With my book out for about a month, I have now received a great review/blog post about The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View. And it comes from Richard Carrier, who also provided a very positive blurb for the book. He was very supportive in my researching this topic, and I’m sure my book would have been much inferior without his help.
In his review, Carrier brings up a point that I hadn’t actually consciously gone for, but it is a valid expansion. In the book, I point out how ancient astrologers did not have some well-defined method of interpretation of the skies, and there were significant differences between Babylonian/Assyrian methods and the Hellenistic form that has become dominant in the West and India. And because there is such massive discord among the ancients, it makes it very dubious to create an astrotheological interpretation of early Christianity and the Gospels.
For example, I showed that the system of astrological geography–that is, how different regions of the world were under the influence of different constellations or signs–were completely different from astrologer to astrologer. I even quoted from the most famous of the ancient astrologers, Ptolemy, about how astrological interpretation is even nigh-impossible or at least very difficult even by experts, let along the charlatans of the age. With this and other points I make, I prove that a modern scholar cannot look at a horoscope and know how it would have been interpreted; I even use an example of one of the horoscopes created for Jesus by Michael Molnar and show you can either get the King of Kings or a misshapen sex slave. Oops.
But when I think of astrotheology, what comes to mind is the work of Acharya S/D.M. Murdock and its use in part 1 of Zeitgeist. There are two major things that I will consider here from that work: the astrotheological version of the Star of Bethlehem, and the importance of the precession of the equinoxes.
Now, I did consider looking at this idea about the Star in the book, and perhaps I should have. Then again, it hasn’t been put into any peer-review journal or book unlike even the bad Star of Bethlehem theories that I disprove. Also, I have talked about this in some previous videos I made, including in the talk I gave a couple of weeks ago (video jumps to where I start to talk about it at 37:20).
The key points are that the astronomy does not stand up (Orion already set before sunrise, and the alignment doesn’t happen on Dec 25 under the most favorable of interpretations), the symbolism is based on no ancient sources (i.e. belt of Orion called the 3 kings), it tries to explain things that have nothing to do with the original story from the Gospels (i.e. birth on Dec 25, 3 kings), and it doesn’t explain details from the Gospel of Matthew (i.e. a star hanging over a particular location). In fact, the alignment being talked of has nothing to do with how astrologers did their work. The sorts of alignments done back in the day used horoscopes, and then only concerned the planets and the zodiac constellations. That would exclude Orion and Sirius which is so important to Murdock’s hypothesis. And there are no records that show the (non-existent) alignment was important to Egyptians in antiquity. The whole thing is modern invention.
Another major component is the belief that people were interested in the coming of astrological ages. These shifts happen when the vernal equinox (the location of the Sun on the first day of spring) slowly moves from one zodiac constellation to another, forever immortalized in the song “Aquarius” from the musical Hair. Now, the very idea of astrological ages cannot go back farther than its discovery, and that is usually credited to Hipparchus of Rhodes in the 2nd century BCE. That is pre-Christian, but it’s not so early that it could explain other religions, such as Egyptian or Babylonian. And considering most people were not exactly astronomers, it isn’t safe to assume that the discovery by Hipparchus was known by the masses. The best evidence I know of is the hypothesis that the Mithras religion based based on this discovery, which is argued by David Ulansey. However, his hypothesis has long favor after the work done by Roger Beck, the top scholar in the field of Mithraic studies (and whom I hope to meet next year at the Star of Bethlehem conference).
But even if we allow this to be common knowledge for the early Christians to use, there is still a significant problem: When was the astrological age to change? At the beginning of the 1st century, as shown by Otto Neugebauer and referenced by Michael Molnar, the vernal equinox was at about 5 degrees in Aries. Based on the calculations of how quickly precession was believed to have happened, it would have been 500 years in the future. Hardly coming “coming soon” as seen in the authentic letters of Paul and the Book of Revelation. And since we can’t even know if people back then would have given this a sort of amazing status as Murdock would suppose, we can’t make this work.
But if you look at the Wikipedia page, it says that some calculate that the Age of Pisces (after Aries) began around the time of Jesus’s birth. How is that so? It’s based on back calculations from modern astrologers to fit their own spiritual views. It’s a modern contrivance. It also was such to get it that the Age of Aquarius was something in the near future for Baby Boomers; things like the Vietnam war were the last throes of the age of Pisces. This is hardly relevant to reconstructing religious beliefs from 2000 years ago, and that shows how much astrotheology is a modern creation. (Then again, medieval astrologers did the same things for their own times, so there really isn’t anything new under the Sun.)
Now, there is one bit of argumentation I have seen that has the greatest plausibility of looking at the Jesus story in terms of solar symbolism, something that has been brought up by a commenter on this blog (his paper is here). The points are that in Luke 1:26 and the context there has Jesus being conceived six months after John the Baptist was. And in the Gospel of John 3:30 the Baptist says how he must decrease so that the other may increase. Now, if one views Jesus and John acting as the Sun and different times of year, John is the dying sun in winter, while Jesus is the rising sun of summer. In other words, the six months is about the solstices.
However, this doesn’t really work well given what we know about how literature was written back then. Suppose you only had the Gospel of Luke and not John, which would have been the case for Luke’s first readers. All you have is the six-month time difference between the conceptions of Jesus and John. How does a reader get solar myth out of just that? There aren’t any other details in the story from Luke to support that. There just aren’t enough narrative clues to the reader.
Let’s compare this time issue with a more recent literary example: Frankenstein. (It’s after Halloween, but it’s still a great book.) According to the novel, Dr. Frankenstein worked for nine months to create his cadaver-man, which he then rejected because he (it?) was hideous. Because the story is about a man giving life, the nine-month period has a symbolic role by relating the creation of the Monster to child-bearing, a nine-month process. It is because the context of the story in the novel (and not by reading a later novel) as well as the cultural assumptions that would go into reading it by the audience, we can see what Mary Shelly was doing. Modern scholars also compare it to Shelly’s own troubles with having children, but that is besides the point to consider here.
But this is not the case with the six months in the Gospel of Luke. We have to mix it up with a later work with details from a different story (adult Jesus and John rather than their nativities). And it’s this sort of mixing and matching of details that brought ridicule to the history of religions school of the turn of the 20th century. Moreover, the use of some solar symbolism doesn’t mean the whole story is about the sun. After all, King Louis XIV of France was known as the Sun King; that use of a symbolic name doesn’t mean he was a sun god. In fact, this sort of ridicule against this sort of arguing is old; it was done against Charles François Dupuis by using his methods to “prove” Napoleon was just a solar myth and not some general worthy of being feared. The same was repeated with Max Muller in the late 19th century.
Now, I won’t pretend to know necessarily why Luke says there was a six month difference between the conceptions of Jesus and John. Perhaps six months is when it’s obvious to anyone in antiquity that a woman is pregnant and so for Mary on her visit to Elizabeth (John’s elderly mother-to-be) it was clear to her that Elizabeth had had a miraculous birth as well. Or perhaps there were other traditions involved worth considering. When looking at Borg and Crossan’s The First Christmas (pp. 108-109), they bring up a targum that talks of a story of a man of the tribe of Levi (the priestly tribe) returning to be with his wife, a woman well over 100 years in age. But upon the man’s return to her she became young and gave birth to a son in just six months. Considering that John’s father, Zechariah, was a priest, and Elizabeth was an old woman beyond her child-bearing years, then perhaps this is the background for what we see in Luke.
Now, that is only a speculation of mine. But it explains the evidence at least as well as a solar myth explanation, and unless one can show how the solar myth can explain the story in the Gospel of Luke better, then we don’t actually have evidence in favor of the solar myth hypothesis. And since this seems to be one of the best cases out there, I have to say there isn’t much of a case to be made.
So I do agree with Carrier that the nature of astrology in antiquity doesn’t allow for much confidence in astrotheological explanations for Christianity or Christian literature. And the particular ideas out there don’t stand up to scrutiny and are really modern inventions. Astrotheological explanations have little or nothing in common with the diverse (but still not infinitely malleable) methods of ancient astrology. This isn’t to say there aren’t any astrological elements in Christianity (the Book of Revelation has some notable ones), but there is nothing even close to the explanatory power needed to make sense of the Gospels or the origins of the religion.