The Bible and Astrology:
What Does Judeo-Christian Tradition Owe to Ancient Celestial Lore?
“And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea.”
Jesus, Luke 21:25-26
On February 15, 2013 a meteor raced across the skies of central Russia, shattering violently about fifteen miles above the ground, the lowest level ever recorded. The thundering explosion created fireballs and rained down thousands of tons of debris, destroying property and injuring more than a thousand people. The object careened into the atmosphere at about 40,000 mph, detonating with the force of a 500-kiloton bomb. By comparison, the Hiroshima bomb had the force of 15 kilotons. Ironically, the Russian meteor explosion happened on the same day that an asteroid, Near-Earth Object 2012 DA14, passed by Earth. Identified last year, many telescopes were trained on its path while no one detected the approach of the meteor, although it’s estimated it was one-third the size of the asteroid, and its effect was dramatic.
It’s tempting to equate such occurrences with Biblical prophecy such as the verse in Revelation 8:10-11, “And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as if it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers and upon the fountains of waters.” What are we to make of signs in heaven, prophecy, and the role of astrology in the Bible?
Zondervan’s Pictorial Bible Dictionary states, “There are hundreds of references to stars, sun, moon and planets.” A well known verse from Genesis 1:14 proclaims, “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years.’” Job 38:31-33 is a well known phrase, “Canst thou bind the sweet influences of the Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion? Canst though bring forth Massaroth (zodiac) in his season or guide Arcturus with his sons? Knowest thou the ordinance of heaven? Canst thou set the dominion thereof in the earth?” In Judges 5:20 we read, “They fought from heaven; the stars in their courses fought against Sisera.” Sisera was a Caananite commander who oppressed the Israelites. In Psalm 136: 7-9 the author says, “To him that made the great lights; the sun to rule by day; the moon and stars to rule by night.”
The story of the Magi, or wise men, and the star of Bethlehem is a favorite Christmas story that only appears in the book of Matthew(2:2). The Magi ask Herod, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? We have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” And later in Matthew 2:10, “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding joy.” Different authors have tried to identify the star, but it’s likely it was symbolic. The Catholic Encyclopedia informs us that “Magi is usually translated as ‘astrologers’ as the magi were thought to be priest-astrologers from Persia. The historian Herodotus (5th century BCE), attests to the astrological mastery of the Persian Magi.” Accounts vary as to the number of Magi, but the oldest tradition says there were twelve.
The practices of stargazing and divination were well known and respected in biblical times; divination means, “to be inspired by the divine.” There were Roman augurs, Sybiline oracles, the Chinese I-Ching, the Tibetan State oracle, the Oracle of Delphi, and of course Joseph, who interpreted dreams for the Egyptian pharoah in the Old Testament. Through most of its history, astrology has been considered a scholarly tradition and was accepted in political and academic contexts. Astrology was connected with astronomy, alchemy, meteorology and medicine. The Chinese, Indians, and Maya developed elaborate systems for predicting terrestrial events from celestial observations. Among Indo-European peoples, astrology has been dated to the third millennium BCE with roots in calendar systems used to predict seasonal shifts and to interpret celestial cycles as signs of divine communication.
Early forms of astrology emerged from Bablylonia, Assyria and Egypt and entered Greece after 323 BCE when Alexander the Great’s conquests spread Greek culture throughout the Mesopotamian and Roman world. Egypt has star charts that go as far back as 4,200 BCE. The earliest known evidence of astrology are markings on cave walls and bones, dated to 25,000 years ago, showing lunar cycles. Babylon, or Chaldea in the Hellenistic world, was so identified with astrology that “Chaldean wisdom” became synonymous with divination through the stars and planets. In these cultures astrologers like the Persian Magi were astronomer priests with significant power.
The Zodiac of twelve constellations is one of the oldest conceptual images and began as a way to mark time. The twelve zodiac constellations are the backdrop for the Sun’s apparent path through the band of sky above and below the equator over the course of a year. The zodiac also reflects the twelve months of the year, the four seasons, and the solstices and equinoxes. The term Zodiac, “circle of animals,” indicates that constellations were personified as figures or animals. Scholars often conclude that the figures depicted in the constellations suggest what’s happening on earth at the time. For example, lambs are born at the time of Aries, and harvest occurs at the time of Virgo, who holds a sheaf of wheat.
Rupert Gleadow, in The Origin Of The Zodiac, says the idea of dividing the circle into 360 units originated independently in Babylon, Egypt and China as an approximation of the number of days in the solar year. Further dividing the year into twelve months is an outgrowth of the lunar cycle as months have always been “moon periods.” Albert Churchward, in The Signs and Symbols of Primordial Man, states, “The division is in twelve parts: the twelve signs of the Zodiac, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve gates of heaven mentioned in Revelation, and twelve entrances or portals to be passed through in the Great Pyramid, before finally reaching the highest degree, twelve Apostles in the Christian doctrines, and the twelve original and perfect points in Masonry.”
Revelation 21:12 says that the new Jerusalem, “had a wall great and high with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel.” The origin of our twelve birthstones comes from Revelation 21:19-21 and is rooted in the twelve colored stones in the breastplate of the High Priest of ancient Israel as recorded in the Book of Exodus. The breastplate is sometimes called the breastplate of judgment because the Urim and Thummin, which were used for divination, were placed inside. Although the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus condemn divination, Exodus 28 gives Urim and Thummin to the priestly class to “divine the will of Yahweh.”
In the first book of Ezekiel (1:10) he has a vision and describes four living creatures above the wheels of the chariot he sees, “the four had the face of a man and the face of a lion on the right side: and the four had the face of an ox on the left side, the four also had the face of an eagle.” That’s a confusing desciption to be sure, but these symbols can be compared to the four fixed signs of the astrology: Leo the lion, Aquarius the man with a water pitcher; the Calf is Taurus the Bull, and the Eagle is one of the symbol of Scorpio.
There are many references to the idea of an “age” in the Bible that seem related to astrology. For example, In Matthew 28:20 Jesus tells his disciples, “I will be with you even to the end of the world.” The Greek word aeon is translated in the King James Version as “world,” but the actual meaning of the word is “age.” The period of roughly 2,160 years required for the precession of the Sun through one zodiacal constellations is called an age and was named for the constellation in which the Sun rose as it crossed the equator at the vernal equinox. Approximately six thousand years ago was the Age of Taurus the Bull, the Age of Aries the Ram followed, and then the Age of Pisces, the Fishes, about two thousand years ago. We are near the end of that aeon, and the Age of Aquarius the Water Bearer will come next.
During these ages religious icons took the form of the appropriate celestial symbol. For example, the Bull of Heaven and Golden calf in the Age of Taurus, the Passover lamb and the ram-headed god of Egypt, Amen-Ra, in the Age of Aries. In the earlier Age of Gemini, the Twins there are examples, like Isis and Osiris, of deities who are both twins and siblings. In the Age of Pisces, Jesus the Lamb of God became the Fisher of Men as he was born at the juncture of two ages. The sign of the fish was one of the earliest symbols of Christianity. Jesus’ early disciples were fishermen, he fed the multitude with two small fishes, and Jesus ate a baked fish after his resurrection (Luke 24:42).
When Jesus’ disciples asked him where the next Passover would be (Luke 22:10), he replied, “A man will meet you carrying an earthen pitcher of water; follow him into the house where he goes in.” This has been interpreted as the natural sequence of precession where Aquarius, the Water Bearer will follow Pisces, the Fishes. Understood in this way, Jesus’ reign as the “Son of God” for an age will end when the Age of Aquarius begins.
As early Christianity became the Church of Rome, in 321 CE the emperor Constantine issued an edict that threatened Chaldeans (astrologers), Magi, and their followers with death. Not surprisingly, astrology went underground for a time. Constantine then convened the famous Council of Nicea in 325 CE in what is now Turkey as part of his plan to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Among the subjects debated and decided was the divinity of Jesus, making him a “Son of God,” which put him on a par with Pagan gods and made Christianity more attractive to converts.
Astrology did not remain hidden after Constantine. Ptolemy’s work Tetrabiblos, written in the second century, became the basis of the western astrological tradition. The Catholic Encyclopedia reports that the emperors Charles IV and V and Popes Sixtus IV, Julius II, Leo X and Paul III followed astrology. In fact, papal and imperial court ambassadors were not received until the court astrologer had been consulted. Lucas Gauricus, who published a number of treatises, was the court astrologer of Popes Leo X and Clement VII. Men of the Renaissance, including Nicholas Copernicus, who observed that the Earth orbited the Sun, asserted that astronomical research was valuable only to the degree that it advanced the discipline of astrology.
The powerful Medici family of Florence produced four popes. Catherine de Medici, who married a French king and wielded enormous power as regent for her son Charles IX, popularized astrology in France. She built an observatory near Paris, and her court astrologer was none other than the celebrated Michel de Notre dame, Nostradamus. He published his work on astrology in 1555, and it is still considered authoritative.
In Hebrew, astrology was called hokmat ha-nissayon, “the wisdom of prognostication,” in distinction to hokmat ha-hizzayon, the wisdom of star-seeing, or astronomy. The Jewish Talmud identified the twelve zodiac constellations with the twelve months of the Hebrew calendar, and astrology became predominant in some books of Kabbalah. Although on the surface Jewish tradition discredits astrology, the zodiac has appeared as a central motif in at least six synagogues dating to early centuries after the destruction of the temple. That has led scholars to imagine that the Jerusalem temple was decorated in a similar way where the temple represented the cosmos. This stellar theme was discussed by the historians Josephus and Philo of Alexandria, and the idea is being confirmed by new discoveries in the field of biblical archeology.
At the beginning of the 17th century, great scientists like Tycho Brahe, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler and Pierre Gassendi, who are now remembered for their roles in the development of modern physics and astronomy, all held astrology in high esteem. Astrologer William Lilly’s comprehensive book, entitled Christian Astrology, was published in 1647 in three separate volumes. It is considered one of the classic texts of traditional astrology from the Middle Ages and has never gone out of print.
By the end of the 17th century, new scientific concepts in astronomy and physics, such as heliocentrism and Newtonian mechanics, caused a growing division between the emerging science of astronomy and its mother discipline astrology. Likewise, the divide between science and religion continued to widen. In our time psychoanalysts like Carl Jung caused a popular revival of astrology with a more psychological approach.
Astrology, the Church and the Bible have a relationship that has shifted over centuries. Likewise, science and religion often seem at odds as we witness the ongoing debate over evolution and creationism. The struggle between facts and faith, measure and meaning continues to this day. One aspect of the conflict between the Bible and astrology is the literal interpretation of biblical texts. There is also a religious premise of an external creator, who exists apart from creation and must be worshipped with priests acting as intermediaries. Ironically, early followers of Jesus, whom we now call Gnostics, believed that every person had both the right and responsibility to develop their own relationship with the divine, without go betweens.
Other belief systems, like Buddhism, Hinduism and certain indigenous traditions, do not see creation as existing apart from a creator. Rather, the universe itself is seen as a divine being, and therefore, reverence for its cycles and expressions is honoring of the sacred whole. This view perceives that every phase and function of the Universal Body has a correspondence in humans—as above, so below. To the ancients, the study of the stars was a sacred science, for they saw in the movements of the celestial bodies the ever-present activity of the Infinite Parent. In my research, I actually didn’t find negative comments in the Bible about astrology itself. Rather, the fault was with practicioners who might be viewed as untrustworthy. That charge could be leveled at any occupation, as sadly there are always people who will misuse their knowledge. To quote Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “The fault dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves . . .”
Astrology, not unlike the Bible, is an aspect of perennial wisdom that seems to wax and wane in widespread favor over periods of history. This might even have been forseen by astrology. After all, if there had never been any demonstrated effective applications, astrology would not have developed in the first place, let alone persisted and thrived for six millenia, inspiring many great minds. It seems that the Church and the priests may have taken the place of astrologers for Christians, and it is now the church, in the name of God, that holds the power to direct these believers. Either way, if the result uplifts the spirit and provides wise counsel, the changing tides will serve the greater good.