Early Christians and Astrology

It’s interesting that astrologers in the persons of the magi were the first ones to recognize and worship Jesus as documented in the Book of Matthew in the Bible and the fact that all logical arguments support the premise that God’s creations are conveying information that originated with their creator.  Nonetheless, it appears that early Christian converts, in honoring their baptismal vows to start life anew, made every effort to leave all pagan beliefs and practices behind, even if it meant throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This began as early as the first century with St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, who declared that the advent of Christ fulfilled old beliefs and practices.[1]  When this failed to eliminate astrology, which apparently was still recognized to be effective by its adherents, the attacks became more direct but noticeably delayed from the era of the original disciples.

In the early second century Justin Martyr became the earliest known polemicist to denigrate astrology.[2]  Martyr, of course, later became the namesake for the practice of killing off religious zealots who become a major inconvenience to the prevailing political authorities.  Justin was another one who argued for a new era of faith and took a stand against astrology in his Second Apology in which he condemned it largely because it was a pagan practice.  Apparently the Roman powers-that-be weren’t aware that Martyr shared their disdain for the cosmic arts because he was eventually beheaded.  Tatian, the Syrian, followed, with the accusation that its origin was demonic and deterministic.[3]  Tertullian, another pagan convert, was of the same mind, perhaps based on the statement in the Book of Enoch, an apocryphal Jewish text, which states “Thou has seen what Azazyel has done, how he as [sic] taught every species of iniquity upon earth, and has disclosed to the world all the secret things which are done in the heavens.”[4]  Hippolytus, a contemporary of Tertullian, used skepticism and ridicule, yet copied his attack on astrology from Sextus Empiricus.[5]

Clement, Bishop of Alexandria, incorporated various elements of Platonism and while he agreed that “there was of old implanted in man a certain fellowship with the heavens”[6] he nonetheless did not accept astrology.  He did not claim it was of demonic origin due to his great respect for pagan learning, but sided with the skeptics and assumed that astrologers were not evil but simply ignorant; besides that, it was deterministic, which clashed with the precepts of free will.[7]  Origen, successor to Clement as head of the catechetical school in Alexandria, was another who simply didn’t believe it worked rather than attributing it to demons.  He was more liberal than Justin in that he was willing to accept Platonistic beliefs which were compatible with Christianity and thus blurred the lines between them, but took a more scientific objection to it by being the first critic to notice what is now known as precession, i.e., that the zodiac signs as fixed to the seasons didn’t line up with the constellations.[8]

The ones who made the most noise against astrology comprised a small group of theologians who were involved in a perpetual power struggle.[9]  Thus, the Catholics easily won the battle but ultimately lost the war when they gained the distinct advantage provided by the conversion of Constantine in October 312 and his subsequent edict to make Christianity the state religion.  Considering Roman attempts to ban astrology dated back to at least 200 BCE, this dubious marriage of church and state certainly didn’t bode well for astrology.  The Roman populace was not particularly bothered by the state’s latest religious fad since they had already been sufficiently indoctrinated with Sol Invictus which made the emperor God’s spokesman on the Earth; they simply swapped one god out for another.

While Christian leadership persisted in banning astrology into the 4th century, clearly they still hadn’t eliminated it as demonstrated by the necessity Theodosius II found in 409 which required all astrologers to burn their books before their bishop or be exiled.[10]  Not surprisingly, the numerous evolving Christian sects couldn’t even agree amongst themselves.[11]  This lack of agreement persists today, in spite of them all using the Bible as their agreed upon canonized scripture, different translations notwithstanding.  In Rome during the early Christian era, the Priscillianists, a movement that originated in Spain in the 4th century with possible Gnostic leanings, related the 12 signs to the 12 apostles and the Nestorians, followers of Nestorius who was bishop of Constantinople for a while, had no problem with astrology.  Bishop Zeno of Verona, who died in 380, had gone so far as to say that those who had been born again in Christ thus gained a new set of zodiac signs with the old symbolism depaganized.[12]

Gradually the practice of astrology seemed to dwindle on its own as the sect’s emphasis on salvation through Christ with no mention of the planets allowed them to gradually lose their importance, giving credence to the adage if you ignore something long enough it will go away.  In addition, various conquests of the region resulted in the loss of Greek knowledge and the vast illiteracy which characterized the Dark Ages.  Meanwhile, across the Mediterranean, while Christianized Rome was trying to eradicate astrology, the Hellenistic version was alive and well, at least until the 6th and 7th centuries CE.  Ironically, it was the fall of the Western Roman Empire and beginning of the medieval period which saw its demise in the area,[13] at least for a time, indicating that Rome ultimately went down with the astrological ship.

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[1] Campion, p. 251

[2] Campion, p. 267

[3] Campion, p. 268

[4] Laurence, Richard, Archbishop of Cashel, translator, The Book of Enoch the Prophet, translated from an Ethiopic manuscript in the Bodeian Library [San Diego: Wizards Bookshelf 1995] p. 9.

[5] Campion, p. 269

[6] Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks 2, as quoted in Campion, p. 270

[7] Campion, p. 270

[8] Campion, p. 274

[9] Campion, p. 286

[10] Campion, p. 286

[11] Campion, p 266

[12] Campion, p. 286

[13] Brennan, Chris, “Hellenistic Astrology,” NCGR Research Journal Vol. 1 Summer 2010 p. 17.

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