The Astrology Podcast
Transcript of Episode 310, titled:
Ancient Jewish Views on Astrology
With Chris Brennan and Dr. Justin Sledge
Episode originally released on July 6, 2021
Note: This is a transcript of a spoken word podcast. If possible, we encourage you to listen to the audio or video version, since they include inflections that may not translate well when written out. Our transcripts are created by human transcribers, and the text may contain errors and differences from the spoken audio. If you find any errors then please send them to us by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Transcribed by Mary Sharon
Transcription released July 09, 2021
Copyright © 2021 TheAstrologyPodcast.com
CHRIS BRENNAN: Hi, my name is Chris Brennan and you’re listening to the Astrology podcast. In this episode, I’m going to be talking with Dr. Justin Sledge about ancient Jewish views on astrology. Hey Justin, welcome to the show.
DR. JUSTIN SLEDGE: Hi Chris, thank you so much for having me.
CB: Yeah. I really appreciate it. So, you are the host of the Esoterica YouTube channel which is available at youtube.com/esotericachannel. And you have sort of an academic background where you specialize in the study of Western esotericism, right?
JS: That’s right. Yeah. I have a PhD in philosophy, and I also studied in the University of Amsterdam, which is one of the few places in the world basically that offers an advanced academic degree in the study of Western esotericism and Hermetic philosophy. I focused a good bit of my time there. And yeah, produce content that takes a look at topics in the occult, magic, alchemy, Kabbalah from a academic perspective, but I hope the channel is both useful from anyone from a complete skeptic but also for practicing occultist and esotericist. So, it’s a really interesting kind of project, at least I think it is. I hope folks will check the channel out, and maybe they find some interesting things there.
CB: Yeah, I’ve really been enjoying the channel. It has a lot of really amazing stuff on it. And I’m really looking forward to getting into this topic with you because I’ve been wanting to do an episode on Jewish views on astrology in ancient times for a while now, but I haven’t found anybody to do it with until we crossed paths earlier this year. And we’ve been talking about doing this episode for, I think a few months now. Why don’t we go ahead and get right into it?
JS: Yeah. Let’s do that.
CB: All right. The starting point and the most interesting point about this for me or the most obvious immediate starting point is just the location of like the origins of the Jewish people in the Mediterranean region and that little region that’s right between the origin point of the two main cultures that fed into and created Western astrology, which is the Mesopotamians or the Babylonians over in what is modern day Iraq on the one hand who were developing a tradition of astrology since at least about 2000 BCE. And then you have the Egyptians over in Egypt also developing a tradition of astrology since about 2000 BCE. And right in between there you have this other land that’s caught in between and had very interesting interactions with both of those cultures. So that’s sort of the starting point in terms of then what was the relationship between the Jewish people and astrology and was it always favorable or was it always unfavorable or what was the deal? So that’s my starting point. Where should we start in terms of the history though or where does the timeline of Jewish history start?
JS: Well, the Israelite people enter into history sometime about the 13th century BCE, really. We have the first mention of Israel in the Merneptah Stele at about 1204, 1206, where the son of Ramesses the Great basically claims to have destroyed them. And we have them being mentioned along several other people that have been destroyed. And so that’s kind of where the ancient Israelites enter into history is that Stele. Although the kingdom of ancient Israel probably enters into history sometime around 1000 BCE with King David, although there’s some debate about this. There’s two competing chronologies at this point, but the typical current chronology is about 1000 BCE. Although the texts that we have of the Hebrew Bible date from a much later period. And so if we’re going to look to try to get a grasp on how the ancient Israelites thought about the heavens and the influence of the heavens on their lives or on the world, it’s really going to be primarily in the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament, that we’re going to see sort of the landscape of what we might call astrological or astral views. Of course these writers aren’t writing specifically about astrology, and so many of the references that we get are very oblique, and we can maybe get into some of those references and some of the astral bodies and how they relate to the world. But the references are often oblique and they’re often hostile. As you might imagine, the Israelites were a tiny little kingdom, Jerusalem was a tiny little city there compared to Babylon or Luxor or Thebes. And so the cultural practices of their neighbors are going to be sort of a weird object for the ancient Israelites. On the one hand, they’re going to be heavily influenced by them, and that’s evident in all the archeology we see, but on the other hand, they’re going to be very interested, the Israelites are going to be very interested in distinguishing themselves as different. And part of how they’re going to distinguish themselves as different is going to be in their religious practices, specifically in what they don’t do. And one of the things that it seems like they distanced themselves from was the practices of both worshiping objects that were in the sky, but specifically also trying to divine a meaning from those objects in the sky. So we have a kind of complex relationship, a very complex relationship. And I think as we’ll go through history that relationship to astrology and Judaism is going to remain very tense. It’s going to be always some folks are very pro, some folks are very against, and Judaism just sort of grapples with this problem. And even with modern legal codes, there’s never really completely definitively said one way or the other.
CB: Even more prominently or importantly, one of the differentiations from its neighbors as well was in developing monotheism and developing religious focus on monotheism. When does that come into play or when does that become like a central theological focus?
JS: Man, obviously, a very controversial question. There’s a lot of answers to that question. [Justin laughs] The traditional answer is since Moses. I’m not sure historically we can quite stand by that or since Abraham, I don’t know we can stand by that either, at least from a historical point of view. We see a slow development. It’s very clear that the ancient Israelites were what we call henotheists. That is to say they worship specifically their God, their national God, but they acknowledge the existence of other gods. And eventually that does transform into a strict monotheism where there’s only one God. The first really clear place we see a very, very strict kind of monotheism is going to be in what is sometimes called Third Isaiah, which are the last sections of the prophet Isaiah. And there, it’s very clear that the God talking is very clearly just one God, all the other gods are not really real and both good and evil moral qualities come from that God. So there’s not even a kind of devil figure either. It’s just God, and God’s responsible for the being there, it says, [foreign 07.22] the light and the dark. [foreign 07.24] “I am the good and the evil.” And that’s a radical kind of monotheism. I think a radical kind of monotheism that most people aren’t willing to accept even now.
CB: And this is important in the context of those other cultures that it’s situated in between in the ancient world like Mesopotamia or Egypt, where polytheism was kind of the main thing for like thousands of years, right?
JS: For sure. And with the exception of a sort of strange blip in Egypt there with Akhenaten quite some time before, but yeah, typically, monotheism was a very unusual idea, and the Romans thought it was a very unusual idea even much later. It’s always struck people as a… It’s odd that it’s so normative now compared to the thousands of years of ancient history where monotheism was thought to be completely abberant and weird. And again, part of what’s going on there is that these other cultures, their deities live in the sky and are identified with stars and with the wandering stars, the planets, and they were the object of worship. They were also the object of worship for many Israelites much to the chagrin of the prophets. And part of what’s going to go on in the Israelite mentality is saying, “No, you cannot worship these beings. In fact, you may not even want to study what they do, how they move, because that might be tantamount to a kind of astral worship.” So this is where things get really ambiguous, where early on are we dealing with a worry around worshiping the stars, and in fact, even the modern Hebrew legal term for paganism, I guess, is [foreign 09:03] is [foreign 09:05] It’s the worship of the stars and the mazalot, the constellations. Even though I don’t know that many people do that anymore, that’s still the term in Hebrew for paganism or abberant Jewish practice at some level, one of the terms. Or is simply reading the stars to understand how they move and what their signs of, is that also tantamount to worshiping them. The Hebrew Bible seems to deeply conflate those at some level, often.
CB: Yeah. And I think this is going to be one of our central discussion points and questions that maybe we’ll come back to. And it’s interesting seeing how at different points in history different Jewish authors wrangled with this question and how it had important implications for astrology, but maybe in the earliest parts, just understanding, especially at the oldest portions of maybe Hebrew literature, that to the extent that it’s growing up in this context of you have like the Mesopotamians over here who are polytheistic and worship gods in many different forms and in nature and attribute divine things to nature in general, including to planets and stars and things like that. And to that extent, the planets and stars were seen as divine sentient beings that you could do perpetuation rituals to or you could do other things like that. And then in Egypt, we have that even more so with the exception of that really brief reign of that one pharaoh who was so controversial that I think after he died, they tried to erase him from the history books more or less successfully. Did you do a video on him?
JS: I’ve not done one on him and he has this famous hymn ‘To the Aten’ and Tutankhamun was his son. Of course, Tutankhamun wasn’t born Tutankhamun, he was born Tutankhaten and had to change his name after his father died because of this Amarna heresy. But yeah, then there’s a lot of questions about to what degree does the Akhenaten episode relate to the development of monotheism in ancient Israel? I don’t think there’s much of a connection, but some people have argued there is.
CB: Right. And that one was specifically, he tried to change the polytheism of Egypt to be primarily just worshiping the Sun. And that was his weird or at least unique sort of idea at the time that then became controversial in Egyptian society.
JS: Absolutely. And also controversial to a giant bureaucratic litter of priests who their job security was threatened by, you know. Yeah. There’s lots of reasons why it was unpopular. I think another reason why it was unpopular, it was really un-fun to go to the temples because the rest of the ancient Egyptian temples like many temples are enclosed buildings. And that’s not the case for the Aten, you stood in the Sun and worshipped this being. And many of the people who came as emissaries to Egypt to do homage to the Aten were standing in the baking Sun of Egypt. And they were like, “This is just practically not a great… This is not fun.”
CB: Yeah. I get sun burns really easily so that would not have worked out for me. [Justin laughs] [Chris laughs]
JS: Yeah. Sun worship can be… You got to have some really good sunscreen to do Sun worship, and I’m not sure it existed so much in ancient Egypt.
CB: Yeah, whatever the Egyptian version of like SPF 100 is. At least. The Egyptians they had also the decans, they developed the astrology of the 36 decans which became like these 36 fixed stars or asterisms that were used in order to time different religious rituals when certain fixed stars were rising over the Eastern horizon or culminating overhead. And that became like the precursor for the later concept of the 12 houses in Western astrology. Whereas over in Mesopotamia, we have the zodiac developing and they developed the 12 signs zodiac and also the study of a complex mathematical astronomy in order to track the positions of the planets far into the future and the past. And this eventually coincided with the development of natal astrology and birth charts in like the fifth century BCE. So what’s the time period for like… Christians will call it like the Old Testament, what is the time period for the composition of that?
JS: So we have a range of texts, some of them probably date back quite old. We think maybe some of them even predate the period of the Davidic monarchy. So maybe pre 1000 BCE. There’s some reason to believe the Song of the Sea is rather archaic and maybe some hymns of Devorah, so let’s say circa 1200 BCE, that’s rarely contested. And then the Hebrew Bible as we know it is basically edited together as a document that we might recognize sometime after the Babylonian Exile. So beginning in the Persian period, so 586 BCE is when the exile occurs. And then through the fifth and fourth centuries, the Hebrew Bible, as we know it probably began to take shape.
CB: Really quickly, what’s the exile? Could you explain the exile really quickly for those not familiar with it?
JS: Sure. What ends up happening is that there are two instances in which the Kingdom of Israel… The Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah we think split at one point, the Northern Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. Most of those folks were scattered throughout the world, we don’t really know what happened to many of those people.
CB: 722 BCE?
JS: 722 BCE, that’s when the Assyrians destroyed the Northern Kingdom, which was probably the more prosperous kingdom and then eventually-
CB: That’s really interesting timeframe in the history of astrology because that’s roughly like seventh and eighth century BCE is roughly the high point of state-supported astrology in Mesopotamia under the Assyrians where they had at least like 10 different colleges of astrologers that were set up around Mesopotamia that all sent reports into the king directly. And astrology was very much a government affair in many ways. So just to locate things in terms of the history of astrology.
JS: That’s fascinating. Yeah. The Assyrians were, not just in terms of astrology but also prophecy, they’re one of the only other cultures that we have prophetic documents in which they had much like you described in terms of astrological literature, prophetic literature, in which prophets would give prophecies. And those prophecies would be written down and sent to the king in order to decide what to do. We see something very similar actually happening in ancient Israel where the prophets become one of the mechanisms by which political decisions get made. And one could assume that similar kinds of things might be going on also in Israel. The Babylonian empire eventually conquers the Assyrian empire. And Judah, this country, a little kingdom beneath Israel becomes semi-independent, then becomes a feast basically of Babylon. It rebels, and the Babylonians ultimately destroy it in 586. And the Judahites were are some of the few remaining people along with Simeon and Benjamin, those folks are then carted over to the Babylonian, at least the aristocrats are carted over. And that becomes what we know as the Babylonian exile, where those aristocrats largely are taken over to Babylon. And they’re held there for a couple of generations until they’re allowed to return when the Persian empire conquers the Babylonians, and the Persians are much more lenient, and they allow the Judahites to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple and things like that. So that’s happening in the Persian period.
CB: So it’s like an entire society or level of society that is transported from that area over to Mesopotamia?
JS: That’s right. And it’s in that context where they become probably beginning to really come in contact with Babylonian culture and also Persian culture. And it’s very likely in that context that they’re going to pick up a lot of the… Both positively and negatively, they’re going to pick up a lot of these astrological ideas that are going on and current there and bring those back. But we also know that–
CB: That’s super crucial. This is in a period before the invention of natal astrology but when mundane astrology in Mesopotamian Babylon was at its peak, and they were paying attention to the movements of the planets and stars as one of the many forms of divination that could send signs from the gods to humankind and which the state especially would use as one of its sort of intelligence forms or intelligence apparatus to make decisions about political moves and what to do in the future.
JS: Yeah. They’re going to bring some of that stuff back. Of course not long after that, they’re going to come into direct contact with Hellenism. And of course, again, stuck between several different peoples, we’re going to see some people drift into Hellenism, some people drift into the Babylonian context, of course, Jews were also returned to Babylon during the Talmudic period, which we’ll get into later. And what’s happening is that Judaism is always in sort of a weird thing. It’s always an inside out culture in that it’s always looking to the outside to some degree, but it’s always struggling to maintain its own identity. And so there’s always a negotiation about what you bring in and what you keep out, and you see this negotiation happen in the Hebrew Bible, you see it happen in Jewish literature and in Jewish communities all to this day. And astrology is going to be one of the big things where on the one hand, very few people are going to deny that it’s real, that it accurately describes and can do what it says it does. The question is, do we let it in? And that’s really going to be a big driving question that’s going to be… You can see it all the way back in the Hebrew Bible where the prophet Jeremiah says, “Look, don’t look to the otot ha-shamayim, the otot ha-shamayim, the signs of the heaven. Don’t be afraid of those.” Well, the fact that he calls them otot ha-shamayim means that they are signs. That he has to kind of admit that there’s something going on up there, but God is in control. We shouldn’t be worried about this. And so that’s always the question, is are these heavenly bodies causing things, communicating things, are they determining things? Do they express the will of God? And the Israelite population, the Jewish population, can never quite make up its mind about what he wants to do with that. And then we can maybe talk more about what we see in the Hebrew Bible, but there’s this also this general anxiety around divination and the Hebrew Bible is very, again, very mixed about divination. There are licit and illicit forms of divination. Although what’s interesting is that there’s no word for astrology in ancient Hebrew at this level. And so, luckily, for later astrologers, because there’s no word for it in classical biblical Hebrew, they don’t say you can’t do it. And because it’s not explicitly outlawed, it can kind of get smuggled back in. The closest thing is something like meʿonen which comes from the Hebrew word, probably `anan, which means cloud. But again, and even though phrase otot ha-shamayim, the signs of the heaven, that Jeremiah says not to pay attention to. The word ot is a weird word because it can mean sign, it can mean miracle, it can mean prodigy. The keshet, the rainbow, that God revealed after the Noah’s Ark business, that’s also called an ot. So are rainbows, comets, what are these things? So there’s a lot of ambiguity and ambiguity is great for people who want to do things that maybe other people want them to do. The same is going to be true for Jewish magic. Jewish magic will be practiced for centuries. And anytime it says, “Hey, you can’t do that.” And you’re like, “Well, I’m not doing what the Bible says not to do. Because we don’t know what those words mean.”
CB: Yeah. One of the things I learned from one of my teachers, Nick Campion, was he always pointed out that whenever you see something in a historical text that is like a law forbidding something, our initial impulses is to think, “Well, oh, that means that wasn’t happening, it wasn’t practiced during that time period because it was being suppressed.” But it’s actually quite the opposite. Whenever you see something that is like a prescription against something or a statement saying you shouldn’t do this, the only reason that’s there is because somebody is trying to do it, and they’re attempting to suppress something that is actually an issue that they want to counteract somehow.
JS: That’s right. I mean, we say the same thing. Prohibitions are evidence of practice. So it’s a shorter version of the same thing. So yeah, when the Bible goes through and says, don’t do X and don’t do Y and don’t do this, they’re not worried about non-Israelites doing it, that’s evidence that Israelites are doing it. Because they don’t care about what Egyptians do, they care about what Israelites do. And it’s clear that when you see these long lists of methods of divination or these long lists of various forms of magic, it’s pretty clear that they’re practicing them. So yeah, the same with divination by the stars. It’s something that is the object of anxiety for some of the writers of the Hebrew Bible.
CB: One of the points about that then and one of the things I was surprised as I was preparing for this episode, there’s an interesting realization, was that especially in earlier periods, Judaism and Jewish society is not monolithic, but there’s many different groups of people doing different things, it seemed like. And correct me if I’m wrong, but seems like that’s something to be aware of in the early periods as well, that there may have been a more diversity of practice and views than we might get the sense of in retrospect once the textual tradition had been standardized a little more.
JS: Well, it’s true. Yeah. And also the textual tradition reflects often the writers in the priestly class of folks, the elite class of folks in Jerusalem who really want to centralize political and religious power in that one city. And there certainly was people out there worshiping lots of different gods. They would worship the Israelite God, but they also worship the Israelite God and his wife, which we know from inscriptions the Israelite God had a wife. And they worshipped both of them happily. And it wasn’t until the reign of people like Hezekiah and Josiah, these Kings that led reforms is how it gets said, but I think it’s better to translate them as inquisitions. And we actually see evidence where non-Jerusalemite shrines like the one at Tel Arad are just basically torn down. And so yeah, the vision we get is a very specific, very narrow vision. And if we look at the archeological evidence, we see tons of little idols, I guess you could call them. So it’s very clear that people on the street are doing something very different than the Jerusalem priesthood. And the people writing these prohibitions represent 1% of the population perhaps. And so we shouldn’t extrapolate that. We should probably conclude that when they say don’t do something, that’s what the vast majority of people are in fact doing, I think what may be the more likely thing to believe. So yeah, and I think when you look at the… Again, when you tell people don’t worry about the signs in the heavens, well, that’s because people are pretty worried about the signs in the heavens, and they can probably read them at some level or acclaim they can. And so the Prophet Jeremiah having to tell them don’t do it, probably means that they can and do.
CB: Okay. And in terms of the move towards monotheism there was like one… We have like a polytheistic society or different Mediterranean cultures that have polytheism. At some point there was an identification of one God who was the main God who was Yahweh. And at that point, that’s the sort of move towards more of a focus on monotheism rather than polytheism?
JS: That’s right, yeah. The central God, this God Yahweh, who’s origins are frankly very mysterious. We don’t really know where this god came from. This God was not indigenously a Canaanite god. It seems like they were imported perhaps from the Sinai. I think the Sinai, maybe Northern Arabia and this god was imported in and ultimately gets conflated with the more local god El, and then El and Yahweh become fused into one god. And over the long course of things, these various other deities either get demonized, they become false gods or bad gods. You can think of a god like Baal, storm god, very popular god in fact. In the Ancient Levant, Baal was probably the most popular. And what ends up happening is that as the Israelites grow, they basically subsume a lot of the functions that Baal did into Yahweh. In fact, we have a couple of Psalms in the Bible that were probably originally to Baal. And the Israelite writer just kind of control F and just subtracted out the names. Because they don’t seem to be taking place in Israel. They seem to be taking place in Lebanon, and it’s clearly a storm god. It’s like, this is not Yahweh, but the name Yahweh is in there over and over again. And we think originally this was a Baal hymn that kind of got switched over, and did it with the stars. What ends up happening with the stars and the heavenly bodies is that they become subservient to this god and the various stars. And we have some curious entities, and what ends up happening is that the stars become, from what we can tell, kind of heavenly soldiers, they become the tzevaot. We have this term, Yahweh tzevaot or Adonai tzevaot, the God of the hosts. And what we mean by hosts there are legions of army. It’s like an angelic army. And those are almost certainly stars that were converted into kind of an angelic army. We even meet the leader of this army, the [foreign 27:42] Adonai, the prince of the tzevaot. And this entity helps Joshua in a battle against the City of Jericho. And so the stars get converted into a kind of angelic army. And there was a couple of really famous stars that we have mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, the Mazzaroth, which will become important in later Jewish astrology. This becomes the word for constellation. Perhaps the most famous star which is probably not a star is the Helel ben Shaḥar. This means something like the shining one son of the dawn. And that star is cast down. It’s actually thrown into the Israelite underworld. And later Christians will take that verse from Isaiah and then make it not about Nebuchadnezzar II, which it was about a Babylonian king, and they’re going to convert that prophecy against Nebuchadnezzar into a allegory about, well, the devil. And this star becomes Lucifer, the light bearer. It was probably originally Venus. It’s probably originally Venus, the morning star. Venus goes from being a goddess Asherah to being Helel ben Shaḥar, and then eventually it gets converted all the way into Lucifer, the light bearer, and eventually the devil. So the process of the demonization of stars and what’s going on up there is part of how this goes down in Israelite mythology.
CB: Yeah, that’s one of the most interesting things to me is the way in which the earlier polytheistic Mediterranean culture, where there’s many gods gets adapted to the monotheism of Judaism by making the other gods and things basically like lesser spirits or turning them into angels. So some of those things get passed on and continued as part of a tradition, but they become angels like good angels or bad angels that are in a subservient role under the primary creator god.
JS: Yeah. You have a kind of promotion or demotion, depending on how you want to look at it. And you can see that really clearly happening by the time we get to the apocalyptic literature, things like the book of Enoch, which show clear evidence where Hellenistic and also Mesopotamian astronomical/astrological theories are penetrating into Israelite, the Israelite worldview. As you probably know, the Israelite worldview basically is imagine the flat earth like a disk supported by pillars and above it as a dome. And that’s a flat dome. And then God is above that dome. And then the stars are sort of stuck into that dome. And then there’s the underworld beneath that. That’s classic Israelite worldview. What ends up happening is as the apocalyptic mode of Judaism rises, there’s an importation of Hellenistic, early Hellenistic and Mesopotamian ideas. And what ends up happening is the sky gets a lot thicker, the sky expands. And as the sky expands, you get more and more and more heavens. And part of the reason why you need these more and more heavens is because you need to begin to do the hard work of figuring out why are these things moving and what are they moving in? And so you have a basic physics problem, I suppose. And so the heavens get a lot thicker. Now that doesn’t mean that the mechanisms become worthwhile of study. In fact, in the book of Enoch, what ends up happening is that these angels fall from heaven and begin to mate with human women. And one of the things that they do is teach human beings all kinds of bad stuff like war and cosmetics. And one of the things they teach them is astrology, also herbalism for some reason. I think there’s probably tracks at some level to also some misogyny operating here as well.
CB: Yeah. Cosmetics and herbalism is the bane of societies, one that is ongoing, we’re still struggling with that one.
JS: Yeah. I think there’s some… Again, it’s a boy’s club and it’s not surprising. There’s a good bit of operative misogyny here. And there’s a long list of what the other things the angels… And each angel, each one of these Nephilim, the fallen ones, teach one of these domains and astrology becomes one of these domains. Which again, there’s something ironic about that because this is also the same time where the really complex debates around the Jewish calendar began to emerge. And the only way to really answer those really complex debates around the Jewish calendar because as I’m sure you know and many folks in your audience may know that part of what’s really important about Judaism is that it has a very strict calendar and that calendar is connected to reading astral bodies. You have to know when the Sun’s coming up, you have to know when the Sun’s going down, when the Moon is going to be new, you have to know exactly what’s going on in specific months of the year. And these holidays are tied to times of the year. And so a strict lunar calendar won’t do. Because if you just observe a strict lunar calendar and you observe a holiday in a specific month, what will end up happening is that holiday will drift through the seasons, and you can’t very well have a harvest festival in the middle of February or what would for us to be February.
CB: Let’s expand on that point for those that don’t know or let’s not take it for granted. So the Jewish calendar and some of the most important dates on it are explicitly based on astronomical alignments based on the solar lunar calendar. So for example, and correct me if I’m wrong, Passover occurs on the first full Moon on the 14th day of the first month, right?
JS: Right. It’s the first month for that counting. In fact, there are four different New Year’s, which makes it even more complicated. There are four different calendrical systems operating in the Jewish calendar. But yeah, it has to do with, looking for full Moons, looking for new Moons, and there’s debates in the rabbinical literature around it, whether you need to physically see the Moon in Jerusalem for the new month to begin or do you simply calculate when it would have happened and then it happens. And so this is like, does the calculation count? Is that what matter or you had to physically see the full Moon? And so what happens if it’s cloudy? When does nightfall technically begin? Which is typically when you can see three stars, so that’s nightfall. Because it’s not enough for the Sun to go down because it’s still twilight. You have to see three stars in the… So yeah, even when sundown starts is dependent on you seeing three astral bodies in the sky.
CB: And that’s really fascinating just because in modern times, in early 21st century, we would make, and I’m sure many people would try to make a strict distinction and say, “Well, that’s just astronomy. They’re just connecting the calendar with astronomy.” But we’re talking about creating calendars like that back when there wasn’t as much of a differentiation between astronomy and astrology in like ancient Mesopotamia, where some of these things had overlapping meanings and motivations.
JS: Yeah. In ancient Hebrew, there’s no different word. When we finally do get a word for astrology, it’s just astrologia is what it is in Aramaic. And then it’s [foreign 34:55] in Aramaic as well in Hebrew. But it’s just that which deals with the stars. They don’t make any distinction between what we would call astronomy and what we would call astrology. That distinction to them is… I don’t think it’s something that obtains. I don’t think it obtained until recently, honestly. But yeah, the calendar is tied to these astral bodies and being able to make those predictions is incredibly important, and you just can’t make them without the astrology astronomy that existed in the ancient world. And so the irony about this whole business of this fallen angel teaching everyone astrology or astronomy, is that the Israelites were dependent on exactly that science to know when to celebrate their holidays. [Justin laughs]
CB: And is that in 1 Enoch that story you’re telling?
JS: Yeah. It’s in 1 Enoch this business about… Which was incredibly popular, of course it doesn’t survive into the Western canon, it does survive into the Ethiopic canon, but we know that it was incredibly popular. One, because the New Testament quotes it. It’s actually quoted in the book of Jude. And we find more copies of it among the Dead Sea Scrolls than we do other books of the Bible, including books of the Torah, which is the five books of Moses.
CB: But that’s otherwise not a canonical text that gets passed on in most of the either Jewish or Christian tradition after that point?
JS: Right. It doesn’t go into becoming canon in those traditions. But I would say that in the Second Temple period, it was incredibly popular. And again, canon I think has this idea that someone’s picking it to be authoritative. I think it was authoritative at that time. And again, one example of that would be in the New Testament where the letter of Jude quotes it as authoritative. And so the writer of that letter quotes 1 Enoch as being authoritative. So this was a person who was an early Christian, clearly thinking the book was scripture enough to quote as a proof for something. And also many ancient Jews also followed. In fact the… And we will get into this in just a moment. The community at Qumran, who also had a very intense and interesting relationship to both the calendar issues that we were talking about, but also astrology more specifically. In fact, the earliest Jewish horoscopes were actually were recoverable from Qumran. And they relied on a version of the calendar described in the book of Enoch and not on the calendar that was eventually accepted into so-called Orthodox Judaism. So it was authoritative enough for that community to literally base their calendar on it. And of course, the following of the Jewish law that you would celebrate a certain holiday on a specific day, which was very important in the Bible, they trusted the book of Enoch and its calendar enough for basically for them to be out of step with the rest of the Jewish world. And that Enochian calendar, which is a solar calendar, it’s a 365 day calendar, as opposed to a luni-solar calendar that has an entry calculation with a leap month every several years, every four years or every 36 months. That Enoch calendar actually occurs in the practice at Qumran, the folks who produce the Dead Sea Scrolls. So it’s clear that the calendrical issues and how to read the heavens were the topic of a substantial debate among the Second Temple Israelites.
CB: Sure. I guess I was just thinking it’s interesting how there’s a tension then if that text Enoch is around the first century BCE roughly.
JS: Probably composed third century, maybe late fourth, early third century BCE. We see evidence of it at the Qumran site, and then it’s again preserved ultimately by the Ethiopian Orthodox church.
CB: Okay. And that one’s saying astrology is taught to humans by fallen angels. But then we also have some other people in that time period, like I think Josephus and like other people that tried to attribute to Abraham the like biblical patriarch of Judaism, the invention of astrology. And they try to say that Abraham was the first person that discovered or invented Astrology.
JS: That’s right. We have people like Josephus, the Jewish historian, making the claim, asa well as Philo made the claim that Abraham invented astrology. That idea will be incredibly influential. We’ll find it in the Talmud later. And we’ll also find it in the Koran. The Koran actually quotes that idea that Abraham was originally an astrologer. We’ll see that idea survive well into the modern world. And to my knowledge, there is a… And you may know more about this than I do. There was a, I think it’s Valens who quotes some kind of astrological manual or text that was in circulation attributed to Abraham, and it had some authority. I don’t know anything about it and I can’t find much about… It seems like there’s only one quotation that survived or something. And it seems like it has to do with traveling and things like that. Of course that links up to the idea then in Judaism, we would say something like my father Abraham was a wandering Aramean. And so unsurprisingly, what we might find is perspicuous days for traveling in an astrological manual attributed to Abraham given that he did a good bit of traveling in his story.
CB: Yeah. There was a text on Hellenistic astrology, because it’s first cited by Valens in the second century, and then Firmicus Maternus in the fourth century also cites the same text. It dealt with the topic of the lots or what’s known as the Arabic parts, which are like mathematical points that are used in a chart. And Valens actually also seems to have gotten the time-lord or the timing technique known as zodiac releasing today from that text. And he cites this whole excerpt from Abraham or he summarizes it on the topic of travel and knowing when a person would travel which was actually kind of a big deal. Yeah, very treacherous. And so that’s probably the largest piece of it that we actually have that survives is Valens doing like a synopsis of this text from Abraham at one point. And it uses very distinctive language. So it means that there was a text on technical… Because at this point we’re jumping forward in time, we’re jumping to the period after the first century BCE when Hellenistic astrology comes on the scene, and it has birth charts and it has the fourfold system of planets, signs, houses, and aspects, which basically becomes the foundation of all of Western astrology for the next 2000 years. That system shows up in the Mediterranean in the first century BCE and very quickly impacts every Mediterranean culture that existed at that time. And one of the things that happens that’s really funny is in my book I noted many of the cultures during that time period seem to have had what, I don’t know a better way to call it, I always call it kind of like pissing a contest about whose culture invented astrology and whose culture has been doing astrology and astronomy longer. And there are some like Greek historians, there’s one in particular, I’m forgetting his name right now. I think it starts with a D. He’s first century BCE, but he went and talked to like different Babylonian priests. And they said that they’ve been studying astrology for thousands and thousands of years. And then they went and talked to some Egyptian priests, and they said, “No, we’ve actually been studying astrology for way longer than the Babylonians.” And so it seems like every culture has that. And to some extent, then there were also some claims from Jewish writers at the time that, “No, Abraham, who’s like the oldest and original guy in our tradition, was the inventor, discoverer of astrology.” So it’s like everybody… To me, this represents something almost every culture was doing. And in some instances, they were actually technical authors of books on astrology were attributing text to mythical or legendary or religious figures from the past, which presumably is part of what happened with that attribution to Abraham. But what’s always been unclear to me is whether that represents then like a genuine Jewish community of astrologers or a Jewish author who wanted to attribute that text to the biblical founder of Judaism as a sign of cultural like connection of some sort or if instead it was part of a different thing that was happening sometimes where Greek speaking authors would attribute texts to foreign sounding sages and names in order to make the text sound exotic and in order to increase its appeal on the market. It’s not really clear and it’s often debated because there’s other text attributed to like Zoroaster or other sages like the Persian sage.
JS: Hermes Trismegistus and stuff.
CB: Yeah, which is more of like an Egyptian or Greek lineage and Asclepius and Nechepso and Petosiris, that was like the most famous text that was attributed to a mythical or legendary figure. We don’t know if this is like actual cultural attributions that are relevant or if they were something else. But at least by that standpoint, there was a significant work under the circulation of the name of Abraham. And that does seem notable for some reason.
JS: No, for sure. And certainly this is also the same time period where what we might call Hellenistic Judaism is also emerging, and this is in the first several centuries BCE. We have people like Artoponus and other kinds of people who are Greek speaking Jews who are very proud of their Judaism, but they’re not really that connected to ancient Jerusalem. We should remember that there were more Jews living in Alexandria at certain points in ancient Jewish history than there were living in all of Palestine.
CB: What was the deal with Alexandria? Because there was a large Jewish community there. And that’s actually important because that’s basically what we think was the birth place, and for many, many centuries after the first century BCE was the central home and central area where Hellenistic astrology practiced was Alexandria, Egypt.
JS: Yeah. Alexandria was of course one of these massive cities and it’s famous for its library. But it had an entire Jewish quota, massive Jewish quota. And so we know a great deal about Jewish alchemy that was being practiced, we know that there were… We know of at least one other astrological text that survives from roughly that milieu, that’s the Treatise of Shem, which is pretty early first century BCE Jewish astrological texts. Where it’s attributed to Shem, one of the ancient people, even older of course than Abraham. Anything you can do, I can do better. So we can push it back to Shem. And so this is a curious piece of, relatively short but an astrological text that’s preserved. I think only in Syriac maybe. It’s preserved in a 15th century manuscript, but we now know that it goes back quite a phase. So yeah, Alexandria and Judaism was a really interesting world. We know they were sects there that didn’t exist anywhere else. We know Philo mentions a sect called the Therapeutae, which were something like Monastic Jews. In fact, that’s basically the reason why Philo of Alexandria’s works are preserved because early Christians thought that he was referring to early Christians, and well, they kept the books. [Justin laughs] So we’re very lucky for that. But what we have is that we have lots of different Jewish communities existing in Alexandra. There was a functioning temple there. In fact, we often forget there were two functioning temples in ancient Egypt. One on the Elephantine island and then one led by Onias there in Alexandria. And these are temples that are not in Jerusalem, these are completely independent functioning temples basically in Egypt. And so it sounds surprising that in the Alexandria milieu where astrology and alchemy and other kinds of things were being pioneered, that the Jewish community, which was incredibly learned, which was producing philosophy, art, poetry, it would be very strange if they didn’t at some level think, “Oh yeah, this science is worthy of adoption.” And of course they would do the same thing that you mentioned earlier. They would do what everyone else did and claim, “Well, our guy made it. Abraham made it.” And we’ll see a similar claim with the [unintelligible 47:55] which will also come to have an astrological section eventually added to it. And that text is also attributed to Abraham as well. And again, we also see some evidence of astrological stuff in the Dead Sea Scrolls. I think we mentioned earlier that the earliest something like a horoscope, they’re really an astrological physiognomy just to say that you’re born into a certain sign, you’ll have certain kinds of physical features. The earliest texts we have like that in the Jewish world is recovered from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Yeah, what’s really fascinating about this text at any rate, is that not only is it an astrological document, something like a horoscope recovered from the Dead Sea Scrolls, but it’s also encoded. It’s written in a cryptic alphabet. Many of the calendrical documents and all of the divinatory documents that have been recovered from the Dead Sea Scrolls are encoded in a series of several different substitution ciphers. And we don’t know why they’re in the substitution ciphers. It’s a very unusual. But the Brontologion, this mechanism by which you divine the future when thunder happens on certain times and also the astrological figiagamy that’s been discovered at the Dead Sea Scrolls, both of them were encoded for some reason. Why? We don’t know, but this is the earliest surviving documents, at least in the history of Jewish astrology that are for whatever reason encoded.
CB: Let’s get into Qumran and the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. And before we go there, that’s interesting. You mentioned that just because the encoding or encrypting of esoteric doctrines was a common thing that was done with esoteric texts in ancient world and actually Valens is like constantly complaining about how Nechepso and Petosiris and some of the other authors like Credidimus made their works twisted and cryptic and hard to understand, and he’s constantly complaining like, “Why did they make this so hard to understand?” Like the gods to Valens wanted humans to have this knowledge, and he doesn’t understand why these authors were making it so difficult in transmitting it, but he says he did his best to understand it and pass on the knowledge to us. So that’s interesting to see that come up. So let’s talk about Qumran. So this is actually a discovery in the early 20th century, where there was like a series of caves that were discovered. Was this the one that was discovered by goat herders?
JS: Yeah. That’s cave 4 that we’re looking at now, it’s actually a stone’s throw away from the Qumran site. You can walk. It takes you 10 minutes to walk there basically from the actual site. But yeah. They were discovered… Which is weird. They weren’t actually discovered in the 1940s. We know of scrolls that were being recovered there for centuries. In fact, Origen, the early Christian church father actually bought a scroll from someone who found it near Jericho. It’s almost certainly a Dead Sea Scroll. So these scrolls creeped out over the centuries and the big discovery of course was made in the late 1940s. And we discovered about a thousand different texts. Some of them are Bible, some of them are non-canonical scripture, some of them are what we call sectarian scriptures. That is to say they’re scriptures are religious texts specifically for that community that was located in Qumran. We think they were Essenes, although what exactly in an Essene is is not clear. And of all the texts we’ve recovered, the word Essene never occurs, not even once. If that’s what they were, they never called themselves that. In fact, they typically call themselves the Yahad. Seems like they were an apocalyptic sect of Judaism, seems to be lots of these. And they at some point had become disillusioned with the temple in Jerusalem. They had broken with the temple of Jerusalem, and they had retreated into the desert basically to wait for the judgment of God. And what we’ve recovered there, like I said, are biblical texts, non-biblical texts and sectarian documents. And it’s those sectarian documents that contain the astrological material. And the going theory, at least at this point, is that the astrological documents are encoded in a very similar kind of code. There are three different codes there. One of which is a cryptic A, cryptic B and cryptic C. The cryptic texts that have been recovered are almost all sectarian. And so we think that perhaps what’s going on is that those documents were only meant for people initiated or in a position of leadership. And so that in that encryption, which is just a substitution cipher, it’s something incredibly complex, but we think that those encoded texts were probably meant for those either initiated into the group or the leadership of the group.
CB: Okay. So and this is like an aesthetic community that’s in like the first few centuries CE more or less, right?
JS: They were probably destroyed in the great revolt that began with the destruction of the temple or ended with the destruction of the temple. That’s in fact why their scrolls were probably there. Josephus mentioned that they did go out to fight the Romans. They probably thought that the world was ending and that this was the apocalyptic battle they’d been waiting for. We know from Josephus, assuming Josephus is to be trusted, that they did go to several different battles and they lost badly. They were slaughtered at several different battles. And it seems like what happened was before they went off to battle, they stored their scrolls in those caves and never came back. They all got killed basically. And the Romans ransacked the site at one point, probably looking for treasure. It seems like they even found some of this stuff in the caves, they didn’t care about the scrolls and the scrolls basically sat in various states of disrepair on the cave floor until they were discovered throughout history, primarily in the mid-20th century. And so again, some of our earliest astrological document is from that time period, which was quite surprising because at least at that time period, Judaism had portrayed itself as inherently rational and things like that. And then there’s this astrological document that gets discovered and people are like, “Well, what do we do with this?” Well, it turns out that astrology is eminently rational and it’s unsurprising that we find astrological documents, especially considering that the Qumran community was very interested in this question about how to calculate the calendar correctly. And so, it’s unsurprising that if it had a, what we might call a heterodox view of the calendrical issues, that they would also be by extension very interested in astrology. Because, well, you can’t really do a calendar without having some knowledge of the heavens. And there was simply no other knowledge available aside from the astrology of the day.
CB: Right. This is important because it also shows a familiarity with natal astrology, with the concept of natal astrology, and the concept of birth charts. And these astrological texts from Qumran are fragmentary, and there’s not a lot. But there’s some tantalizing little bits there that show at least that astrology, that there was some sort of Hebrew textual tradition of astrology from prior to that point.
JS: That’s right. Yeah, and they are. Like you said, they are very fragmentary. They basically just say something like, if you’re born on this month, you’ll have this disposition or you’ll have this physical feature. You’ll have a big nose or you’ll have these kinds of things. So we don’t know if this was part of a larger collection of astrological documents. We don’t know often what motivated them to have what documents they had, but typically things that get copied are important. Copying is an expensive endeavor. And so if they copied it and they encrypted it, it must have been worthwhile. But it is fragmentary, but we just don’t know what the original text would have looked like. Probably a bit like the Treatise of Shem, is what I imagine. The Treatise of Shem being this other document from around the same time period 100 BCE, and we think that these are very similar kinds of documents. What’s weird about the Treatise of Shem is that toward the end there’s a mix up in the actual zodiac, where they transpose two of the zodiac sequences. And the scribe actually says, “This is wrong. Transpose these when you read it.” And so the text gets copied, there’s a mistake. And then the scribe comes back later and says, “This is bad astrology. You have to flip these two.”
CB: Yeah. Sometimes in the history of textual stuff when a scribe writes a marginal note on the side that says, “This is wrong,” or “He means this,” or “Fix this.” But then it gets incorporated into the text later on by subsequent scribes. And the Treatise of Shem gives annual predictions for the year ahead based on different zodiac signs, but it’s somewhat basic kind of almost like mundane astrology I think, right?
JS: Yeah, yeah. And also it’s interesting because there are certain sequences of zodiac that are inherently good or inherently bad. And as it goes toward the good one, Pisces I think it’s the one it really likes, it basically says, “And everything is gonna end well, and it’s happily ever after.” Again, one wonders just to what degree such a text would have been useful. But it shows that Jewish writers are working using astrological information in a way that we had no idea about and had basically been denied by scholars. But it’s clear that this was going on. And this also points to, when we get to the New Testament in a minute, that there was this idea that no, the Jews of the time of the New Testament would have had no astrological sense of the star of the Magi. And this was a desire on the part of I think some scholars and maybe for theological reasons to disassociate Christianity from astrology by disassociating Judaism from astrology. And it turns out that’s just not possible. It’s clear that Josephus, obviously, he makes comments that they’re astral things that predicted what was about to happen to the Jerusalem Temple. Philo has a somewhat mixed opinion about astrology. On the one hand, he seems to think that it’s maybe folly. And then on the other hand, he clearly says that the temple is built with certain kinds of astrological things in mind, the 12 jewels on the breastplate of the high priest and things like that. So, again, Philo can’t quite make his mind up either. But it’s really clear that the Jewish population of the first century had some substantial contact with the astrological world and took it very seriously. And as we’ll see from the later centuries, it’s not only do they have substantial contact with it, but even aesthetically it’s ending up in the synagogues. And we’ll get to that in just a minute.
CB: Yeah. Just before we get there, you mentioned another early Jewish group of writers which is the authors of the New Testament. And one of the most prominent areas that shows up, of course, is in the gospel of Matthew and the story about the Star of Bethlehem and the Magi, who see some sort of star or some sort of celestial indication that the Messiah has been born. And they therefore travel to Jerusalem where they find Jesus has been born, and then they offer gifts and then take off and go back home. And that’s very clearly within the context of the 1st century CE Mediterranean culture and society is like a indication or it’s a story that’s being told which confirms from an astrological standpoint from the early Christian perspective the notion that Jesus is the Messiah and has been born. But it’s interesting realizing in retrospect that Christianity started as a small subset of Judaism or as like a Jewish cult of some right, basically?
JS: That’s right. Yeah. Of course early Christianity was a Jewish movement. Jesus was of course Jewish himself, all of his early followers were Jewish. The Matthew story is fascinating because clearly it’s being written in a Jewish milieu, but there’s also some polemical business going on there. Because obviously by the writing of the gospel of Matthew, it’s very clear that the Jewish population is not accepting Jesus as the Messiah. It’s just not happening. And it’s also in the gospel of Matthew where we see some of the most frightening anti-Judaic stuff, where for instance in that gospel Pilate wants to have Jesus executed, and the Jewish population says, “Let his blood be on us and be on our children.” And that’s where we get this really pretty frightening anti-semitic stuff that ultimately emerges in the Middle Ages.
CB: Really quickly, what was the context of Jewish culture waiting for a Messiah or where’s the idea of a Messiah that Jewish writers or people that subscribe to that religion at that point by the first century, what’s the background on that?
JS: This idea of Messiah emerges during the apocalyptic period of Judaism which would be roughly during the Persian period 4th century BCE. And so there’s this idea that a anointed one, that’s what literally the word messiah means, someone who’s been anointed. It typically connotes a king. And this new king would be anointed by God specifically, and that they would come into history and then they would do a variety of this worldly tasks. Specifically what they would do is that they would liberate Judea from political oppression, they would establish peace in the world, and then they would establish the true practice of Judaism. So there’s a lot of expectation around what this Messiah is going to do. Although early in Judaism, there’s no sense that it’s going to be the son of God or anything like that. There’s even debates about how many of them they will be. Some early Jewish sects said that there will be two, some said that there will be one. It’s a big debate in this time period. The word Messiah itself in the Bible really only occurs, only one person is actually called a Messiah in the Hebrew Bible, and that’s actually the Persian king who let the Jews go home. He’s actually referred to as a Messiah. And so there was an expectation, a big expectation. And that expectation would have been they would be looking in the Hebrew Bible for prophetic utterances about how this Messiah will come about. And one of those utterances is a verse from, I think, Numbers where it says, “And a star will come forth from Jacob.” And that idea that there’ll be some kind of star, that there’ll be an astrological or there’ll be an astral event that will indicate the Messiah has come is clearly being echoed there in the gospel of Matthew. But what’s interesting about that is that there’s also some polemics going on there. Because the Jewish establishment by this time of the writing of the gospel of Matthew has rejected the Messianic claim of Jesus, they don’t believe it. Well, because they don’t believe it, the gospel writer of Matthew says, “Well, if you guys don’t recognize it, even the pagans recognize it. The Magi, these Persian astrologers, they recognize it. You’re so blind that you can’t even see what’s in front of you.” And the idea of the Jews being blind becomes a kind of trope that develops. So on the one hand, there’s a clear idea that some kind of astral event will herald the Messiah. It’s also worth pointing out that another Messiah will emerge in the second century, Simon bar Kokhba. And his name Simon bar Kokhba literally means Simon son of a star. It’s a pun on his name. Cosibah was where he was from, and they make him match the stellar prophecy. His name changes, and they call him Simon bar Kokhba. And if you actually look at the coinage that he minted during his rebellion from 132 to 135 of the Common Era, one of the coins, the largest coin that he minted, it’s a silver coin. It shows an image of the temple, and very clearly on the temple is a giant star. So it’s the combination of the restoration of the temple and this astral thing showing I’m really the Messiah. Of course, he was defeated in 135 by the Romans and hundreds of thousands of Jews were slaughtered because of his failed rebellion, but this linking of the Messianic star was an idea that would have been instantly recognizable to Jews as a heralding moment for the Messianic redemption, whether it’s recognized by Persian Magi or minted on the coins of a failed Messianic leader.
CB: Right. So there’s that earlier context because of that earlier story about a star coming forth. So early 1st and 2nd century CE, Jewish writers are very aware of this. And then also in addition to that, in other areas of the Roman Empire because by the 1st century CE we’re talking about the Roman Empire at its height in the first and second centuries. And the Roman emperors are all very aware of astrology and in some instances are using it. I believe Augustus published his horoscope supposedly or his birth chart because he was told by some astrologers supposedly early in his life that he would become somebody who would be very prominent and who would control the empire or what have you. So sometimes there were leaders or politicians who were using astrology in order to assert their authority to rule and as confirmation that they were like special people. And so that’s part of, if we don’t take the gospel of Matthew literally necessarily or if we think about the context of the writer, the author who wrote it, part of the goal there is to sort of indicate or say that the stars are literally confirming that somebody important has been born at this point and that this group of astrologers from the birthplace of astrology, from Mesopotamia, literally came over because they had witnessed that something important had happened astrologically when this person was born. So it was like confirming his authority in a way.
JS: No, for sure, yeah. And the term gospel is not an accidental use. The gospels were documents released by Roman emperors. The term gospel was the good news that came from the emperor about how things were going. So even the term gospel was a kind of authority move. The real gospel is the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, yeah, that’s a huge thing. And also the Roman emperors when astrology served them, they would use it. And they were perfectly happy to banish them and burn their books when it didn’t. And again, I think establishment figures often have a sort of weird relationship to this kind of thing, where on the one hand they want to be able to use it as actionable intelligence and they want to be able to prove that they’re legitimate. But on the other hand, that the idea that these astrologers keep plotting behind their backs and know things that they don’t know, and so I think the Roman emperors were happy to publish when it agreed with them and ban it when it didn’t. So I think they were very opportunistic when it came to it.
CB: Yeah, and especially they were continually annoyed by astrologers predicting their death and length of life and when the emperor would die. And that was one of the biggest things that could get you into trouble as an astrologer. But then at the same time, you have other astrologers like Thrasyllus who worked directly for like two decades as the chief court astrologer to the Emperor Tiberius. So there’s definitely an interesting and complicated relationship. But at least in the Mediterranean, it’s widely thought at this point that the alignment of the planets at the moment that you’re born has something to say about your life and your future and especially your fate. And that becomes an important concept because from this point forward, we do start to see in the Jewish tradition and in the Hebrew writings debates about astrology within the context of fate because astrology and fate became intertwined at that point in Mediterranean society or the notion that one’s fate was indicated by your birth chart became like a pervasive notion.
JS: Yeah. This is a sort of a general Mediterranean philosophical development that happens where you see it with things like stoicism, where one can determine one’s ultimate fate because the world is basically determined. And this is an important point and what we might call again apocalyptic Judaism, is that apocalyptic Judaism. Part of what’s great and terrible about it is that apocalyptic Judaism says this is the entire arc of the universe, everything has been planned out. And no matter how bad things are, God is in control and the bad people will be punished and the good people will be rewarded and everything will work out in the end. Well, on the one hand, that’s a very comforting story if you’re an occupied people and you know that God will eventually cast out the occupiers, that’s a great story. On the other hand, it seems to take free will completely out of the equation. Doesn’t really matter what you do, God ultimately has a plan. And God’s plan was going to happen, and everything’s part of the plan. So it’s unsurprising that the folks at Qumran, who were verily really invested in an apocalyptic analysis of Judaism, are also going to be much more comfortable with astrology than perhaps other Jews who would be much less interested in this sort of apocalyptic idea that the world is hurtling in one direction and everything is part of some vast plan, and we’re just sort of cogs in a machine. And we’ll see also in the Talmud when we get to it in just a minute that part of what’s interesting is that one can learn one’s fate through astrology, and the task of doing that is not to violate God’s law or violate freewill, it’s actually to make you a better person. Because now that you know your fate, well, you can sort of accept it and go on with life. And so you see this idea begin to… It’s a very stoic idea and from Chrysippus and other kinds of people that it also enters into Judaism. And if you look at a text like Fourth Maccabees, there are four different books of Maccabees that have survived, it’s heavily influenced by stoicism and the idea of fate that says, “Yeah, you’re torturing me to death, but this was fated and so it’s not bad. I’m not really that concerned with it.” So the greater Roman world and its fascination with the concept of fate and how that gets tied into Judaism is going to be a big deal. And as we transition to the period of time after the temple’s destroyed and Judaism begins to move into the rabbinic period, it’s exactly those kinds of arguments that are going to dominate the rabbinical world. It’s going to be, is there fate and how does it apply to the Jewish people if the Jewish people have this specific covenant with God? Does it protect them from fate? Does it mitigate fate? Can they mitigate fate? And this is a classic distinction, is it simply a sign of what’s going to happen or is it actually causing what’s happening? And if it is causing what’s happening, then where is God in all this? And so those are the kinds of debates that happen all over the Roman world. And then, of course, they also happen in the Jewish world as well with the rise of the rabbis.
CB: Yeah. In the Christian tradition, even though there’s that story in Matthew that’s using astrology basically in order to put a foundation under Christianity within contemporary Mediterranean culture by saying astrology confirms that this guy is actually the Messiah or this guy is the son of God. After the first century, it seems like there became these debates within Christianity. And later Christian authors had to find ways to kind of downplay that story because there was a theological issue that became front and center for several centuries about astrology being associated with fate but the concept of free will and choice being theologically very important. And therefore, a lot of Christian polemics ended up being directed against astrology because of its association with faith and predetermination and things like that. And it seems like we get some of that in the Jewish tradition in this time period at the same time. So what is the time frame of the Talmud? And what is the significance of that in terms of Jewish culture and literature?
JS: Yeah. So after the destruction of the temple, of course, the temple was the center of Jewish life in many ways for many Jewish people in the ancient world. It was destroyed by the Romans in the Great Revolt. And so Judaism had to pivot. It had to basically reinvent itself, and it says, “Look, there’s not going to be a temple anytime soon, so what do we do?” And the idea was rather than offer sacrifices, we offer study and prayer. And on top of that, as I mentioned earlier, we have this Bar Kokhba rebellion which resulted in the death of what we think were maybe tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of Jews in Palestine. And this was basically a genocidal effort on the part of the Romans. And they targeted rabbis, they targeted their students. And one of the big worries was that Judaism as a tradition could be just basically destroyed because the very rabbinical teachers and the preservers of the tradition could just be murdered. And so in this moment of crisis, the rabbinical institution begins to write down how to do Judaism. Sometimes when I teach this I say, I don’t know, for Americans or other people, what if all the people that celebrated Halloween were being killed off, and we wanted to preserve how to celebrate Halloween. We would get all the people who knew how to celebrate Halloween in a room. And we would say, “How do you do Halloween?” And so you have to get a pumpkin and carve it like this and you have to give out this much candy. But you have to give out at least this much candy but not much. So you get all these rules about how to do Halloween. Well, the rabbis did the same thing. And what emerges is a document called the Mishnah. The Mishnah is a kind of giant compilation of basically all the oral law that they could write down. Well, that text is notoriously difficult to understand, and not all the issues got settled. And so a commentary was written on it, two commentaries. One of those commentaries was written in the Galilee, that becomes the Palestinian Talmud. And the other commentary was written in the academies of what is now Iraq and Babylon, and those commentaries become the Babylonian Talmud, and the Babylonian Talmud is a commentary on the Mishnah. And those documents become central to the development of Jewish law. What’s really important for folks to know about the Talmud is the Talmud is not in itself a document that tells you what to do or what not to do. It’s a series of debates. And so what we find in the Talmud is not don’t do this, do this. What we find is Rabbi Yochanan said this, and then Rabbi Hanina said this, and then Rabbi so and so said this, and they said this. And then maybe this guy’s right, and maybe this guy’s wrong. And later generations of people ultimately codified that into a practice of Jewish law, and that codification process continues to this day. It won’t ever be done. And so this is what’s interesting about the Talmud is that it’s not an authoritative document in the sense of thou shalt not, it’s a debate. It’s a series of debates. And so, unsurprisingly, one of the things they’re going to debate is going to be precisely this question of astrology because it seems that everyone in the Talmud accepted at some level that it was true. The question is, how was it true? And the question is, could and how could you do it? Who should you deal with when you do it? And so what we see is a wide range of debates basically in the Babylonian Talmud, which is unsurprising considering that this is in a Persian milieu, this is in a Zoroastrian milieu, this is the very milieu in which a great deal of astrological developments happened. So, unsurprisingly, the Talmud is going to be very interested in thinking through what is going to be the Jewish relationship to what it calls it’s [foreign 1.17.41] or astrology.
CB: Right. So you shared with me a site sefaria.org that has some handy… One of the pages it has that people can Google is titled Talmudic Astrology Source Sheet. And it has a bunch of relevant quotes, sometimes that are explicitly connected with astrology or sometimes that are indirectly connected. But here’s a couple that connect to the free will issue that we were just talking about.
JS: Yeah. So this is a pretty famous Pirkei Avot. It’s from that earlier document, the Mishnah. And it’s trying to deal with this question about whether there is free will or not. What’s interesting about this is that it says, “God sees everything in advance.” So that is to say God knows what’s going to happen. God foresees it yet choice is given. Now on first blush this looks contradictory. How can God know what’s going to happen and we still have free will? And the argument here, and we see this argument in later text, is that God’s foreknowledge doesn’t cause it to happen. In the same way that I’m looking at you Chris, but I’m not causing you to exist. I can see you’re there, but yet I’m not causing you to be there. I’m talking, and your heart’s beating, but my talking is, thank God, not causing your heart to beat.
CB: I hope not.
JS: Yeah, God forbid. And so what we have here is, on the one hand, God knows what’s going to happen but choice is given. Now, the degree to which that’s philosophically satisfying I’ll leave to your audience. But that’s the idea basically that Judaism tries to square the circle by saying that in some sense everything’s foreseen, but choice is granted. Ethical obligation still obtains. You can’t say, “Well, I steal because God foreordained it.” You can’t get away with that.
CB: Yeah, so there’s the same tension in Judaism that’s in Christianity of that. How can you have an all-knowing, omnipotent, central God figure that knows everything ahead of time and knows especially what will happen at the end of the world, but also how can there still be free will and choice? How can choice still matter if everything, in some ways, is almost pre-determined?
JS: Right. Yeah. In fact, the argument you see there from Pirkei Avot is almost the exact same argument given by Saint Augustine. Augustine gives the exact same argument that God’s foresight doesn’t logically imply determinism, that knowing what’s going to happen doesn’t make it happen. Now I don’t know to the degree to which that’s analytically true. That’s a question for another debate around compatibilism. But it’s a similar kind of ideas reached in the Talmud. But, again, what we see here in Pirkei Avot, this document is a Mishnaic document. What we see here is one opinion, so we shouldn’t take this to be authoritative of Judaism. In the same way that this is a pretty famous rabbi, he’s a rabbi, and his position could be easily disputed by another rabbi that would say, “God doesn’t know or God does know or you don’t have a choice.” There could be a wide range of opinions. And as we’ll see if we go down the sheet there, we’ll see the big debate, the famous debate between the various rabbis about whether or not there is this concept of mazal, which we’ll get into in a minute, whether mazal applies to Israel. And if it does apply to Israel, in what way does it apply? And so this idea of mazal becomes the real big philosophical and religious debate by the time of the Talmud.
CB: Yeah. And I’m actually trying to find that right now to pull up because that’s where your point about there being sometimes different opinions that contradict each other in the same document coming from different rabbis that are holding different positions at different points in time. And one of those, what became one of the central debates, was one rabbi saying that astrology does apply to the Jewish people, and then another rabbi contradicting him and saying that there is no star or there is no astrological fate for Israel.
JS: Yeah. If you want to search through it, I can probably see it. I might be able to just recognize it by sight. But, yeah. So this word mazal is fascinating. It actually comes from the word mazalot, which we saw earlier back in the Book of Job. In the Book of Job, it’s used generically just to mean a kind of constellation. In fact, it might just have meant the Pleiades. We’re not actually sure. But the term mazal eventually becomes a technical term which means something like astral influence or the determining star or the determining astral influence. And most people probably have heard this word mazal. If you’ve ever been to a Jewish party or a wedding or whatever, you’ve probably heard people exclaim mazal tov, which I’ve always loved about Judaism. Because no matter if something good happens for you, the phrase is mazel tov. May it be good mazal for you, may there be a good astrological or astral determination for you. And so this concept of mazal–
CB: Right. And it became like a technical term that also meant zodiac sign very literal in technical texts.
JS: Yeah, mazalot means the whole wheel of the zodiac. And mazal could be one of the zodiac signs. So, yeah.
CB: Right. So that’s really funny. And so it means zodiac sign, and also by extension it can mean astrology or astrological fate or influence of the stars or a number of different things. But that phrase, even as it is used today, still has some lingering almost echo of that meaning when people–
JS: Oh yeah. Absolutely.
CB: What does it mean today? It means that’s a propitious thing?
JS: Congratulations. Yeah. Basically now it just means congratulations. So if someone you know buy a house, as I heard you did, you’re goig to say, “Mazal tov, Chris.” And they will be like, “Congratulations.”
CB: Yeah, it means good stars or that’s very auspicious?
JS: Yeah, tov means good. And so literally it means may you have good mazal. And the idea is something’s good has happened to you, and this is obviously a prodigious time, but I hope it continues. May you have good mazal. And I don’t think average Jews ever think that when they say mazel tov, they’re giving someone basically an astrological greeting. But that’s certainly what it is. And this word has become obviously ubiquitous in Judaism. But interestingly enough, the meat of the debate in the Talmud is this entire idea of ein mazal l’yisrael, there is no mazal in Israel, that the astral determinations do not affect the people of Israel. And the basic argument here is, and I’m not sure how they translate it in the Sefaria, and I think this is the Soncino version of the Talmud. Let me see. I think I saw it. I think you scrolled past it at one point. It’s sort of buried in there. I bet if you Ctrl F and just search for star for Israel, yeah, there’s no constellation for Israel.
CB: There’s no mazel. So in there it’s using mazel again?
JS: Yeah, it’s probably mazel. If you scroll up, then I can see the Hebrew or the Aramaic.
CB: Somewhere up here?
JS: Yeah, I can see, there’s the word right there. She’ein mazal l’yisrael there. How do we know that, right? So literally it’s she’ein there. She’ein mazal l’yisrael, there is no mazal for Israel. And the idea of the debate here is whether or not astrological determinism affects the people of Israel. And the reason why that’s a debate at all is that in Jewish mythology, in Jewish theology, the core idea is that Israel has a special covenant with God. And that because Israel has a special covenant with God, God always acts. Everything that happens to the people of Israel is the result of providence for good and for bad, mostly for bad. But everything that happens is for the result of providence. And therefore because there’s a direct providential relationship between God and the Jewish people, mazal doesn’t interfere. Mazal doesn’t interfere. That’s one side of the argument. The other side of the argument is that, no, God made the world in such a way that the natural forces of the world, for instance, something like we would call gravity, it’s not like you have a special relationship with God and therefore you can jump out of a building. God’s not going to save you for jumping out of a building because gravity is a force of nature, and you should know that gravity is a force of nature that will drag you to the ground. Well, ditto, the mazal is a force of nature. It’s built into the fabric of the universe like everything else. And, of course, it affects the Jewish people. Now, there’s a wide range of debates between those. So some rabbis seem to believe that mazal affects Israel when the Jewish people are being bad. So if they break the covenant, they’re outside of the protection of the providence of God and therefore mazal affects them. Some say that mazal doesn’t affect the entire Jewish people as a group, but it affects individual Jewish people. And then some people say that mazal’s sort of like a default position. So that if I’m born under a certain astrological configuration and I don’t become a good person, then that’s my destiny. I will suffer whatever fate that I do. But according to this idea, if I follow the Jewish law very scrupulously, I will abrogate my mazal and I will be able to avoid at least whatever bad things will have happened to me because of the mazal that I was assigned at birth. And it’s sort of a spectrum. So you have two positions and then a range in the middle. And what we’ll see, beginning with the Babylonian Talmud is rabbis from the Babylonian Talmud all the way until now basically taking some position in that spectrum, that there’s no mazal for Israel or mazal is a perfectly natural part of reality, and it’s either you can’t escape it or it’s aggregable, it’s negligible, you can alleviate it by being a Jewish person and being a good person of some kind, giving charity or things like that. There’s a long debate you can see there in the Sefaria sheet that you pulled up, where one rabbi is giving all kinds of proofs about why he thinks mazal’s not real. That one guy and me were born on the same day, but he’s a thief, and I’m a rabbinical scholar. One guy was born this day, and he’s dead and I’m alive. And so they are sort of like the twin arguments that you get sometimes in the Roman Empire where the anti-astrology arguments from the case of twins. You get something like that argument also in the Talmud. But you also have clear ideas that I think the Talmud says that mazal determines how many children you’ll have, it determines your wealth, and it determines when you die. So it’s a huge debate in the Talmud, and that debate has absolutely never ended to this day in Judaism.
CB: Right. There was an article I was reading in preparation for this by Francis Schmidt in the journal Culture and Cosmos, and it’s actually available online. You can Google it. It’s titled Horoscope, Predestination and Merit in Ancient Judaism. And one of the things I found interesting about their reading of some of that debate was they said that it seemed to have less to do with the idea… I always assumed that debate had to do with the idea of certain Jewish authors thinking that astrology applies to everybody else but the Jewish people are special and therefore are excluded from astrology or from fate or from the influence of the stars because they’re God’s chosen people. But their reading of it that I found interesting was the notion that the Jewish people had the ability to transcend fate to a certain extent to the extent that they acted righteous or that through righteous action you could somehow alter or change your fate to some extent, which was actually interesting because then it implied that you’re still partially pre-determined to a certain range of things, but there may be a more or less positive manifestation of that depending on if you’re basically a good, moral person according to the sort of moral code or the ethical code.
JS: That’s right. Yeah. And that idea survived. Something like that survives even into modern Judaism in a non-astrological way. For instance, at the very beginning of Yom Kippur, there’s a Aramaic legal document read out loud called Kol Nidre which abrogates all the vows you made the previous year so that you can’t be held responsible for them as you’re being judged. And there’s an idea in Judaism that God decrees who’s going to live and who’s going to die and what kind of punishments will be meted out to people. But if you give charity and if you act righteously, God will temper the decree. Something like that seems to be happening in Jewish astrological concepts as well where you are fated, you are fated. But various acts of righteousness can liberate you from that fate. We see a similar idea also in Hermeticism which is a little further afield, but there’s an idea that your body may be bound by fate. But the soul of the righteous person may be able to escape fate by engaging in a kind of purification process. So we see that idea also in Egypt with the Hermetic documents, but something similar is probably happening here in the Jewish world as well that’s sort of a workaround. But, yeah, I think the idea of abrogating fate or at least changing your fate to some degree is an interesting idea in Judaism. Man, you see this idea survived even up to the days of the Kabbalah and into the Sefer ha-Zohar, that one can manipulate the metaphysical world at some level by doing righteous deeds down here that shapes the supernal world, and by shaping the supernal world one can alter one’s destiny.
CB: Yeah. There’s one, and this is part of the story, but this is relevant to what we’re talking about here. But it’s from the Talmud. And it says, this is the story about the daughter of the rabbi, and this is the one that’s the one that’s usually cited in terms of the ability to change things through righteous action. Do you want to read this or maybe I could? I don’t know if you’ll read it better than I can.
JS: Yeah. So we’re gonna start with…
CB: Maybe here where it says Proverbs 10.
JS: We have to scroll back up.
CB: It’s kind of tricky.
JS: Yeah, these stories are also in kind of a mess. But what we have basically is it’s always the Chaldeans. Chaldeans are sort of a short word for astrologers. They basically tell that you either have or have not a daughter and that the snake is gonna bite her and she’s gonna die and she was very worried about this. And, yeah, the story goes on. But, eventually, what ends up happening is that she’s able to merit not experiencing this fate. I should also point out that the word charity is sadaqah. Sadaqah has a little bit broader notion than simply giving money to disadvantaged people. Sadaqah actually comes from the word tzedek which means righteousness in Hebrew. So they can refer to a wide range of things. But, yeah, what we have here is Rabbi Akiva making the argument that certain kinds of righteous behaviors can undo the harsh decrees of the Chaldeans, of the astrologers.
CB: Yeah. So it says, “Blah blah blah, Rabbi Akiva as well derived that there’s no constellation for the Jewish people. And Rabbi Akiva had a daughter. And Chaldean astrologers told him that on the same day that she enters the wedding canopy, a snake will bite her and she’ll die. She was very worried about this. On that day, on her wedding day, she took the ornamental pin from her hair and stuck it into a hole in the wall for safekeeping. And it happened that it entered directly into the eye of a snake. In the morning when she took the pin, the snake was pulled and came out with it. Her father Rabbi Akiva said to her, ‘What did you do to merit being saved from the snake?’ She told him, ‘In the evening a poor person came and knocked on the door. And everyone was preoccupied with the feast, and nobody heard him. I stood, and I took the portion that you had given me and gave it to him.’ Rabbi Akiva said to her, ‘You performed a mitzvah, and you were saved in its marriage. Rabbi Akiva went out and taught based on this instance, that even though it is written and charity will save us from death, it does not mean that it will save a person from an unusual death but even from death itself.” Yeah. And then, “Bla bla bla, and from which it conspired to Rav Nachman bar–” I’m not sure how to pronounce that name.
CB: Yitzchak. Okay.
JS: Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak. Yeah.
CB: “–that it can be arrived that there is no constellation for the Jewish people.” And then it sort of goes on. So that’s just one story of one of those instances of maybe part of the implication of that story was that some things can be changed through actions or through, in that case, righteous acts.
JS: Right. And this is an old idea in Judaism. And at some level, it’s linked to this idea that by performing righteous deeds, by maintaining the covenant with God, then the power of mazal is somehow diminished. They are somehow diminished. And so the idea is she heard this poor person and did a good deed, this mitzvah. And because she did a good deed, that abrogated the death sentence that was prescribed to her. But it was prescribed to her, the Talmud is really clear. She would have died that way had she not done the righteous deed, and I think that’s what’s really important about the story, that it would have happened. But she did this righteous deed and then abrogated it.
CB: Right, which almost sounds like, for example, Ptolemy in the second century says that he has this discussion about fate and predetermination. And he says things are predetermined by default if you don’t do anything in order to stop it. But if you are aware of the astrology and you do something to counteract it, that just like a doctor can give you a medical treatment which can help to counteract a disease that otherwise might kill you, that astrologers can somehow counteract fate through contrary forces or something like that. So it’s interesting seeing overlap between those different views of astrology and that kind of limited form of determinism or negotiable form of determinism.
JS: Right. Yeah. And you see the same idea later in the 12th century astrologer Abraham bar Ḥiyya who makes exact same argument. He sees astrology as preventative medicine basically. The idea is you go to the astrologers to learn what will happen if you don’t do anything. I think he gives the example of a horse at full gallop. And if you are a blind person, the ableism aside, the blind person will never move and they’ll just get trampled by the horse. But the person who sees the horse coming will jump out of the way. And the idea basically is that you go to the astrologers to see the horse that’s coming. And that’s the point of astrology. It’s to see the horse that’s coming. Same way, and he likens it to a doctor. You shouldn’t go to a doctor to get cured. By the time you could do that, it’s already too late. And so it’s something like preventative medicine, but it’s just preventative medicine for fate which is a nice way of thinking about how he relates to astrology, where it’s a kind of soft determinism as we might say in the philosophical world.
CB: Yeah. And also related and it comes up in some of the Jewish discussion and also comes up simultaneously in the Christian tradition and is one of the ways that astrology kind of survived through the Middle Ages, was with Ptolemy’s form of like causal astrology where astrology is an extension of physics, and the planets and stars cause events to happen in nature through similar sort of rays like the Sun heats up things or what have you. There was this notion that astrology affects the body, but it does not necessarily affect the soul or what have you, or at least some Christian writers started to defend astrology on those grounds saying that astrology had power to influence people, but its power was limited. And that was their way to make room for choice and for free will. And we see some similar views coming up in some later Jewish authors.
JS: Yeah, there’s some similar ideas. And the question comes down, and this is a debate that comes generally with the debate around an Aristotelian understanding of the world, which Ptolemy seemed to have accepted this causal, the reason why astrology works is because of its part of the causal mechanism of the universe. Whereas in the more Neoplatonic worldview which Judaism accepts, some Jews accept the Aristotelian worldview, some accept the Neoplatonic worldview. Whereas in the Aristotelian worldview, it’s sort of a top-down thing, fate is flowing down from the stars whether it’s Al-Kindi’s version of the astral rays or whatever. But in the Neoplatonic world, what’s interesting is that there is a procession. There’s the divine force flowing down, but there’s also the recession, and that’s the forces are flowing back up just as much as they’re flowing down. And this idea gets taken up especially in mystical Judaism and things like the Zohar where the procession may be determining at some level some things, but the recession, the way we shape those forces going back up, so to speak, mitigate or change or alter or refract those things. And now, on the one hand, what’s interesting about that is that on the more Neoplatonic model that you see for instance in the Kabbalah, you have the idea that you can pretty heavily abrogate this stuff, even manipulate these forces at some level. And that’s where you get into the world of things like astral magic which there’s a huge tradition of astral magic in the Jewish world as well. But also what’s interesting is you get some Jewish philosophers in the Middle Ages like Gersonides that would argue that yes, there are these procession-recession business, but because we don’t know exactly where it all meshes up, you can’t predict anything. So we know these forces are real, but there’s no predictive power. Because exactly how the forces are aligned are so complex, you can never know exactly what’s going on. In fact, you may be able to do micro-predictions very close, but the further you try to do them out, the predictive power completely breaks down. So I think what’s interesting about the astrological, the causal mechanisms of astrology assuming you’re taking up a deterministic model of what astrology does, what’s interesting is that you get a very different output from an Aristotelian understanding of the universe as opposed to a Platonic or Neoplatonic, and you get both of those in Judaism. And so often, for instance, what we see later on with someone like Maimonides, Maimonides will just outright condemn astrology. He’ll outright condemn it as astral magic or worshipping the stars or he has all these ideas about why it’s bad. And the astrologers who are living at the time say, “Yeah. We condemn that stuff, too. We don’t do any of that either.” And so his condemnation falls flat because he assumes an Aristotelian worldview and then assumes that his opponents assume that worldview too, and they don’t. And so he just talks right past them. And so you can see why in the Middle Ages, as these astrological ideas develop, what’s really gonna matter is what’s sort of under the hood of the philosophical idea of what’s going on there. And there’s gonna be a wide range of why this is acceptable. It’s acceptable because it’s simply a natural feature of the universe or because it’s doing something very different than determining our fate. Maybe it’s not doing that at all.
CB: Right. So there’s this whole ambivalence though about astrology in rabbinic culture that we see in some of those debates in the Talmud. And then despite that or despite some of the rabbinic ambivalence, there have been discovered in the 20th century a bunch of these zodiac mosaics and synagogues all over Palestine in the first seven centuries CE, right?
JS: That’s right. Yeah. We can see the most famous one in the Sefaria is the Beit Alfa Synagogue, where it’s very clear that the people that supported that synagogue, we don’t know a lot about what that population looked like. That was largely a Roman area, and so those Jews were very likely very Hellenized. And so those Jews would have been much more comfortable with straightforward astrological workings. That would have been very comfortable for them. But, yeah, we see these decorating these mosaics which must have been very expensive, by the way, decorating the interior of the synagogues. And so there’s definitely no denying that the Jews in that world are seeing the world through an astrological lens. The question of course is, again, just to what degree that lens is being… Is it causally determinative? Is it a sign of the heaven and therefore simply a way of reading the will of God? Or is it a mechanism by which God sort of programs the universe in the same way that a programmer might program a computer or something? And we don’t know completely what position those folks were taking. But there can be no doubt, again, that Hellenistic astrology was incredibly popular among the Jews of Palestine from around that time period second through the sixth, seventh centuries of the Common Era just based on the material culture.
CB: Right. So with this first one from Beit Alfa, could you describe for those listening to the audio version what we’re looking at here?
JS: So we’re seeing what looks to be the four images in the middle are probably the four beasts that are described in the Book of Ezekiel. They also appear on the outside as well. There’s also maybe the four winds. And we see in the middle a depiction of what may be the sun god. Now what’s interesting is that that would obviously be straightforwardly blasphemous to have Apollo. But we here have probably a conflation, and you can see there are stars on the body of the Sun deity. And there’s probably some conflation of the Israelite God and Apollo and then a ring around this deity and the four Hayyot or what they are called in Hebrew in the Book of Ezekiel. You see the various astrological symbols that are the pretty classic ones that you would recognize, and they’re both illustrated. And they also have their Hebrew name written out beside them. So you can see, I don’t know, I can recognize… Let’s see where I can find one sign.
CB: You can see one at the top. Let me see if I can make this bigger. There we go.
JS: Yeah. So that’s, I think, Cancer.
CB: Yeah, that’s supposed to be Cancer and then right here… Left of that is a… These are drawn very roughly, so this is a…
JS: Yeah, they are drawn very roughly. I’m still looking for my sign Deli which is Aquarius. And again, how exactly these map on to… Yeah, you can see Deli down there at the bottom which is Aquarius. And seeing how these map on to the Jewish months which is a very complicated business by the way, exactly how the zodiac maps onto the Jewish months was some bit of debate in the Middle Ages, and also how they map on to other things as well. There’s parts where they try to map them onto parts in the Hebrew Bible which are very complicated. But yeah. Yeah, so we can see the division of the classic zodiac. What’s interesting though is that what we don’t see is them being mapped onto the Hebrew months. So you don’t see sort of a mapping onto the Hebrew months there. It’s just a straightforward zodiac that’d be recognizable to anyone in the Hellenistic world.
CB: Sure. So I was looking for stock photos I could buy rights to to get to be able to share this for this episode, and this was another zodiac I found. This is the one from Tzippori. Am I pronouncing that correct?
JS: Yeah, Sepphoris. Yeah, Sepphoris.
CB: Sepphoris, okay.
JS: And what’s interesting about this one, I haven’t seen this one in person. And this reading the Hebrew in the mosaic form is a little hard for me. But, yeah, it’s the same thing. You can see them classically wearing Greek and Roman clothes. Again, you can see the chariot back there in the back where the Sun disc is. It’s damaged there in the center, so you can’t quite make it out. But you still have the four beasts. The chariot of course represents the Merkava, the winged throne of God. And it looks like on the outside edges there’s both Hebrew and Greek which is interesting. Well, not surprising, this is of course the Hellenistic world, so you would have people speaking and reading and writing in both. I have not seen this zodiac in person. What’s interesting about this one is that the zodiac signs themselves are marked in Hebrew, but the interior monogram is in Greek, which again, this is very thoroughly Hellenistic. And now I can imagine that, on the one hand, you would certainly have some Jews that would be very enthusiastic about this kind of Hellenization. On the other hand, we know that they were Jews that absolutely hated this. For instance, there’s a famous story in the Talmud about a Hellenized Jew named Aher. They called him Aher, Elisha ben Abuyah. He was the most famous heretic in all Judaism. And what he was infamous for, one of the things he was infamous for, was that he loved to sing Greek songs. And every time he got up, Greek scrolls fell out of his clothes. He was hiding Greek stuff he was reading. And so, in fact, the Talmud even says in one place, “Cursed be someone who raises pigs, and cursed be one who studies Greek literature.” And so there certainly was a very deep ambivalence about this in the Jewish world. But clearly, whoever invested in those synagogues invested a lot of money to have those mosaics made.
CB: And that’s a common issue with just Mediterranean culture during this time period from the first few centuries BCE to the first several centuries CE, is just after the conquests of Alexander in the 4th century BCE, suddenly Mesopotamia and Egypt and most of the Mediterranean was under the control of Greek-speaking rulers, and Greek became the common language so that there were many different people from different cultural backgrounds who were speaking Greek, even if they weren’t necessarily ethnically Greek. And that’s also true of Jewish authors but also sometimes like Mesopotamian authors or Egyptians or Romans, eventually. And that becomes one of the issues when determining what to call or figuring out to what to call the type of astrology that’s practiced in this time period. Do we call it Greek astrology? That sounds a little weird because it’s not necessarily people who are ethnically Greek who are practicing it per se, even if they speak Greek. Yeah, just different debates around that. But you mentioning that makes me think of it.
JS: Right. No, there was a big cultural war about this. And again, the Hanukkah celebration, the war that was sparked off by the Maccabees rebelling against the Seleucid Empire and Antiochus IV Epiphanes. People forget that many of the victims of that insurrection that led eventually to the Hanukkah story were not Greeks, they were Hellenized Jews. It was a civil war as much as it was a war against the Greeks, and one can imagine that there was an incredibly conservative branch of Judaism that would have been positively horrified by the importation of this kind of stuff into Judaism. They would have seen it as paganism. I guess I mentioned earlier in the podcast one of the phrases that develops for paganism in Judaism is oved kokhavim u-mazalot, it’s the worship of stars and the mazalot, the constellations. And you can imagine that many conservative Jews, ancient conservative Jews and modern ones for that matter, would have looked at these mosaics not as a sign of a flourishing multicultural liberal Hellenistic society but as a betrayal of Judaism and basically an embrace of paganism. So both sides of that debate existed very much in the ancient Jewish world, and it still exists. Although it’s interesting, and I was preparing for this podcast, I was kind of interested and this is of course jumping ahead a lot, but I won’t dwell on it. But looking in the modern Haredi world, this is the world of the Hyper-Orthodox Jews, and folks have seen them, I’m sure, with the long black coats and the beards and the side curls, very Orthodox Jews. And I was kind of curious just to what degree mazalot stuff is still going on in that world. And sure enough, I found a book called Sefer Mazalot in an Ultra-Orthodox Haredi bookstore, where you can look up stuff about your mazalot and so apparently, it’s alive and well in the Haredi world as well. Now, if your rabbi catches you with that book, I don’t know what they might do, but it’s for sale for $20. [Justin laughs]
CB: Yeah. I mean that’s one of the questions I have, is to what extent was mainstream Judaism largely successful in stamping out astrology from a theological standpoint in the same way that Christianity attempted to versus to what extent like for example, do these zodiac mosaics indicate that it was more widespread at one point and then there was maybe a downturn in its acceptance in the centuries that followed that versus how much is that not really true? How much was astrology accepted in Jewish society after this point in time?
JS: I suspect that it was probably both. I imagine that there was some section of the population that embraced it and accepted it as just basically part of the science of the day just in the same way they accepted the philosophy of the day or any other discoveries that people were making of the day. And I imagine there was a more insular inward-looking Judaism that rejected it as paganism or something like that. What we do know is that those mosaics existed all the way up to the seventh century or so, and by the eighth and ninth centuries, what ends up happening is we see Jews doing astrology. This is the rise of the folks in what comes along in the Islamic world, and we have people like Sahl and Masha’allah. They’re not only doing astrology, but they are incredibly skilled astrologers, among the most skilled of the day that are being incorporated directly into the Islamic project for instance of building Baghdad. Masha’allah was part of the team that did the astrological calculation for the building of Baghdad. Both of them wrote astrological texts that while didn’t become important in the Jewish world, did get translated into Latin eventually and became incredibly important textbooks in the history of astrology. So it’s clear that Jews were doing astrology, and not just doing astrology, but were high-ranking, incredibly technical astrologers and maybe even innovators in astrology. It’s my understanding that Masha’allah, one of his texts contains I think it’s the fourth branch of astrology that’s sort of consulting astrology, where you are doing astrological stuff in the process of figuring out what the person wants to ask. And I think you’ve published on this Chris, there was some debate about just how far back this goes. Do we see it in Dorotheus? Where do we see it? But I think the first place we see it definitively for sure I think is in Masha’allah, where he’s spelling this out where it’s clear that either it existed a long time ago and we’ve lost it and for whatever reason it got preserved in Persian or Arabic astrology, but one of the few systematic places I think is in Jewish philosophy where it’s really spelled out in a pretty clear way I think, and I think this is something you have some expertise in.
CB: Yeah, Masha’allah was in the eighth century CE. He was living and writing in Baghdad and apparently writing in Arabic. But in 775, this text on reception which is one of the many texts that he published, but it’s one of the earliest surviving complete works on what’s called horary astrology or interrogational astrology, which is when an astrologer cast the chart for the moment that a question is posed to them and the chart itself is supposed to describe the nature of the question as well as its outcome, and there’s some traces of this form of astrology that go all the way back to the first century CE and Dorotheus, as well as some interrogational charts that survived from I think like the fifth or sixth century in the compilation of [pocus]. But Masha’allah is one of the earliest authors where we’ve got a full-fledged fourth branch of this type of astrology that’s really matured and gets fully established with that first and second generation of astrologers in Baghdad in the late eighth and early ninth centuries.
JS: Right, right, yeah. And I think what’s interesting about Masha’allah and Dunash ibn Tamim and Ibn Dawud al-Yahudi and Sahl, I think Sahl has written probably one of the most important introductory texts to astrology that got translated and reprinted and reprinted and reprinted. What’s interesting about those guys is one, we don’t know about their lives. All we know is that they were Jewish and they did astrology mostly. But what’s interesting about them also is that if we didn’t know they were Jewish, their texts wouldn’t reveal it. They’re Jews doing astrology, they’re not Jewish astrologers doing Jewish astrology. I think what’s interesting about this text is this question of, is there a such thing as Jewish astrology? And I think my answer is no. There’s Hellenistic astrology, there are various forms of astrology that developed. But Judaism, with the exception of Kabbalah, which maybe we’ll get to towards the end, Kabbalah does introduce specifically Jewish elements into the astrological world for the practice of Jewish people, this Kabbalistic astrology that develops and still is practiced to my knowledge, but these guys are basically scientists. And in the same way that you would never know that Albert Einstein was Jewish from reading his paper on general relativity, you would never know that Masha’allah was Jewish from reading any of his works that have survived. We only know basically that he was Jewish from people on the outside being like, “He was a Jewish guy,” which is a bit unlike Ibn Ezra where we do see some integration with astrology and Judaism specifically in hermeneutics around reading the Bible. And again, I have to admit, I’ve looked at some of the texts by Masha’allah and Sahl in the Dykes’ translation, which is a pretty good translation. But I have to admit that some of that stuff is so technical it just goes right over my head. Those guys are definitely writing for experts, except for Sahl the introductory stuff, but a lot of the more technical stuff just goes right over my head.
CB: Yeah. Masha’allah seems like the first author, assuming setting the question of the author who wrote under the name of Abraham aside from the first century CE that Valens and Firmicus were drawing on setting that author whoever they were in whatever their cultural background was aside, it seems like Masha’allah in the late eighth century is the first Jewish astrologer we know of by name who was like a major astrologer and was a big deal that we don’t have, as you said, anything much in the way of his philosophy in terms of his religious beliefs or practices, how he reconciled that with the astrology or did or did not. One of his contemporaries, Theophilus of Edessa, who was a Christian, did leave some theological discussion about how he reconciled those things. And then Sahl ibn Bishr, I’m a little unclear about because his name is usually taken that way although I was corrected [unintelligible 2.00.25] back in episode 298 on [Barun] of Baghdad said that there may be a misunderstanding and Sahl may have been like an Astorian Christian or something like that despite the name. I don’t know what the answer to that is. But yeah, Masha’allah is the first major Jewish figure but was interestingly somebody who’s writing in Arabic, and it’s not until we get to Ibn Ezra that we get the first major Jewish astrologer that we know of, as far as I know, who was actually writing in Hebrew and ended up making major contributions or influencing the tradition in a notable way.
JS: Right. We get Abraham bar Ḥiyya is writing in Hebrew too, and he’s I think the first who is trying to pioneer a specifically Hebrew vocabulary for doing astrology. But everyone wrote in Arabic at this time. It was the standard academic language. Maimonides writes in Arabic, Saadia Gaon writes in Arabic, everybody writes in Arabic. Their works are translated later into Hebrew. But again, I think what’s interesting about Masha’allah, whose name in Hebrew may have been Manasseh, we don’t really even know what his name was. Masha’allah just means as God wills it. It’s an epithet really more than anything else. What’s interesting about him I think is that he’s doing astrology unapologetically. He doesn’t feel the need to do any theological justifications at all. It sounds like he says, “Well, let me write all these astrological manuals, and let me answer the rabbis about why I can and can’t do this.” He doesn’t care. It’s as if that he’s working in a milieu that’s scientific. And because he’s working in the milieu that’s scientific, he just happens to be Jewish. And I think that’s, again, I’ll use of the Albert Einstein example, Albert Einstein despite the fact that he was persecuted for being Jewish and doing physics, it didn’t matter to him that he was doing it that way. And I think Masha’allah is interesting in that way, and it gives us a glimpse into the team of people, for instance, that he was working on when he was doing the work for describing when to found the city of Baghdad, that was a multicultural team of people. There were Jews, Muslims, there were Christians. It just shows you that that early period of Islam, it counters a lot of the Islamophobia that we often hear that early Muslims just conquered everything and subject everyone to the sword and if you didn’t convert you died, this Islamophobic vision about early Islam or Islam in general where it’s not the case at all. You have a multireligious, multicultural group of people founding the capital, picking the data found the capital of what’s going to become the center of the Islamic world at some level. So, I’ve always just found that to be, again, disruptive of a lot of Islamophobic ideas about how these kinds of things developed.
CB: Yeah, the early opposite dynasty especially was really interesting in terms of how open they were to integrating foreign knowledge and wisdom in different cultural things, especially things that were going to be seen as advantageous to them taking over and running things, and astrology was one of those and it was at that point seen as like a technology that could give you an advantage in things by literally knowing the future and knowing when to act or when not to act alternatively using the concept of electional astrology. Al-Biruni actually preserves the birth chart for the founding of Baghdad. So this is actually the chart that Masha’allah and the other team of astrologers ended up choosing where you can see what they did. They waited until Jupiter, the most positive or the greater benefic, was in its own sign in the sign of Sagittarius and then they put the Ascendant. They waited until Jupiter was rising or about to rise over the eastern horizon and they put it right there in the first house to make Jupiter prominent in the chart itself.
JS: Yeah, it’s interesting. And again, I haven’t actually seen this before. And so yeah, it’s fascinating that again because of how technical the description was that it survives. And what’s interesting also at this time is this is also roughly the same time period where we have Sefer Yetzirah which also has Jewish astrological information encoded in it. But also we have Saadia Gaon, one of the other Jewish writers roughly around the same time, where he actually records in his commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah which we can get into in a moment, the astrological conditions of the time he was writing the commentary. And so we actually have his charts, not that it’s a strong word, but just the astrological condition of him saying this is the conditions upon which I’m writing, which is interesting because we now know the exact date. And I’m sure there are folks out there including yourself who could probably reconstruct almost the time that he was composing his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, so it’s interesting. At this time aside from the very tiny horoscopic stuff we get in the Dead Sea Scrolls, we’re now beginning to see Jews actively casting things like horoscopes and encoding astrological information that survived down to this day.
CB: Okay, so let’s talk about that a little bit briefly, the Sefer Yetzirah, and that’s where the Tree of Life comes from, right?
JS: It’s a bit complicated. The Sefer Yetzirah is the first time that we have the mention of these entities called the sefirot. The sefirot eventually become emanations of God in the later developments in the Kabbalah, primarily in the 13th century in a text called the Sefer Bahir which is a little earlier than that. But it’s in the Sefer Yetzirah that we have this mention of the sefirot which are some principles by which the cosmos comes into being. So, we have the 10 sefirot and we have the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and by combining those things, God created the world. That’s the way that Sefer Yetzirah is typically read although the text is so enigmatic that it’s not clear. What’s interesting about Sefer Yetzirah is that very early on in its development, we have several different recensions of this text. There’s a short recension, and there’s a long recension, and there are others as well. But in the long recension, astrological information is put into the fifth and sixth chapters of the text where we have a long system of correspondences. And to my knowledge and you would obviously be the better read of this, I think that the correspondences are very typical of the time. They look very much like the ones you find in Valens that are the various parts of the body, the various astrological signs and the various kinds of temperaments and dispositions that emerge. I think they tracked very closely to the ones in Valens which I think were basically universally known and accepted by the seventh and eighth and ninth centuries around the time that Sefer Yetzirah begins to be written down. So what’s interesting is that the Sefer Yetzirah, and this is the pretty famous Tree of Life configuration that we find a bit later in the Kabbalistic development, but that image is certainly the most famous configuration of the sefirot.
CB: Is this correct? I’m just looking for a good stock image but I’m not sure if this is…
JS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s accurate. Yeah. This is the sefirot as they are developed primarily in Lurianic Kabbalah. It takes centuries for this system to develop. One of the things that I think people often get confused is that Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah are the same thing, they’re not quite. Kabbalah is a later development in Jewish mysticism. There were other Jewish mysticisms prior to the Kabbalah. And the system of the sefirot that you’re seeing now developed primarily in a text called the Sefer Zohar that was edited together in the 13th century, although it leans on this idea of the 10 sefirot from the Sefer Yetzirah. The Sefer Yetzirah is famous for being a quasi-magical book by which people made artificial humans called golems. Golems are pretty famous in mythological history. Frankenstein is kind of golem, and Sefer Yetzirah is alleged to contain the miracles or the magic by which you can create these beings. In fact, there’s a reference in the Talmud where some rabbis are studying this book and create a calf out of clay and they also create a man out of clay. And so what’s going on in this text is it’s very clear that the writer of Sefer Yetzirah or at least the editor of the long recension of the Sefer Yetzirah wants to incorporate into the creation of the world the structure of the world, and the redactor of that long recension understands that the structure of the zodiac is part of the fundamental structure of the world and that the zodiac is a mechanism by which various kinds of dispositions and features of the world are caused or reflected. So, the writer of the Sefer Yetzirah, at least of the long recension of the Sefer Yetzirah, clearly thinks that there is an ontological or a cosmological causative mechanism between the creation of the world, the creation of the zodiac, and the various dispositions and things that flow from astral influence. Especially in the fifth and sixth chapters of the text, it’s very clear that the writer there understands the astrological features of the universe to be part and parcel of how God made the world.
CB: Right. Because eventually at some point, each of the different spheres becomes associated with the seven traditional planets, right?
JS: That’s right, yeah. You have a couple of different schemata of how exactly those relate to one another, but yeah, you do see that they become the lower seven, beginning here with Hesed and going to Gevurah, those lower seven become associated with the planets because the top three sefirot, Hokhmah, Binah and Keter, they’re perpetually occluded from the universe. They don’t really exist to so much in our universe, it’s the lower seven that exists in our universe and they become associated typically with the planets. Although, even that there’s a lot of debate about exactly how one should track the planets or track the various astrological entities to the sefirot and there’s definitely not any uniformity about how they should be done.
CB: That’s an issue. It seems like there’s a modern versus traditional debate there where there were some traditional assignments in the Middle Ages when the seven traditional celestial bodies got assigned to some of the sefirot, but then in modern times, it seems like some contemporary authors have revised it to add in Uranus and Neptune or Pluto sometimes.
JS: Yeah. The problem with the sefirot and the problem with Sefer Yetzirah is that one, it’s such an obscure little book that no one’s really sure what it’s about. There’s a lot of people that will tell you they know and anyone who claims that they know probably doesn’t. But even the exact configuration or even how many sefirot early on in Kabbalah wasn’t agreed upon. People are often shocked to know that there was a competing School of Kabbalah that had 13, and eventually the 13 lost to the 10 and the 10 are what stuck. Although the 13 make more sense to me, God is thought to traditionally have 13 attributes, and it would make sense it that it’d be 13 emanations of God, but 10 was the number and 10 stuck. What’s important about Sefer Yetzirah in its astrological information is that because Sefer Yetzirah was accepted by the learned Jews of the day, we have commentaries on it by Judah Barzillai and Shabbethai Donnolo and the Saadia Gaon, because we have such authoritative jews, rabbis writing commentaries on it, this basically canonized it. And the idea that it came from Abraham also got basically canonized. And in a way, what’s interesting about that is because the text gets these authoritative commentaries because these authoritative rabbis are writing commentaries on it, that canonizes the text. And when it canonizes the text, in comes the astrology. So, what’s interesting is that the astrology makes its way into Judaism, not that it ever left, and so many mystically-inclined Jews and eventually Kabbalistic Jews can make the easy argument to say of course astrology is permissible because it’s in Sefer Yetzirah. And how can you say Sefer Yetzirah is not true? We have commentaries by all these hakamim, all these wise people that affirm it’s true. And even the Saadia Gaon, who had a very ambiguous attitude toward astrology generally, even did quasi-horoscopic stuff in his commentary. So, this along with later on Ibn Ezra, who incorporates astrological information directly into his commentaries in the Bible which became basically authoritative, when he combined his astrological ideas to his Bible commentaries and he showed that various Biblical stuff only made sense in the purview of astrology, that again re-legitimated for a big part of the Jewish population the efficacy and the truth of astrology. And so again, you get this shot in the arm where Maimonides condemns it, Ibn Ezra is like, “No, you can only understand the Bible at some level by applying astrological ideas to it and then one can reveal how it actually works.” Ibn Ezra, aside from writing 18 massive tracks on astrology, technical tracks which survived to this day basically, he did a great job of making it such that astrology was acceptable among Jewish practitioners by basically incorporating it into his Bible commentary.
CB: Okay, I want to talk about him as our last major figure, and it’s a good stopping point, but I’ve been desperately for the past few minutes trying to find a good especially stock image that shows the planetary assignments that came to be with the Tree of Life, and I have no idea how accurate this is. I’m going to guess that it’s not, I just bought it from like Shutterstock. But at least it has what I’ve seen as the common core assignments which is, on the left side of the Tree of Life, Saturn is up in the top third position, then Mars in the middle, and then Mercury. And then on the right side, in the middle position we have Jupiter, and then on the position below that to the bottom right we have Venus. I don’t know. Is this correct? The two in the middle, the Sun and Moon are then in the middle?
JS: So this Tree of Life sequence, it looks like it comes from the modern period, primarily from what is called the Hermetic Kabbalah. So it’s not a traditional Kabbalistic system, not a Jewish traditional Kabbalistic system. You’ll see this more in modern practitioners of things like the Golden Dawn and maybe folks who follow folks like Aleister Crowley and things like that. It’s not a traditional configuration of this Tree of Life as it would appear in Jewish texts. And part of the reason why that is, is because there isn’t one. No, they can’t agree about how to map this stuff on. At least the Jewish authors can agree about how to map all these things on. Yeah, it’s odd because in the traditional Jewish Kabbalah, the first three sefirot don’t really even appear in our cosmos, they remain undescended is what the text would say. And so for instance, that Binah would be associated with Saturn is odd because it makes Saturn feminine which is weird.
CB: Right. Well, that’s actually why I’m asking about that because that was the one thing about Hellenistic astrology that’s been nagging me for years, is like every author from the first century BCE through the 10th century says that Saturn is one of the masculine planets, and in mythology, of course, Saturn is often treated as masculine, but then there’s this one stray line in the surviving, unfortunately, a very corrupt text of Dorotheus from the first century, where it treats Saturn as a feminine planet. And I’ve been driving myself crazy for years trying to figure out if that represents a textual error that’s just in the received text or if this is part of a genuine variant in the astrological tradition, for some reason, it’s otherwise unattested. And the only thing that anybody has ever pointed out or that I’ve ever seen that might show some parallel with that in pretty much any other esoteric tradition is whoever assigns Binah to Saturn, which apparently, you’re saying is a modern thing because that would then make it a feminine planet according to this tradition, right?
JS: Yeah. You know what? I would have to do more digging. But to my knowledge, at least the early in Lurianic Kabbalah and in Zohar and I think in Cordovero as well, it would be weird to assign planets to the first three sefirot at all just because they don’t. And also in Kabbalah, there are four worlds and these track to different worlds and we’re in the lowest world down. You are here Chris, you’re down here in Malkuth, our entire little universe is down there in Malkuth. All of the stuff above us is an entire different metaphysical register. So, on some level, it just strikes me as unusual. And in fact, I could go get a book that would illustrate this really briefly if I could run downstairs and grab a book real fast, I don’t know if it would be helpful for me to hold a book up to illustrate this idea that the sefirot or supernal, they exist in a world above our world. And then by the time that we get down to our world, our entire little cosmos is inside that little part called Malkuth kingdom. And all the planets are in there, all the planets. And then at the very center, it would say Eretz, the earth because it’s a geocentric model. I’m not saying that there’s no historical precedent for it because I want to do more research. It doesn’t occur in Sefer Yetzirah, that I’m pretty sure about. I don’t think it occurs in the Zohar, and in most version of Lurianic Kabbalah that I know of, all the planets are basically contained within the lowest sefira. So, assigning planets to higher sefirot would be weird considering that they don’t exist in that world.
CB: Yeah, I guess, to whatever extent, maybe if there’s some author that treated the earth as Malkuth and as that lowest one, then if you did try to go upwards from there and assign planets, you might end up with something like this. But maybe we’ll have to bookmark that and return to talk about maybe when that happened at some future point.
JS: Yeah, I would have to do some more research. At least for Saturn, I have a buddy of mine who’s done a lot of research about Saturn and the Jews. He’s interested in this question about the relationship of Saturn and the Jewish people, and if anyone would know, he would know. I might ask him. I’ll shoot him an email and ask him, “Do you know of a place in the lore where this association with Binah and Saturn takes place?” Because even Binah as a sefira is about intellect. It doesn’t strike me as Saturnic. I don’t know.
CB: Yeah. I mean, this scheme would be entirely schematic which is common in the astrological tradition as they just take the order of whatever the planets and then superimpose it on whatever they’re trying to do. So, for example, the body parts that you start with the head and you say the head is the top of the body, so you assign it to the first sign of the zodiac which is Aries, then you go downward from there and you assign Taurus to the neck and Gemini to the arms and so on and so forth. It’s just like applying a sequence of something astrological or planetary or celestial to some other thing as a schematic, and it just strikes me like that that you’ve got this preexisting set of orbs, and then if you were theoretically to apply the planets to it, then that’s what you would naturally end up with.
JS: Yeah, I don’t know. And again, it’s just metaphysically confusing to me because it’s just one of the things, it’s applying astral bodies to a realm in which they don’t exist. Yeah, I don’t know. Yeah, it’s confusing to me. I’ve seen those kinds of configurations and they’re very popular in the Hermetic Kabbalah, which is a very deep and very rich spiritual tradition that often doesn’t have a very strong connection to the Jewish roots of Kabbalah. I often find things that are very perplexing to me as a Jewish person who studied Jewish Kabbalah and the origins of Kabbalah, sometimes I’ll hear these things that this means this and I’m like, “Where did you hear that? Where did that come from?”
CB: Maybe that’s just evidence then of separate systems that were not developed simultaneously, somebody having trying to force them together when you see in consistencies like that as you’re pointing out with Binah and Saturn.
JS: Yeah, may be shoving a square thing into the round hole or something. These systems are developed independently with different metaphysical underpinnings, and so mapping one on to the other, it’s confusing to me. I can’t say that I understand it. And even in the Zohar, we do get Jewish astrological development. Specifically, one of the big developments we get is the idea of what are called the itim. Itim are the times. And what’s interesting with this, I’m sure folks know this from the book of Ecclesiastes or Kohelet but also from the song Turn! Turn! Turn! There’s a time to live and a time to die, a time for war and a time for peace. In the Zohar, they take those pairs and actually astrologicize them and so that you become born under a time of one of these, and they assign those various times to the various sefirot and the various planets, and then that becomes a specific way of… It’s almost like the malefic perfect kind of idea where there’s a range of things you can be born under one or the other. So, there are these Jewish elements that become fused with Hellenistic astrology later on. But again, most of what’s going on is astrological ideas being imported in Judaism and not the other way around.
CB: Got you, that makes sense. All right. Let’s focus now as we wind this down on our final figure that we’ve mentioned a few times, Ibn Ezra, who seems to be as far as I can tell, the most prolific Jewish author that we know of and a Jewish astrologer. And there’s been some revival of interest in his works recently, first through a translation of I think at least two or three of his books by Meira Epstein in the 1990s, who translated them initially for Project Hindsight, and then I think translated some more for Robert Hand’s Arhat project. And then more recently, another scholar, an academic scholar Shlomo Sela has just been translating all of Ibn Ezra’s surviving astrological works and doing extensive commentaries that are published through the academic publisher Brill. And that’s been amazing and it seems like he must have translated almost everything at this point or close to it I would think.
JS: Yeah, he’s translated a lot. At this point, and this is a problem I’m sure that you know and many people that are watching, is that most of this historical astrological stuff just has languished in libraries for centuries. And Ibn Ezra’s commentaries, he wrote I think 18 books of which almost every book has two versions for some reason, and there’s some debate about why there are two versions of almost every book.
CB: Of the astrological texts?
JS: Yeah, the astrological texts for whatever reason have two distinct versions.
CB: One of them only survived in latin or was originally written in Latin or something, right?
JS: Yeah. It’s not translations, it seems like there are two different versions in Hebrew for reasons that I have never been able to divine.
CB: Sometimes that happens in the history of astrology, like Paulus Alexandrinus in the fourth century says that he’s writing a second version because his son complained that he didn’t use the more accurate rising signs times of Ptolemy, so he’s writing like a second edition or there’s other versions of that where sometimes some astrologers, I myself have some typos I need to correct in my book at some point here before too long, so maybe it’s something like that.
JS: It could be, yeah. And part of the problem of these texts is, at least for me, is that they just now got critical editions and when you get critical editions in Brill, well, you’re going to pay dearly for them.
CB: You have to sacrifice your firstborn child in order to get a full…
JS: Yeah, Brill is very proud of their books, and God bless them. I have to interlibrary loan anything I find from Brill, and I have to deal with Brill books. One of the running jokes on my channel is that yay, you can find this book, it’s published by Brill, and they cut to the scene where you have to get a second mortgage or whatever. But yeah, we’re lucky that many of these books are getting published. And I have to say, I’ve I flipped through some of them and again, it’s one of these things where I know Ibn Ezra primarily as a Bible commentator, and when I get into his books, with the exception of Sefer ha-Olam, the Book of the World, which is his general introduction to astrology, that one I can follow pretty well, but yeah, the other ones are incredibly technical. And again, what’s interesting about that is that the technicality tells me that either he’s doing the heavy lifting to introduce into the Jewish world this astrological stuff, which we know that some people like Abraham bar Ḥiyya wrote at least one text or at least the fifth chapter of his major text began to introduce astrological terminology into Hebrew, but it’s really with Ibn Ezra that we see a very fully developed astrological vocabulary being put directly into Hebrew. And to me, it tells me that there’s an audience for it. And it’s unsurprising that there was. A lot of people read them in Hebrew, they were translated almost immediately into Latin, and so these texts became incredibly popular. And I think they were being reprinted in Latin all the way through the early modern period and enjoyed a great deal of success. And looking at the titles and from looking at what I know about astrology which is due in large part to your book and other historical books like Campion and stuff, he’s basically written what we now call the encyclopedia. With the exception of some other texts, Ibn Ezra tried to write basically an encyclopedia of astrology with an introductory text. And then from the introductory text, you could go and look through the other texts like [foreign 2:29:29] the Book of Reasons or the Book of Nativity or the Book of Interrogations, and you would just literally have an entire astrological library preserved for you in Hebrew. Although I will say that while Ibn Ezra’s astrological works were popular in Hebrew, they were I think much more popular in their Latin translations. And the encyclopedia went on to become I think a standard textbook or a group of standard textbooks in the Medieval world, and they maintained a great deal of popularity for centuries.
CB: Right. He wrote on every branch of astrology including natal astrology and electional and interrogational astrology and mundane astrology, and he drew on as many of the earlier authors that he could have including early Arabic authors like Abu Ma’shar or Masha’allah and Sahl, but also he draws on the earlier Greek writers that he had access to such as Ptolemy as well. Maybe to set some context, how do you know if his work or how’s he regarded outside of being an astrologer? Why is he a significant figure or what’s known about him outside of his work in astrology?
JS: Yeah. Ibn Ezra is basically known as a Bible commentator. He wrote a very influential commentary on the Bible. It’s included, if you buy what is called the Mikra’ot Gedolot, the standard version of an Orthodox Jewish Bible, what you’ll get is a Bible with the Hebrew text of the Bible, you’ll get an Aramaic translation and then around that, you’ll get a lot of different commentaries. And Ibn Ezra’s commentary is almost universally included in that grouping. It’s considered so authoritative. And what’s important about Ibn Ezra’s commentary, there are two things that are important about it. One, I think as I mentioned earlier, he incorporates astrological analysis into his Bible commentary, and that does a great deal to legitimate doing astrology in the Jewish world in this time period. Also, he incorporates Kabbalah early on. He incorporates Kabbalah. Now he’s a bit more guarded with his Kabbalah. He will always say, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and those that know know, and he hits the signpost. This is according to the way of truth. He’ll say “al derekh ha-’emet,” this is according to the way for truth. And so, what’s interesting about Ibn Ezra is that his Bible commentary is pioneering because it incorporates things that had not been incorporated into Bible commentaries yet, and he goes a great way of legitimating them. Kabbalah was still very controversial in some ways, astrology was still very controversial. And because Ibn Ezra includes them in his commentary, it legitimates them and in some ways it signposts to his astrological works and says, “Well, if you think my Bible commentary is great, well, I got a 12-volume astrology encyclopedia that you might want to pick up too.”
CB: That’s a good advertising thing astrologers will have to take note of today.
JS: Yeah, just do a Bible commentary or a Koran commentary and use some astrological stuff to back yourself up. And the kinds of things that he’s thinking about here are certain kinds of configurations like when the Sun stands still in the Joshua miracle and other kinds of things like that, those are the kinds of things he’s interested in. Also, what’s really interesting about Ibn Ezra from an astrological and Messianic point of view to go back to our conversation earlier about the overlap between astrology and Messiah stuff, is that he picks up an idea from Abraham bar Ḥiyya that the Messianic star is going to be some conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn I think. And Abraham bar Ḥiyya actually tries to give a calculation. I think he predicts that this is going to happen in 1358. It didn’t. Those calculations tend to not pay good dividends. There’s even a warning in the Talmud about doing that that actually says like cursed are the calculators, [Justin laughs] like don’t do that. But this idea that the Messianic conjunction persists into Ibn Ezra and it persists even down through into later Kabbalistic texts to this day, I’ve even heard people say that in the Jewish world that says, “Well, we can know when the Messiah is going to come because he’s going to be born on one specific day. There’s a tradition. We know exactly what day the Messiah will be born.” And they will find that conjunction in the future on that day and say, “This will be the day. If the Messiah is born, they’ll be born on this day.” So, there’s still people making those kinds of predictions.
CB: I mean, the medieval period inherited from the Persian tradition but it becomes really prominent in Abu Ma’shar, where Abu Ma’shar wrote this book on the great conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn and used them to time different periods in world history but also said that there would be different great prophets that would be born when the conjunction aligned with different planets like Mars or Mercury or what have you and made some predictions about that. So many sort of started this tradition for many centuries of later astrologers, especially Christian authors attempting to go back and figure out what the birth chart of Jesus must have been and what the Star of Bethlehem must have been. And one of the theories was that it was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces that happened in the seventh centuries BC or something like that. I think Johannes Kepler, for example, argued that that was the case, that was his proposed chart for Jupiter. So there was already a preexisting Christian tradition that’s all partially derived from the story in Matthew about the Star of Bethlehem and there being some undefined celestial portent that indicated the birth of Jesus. So, it’s interesting then to hear, of course, there would have been Jewish authors who didn’t think the Messiah had come yet, that Jesus wasn’t the guy, but that there would still be ones that they would be using the same techniques but instead proactively to attempt to predict when it would happen.
JS: Right, yeah. And the date we got from bar Hiyya was I think 1358 of the Common Era. I think that was his prediction. And I think Ibn Ezra also made a prediction. I think he cast forward and tried to figure it out as well. Although, like I said, this is frowned upon in Judaism. There’s even a legend that says that for every time someone predicts when the Messiah will come, God delays the coming by that many years. So, if you say God’s going to come in 2028, God’s going to put it off for whatever, six years.
CB: All right. Well, that’s too bad. We just had a Jupiter-Saturn conjunction in December so I don’t know if that’s relevant here.
JS: In the Jewish tradition, there’s an idea that the Messiah will be born on a specifically sad day, the saddest day of the year, Tisha B’Av. And on that date, it happens typically in late July or August, that’s when the temples were destroyed, that’s when the Krakow Ghetto was liquidated, that’s when World War One started, it’s when the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. Every bad thing that’s always happened in the Jewish world typically happens on this day for some reason, on Tisha B’Av. And the idea is that this day is so sad, and it’s a day of wailing and sitting on the floor and reading dirges. And the idea is that what will redeem this day is that the Messiah will be born on that day. And so, one could, I guess, do the math and figure out when the next Jupiter-Saturn conjunction will happen on that day in the Jewish calendar, and you could make an argument that that will be a good candidate day for a Messiah being born.
CB: What day is it or how is it calculated that day of the year? Is it fixed or is it a moving astronomical thing relative to the current calendar?
JS: It moves according to the Gregorian calendar, but it’s fixed in the Jewish calendar. It’s just the ninth of Av, Av is a month. It’s like the ninth of August, but Av is just one of the months in the Jewish calendar. It typically happens in late July or August. I could look up when it’s going to happen this year. Let’s see.
CB: I don’t think we just had a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, so we’ll have to postpone that because that could take a while to run that search in my astrology software. Sometimes it takes a while to search through hundreds of years of dates.
JS: This year, at least, it’ll happen, ninth of Av will start sunset of July 17th and it will end on the 18th. In 2022, it’ll be the 6th of August and it will end on the 7th of August.
CB: That would be a Jupiter-Saturn conjunction somewhere in Cancer or Leo, I guess.
JS: Yeah, you would know better than I. And again, when every time we do the ninth of Av rituals, I’m always like, “Well the good news is maybe the Messiah was born today and this will all come to happy conclusion.” Yeah, this is one of these interesting things where the traditional Jewish calendar which has been the subject of astrological and astronomical debate going all the way back to Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls is now linked up with this astrological idea that the Saturn-Jupiter conjunction is a harbinger of the Messiah and perhaps you get two data points and you might be able to get a date.
CB: Right. Well, we’ll have to save the calculation of that for other episodes or maybe the commenters on YouTube can go out and search for it. So, in terms of Ibn Ezra and just to wrap up that final piece, yeah, you’re right, he becomes one of our first and our most prolific authors that writes in Hebrew, he’s drawing in an earlier Greek and Latin and Arabic astrological tradition, he’s also writing in the 12th century, which is when I think he was born in Spain and that’s right when at the beginning of that century, astrology is still not very present in Europe, but by the end of the century, all of a sudden astrology has exploded again due to the Reconquista and due to scholars from all over Europe flocking to Spain in order to translate Arabic astrological texts from the libraries there into Latin and other European languages. So, Ibn Ezra is one of the people who is centered right in that revival of astrology in 12th century Europe and writes in Hebrew and has some influence there, but especially also influences the subsequent European astrological tradition when his texts are also translated into Latin.
JS: That’s right, yeah. Yeah, that period of time, the 12th century, gets called the 12th century Renaissance not for no reason. This is where the time period of the great translation projects of Gerard of Cremona and Plato of Tivoli and this is also when alchemy enters Europe. We know the exact date when alchemy entered Europe, February the 11th, 1144. That’s when the first alchemical text was translated from Arabic into Latin by Gerard of Cremona. Yeah, it’s just so happens that it’s very lucky and we’re very lucky for Ibn Ezra because one of the things we also know about him was that he moved around constantly. He was constantly moving around. He just so happened to be at the right place at the right time to have written down all these texts and they immediately begin to be translated from Hebrew into Latin and they go on to great fame. Of course, they don’t go on to not be controversial, the Jewish world will still fight about the authority of astrology well after Ibn Ezra is dead and gone. You have all kinds of famous debates, and those debates raged through the Medieval period into the Renaissance. And I think one of my favorite things about some of the really early legal codes that developed in Judaism is that many of the legal codes commented on virtually everything about Jewish law, and especially about things like sorcery or Kabbalah. But curiously enough, one of the major legal codes, one of the defining legal codes of the era says nothing about astrology. It just skips it. And that’s in some ways fortuitous because by skipping it, it leaves the door open for it to be revived. And one of the things I’m interested in with this modern revival and interest in historical astrology and the interest in Judaism about the Jewish history of astrology, I’m really curious to see what impact it’s going to have on Jewish astrologers, to what degree will Jewish astrologers go back to people like Masha’allah or Ibn Ezra or Abraham bar Hiyya, and then begin to think through the question of into what degree does the inheritance of this thousand-year long tradition, what might he bear upon the practice of reviving a Jewish astrology, especially combined with Kabbalah and things like that? And so, we have I think with the translation projects that are going on now, a really rich future for the history of Jewish astrology and the rebirth of these kinds of ideas and these kinds of practices that are anchored in Jewish texts in Hebrew. And I think that’s really fascinating and really interesting. Ibn Ezra, I don’t think he was even widely translated untill I think like you said, the 1990s whether any translations existed at all. And so we go from basically there being Ibn Ezra molders on shells because I don’t think his astrological works are read in the Orthodox community at all. I don’t know that they’re published or read at all. And so that they’re revived out of the dustbin of history and to go on to live a second life, it’s a very exciting prospect.
CB: Yeah, and as a part of the revival of so many ancient authors from the astrological tradition since especially the 1990s and the sudden revival of interest within that, both in the astrological community as well as in the academic community over the past century as studying of this as something that’s been part of world history and that has influenced culture and religion and society in many different ways, sometimes subtle or other times pretty major and just sometimes shows up as a blip on the historical timeline but is nonetheless very significant. All right. I’m shocked at how much history and how many things we covered tonight. We had a pretty high bar set where we wanted to get up to the 13th century and somehow, I think we knocked it out of the park. So thank you so much for joining me tonight for this discussion. And yeah, I hope you’ll come back again. And in the meantime, I hope people will check out your YouTube channel because you were just cranking out amazing and much more concise and informative episodes than I often am, I have to say, so people should check out your YouTube channel which is youtube.com/esotericachannel and your website is justinsledge.com, right?
JS: That’s right. Yeah, yeah. I think there’s a lot of overlap in our audiences between folks who are interested in astrology and interested in western esotericism, whether it’s magic or alchemy or Kabbalah or the occult. And so part of the project of the channel is to provide scholarly access, academic access to that knowledge without a lot of the stuff that goes off the rails, conspiracy theories and racism and all kinds of the dreadful things that often you see in those camps. So yeah, folks are interested in the academic study of Western esotericism, look me up and check out the channel Esoterica on YouTube.
CB: That is to say that you’re not channeling any of your information as far as you know?
JS: Not as far as I know. If I’m doing it, I’m doing it accidentally. Yeah, but you’d be amazed at the amount of emails that I get of people correcting the information on my channel from channeled spirits. They’re like, “Yeah, Brill is wrong, what’s really right is the Angel Gabriel who talked to me from my toaster.” Do I really know they’re wrong? I don’t know.
CB: I mean, somebody is going to have a YouTube channel in like 2000 years on toaster channeling from the Pleiadean Starseeds or something I’m sure because it’s going to need to be investigated to understand what was happening at this point in history and why it ended up influencing world events in the way that it did. But thank you so much for joining me tonight. I really appreciate it. This is a lot of fun, and people should definitely check out your channel. Yeah, good luck with your work, and I hope you have continued success because you definitely deserve it with everything you’re doing here.
JS: Yeah. Thank you so much, Chris. Thanks for having me on and it’s been a lot of fun having the conversation. Thank you.
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