise for his primordial victory over the leviathan.25 His victory is, moreover, celebrated by a meal of his adversary's flesh.26 One can also imagine the eschaton as a return of Urzeit, when God will conclusively overcome the leviathan.27 The victory over the leviathan is also a paradigm for God's imposing providence in history.28 While these different aspects of the biblical leviathan suggest an interweaving of various categories of time and space, it emerges that the Bible keeps the leviathan outside the divinely ordered cosmos and the realm of historical time. In human history the leviathan-though still threatening shrinks to a symbol of submission to
. . dlvlne power. The rabbis, by contrast, imagine the leviathan as both more autonomous
and more real in their own lives. The rabbinic God thus confronts a for- mally enthroned sea monster called the "Minister of the Sea," who actively refuses to cooperate in the creation of the world and defends his own maritime territory.29 God kicked and killed the monster, thus preparing the ground for the creation of the world. The ultimate victory, however, ap- pears to await the messianic future, when God will triumphantly invite the righteous to a meal of the flesh of the leviathan.30 The victory of the rabbinic God is more precarious. The leviathan moreover penetrates into the ordered cosmos. The rabbis insist that the leviathan is present in their own lives and can actually be encountered on a sea journey:3l
It once happened that R. Eliezer and R. Joshua were traveling in a boat. While R. Eliezer slept, R. Joshua stayed awake. R. Joshua be- came agitated and R. Eliezer woke up. Said he to him: "Joshua, why are you so agitated?" He responded: "I saw a big light on the sea." He replied: "Did you perhaps see the eyes of the Leviathan?"
The rabbis further express their sense of familiarity with the leviathan, when they claim that the sea covers him because of his awful stench, which nobody would be able to bear. His mouth, they claim, swallows all the natural waters, thus serving as a basin into which the Mediterranean Sea
2sFor example, Ps 74:12-17; Job 40:25-32. 26Ps 74:14. 27Isa 27:1. See also Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil (San Francisco:
Harper & Row, 1988). 28Job 41: 10-1 1. 29b B. Batra 74b
30Ibid. 75a. 3lIbid. 74b.
M . R . N I EHOFF 251
and the rivers of Israel flow.32 As a mythological creature, the leviathan is also part of this world. These descriptions clearly conflate primordial, his- torical, and eschatological realms. They take for granted the leviathan's existence and appearance in human life in almost folkloristic fashion. The monster retains its original mythological aspect, among other things, by serving as a culturally important explanation for the hydrological structure of the world.
The process of enhancing the mythological dimension of animals is pronounced in the case of the :R: (the wild ox). This creature was initially associated with a specific biblical scene and subsequently appeared in the rabbis' lives. R. Nehemia and R. Jehuda discuss the ns: in connection with Noah's ark, agreeing that it did not enter the ark, but was rather tied to it "plowing furrows [in the water] as great as from Tiberias to Susitha."33 The wild ox's whelps also play a fearful role in the rabbis' own lives: "in the days of R. Hiyya b. Abba a re'em's whelp came to Eretz Israel and did not leave a single tree which it did not uproot. A fast was proclaimed and R. Hiyya prayed, whereupon it went down to the desert."34 In this story the rabbis resort to magic in order to control a monstrous creature, which they themselves have released from the seemingly secure realm of prehistory.
|11 Early Chnstian Interpretations of the Phoenix The early Christian interpretations of the phoenix highlight the nature of
its rabbinic reception. Both Christian and rabbinic exegesis adapted the phoenix to a monotheistic framework during approximately the same time, namely the first centuries CE. The earliest Christian evidence antedates the rabbinic material insofar as one can securely date the latter.
The earliest known reference to the phoenix in the Christian sources is in I Clement, which dates from approximately 96 CE and which Codex Alexandrinus includes in the New Testament. Clement uses the myth of the phoenix as a semeion ("sign") for the future resurrection of the righteous.35 He relates a syncretistic version of the phoenix myth, combining elements known from Herodotus's earliest full account36 and Manilius's first Roman version.37 Clement thus frames the story in Herodotian terms, arguing that the bird travels every five hundred years from Arabia to the Egyptian city
33Gen. R. 31.13. 34Ibid.
351 Clem. 25.1, based on the Greek text edited by Joseph Barber Lightfoot, S. Clement of Rome: The Two Epistles to the Corinthians (London and Cambridge: Macmillan, 1869).
36Herodotus Hist. 2.73. The phoenix first appears in Hesiod Frag. 304, where only the bird's longevity is mentioned. Compare R. van den Broek, The Myth of the Phoenix, 76-145.
37Pliny Hist. nat. 10.4.
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Heliopolis, and mentions the burial nest of myrrh, which serves to carry the remains of the old phoenix to the altar of the sun. Clement adds to Herodotus's account, which probably reflects priestly traditions from Heliopolis,38 motifs known from the account of Manilius, Augustus's con- temporary in Rome. Like this pagan author, Clement provides details of the phoenix's rebirth, which Herodotus had not mentioned: after the phoenix dies in his nest of myrrh, a worm emerges from its decaying flesh. It feeds on the remains of the previous phoenix until it grows wings and carries its parent's bones to Heliopolis.
Clement appropriates the phoenix myth in an interesting way. The pagan association of the bird with the Egyptian sun temple does not disturb him. He simply retains this detail without further justification, presenting it as a foreign story. While thus accommodating the pagan myth, Clement sig- nificantly alters its message. Herodotus had included the description of the phoenix in his ethnographic account of holy animals worshipped in Egypt- a subject that he described with his characteristic combination of profound curiosity about foreign religions and a measure of academic skepticism.39 For Manilius, the motif of the rebirth of the phoenix was despite his own reservations of more personal importance, because it already had acquired political implications in his own time. The period of the phoenix's return was thought to correspond to the "Great Year," and Roman politicians were known to compete for signs of the bird's arrival in order to usher in a successful era.40 Clement also shows a more personal interest in the rebirth of the phoenix. Yet he uses the bird in symbolic fashion, namely as a type for the doctrine of the resurrection of the faithful. The first significant step of adapting the phoenix myth to early Christianity thus involves a symbolic reading that associates the phoenix with a central Christian dogma.
It is noteworthy, moreover, that Clement refers to the phoenix for apolo- getic purposes. The bird mainly serves as an illustration for those for whom the repetitive cycles of nature does not provide sufficient evidence for the doctrine of the resurrection. While Clement's audience takes for granted the literal truth of the story, its historical significance recedes into the back- ground and is subsumed under a theological message. Clement, therefore, admires the phoenix far less as a bird in its own right. While the pagan writers had described its beautiful colors and wondrous appearance,41 Clem-
38See also Alan B. Lloyd, Herodotus: Book II. Introduction (Leiden: Brill, 1975) 61-76; idem, Herodotus: Book II. Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 1976) 89; John Gould, Herodotus (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989) 19-41.
39Note that Herodotus (Hist. 2.73) explicitly distances himself from the account by stress- ing that he does not believe the Egyptian reports.
40Pliny Hist. nat. 10.5. 41See esp. Herodotus Hist. 2.73; Pliny's introductory remarks on the phoenix in Nat. hist.
10.3; and Claudius Claudianus, "The Phoenix," in idem, ShorterPoems (trans. Maurice Platnauer; LCL; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956) 223-31.
M . R . N I EHOFF 253
ent refers to it as a "mere bird" through which God "demonstrated the greatness of his promise."42 The bird's actual return in the future is no longer of real consequence. Jesus has instead assumed the ontological sta- tus of the phoenix: his resurrection is not only the foremost example of resurrection, it also has deeply existential value.43 Clement thus appropri- ates the myth of the phoenix as a harbinger of another, theologically far superior event.
The Greek Physiologus, which dates probably to the late second century CE,44 integrates the phoenix more fully into Christian theology. Drawing on descriptions of animals probably derived from Alexandrian sources, the Physiologus interprets the phoenix and other beasts allegorically, as sym- bolizing Jesus. The phoenix holds a prominent place in this zoological catalogue as a figure for principal Christian doctrines.45 The bird, this text claims, originates in India and flies every five hundred years to the temple of the sun at Heliopolis. The manner of its rebirth, for the first time, involves cremation: the phoenix burns itself on the altar.
The Physiologus introduces another new motif, namely the number of days required for the phoenix to be fully restored. Two days after its cre- mation it develops into a kind of worm, and on the third day it recovers its perfect original form.46 The three-day interval between the bird's death and resurrection clearly imitates early Christian accounts of Jesus' resurrection. Indeed, the Greek Physiologus specifically associates the phoenix with Jesus, not least in the introductory motto of the chapter on the phoenix, in which Jesus stresses his ability to take freely and restore his own life.47 The phoenix functions to support Jesus' teachings and defend it against the doubts of the "foolish Jews." An editorial addition to the chapter, more- over, claims that the flight of the phoenix from heaven foreshadows the materialization of the divine logos in the figure of Jesus. Through a hermeneutic of symbolic appropriation, the Physiologus thus establishes a more exclusive connection between the phoenix and Jesus.
In his treatise On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Tertullian (ca. 160-225) employs the phoenix myth for purposes similar to Clement's. He insists- with greater rhetorical and polemical fervor that the phoenix is the best illustration of the doctrine of resurrection for those who continue to deny what is, according to Tertullian, the most important Christian doctrine.48
421 Clem. 26.1. 43Ibid., 25. 44For the date and historical background of the different Physiologus versions, see Friedrich
Lauchert, Geschichte des Physiologus (1889; reprinted Geneva: Slatkine, 1974). 45The Greek text appears in Dieter Offermanns, Der Physiologus nach den Handschriften
G und M (Meisenheim: Hain, 1966) 38-41. 46avxo seelvov (Ibid., 38.16)- 47John 10:18. 48Tertullian Res. Carn. 1. 13.
254 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
Without mentioning any of the well-known details of the pagan myth, Tertullian stresses the identity of the phoenix before and after its resurrec- tion in support of his argument for a bodily resurrection. Although the phoenix dies, it comes back to life exactly as it had been before.49
Tertullian next takes a second, more textual step of adapting a foreign myth to the Hebrew Scriptures, a move that would be typical also of Jewish hermeneutics. Although sharing the same method, Christians and Jews chose significantly different prooftexts for the phoenix.50 Tertullian relies on the septuagintal translation of Ps 91:13, which renders the Hebrew phrase "the righteous will flourish like a palm tree (nnn)" as "the righteous will flour- ish like the Phoenix." In Greek the term oolvl; denotes both the palm tree and the phoenix, the former being a more primary meaning. While the Greek translation is thus literally accurate, Tertullian reads it with a view to his argument about the phoenix. He uses Ps 91:13 as a scriptural proof for the similarity of the resurrections of the phoenix and the righteous. The proposed analogy between the phoenix and humanity implies a symbolic reading of the phoenix that is highly characteristic of the Christian ap- proach to biblical interpretation. It is equally significant that the rabbis do not apply Ps 91:13 to the phoenix.
Tertullian concludes his discussion by an argument a minore ad maius: If the resurrection of the phoenix is certain, how much more so the resur- rection of the righteous, who are superior to birds.5l In this way, Tertullian incorporates the phoenix into his theological apologetic. He seems to have little interest in the bird itself, referring to it mainly because of the intel- lectual background of his audience. Significantly, Tertullian regards his own teaching as far superior to the pagan myth, if still similar to it. The phoenix serves, therefore, as a harbinger of a higher truth, which reduces the bird's ontological status.
While Origen (ca.185-254) assumed a highly skeptical attitude toward the myth of the phoenix,52 the positive symbolic approach quickly estab- lished itself in early Christianity. Many interpreters associated the bird with the doctrine of Jesus' resurrection. Rufinus also applied it to the notion of
49Ibid. 50Compare the exegetical controversies between Christians and Jews on the Song of Songs.
Both communities tended to associate the biblical lemma with the same theological topos, yet insisted that their religion was in this respect superior. See for example the interpretation of the expression "with the kisses of his mouth" (Cant 1:2), which is interpreted by both Jews and Christians as a reference to God's direct revelation to his community. While the rabbis insist that this revelation took place and reached its climax at Sinai (Cant. R. 1; 2.1-5), Origen claims that the only true and direct revelation of God took place in Christianity when God became flesh in Jesus (Comment. in Cant Cant. 1.1).
5 lTertullian Res. Carn. 1. 13. 520rigen Cels. 4.98.
M . R . N I EHOFF 255
Jesus' birth from the virgin.53 The prevalent paradigm of Christian interpre- tation thus provides an appropriate background for a comparative apprecia- tion of the rabbinic interpretations of the phoenix.
l The Rabbinic Names of the Phoenix When the rabbis spoke about the phoenix, they did not use its classical
name. They referred to the bird, rather, as chol, ziz, or urshina. Before the rabbinic midrashim can be analyzed, these different names require some explanation.
The name chol derives from Job 29:18, which reads in Hebrew: : m:s ::n nnns tnn:n n:s :p ("then I thought I shall die with my nest and shall multiply my days as the chol"). In biblical Hebrew, the noun chol means sand. It is frequently used (for example, in Job 6:3) as a metaphor for great quantity. The second part of Job 29:18 thus makes perfectly natural sense. The connection between the second and the first parts of the biblical verse, however, raises problems, which can call for a reconsideration of the whole verse. Since the biblical parallelism presupposes a meaningful connection between its two parts, one must assume the sandlike longevity mentioned in the second part of Job 29:18 to relate in some way to the demise with the nest mentioned in the first part. The connective particle vav could indicate a synonymous, a synthetical, or even an antithetical parallelism. The immediately arising question is thus whether the pairs "nest" and chol, death and longevity, are synonymous, antonymous, or depending upon each other in some other sense.
Synonymous parallelism is in this case virtually impossible because of the mutually exclusive notions of life and death. The option of an antitheti- cal parallelism is also problematic because the verse lacks any of the usual qualifiers to identify the notion of longevity with the righteous and the notion of death with the wicked. Familiar with the myth of the phoenix, the rabbis chose to read this verse as a case of synthetic parallelism, identify- ing the term chol as the name of the phoenix.54 This exegesis renders the whole parallelism meaningful: the nest is now connected naturally to chol, and the mention of longevity becomes a reference to rebirth in the typical cycle of the phoenix. It is highly significant that the human speaker of the biblical verse recedes into the background. As far as the verse allows, the mythological bird itself assumes his place.
Although the rabbis are the first known interpreters to identify the term chol in Job 29:18 with the phoenix, this idea seems to have occurred also
53Rufinus, A Commentary on the Apostle 's Creed (trans. J. N. D. Kelly; London: Longmans, 1955) 44.
54Gen. R. 19.5.
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to their predecessors, who, however, quickly rejected it. The Septuagint translates Job 29:18b as: "I shall live as long as the trunk of a palm tree" (a1;XXOX 001VIKOC). The Septuagint translates chol with a reference to the "phoenix." This translation probably referred originally to the bird, assuming the same interpretation as the rabbinic midrash. Yet subsequent redactors seem to have disapproved of the idea of the phoenix in the Bible. They consequently preferred the alternative meaning of the Greek term OOIVtE, as palm tree and added the motif of the trunk. The levels of redac- tion in the Septuagint thus indicate an initial acceptance of the myth and subsequent replacement of it by a botanical symbol.55 This development suggests a hermeneutical shift from myth to symbol similar to that already encountered in the early Christian sources. The rabbis significantly reverse this process by reviving the mythopoeic exegesis of Job 29:18.
The second rabbinic name for the phoenix is zi:. This name is also a reinterpreted biblical expression. It occurs twice as a noun in scripture, is based on the root nt ("to move"), and refers to "moving [creatures] of the field" (,ns t.r).56 In Ps 50:11, the term occurs in a bicolon that suggests a connection between rl:s rt and mountainous birds (:':il ll). The rabbis take this parallelism to be synonymous and associate the zi: with the afore- mentioned birds, identifying it with the phoenix. It is possible that the rabbis continue in this case an obscure mythopoeic tradition also alluded to in the Septuagint. It is thus significant that the mountainous birds men- tioned in Ps 50:11 become in the Septuagint "birds of heaven." The term zi: is moreover translated as tiapoctotllc, which could refer to something timely and proper. In connection with the original image of the field, it might indicate a harvest. Yet the term also means "beautiful" and could thus be an appropriate description of the phoenix.
The third and less frequent name of the phoenix in rabbinic literature is urshina. This term may be based on the Greek term for time (copocs 0CV0), indicating a timeless bird.57 Yet the Babylonian Talmud, where this name occurs, generally lacks close familiarity with Greek culture and language. It is therefore rather unlikely that a Greek name for the phoenix should first appear precisely in this document. It is instead more probable that the term urshina derives from some Semitic loan word referring to the turtle.58
ssFor different views of Job 29:18, see esp. Samuel R. Driver and George B. Gray, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Job (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1958) 249-50. For a background of the Septuagint on Job, see also Harry M. Orlinsky, "Stud- ies in the Septuagint of the Book of Job," HUCA 28 (1957) 53-74.
56Ps 50: 11, 80: 14. 57Ludwig Lewysohn, Die Zoologie des Talmuds (Frankfurt a.M.: n.p., 1858) 352-53. 58Jacob Levy, Worterbuch uber die Talmudim und die Midraschim (4 vols.; Berlin and
Vienna: Harz, 1924) 1. 47-48.
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a Rabbinic Adaptations of the Phoenix Myth I shall now discuss in chronological order various midrashim in which
the phoenix myth resurfaces. The process of integrating the phoenix into a specifically rabbinic framework involves the selection of suitable elements from the Hellenistic traditions and their grounding in biblical motifs.
Two of the midrashic passages to be discussed in this section associate the phoenix with paradise, a biblical context which the rabbis chose pre- sumably for its wondrous environment suitable for exceptional birds. The Garden of Eden would moreover appear to be a particularly appropriate place for the phoenix, because it is a prehistoric space, anticipating the time when humanity entered its regular condition. Placing the phoenix within Urzeit means assigning to it an extraordinary status befitting its mythologi- cal origins. It also echoes earlier Jewish descriptions of the bird within apocalyptic visions, which similarly remove the visionary from its histori- cal condition.
The most detailed tradition about the phoenix is preserved in a story about the chol. The rabbis place the chol in the Garden of Eden, explaining the bird's eternity as a result of its special obedience to the divine injunc- tions vis-a-vis the tree of knowledge:S9
And she [Eve] took of the fruit thereof [the tree of knowledge] and ate. . . [and she gave] also [to her husband].60 "Also" is an extension [S1mn]. This means that she gave the cattle, beasts and birds to eat of it. All obeyed her and ate of it except one bird called chol, as it is written: "And I thought I shall die with my nest and shall multiply my days as the chol.''61 The school of R. Jannai and R. Judan b. Simon differ. The school of R. Jannai said: "it lives a thousand years and at the end of thousand years a fire issues from its nest and burns it until as much as an egg is left of it [nsm: 1:n: m"nnl]. Then it grows again limbs [:Smms i7nn nltnl] and lives." R. Judan b. Simon said: "it lives a thousand years and at the end of thousand years its body is consumed and its wings crumble to pieces [:S:Onnn: 1Sn::l nt: 1nn] until as much as an egg of it is left. Then it grows again limbs and lives."
The above-mentioned Palestinian rabbis of the first and third amoraic gen- erations were obviously familiar with the phoenix myth. In fact, they argue over its details in the same manner as they would have done regarding scripture. Unlike early Christian interpreters, they do not use the phoenix for rhetorical purposes, but rather refer to it within their insiders' discourse
59Gen. R. 19.5. I based my translations on the text of Chanoch Albeck and Judah Theodor's critical edition , Beresh it Rabba m it kritischem Appa rat und Kommenta r (Jerusalem: Wahrmann, 1965) 174 [Hebrew]; my italics.
60Gen 3:6. 6IJob 29:18.
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as a subject of their own interest. Also unlike the Christian interpreters, they are primarily interested in the bird's eternity. The motif of resurrection functions in the rabbinic context mainly as a technical explanation of the bird's immortality, which differs from God's more perfect and permanent eternity.
The rabbis agree upon the length of the regenerative cycle of the phoe- nix, assuming with most later authors a thousand year interval between each revival.62 Both schools also mention the egg as the measure of the old phoenix's remains from which the new bird emerges. The motif of the egg had first appeared in Herodotus's description of the form and function of the myrrh in which the new phoenix carries its predecessor to the sun temple. The rabbis, however, use the motif differently. Omitting any refer- ence to Egypt and foreign cults, they refer to the egg as an intermediary stage of the phoenix's rebirth. For them, the egg evokes its original conno- tation of birth-an aspect not explored by Herodotus. It is interesting, in- cidentally, that the fourth-century Christian apologist Lactantius used the motif of the egg similarly. In his version too the remains of the old phoenix assume the shape of an egg from which the new bird emerges.63
The aforementioned rabbis disagree regarding the exact means of the phoenix's rebirth. While the school of Jannai advocates a version involving cremation, Judan b. Simon assumes the gradual consumption of the old phoenix. These are in fact the two principal versions of the bird's rebirth known in antiquity, Manilius arguing for consumption and the Greek Physiologus for cremation.64 Yet the Greek Physiologus already combines the two versions when adding the notion of the bird's reemergence from the worm-a notion that apparently presupposes decayed flesh rather than ashes. Although the image of the burning phoenix increasingly predominated, the amoraic rabbis are still familiar with both versions and argue over their respective value.
While preserving significant details of the Hellenistic phoenix myths, the rabbis also adapt them to their own intellectual framework. They place the phoenix in the Garden of Eden and make its eternity dependent upon God. In this monotheistic context, the phoenix emerges as the most obedi- ent creature of paradise. Although the divine prohibition in Gen 2:17 re- garding the tree of knowledge pertains only to Adam, the rabbis extend it also to the animals. In rabbinic midrash, the phoenix earns its eternity by
62See esp. Claudian Phoenix 29 and Lactantius Phoenix in idem, L. Caeli Firmiani Lactantii Opera Omnia (3 vols.; eds. Samuel Brandt and George Laubermann; Vienna: Tempsley, 1890) 2. 141-43.
63Lactantius Phoenix 2. 217. 64For further examples and their respective cultural background, see R. van den Broek, The
Mvth of the Phoenix, 146-60.
M. R. NIEHOFF 259
following God's instructions, thus becoming the first nnMD CDrS ("keeper of the commandments"). Its longevity is a fulfillment of God's original plan of the world, which humanity and other animals had spoiled.
The phoenix myth is thus recontextualized and serves as a culturally significant explanation of an ancient crux: if mortality came into the world as the result of Adam's and Eve's first sin, why do the animals also have to die? Since the phoenix is an exceptional animal that is indeed immortal, the other animals' mortality must also stem from their sinful behavior and cannot be considered as an innate characteristic. Genesis Rabbah therefore suggests that Eve seduced all the animals except the phoenix to eat from the tree of knowledge. The immortality of the phoenix confirms the as- sumption that death derives from disobedience to God. The rabbis retain the mythological dimension of the phoenix while adapting it to a specifi- cally Jewish context. The bird is clearly not a symbol of humankind, whose behavior and fate differ essentially from that of the phoenix.
Another rabbinic adaptation of the Hellenistic myths that further elabo- rates the theme of the phoenix's longevity as a reward occurs in b. Sanhedrin 1 08b:
Father [Noah] found the urshina lying in the back of the ark. He asked it: "do you not want any food?" He replied: "I saw that you were very busy and I did not want to burden you." He [Noah] said: "may it be His will that you may never die, as it is written: 'I thought I shall die with my nest and multiply my days as the chol."'65
This midrash explains the phoenix's longevity as a divine reward for his considerate attitude toward Noah. It lacks the detailed descriptions of the phoenix that the Palestinian rabbis mentioned, probably because of greater temporal and geographical distance of the Babylonian teachers from Helle- nism. Two features typical of the Hellenistic myth seem nevertheless to resurface in the aforementioned midrash. Initially, the phoenix is notewor- thy for its dietary discipline. This characteristic echoes Manilius's assertion that "nobody ever saw the phoenix taking any food."66 The phoenix's ap- pearance in Noah's ark reflects the earlier concept of the phoenix as a harbinger of great eras in human history.67
While similarly integrating the phoenix into a monotheistic framework, the rabbinic reception of the pagan myth in the foregoing two midrashic passages differs distinctly from their early Christian parallels. In contrast to these, the rabbis do not use the bird symbolically. They accept the story literally and integrate the phoenix as a real bird into the rabbinic frame-
65Job 29:18. 66pliny Hist. nat. 10.4. 67Ibid,
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work. The rabbis do not abrogate the ontological significance of the phoe- nix in favor of a superior truth. Instead of serving as a harbinger for the gospel of Jesus, the phoenix as such demonstrates basic principles of Juda- ism. The rabbinic interpretation of the phoenix as the first "keeper of the commandments," moreover, indicates a clear tendency to personify animals and invest them with characteristics that the biblical narrators would have hesitated to attribute to them.
The phoenix, this time called ziz, appears also in relation to the paradi- siacal serpent. The bird now assumes a decidedly subversive role:68
R. Joshua of Siknin said in R. Levi's name: "he [the serpent] began to speak slander of his creator, saying, 'of this tree did he eat and then created the world, hence he says to you "you shall not eat thereoS'69 so that you may not create other worlds, for every person hates his fellow craftsman."' R. Judan b. Simon said: "he [the serpent] argued, 'what- ever was created after his companion dominates it. Heaven was created on the first day and the firmament on the second does it not bear its weight?! The firmament was created on the second and the herbs on the third do they not interrupt the waters?! Herbs are created on the third and the luminaries on the fourth and the birds on the fifth."' R. Judan b. Simon said: "the zi: is a clean bird, and when it spreads its wings, it darkens the orb of the sun [ns sn:n nnlec nC: m1n: 1l rr @n@n t:j:]. You were created after everything in order to rule over everything. Make haste and eat [from the tree of knowledge] before he creates other worlds which will rule over you, as it is written: 'and the woman saw that it was good'70 she accepted the words of the ser- pent "
R. Judan bases his interpretation of the serpent on R. Joshua's mythopoeic suggestion that God needed the fruit of the tree of knowledge in order to create the world. God's prohibition consequently appears as a merely defen- sive measure against human competition. R. Judan expands this myth, sug- gesting that priority correlates with degrees of power. Adam and Eve wished to eat from the tree of knowledge in order to prevent God from taking further bites which might have enabled him to create additional worlds. They thus insured their status as the last created beings, who continuously rule over the previously created ones. R. Judan implies here an interesting form of mythological monotheism. He suggests, on the one hand, that God requires the tree of knowledge to create the world. He is therefore similar to humans and subject to their control. God established, on the other hand, the sequence of creation of which humanity is part. Unlike R. Joshua,
68Gen. R. 19.4 (ed. Albeck) 172-73. 69Gen 2:17. 70Gen 3:6.
M . R . N I EHOFF 261
Rabbi Judan does not explicitly suggest that Adam and Eve could them- selves have created new worlds, thus truly becoming gods.
R. Judan seeks to demonstrate his idea of dominance according to the order of creation by reference to somewhat artificial examples from nature. The firmament, he claims, dominates heaven because it maintains its weight, and the herbs dominate over the firmament because they receive its waters. The most conspicuous example in this series-and probably the model for the two aforementioned images is the phoenix, which Judan laconically describes as darkening the orb of the sun. The bird's function in this mid- rashic context emerges only in light of an earlier tradition preserved in the Greek Baruch Apocalypse, with which R. Judan must have been familiar. Baruch, Jeremiah's scribe, saw the bird in his vision of the fifth heaven:
And he [the angel] took me and brought me to where the sun goes forth, showing me a four-wheel chariot, under which there was fire. And upon the chariot sat a man wearing a fiery crown; the chariot was drawn by forty angels. And behold, a bird runs along before the sun, as large as nine mountains. I said to the angel: "what kind of a bird is this?" And he responded: "This is the guardian of the world." And I said: "O Lord, how is he the guardian of the world? Teach me!" And the angel said to me: "this bird accompanies the sun and spreading its wings absorbs the fire-shaped rays. For if it did not absorb them, none of the race of men would survive, nor anything else that lives; but God appointed this bird." And he unfolded his wings and I saw on his wings very large letters like the place of a threshing floor, having the space of four thousand modia, and the letters were gold. And the angel said to me: "read them!" And I read, and they [the letters] were as follows: "neither earth nor heaven bring[s] me forth, but the wings of fire bring me forth." And I said: "O Lord, what kind of a bird is this, and what is his name?" And the angel said to me: "Phoenix is his name." And I said: "what does he eat?" And the angel said: "the manna of the heaven and the dew of the earth." And I said: "does he produce excrement?" He said to me: "he produces a worm, and the excrement of the worm is cinnamon, which kings and rulers require."
This Jewish Hellenistic document of possibly Egyptian origin integrates the phoenix into a distinctly monotheistic framework. While alluding to the different versions of the bird's emergence from the fire and/or the worm and mentioning its connection with cinnamon,72 the author focuses on God's appointment of the phoenix for beneficial purposes in the cosmos. For the first time, a text argues that the phoenix darkens the sun's orb, thus protect-
71Bar. 6-8 (in Apocalypsis Baruchi Graece [ed. J.-C. Picard; PVTG 2; Leiden: Brill, 1967] 87-90).
72It is possible that the reference to the bird's excrement in the form of a worm reflects a misunderstood version of the phoenix's rebirth from the consumed remains of its predecessor.
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ing life on earth against the onslaught of the solar rays. A bird originally sacred to an Egyptian cult of the sun has in this way metamorphosed into God's minister regulating a hostile sun. The Jewish God has taken the sun's original place vis-a-vis the phoenix.
This description of the phoenix employs clearly apocalyptic terrns. The bird appears in the fifth heaven, feeds on the heavenly manna, and is of enormous size. Only especially inspired visionaries, such as Baruch, have access to this exclusive realm of secret knowledge. The phoenix conse- quently remains outside the framework of real time and regular history. The bird's position in heaven thus represents an intermediate stage in the appropriation of the ancient myth. The bird's earlier assigned places were outside of history in heaven or paradise. The rabbis subsequently integrated it into their own lives.73
In the aforementioned midrash on the paradisiacal serpent, R. Judan relies on the monotheistic redaction of the phoenix myth in the Apocalypse of Baruch. When he weaves an abbreviated form of it into his exegesis of Gen 3:5-6, he assumes that the bird's protective qualities are well known. R. Judan at the same time changes the tone and significance of the story he has received. Omitting references to some of the bird's mythological features, such as its enormous size and miraculous emergence from the fire, he attributes historical existence to the phoenix. The bird no longer belongs to the apocalyptic realm and has instead become part of nature. Its control of the sun's rays indicates the hierarchical structure of nature.
In R. Judan's midrash the phoenix is subordinate to humanity's control of God's creative activities. The phoenix thus plays a role in a subversive midrash that challenges God. The bird has, indeed, become part of a new myth, told by the serpent, according to which God eats from the tree of knowledge in order to create the world. The phoenix is a creature who can become independent of its lord, thus providing humankind with an example of how to challenge God. Gen. R. 19.4 attributes to the phoenix a newly mythological dimension, which obviously differs from the Apocalypse of Baruch and even reverses in a sense the latter's hermeneutical achievement. In the Apocalypse of Baruch, God has clearly established his dominance over nature, foreign cults, and pagan myths. The later midrash renders this victory fragile and challenges God's sovereignty by using the serpent's
73Note also the reference to the phoenix's unusual size and red color by Ezekiel the Tra- gedian, the earliest-known evidence in Jewish sources. The phoenix is here part of an ideal description of the land of Israel which might suggest an allegorical interpretation of the exodus as a departure for paradisiacal conditions of longevity and abundance. See also John J. Collins, Between Athens and Jerusalem: Jewish Identity in the Hellenistic Diaspora (New York: Crossroads, 1983) 209-10.
M. R. NIEHOFF 263
speech, which postulates the bird's power over the sun as a paradigm for human dominance over God.
" Remythologizing the Phoenix The previous midrashic passage already indicates a partial reversal of
the monotheistic domestication of the phoenix. Once the phoenix had be- come familiar, it grew in the rabbinic imagination into a huge mythological monster similar to the leviathan. Both creatures appeared in the rabbis' own lives.
The first traces of this mythopoeic hermeneutic appears in Lev. R. 22.10:74
1t. Menahma and 1t. Bebai, and 1t. Aha and 1t. Johanan in the name of 1t. Jonathan expounded: "a recompense for what I have forbidden you [says God], I have allowed something for you. As a recompense for the prohibition of certain fish you will eat the leviathan, a clean fish; as a recompense for the prohibition of certain fowls you shall eat the zi2:, which is a clean fowl.75 Hence it is written 'I know all the fowls of the mountains, and the ziz of the fields is Mine."'76 1t. Judan son of 1t. Simon says: "when the ziz spreads out its wings, he darkens the orb of the sun. Hence it is written: 'does the hawk soar (r: m:ms) by your wisdom and stretch his wings toward the south?"'77 Why was it called by the name of ziz? Because it possesses many kinds of tastes, the taste of this and the taste of that.78
This midrash is remarkable in several ways. First, it identifies the phoenix as a clean bird, which God preserves for the meal of the righteous in the messianic age. In the eschaton God will offer the leviathan, the ziz, and also the behemoth to the righteous as a recompense for their dietary restric- tions in this world. The phoenix is a companion of the mythological mon- sters who originally threatened God's sovereignty. Their final and complete defeat occurs when they are eaten at the messianic symposium.
R. Judan superimposes his interpretation of the phoenix upon the treat- ment from the Apocalypse of Baruch. He provides a new prooftext for the image of the bird absorbing the sun's rays. This prooftext is based on the assonance of the words nez and ziz, on the one hand, and m:s ("to soar") and m:n ("to darken"), on the other hand. Echoing the strictly monotheistic
74My translation depends upon the critical edition of Mordecai Margulies, Midrash Wayikra Rabbah: A Critical Edition Based on Manuscripts and Geniza Fragments with Variants and Notes 22.10 (2 vols.; New York and Jerusalem: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1993) 2. 822-23.
75*Z;ln nl;t: glSx rt nlEnls nl3nr nnn. 76Ps 50:11.
77Job 39:26. 78Ut:) Ut: 0n: 'Z': U:D 1: CC ,t't lnlr "nip nnb1.
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tradition of the Apocalypse of Baruch, the prooftext furthermore suggests that the phoenix follows the direction of God's wisdom. Another feature of the Apocalypse of Baruch survives in the MS London 370 version of R. Judan's saying. It stresses that the phoenix's ability to absorb the sun's rays derives from his enormous size: "this zi: is a huge bird and when he spreads his wings he darkens the orb of the sun."79 These earlier traditions intertwine in a new mythopoeic interpretation of the phoenix. The new tendency emerges particularly in the concluding explanation of the name zi:. Taking the name as an acronym of ilrl ilt, the midrash argues that zi: refers to the diverse tastes of the bird's flesh to be eaten at the messianic symposium. The phoenix myth thus becomes essentially a reference to God's final victory over the primordial monsters.
B. B. Batra 73b interprets mythopoeically a mishna dealing with certain technical aspects of selling a boat as referring also to the phoenix. While the mishna itself deals with such questions as whether the selling of a boat implies selling the boat's wooden utensils too, the Babylonian rabbis are concerned with the dangers of maritime journeys which can be threatened by sea monsters. They describe even the water mythologically, representing its waves as personal, independent, and even malicious beings who are engaged in the following conversation: "My friend, have you left anything in the world that you did not wash away? I will go and destroy it!"80
Rabbah and R. b. Bar Chana also discuss huge animals which are in some way associated with water. They thus mention an antelope "which was as big as Mount Tabor" and which "cast a ball of excrement and blocked up the Jordan.''8l A huge fish, similarly, died and washed up on the shore, thus causing terrible turmoil: "sixty towns were destroyed thereby, sixty towns ate therefrom, and sixty towns salted thereof, and from one of its eyeballs three hundred kegs of oil were filled. On returning after twelve calendar months, we saw that they were cutting rafters from its skeleton and proceeded to rebuild those towns."82
The rabbis integrate the phoenix into this menagerie of mythological animals. The phoenix, too, is said to have been encountered by the rabbis on a sea journey. His size was very imposing indeed:83
And R. b. b. Hana said: "once we went by boat and we saw that bird, who was standing up to his ankle in the water, his head reaching the sky. We said: 'there is no water here and wanted to go down to cool
79Lev. R. 22.10 (ed. Margulies) 2. 823. 80b B. Batra 73b 8 libid. 82Ibid .
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ourselves,' but a Bat Qol came out and said to us: 'do not go down here, because a carpenter's axe was dropped [into this water] seven years ago and it has still not yet reached the bottom. This is not [only] because the water is deep but [also] because it is rapid."' Said R. Ashi: "that is the ziz, as it is written: 'zi: of the field with Me."'84
This passage thus identifies the phoenix as a huge bird standing in the water, whose head reaches the sky. He has a mysterious quality, because he is represented by the divine Bat Qol and his ultimate size remains a riddle. This final step of adapting the phoenix myth to rabbinic values thus reinvests the motif with mythological features. Parallel to other primordial monsters in rabbinic literature, it has become part of daily life and is no longer confined to the realm of Urzeit or eschaton.
|111 Conclusion and Summary This paper has traced the transformation of the Hellenistic phoenix myths
into specifically rabbinic myths. In contrast to the symbolic approach of early Christianity, the rabbinic sources preserved the literal quality of the original stories. The rabbis moreover adapted the Hellenistic traditions in two steps. Initially, they domesticated the bird within a monotheistic frame- work, omitting its connection to foreign cults and subordinating its origi- nally independent characteristics to God's commands. In this way, the rabbis create significant new meanings for the phoenix myths. In the second stage, the rabbis reinvest the phoenix with mythological qualities, associating it with subversive elements, such as the serpent and the leviathan, who will be served as delicatessen in God's triumphal meal. Unlike the mythological creatures of the Bible, the phoenix has also become part of historical time. The rabbis encountered it and were astonished by its huge size.
84Ps 50:1 1.
Article Contentsp. p. 246p. 247p. 248p. 249p. 250p. 251p. 252p. 253p. 254p. 255p. 256p. 257p. 258p. 259p. 260p. 261p. 262p. 263p. 264p. 265
Issue Table of ContentsThe Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 89, No. 3 (Jul., 1996), pp. 209-305Front MatterAthenagoras's "Embassy": A Literary Fiction [pp. 209-226]The Tragedy of Romance: A Case of Literary Exile [pp. 227-244]The Phoenix in Rabbinic Literature [pp. 245-265]Withdrawing from the Desert: Pachomius and the Development of Village Monasticism in Upper Egypt [pp. 267-285]An Irish Apocryphal Apostle: Muirch's Portrayal of Saint Patrick [pp. 287-301]Books Received [pp. 303-305]Back Matter