Echoes of Astrology From Biblical Days

Toasts to Auld Lang Syne (Gaelic for fond memories) blend with toasts to the future during the holidays. Mazel tov , a salute associated with weddings and bar mitzvahs, is also heard. A recent exchange of letters in Science magazine points out that it is appropriate for the New Year. It does not mean congratulations , as the first letter-writer affirmed. Mazel is Hebrew for constellation . Tov means good . Mazel tov thus invokes a happy horoscope. It is an echo of the role of astrology in the ancient world.

The Bible is not often cited for its astrological references. Indeed, there are only a handful of references to the stars. Some scholars suggest that other references may have been purged because astrology implies that one's fate is determined at birth by the power of the stars. This idea is inconsistent with the concept of an almighty God who has total power over human life to reward and punish.

But the ancient Hebrews had close ties with the Egyptians and Babylonians, among whom they lived at different times. While the religious elite may have remained free of their influences, Babylonian lore seeped into Jewish life. The Jewish calendar is based on the Babylonian lunar year, and the names of some of the months in Hebrew are almost identical to the Babylonian equivalents.

The Babylonians were excellent astronomers. Familiar with the sky, they were able to predict eclipses and equinoxes. They reasoned that the predictability of lunar and solar phenomena might be extended to predict the influences the stars have on an individual's life. This is the realm of astrologers. Astrology and astronomy mingled in the practice of star-gazers until modern times.

The people of Palestine had mixed feelings toward astrology. While their rabbis condemned all efforts to use the stars as a guide, worldly men like the historian Josephus attributed the destruction of the Zealots in AD 67 to a heedless disregard of warnings that their constellations were out of sync and augured military defeat.

In the ancient world, astrologers worked for kings, advising them when to fight, marry and sire offspring. It was only at the time of the Romans that ordinary people sought the advice of astrologers.

Whatever suspicions the early rabbis had about astrology had vanished by the Middle Ages. This was a golden era for astrologists. Muslim, Jewish and Christian practitioners vied for places among the crowned heads of Europe and Asia Minor. Some argued that every nation had its own star, and every city its own constellation. It took, of course, a learned astrologer to discover that special configuration, and to advise rulers and financiers how to act in accord with the astral situation.

Although astrology and astronomy seem very different, they used similar technology, especially, before the invention of telescopes, the astrolabe. This instrument, developed in the first centuries before Christ, was a kind of analogue computer that simulates the motion of the sun and stars as they appear to an observer on earth. An astrolabe projects the movements of objects in three dimensions onto a plane, allowing a navigator to plot a journey in accord with the known changes in the night sky.

As students of the heavens, astrologers needed a sound knowledge of geometry. They were serious mathematicians who believed in a fixed cosmos composed of perfect circles and orbits.

The practice of astronomy and astrology remained intertwined until the Western world moved into what is now recognized as the scientific revolution. First to change were the expectations of the practitioners. As scientists, astronomers used mathematics and the newly articulated laws of motion to predict the orbits of certain heavenly bodies and also to predict the discovery of new planets according to irregularities in some of the orbits they now tracked with the aid of increasingly powerful telescopes. The new code of science judged astronomers by the accuracy of their predictions.

Astrologists lost ground because of their feeble record of success. They blamed their inaccurate predictions on misreading the signs. The accuracy of the prediction thus depended more on the particular astrologer than on the trade he practiced.

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