Jewish Attitudes Towards Astrology


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By the eighth century the great Jewish astrologer Messahala (known in the Near East as Masha' allah), who worked at the court of Baghdad, heralded a new era for Jewish astrology. Until quite recently it used to be assumed that Jewish interest was limited to occasional hostile rejection until the early Middle Ages. This is true of the Old Testament, a collection of books dating from the tenth to the second century BCE.22 This negative attitude is also found in the writings known as the Pseudepigrapha. For instance the author of 1 Enoch, probably of the early second century, argues that astrology is evil, having been taught to men by one of the fallen angels. This is an idea we find again among Christian writers. The third book of the Sibylline Oracles also condemns interest in Chaldaean astrology, and the book Jubilees presents it as wrong because it fails to leave matters to divine providence.23 But during the same period of the second century BCE, some Jews more open to outside influences took a more positive view of astrological ideas. The Egyptian Artapanus and the Anonymous Samaritan claimed that Abraham had taught astrology to the Egyptians, and the latter that the art had been invented by Enoch. More detailed information comes from two documents of the third century CE which preserve earlier traditions. The Testament of Solomon depicts the decans, in the guise of daemonic powers, in discussion with Solomon. They say to him: 'We are the thirty-six elements, the world rulers of the darkness of this age', and proceed to describe themselves in terms which actually seem to refer to the signs of the zodiac. Each reveals the ills it causes on Earth and the way in which they can be conquered. Solomon takes control, ordering them either to prison, or to worthy tasks. Again, we find an idea which recurs in Christian and Gnostic contexts, that the astral powers can be commanded by God or his servants. God is equally firmly in control in the Sefer-Ha-Razim, in which the thirty-six angels who reveal what will happen on Earth each year, and the twelve angels, who 'hasten to bring the astrological signs of the sons of man into conjunction for love', are presumbly the decans and signs. We are told that Noah observed the astrological signs.24

But the only astrological text proper, probably from the first century BCE, is the Treatise of Shem, which was composed in Aramaic in Alexandria. There are twelve chapters, one for each sign, for instance:

And if the year begins in Taurus: everyone whose name contains a Beth, or Yudh, or Kaph will become ill, or be wounded by an iron [weapon]. And there will be fighting. And a wind will go out from Egypt and will fill the entire earth. And in that [year] there will be wheat and abundant rains, but the nobles of that land and of the surrounding region will destroy them [the crops]...And devils will attack men but will not harm them in any way. And two kings will oppose one another. And the large river Nile will rise above its measure. Those who are on a ship in the midst of the sea.will be in severe misery. But at the close of the year there will be great blessing.

This represents a similar type of document to those found in Demotic or in Greek of around the same period. Some Alexandrian Jews, at any rate, were learning astrology from their neighbours. It is mundane rather than individual natal astrology, though in the eighth chapter it mentions that everyone born in Scorpio will survive birth, but be killed at the end of the year.25

One of the fragmentary documents found among the Dead Sea Scrolls preserves a generalised version of individual astrology. According to this work, which is written in a disguised form of Hebrew, a man born under the influence of Taurus will have his spirit divided so that six parts are from the 'House of Light' and three from the 'Pit of Darkness'. He will be poor and have long thin thighs and toes. Other documents from the same cave refer to the zodiac, one discussing the effects of thunder in different signs.26 The nature of the Jewish sect to whom these documents belonged and the date are controversial. However, they are probably from the last two centuries BCE or early in the Christian era.

In synagogues in Palestine and elsewhere, from the fourth century onwards, depictions of the zodiac in a central position are quite common (see Plate 9). Of course it is uncertain what they represented; they could have stood for the twelve sons of Jacob, and thus the Twelve Tribes, or simply the months of the year. The few indications we have suggest that there was no one accepted position on astrology. The Hellenised Jewish writer Philo, head of the Jewish community in Alexandria in the mid-first century, and Josephus (b. 36 CE), a Jew who settled in Rome, seem to reject astrology but to be influenced by astrological ideas. They sometimes equate twelve-fold groups in the Old Testament (usually related to the Twelve Tribes), such as the twelve loaves in the temple or the twelve gemstones on the priest's breastplate, with the zodiac.27 This foreshadows Christian and Gnostic allegorical use of the zodiac. The Babylonian Talmud shows that in the sixth century CE two opposed views were thought worth preserving. Of two third-century rabbis, one claimed that 'Israel stands under astrological influence,' and the other that 'Israel is immune from astrological influence.' The first supported individual natal astrology explicitly, looking to 'the constellation of the hour'. Under Mercury, for instance, a man will be born retentive and wise, because Mercury is the Sun's scribe.28 This disagreement about astrology's value, the recognition of a conflict with Divine Providence, and the notion that a chosen group may be exempted from astral influence, are all themes which resurface in Christian writers.

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