Star-Lore in the Gospels: Part 1

Star-Lore in the Gospels

Part 1

The Gospels and the Constellations

I must expect to be condemned by the matter-of-fact people, who are persuaded that the Eastern prophets who wrote three or four thousand years ago, composed their work upon the same model, and with the same regard to facts, as may be seen always attended to in the praiseworthy pages of the Annual Register and of the London Gazette 
(Sir William Drummond, 1811)

There’s an old Sufi story about Nasrudin, the ‘wise fool’ of Islam. One evening,  his neighbour finds him on his hands and knees under a street light. ‘What are you doing down there, Nasrudin?’ asks the neighbour.’
            ‘I’ve lost a diamond from my ring and I’m looking for it.’
            ‘Let me help you find it,’ says the neighbour. And, with that, he too gets down on his hands and knees and begins to look for the lost diamond.
            No luck.
            Eventually, some more helpful neighbours join in the search. After a while, when everybody’s knees and eyes are aching, and the ground has been examined minutely, one of the frustrated searchers asks, ‘Where exactly did you lose the diamond, Nasrudin?’
            ‘In my garden.’
            ‘Then why are we looking for it out here?’
            ‘Because there’s more light out here.’

This story, like all the Nasrudin stories, makes a telling observation about human nature: most of us generally seek things in familiar areas, areas in which we feel comfortable. We may not find what we’re looking for, but we carry on regardless. Something’s bound to turn up eventually, we think.
Generations of scholars have followed the same methodology in their quest to discover the origin and nature of the Gospels. ‘There’s history, here,’ they think. ‘We don’t know how much, and we don’t know how accurate it is, but that these little stories - despite many of them being quite preposterous - have some kind of history within them cannot be doubted. After all, verifiable historical characters, like King Herod and Pontius Pilate,  and verifiable geographical locations, like Galilee and Jerusalem, are mentioned, so the stories must have a factual basis. What’s more, right from the beginning of Christianity, people have considered them to be historical, so, we’ll just keep on looking at them as history. Even though we probably have to assume that the ancient peoples understood history differently from us, we’ll keep on looking at them as history. Even though we seem to be going round in circles, we’ll just keep on looking at them as history. Even though many people in the secular world think we’re crazy, we’ll just keep on looking at them as history.’
When it is suggested that the Gospel stories might have some connection with the constellations of the sky, our scholars shake their heads. Like most of us who live with bowed heads under cloudy skies, they are probably not familiar with those stellar patterns which so intrigued our ancestors,[1] and they almost certainly share the hostility of contemporary intellectuals towards astrology. They take it as axiomatic that the apparent condemnation of astrology by the Hebrew prophets[2] would be reason enough for the Gospel writers to steer clear of it. In addition, our scholars have no time in their busy schedule to make themselves familiar with astrology, so they think it best to ignore it.[3] After all, they have their academic reputations to consider and (in many cases) the whole precarious superstructure of Christian soteriology to support; so they just carry on with the old comfortable methods.
It doesn’t seem to matter to them that, despite the fashionable scholarly prejudice against it, astrology dominated the world-view of many (maybe all) ancient peoples. Mithraic scholar, Franz Cumont, who considered astrology to be ‘the most monstrous of all chimeras begotten of superstition’ nevertheless admits that it
… was indissolubly linked not only with astronomy and meteorology, but also with medicine, botany, ethnography, and physics … It left its mark on the religious life of past generations, dominating the religion of Babylon, informing the highest phases of ancient paganism and, by changing the character of ancient idolatry, it was to prepare in many respects for the coming of Christianity.[4]
One can understand why busy biblical scholars might be reluctant to engage with theories about the Bible’s connection with subjects of doubtful provenance such as Tarot or Qabalah, but, given the prevalence of astrological thinking in the ancient world, and given Jung’s contention that, ‘Astrology represents the sum of all the psychological knowledge of antiquity,’[5] it is nothing short of a culpable dereliction of duty on the part of scholars that not one of them seems to know anything about it. How seriously would we take someone who claimed to be an expert on Sixties pop music who admitted to knowing nothing about psychedelic drugs?
Nor does it seem to matter to them that a connection between stars and scriptures is not an idea recently proposed by New Age cranks or atheistic sceptics. It can be seen in much Christian art and architecture (e.g. the zodiac roundels in Canterbury Cathedral and the zodiac window in Chartres), and the zodiac in the floor of the Beth Alpha synagogue in Jerusalem shows that it was not foreign to the Jews. In the nineteenth century, (‘amateur’) scholars such as William Drummond, Robert Taylor and Godfrey Higgins explored these ideas at great length, but their work has been ignored or ridiculed (but certainly not convincingly refuted) by mainstream ‘professional’ scholarship.
A connection between the Gospels and the constellations was suggested as long ago as the second Christian century by the Gnostic, Valentinus, who claimed that the career of Jesus lasted for one year and that the stages of his career, as described by the Gospel of Mark, correspond with the signs of the zodiac.[6] Irenaeus, one of the founders of Christian orthodoxy, writing later in the same century, said that Valentinus was talking nonsense. Jesus’s career lasted more than one year; quite a few years, in fact, because, he said, John’s Gospel mentions three Passovers, and we have it on good authority (‘those who were conversant with John, the disciple of the Lord’) that Jesus didn’t die until he was over fifty.[7]

Zodiac in Beth Alpha Synagogue

Apart from this final statement, which they conveniently seem to have forgotten, our orthodox scholars have followed Irenaeus in their obsession with history and their suspicion of all things esoteric. If they’ve bothered to consider the matter at all, they’ve probably concluded that any astronomical elements there may be in the Gospels are both infrequent and incidental.

Singular Images

But, to those who know what they are looking for, the astronomical elements are neither incidental nor infrequent. The Star of Bethlehem (Mtt 2) is a prominent - and memorable - feature of the Jesus story, and other obvious celestial elements appear throughout the Gospel texts. The man carrying a jar of water (Mk 14:13) looks very much like the pictogram of the zodiacal constellation Aquarius, and John the Baptist’s description of Jesus as the Lamb of God (Jn 1:29) puts the astronomically literate reader in mind of Aries, just as Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a horse (Mk 11:1-11) might remind him or her of the Sagittarian centaur.[8] Such a reader, who also has some knowledge of Greek mythology, would no doubt spot that Jesus’s declaration that his followers will pick up snakes, lay their hands upon the sick and heal them (Mk 16:17-18), is a possible reference to the  constellation Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer, who is associated with Asclepius, the Healer. They might also consider that Cepheus, The Robed and Crowned King, is alluded to in the story of the scourging of Jesus (Mk 15:16-20), and Peter’s mother-in-law, said to be ‘reclining with a fever’ (Mk 1:29-31), is a clever reference to Cassiopeia, The Reclining Woman, a constellation which appears close by Aries. Cassiopeia’s son-in-law, Perseus, Andromeda’s husband (The Bridegroom), also gets a mention (Mk 2:19-20). The story of Jesus's crucifixion may well have put the mythologically aware reader in mind of Andromeda herself, about whom Manilius wrote: et cruce virginea moritura puella pependit, 'on the virgin cross hung the maid about to die'. 
In addition, the Gospels contain some passages which would be very hard to dismiss as serendipitous narrative commonplaces as some of the above might be. When Jesus says that he has often wanted to take Jerusalem into his care as a hen gathers her chickens (Mtt 23:37; Lk 13:34) he is using a singular image which, throughout the ages and throughout the nations, has been used to describe the The Pleiades, a beautiful asterism in the constellation Taurus.[9]
The author of Mark’s Gospel uses another striking astronomical image when he has the Syrophoenician woman say that ‘even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs’ (Mk 7:28). This is an allusion to the stars below the constellation Gemini (symbolised, generally, by twin children)[10] which seem to be falling like crumbs into the mouths of the two celestial dogs, Sirius (the Dog Star, in Canis Major) and Procyon (Before the Dog, in Canis Minor).[11]

Gemini’s Children

Jesus’s  treatment of the tradesmen’s furniture in Mark’s account of the Cleansing of the Temple (Mk 11:15) is an intriguing allusion to the stars at the end of the Sagittarian arrow, which have been compared to an overturned chair.[12] 
Nor can it be accidental that the actual names of some constellations appear in the text. The Greeks called Libra ‘Zugos’, the Yoke, the very word Jesus uses to describe the way in which a man and woman are joined (‘yoked’) in marriage (Mk 10:9). The constellation Ara, a name which means Altar in Latin, but means Curse in Greek is referenced in the account of Jesus cursing the fig tree (Mk 11:21). James and John leaving their father with ‘the hired men’ (Mk 1:20)  is an allusion to Aries, called Lu Hunga, The Hired Man,  by the Babylonians.[13] The constellation Ophis, the Serpent, appears in a disputed ending of Mark’s Gospel (Mk 16:18). The names of individual stars appear, too. For example, ‘Ma Alaph’ in Cancer, is said to mean Numbered Thousands, absolutely appropriate to the stories of the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Mk 6: 30-44) and the Feeding of the Four Thousand (Mk 8:1-9).
Some constellations are referenced really subtly. The unique coupling of the stories of the healing of Jairus’s Daughter and the healing of the Woman with the Blood Flow (Mk 5: 21-43), is a clever Gemini marker, and Jesus’s crazy journey (Mk 7:31) -  non-direct, crab-like -  is an ingenious way of signalling Cancer, and not, as generations of scholars have taught, an indication that Mark didn’t know his Palestinian geography too well. Jesus’s ride into Jerusalem (Mk 11: 1-10) echoes Psalm 45, The Royal Wedding Song, in which the bridegroom, his sword upon his thigh, his arrows at the ready, rides his horse (see above) to meet his bride. The thigh, the horse, the arrows, are all associated with Sagittarius. Mark’s original readers would no doubt have noticed that Jesus’s request to be shown a denarius (Mk 12: 13-17) was a reference to Capricorn, since both Augustus and Titus had issued coins with Capricorn on the obverse and Capricorn was the only zodiac sign to appear on a denarius. 
            How are we to explain all the references to fish and fishing without some knowledge of the theory of ‘astrological ages’ and the idea that a new age, the age of Pisces the Fish, was beginning? There are four references to ‘fish’ in Mark and twenty-one in the other three Gospels (Six in Matthew, six in Luke, and nine in John) and ‘fishermen’ are mentioned five times. But, with the exception of one reference in 1 Cor.15:39, there are no ‘fish’ references in the rest of the New Testament. The Gospels comprise approximately one-tenth of the Bible, but there are about the same number (30) of references to fish in this fraction as there are in the other nine-tenths. So, it would not be too fanciful to suggest that the Gospels seem to have some connection with the constellation Pisces, the Fish.
Ptolemy catalogued  48 constellations, and about half of them make an appearance in one form or another in Mark’s text. But what is more remarkable is that they appear in the precise order that they are found in the sky. The Lamb, the Reclining Woman, the Bridegroom and the Hired Men (all connected with Aries) come before the crumbs falling from the children’s table (associated with Gemini/Cancer). The Rider on Horseback and the Altar (or Curse) (associated with Sagittarius) come before The Man Carrying a Jar of Water (Aquarius) which, in turn, precedes Cepheus and Andromeda (connected with Pisces). There’s nothing serendipitous about such a sequence.

Connections and Correlations

This astronomical schema is remarkable enough, but what is even more remarkable – and ingenious, and significant – is the way in which astrological elements are incorporated into the text. The ancients didn’t distinguish between astronomy and astrology. The observable, chartable celestial patterns (astronomy) and what were considered to be their analogically related terrestrial correlates (astrology), formed one unified area of study.
Nor did the ancients live in an atomised world of separate, discrete, entities as we do.[14] They perceived, in the words of the English poet, Francis Thompson, that

All things by immortal power,
Near or far,
To each other linkéd are,
Thou canst not stir a flower
Without troubling of a star …[15]

For them, astrology was the study of this link. It was concerned with correspondences and connections, in which things are related to each other either directly or analogically because they share a common essence or function. So, the Sun, ‘star’ of the day, the source of light and warmth, becomes a natural symbol of the ‘yang’ energy, masculine deities, purposeful, conscious, human activity. The Moon, ‘star’ of the night,  whose shape constantly changes, becomes associated with the ‘yin’ energy, female deities and female rhythms, unconscious urges, dreams, and visions. Shakespeare, who lived at a time when such ideas still had currency, has Cleopatra declare:

                    now from head to foot
I am marble constant: now the fleeting moon
No planet is of mine.[16]

Each of the other five ‘wanderers’ – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn - generated its own series of correspondences based upon its size, colour, the speed of its apparent orbit around the earth, its seasons of prominence and so on. The presence in our language of the words mercurial, venereal, martial, jovial and saturnine, along with the names of the days of the week, testify to this  perceived connection between planets and people.
            The human being was considered to be a universe in miniature, a microcosm within the macrocosm, and so each part of the human body was correlated with one or other of the zodiacal constellations.

The Zodiacal Man

‘Aries’, which is nothing more than that section of the celestial vault in which the Sun is placed as the year begins at the spring equinox, can be correlated with, and therefore can symbolise, beginnings, newness, lambs, and reviving life; and, since it is generally assumed that things begin at the top, it can also be linked with the heads of things, and so with leaders and even roofs and ceilings. 
Just as the first sign, Aries, is associated with the head and with beginnings, the final sign, Pisces, in which the Sun ‘dies’ before being reborn at the spring equinox, is associated with decline, weakness, endings, and the feet. Each of the other signs had its own matrix of associations derived both analogically and empirically: close observation of the common characteristics of people born at a particular time of the year would also be incorporated into a sign’s meaning. Aries people tend to be single-minded (or aggressive), Taurus people to be persistent (or stubborn), and Gemini people to be versatile, (or vacillating), and so on through the circle of the zodiac. Jacob’s blessing of his twelve sons in Genesis 49 suggests that the Twelve Tribes of Israel can be considered as psycho-spiritual categories as well as geographical groupings. 
The Hebrew prophets did not condemn the notion that there was an intimate connection between earth and sky; indeed, the Bible opens with a declaration that God had ordained it so: the Sun, Moon, and Stars were created for ‘signs[17] and for seasons’ (Gen 1:14). Apocalyptic literature throughout the Bible is full of references to it: disorder on earth would be presaged by and accompanied by disorder in the heavens. In the prophet, Joel, we read that ‘the great and dreadful day of the Lord’ will be signalled by wonders in the heavens: ‘The Sun will be turned to darkness and the Moon to blood’ (Joel 2:30-31). We find similar expressions in the Gospels. For example, in Luke we read that before ‘the end’ ‘there will be signs in the Sun, Moon, and stars … for the heavenly bodies will be shaken’ (Luke 21:25-26).
What is this but astrology?
The Hebrew prophets vented their spleen against divination by the stars, which is a different thing altogether.

The Zodiacal Divisions of Mark’s Gospel

Aries: 1:1-3:35 ‘beginning’
Taurus 4:1-4:34 ‘again, Jesus began to teach by the lake’
Gemini: 4:35-6:29 ‘That day, when evening came …’
Cancer: 6:30-8:26 ‘The apostles gathered round Jesus and reported to him …’
Leo: 8:27-9:29 ‘Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi.’
Virgo: 9:30-9:50 ‘They left that place and passed through Galilee.’
Libra: 10:1-10:31 ‘Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea …
Scorpio: 10:32-10:52 ‘They were on their way up to Jerusalem ..’
Sagittarius: 11:1-11:26 ‘As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage…’
Capricorn: 11:27-12:44 ‘They arrived again in Jerusalem …’
Aquarius: 13:1-14:16 ‘As Jesus was leaving the Temple …’
Pisces: 14:17-16:18 ‘When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve’

Notice that these are distinct sections. As the italicised words show, each one is introduced by a significant change of location or time. Each section contains several zodiacal markers. The Gemini section, for example, has ten indications of Gemini, and the Cancer section has at least eight indications of Cancer.
            The sections are of different lengths, which may be just as the author of the Gospel wanted it, or (more probably) it may suggest that the text we now possess is an edited version of a longer document.

Part 2 explores these individual sections.

[1] When the Northridge earthquake knocked out power in Los Angeles in 1994, numerous calls came into emergency centers and even the Griffith Observatory from people who had poured into the streets in the predawn hours. They had looked into the dark sky to see what some anxiously described as a ‘giant silvery cloud’ over the shaken city. Not to worry, they were assured. It was merely the Milky Way, the vast galaxy that humans once knew so well – until the glare from electric light effectively erased most of it from urban and near-urban skies.’ (Helping the Stars Take Back the Night, by Joe Sharkey. New York Times, August 8th, 2008.)
[2] E.g. Jeremiah 10:2 and Isaiah 47:13
[3] A professor of New Testament Studies at a prominent British university told me some years ago that he couldn’t comment on my theory that Mark’s Gospel has a zodiacal structure because he didn’t know anything about astrology.
[4] Cumont, F., Astrology and Religion Among the Greeks and Romans, page xxiv
[5] Jung, Carl G., 'Richard Wilhelm: In Memoriam' in The Spirit of Man, Art and Literature, Collected Works, Vol.15 (translated R.F.C.Hull), Routledge, Kegan and Paul, London. (1971), p.56

[6] In Valentinus … the twelve months of preaching by Jesus from the Baptism to the Passion correspond to the twelve signs of the zodiac, which, we remember, were sometimes depicted on the synagogue floor as a visual Calendar. (Carrington, The Primitive Christian Calendar: A Study of the Making of the Marcan Gospel, page 52.)
[7] Irenaeus, Book 2 Chapter XXII
[8] Mark (and Luke) say that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a horse. The Greek word is πῶλος and it means ‘young
[9] ‘A common figure for these stars, everywhere popular for many centuries, is that of a Hen with her Chickens – another instance of the constant association of the Pleiades with flocking birds, and here especially appropriate from their compact grouping.’ (Allen, Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, page 399)
[10] Matthew has a version of this story (Mtt 15:27), but he says the crumbs fall from the master’s table. This is not quite as true to the astronomical picture as Mark’s version.
[11] ‘Above Procyon are the stars of Castor and Pollux, the Twins …Sometimes this rectangle is seen as a table at which Castor and Pollux are eating; the two dogs (Sirius and Procyon) are waiting patiently for the table crumbs. These crumbs can be seen as very faint stars of magnitude 5 or 6, scattered between Gemini and Procyon.’ (Patterns in the Sky, by Julius D.W. Staal, page 86.)
[12] See Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, by Richard Hinckley Allen, page 355.
[13] See Babylonian Star Lore, by Gavin White, page 28
[14] Although modern science is showing the wisdom of the ancient view.
[15] From The Mistress of Vision, by Francis Thompson (1859-1907)
[16] Antony and Cleopatra, Act V Sc 2
[17] לְאֹתֹת֙


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