Podcast episode

Episode 160: Kocku von Stuckrad on Monotheist Astrologies in (Late) Antiquity

‘In late antiquity astrology held a key position among the accepted and well-reputed sciences. As ars mathematica closely connected with astronomy, it made its way into the highest political and philosophical orders of the Roman Empire and became the standard model of interpreting past, present, and future events. Although this is widely acknowledged by modern historians, most scholars assume that the application of astrological theories is limited to the ‘pagan mind,’ whereas Jewish and Christian theology is characterized by a harsh refutation of astrology’s implications.’ von Stuckrad 2000, p. 1.

We are delighted to welcome Professor Kocku von Stuckrad back to the podcast to discuss monotheist astrologies. We start the conversation with a myth: that with the rise of monotheism in late antiquity came a concomitant ‘fall’ or decline in astrology. Our audience will be unsurprised to learn that this is not true. But we start by interrogating the myth: why is a story something like this so widely believed, both at large and in scholarship? One reason is theological – anything that would limit the freedom of an omnipotent and freely-willing monotheist god must be rejected, so of course astral fate is a non-starter. There are also lots of problems to do with salvation-theology, divine justice, and so forth, if we consider astral fate to be a binding phenomenon.

And yet.

We discuss the pervasive reality of ancient Jewish astrology, from the Hasmonean monarchs, who, like the Romans, were heavily engaged in astrological political propaganda, down through the early Rabbinic discussions of astral divination and related matters, and up to the Maimonidean synthesis. Jewish astrology was normatively careful to forbid worship of the planets, but, with that caveat, more or less absorbed Hellenistic astrology wholesale as a privileged way of accessing the truth – even divine or angelic truths. Across the board in antiquity, we find a fairly widespread Jewish engagement with, knowledge of, and skilful utilisation of astrology in theory and practice. This discussion sets the stage for later antique and mediæval Jewish astrology to come in the podcast.

Something not too dissimilar can be found in the later movement of Christianity. We discuss Origen’s nuanced approval of astrological hermeneutics as a privileged method for reading ‘the handwriting of God’. But in the Christian context Professor von Stuckrad helpfully discusses some of the delineations between astrology sensu stricto and ‘astral religion’; in the latter context we discuss the abundance of astral ideas found in many brands of early Christian (starting from the New Testament itself, notably the star-spangled Revelation of John which is chock-full of constellations and planets acting as dramatic agents).

Interview Bio:

Kocku von Stuckrad has been very active in the field of Religious Studies for decades; rather than trying to list his many publications and the organisations he is/has been a part of, we’ll direct you to his website. Counterpoint: Navigating Knowledge, a new project organised by Kocku and Whitney A. Bauman, hosts a many events, discussions, and postings of interest to scholars of western esotericism, especially as our work overlaps with the current ecological situation we find ourselves in.

Works Cited in this Episode:

Origen, the paths of the planets and stars are ‘god’s handwriting’: Comm. in Gen. 1:14. See Eusebius P.E. 6.11; Philocalia 23.1-21; cf. also CCAG 9.2, 112, 11ff.

The ‘Little Star of Bethlehem’ incident in the New Testament: Matt. 2:1-23.

On the Hasmonean star-coins, see Y. Meshorer, Jewish Coins of the Second Temple Period. Tel Aviv: Hassefer & Massada, 1967.

Recommended Reading:

Roger Beck. A Brief History of Ancient Astrology. Blackwell, Malden, MA, 2007.

James H. Charlesworth. Jewish Interest in Astrology During the Hellenistic and Ro- man Period,” 20.2 (1987): 926-50. Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, II (20.2):926–50, 1987.

F.H. Colson. The Week; An Essay on the Origin and Development of the Seven-Day Cycle. Cambridge, 1926.

Frederick H. Cramer. Astrology in Roman law and politics. American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1954.

Solomon Gandz. The Origin of the Planetary Week or The Planetary Week in Hebrew Literature. American Academy of Research: Proceedings, XVIII:213=55, 1948-49.

Tim Hegedus. Early Christianity and Ancient Astrology. Peter Lang, New York, NY, 2007.

Daryn Lehoux. Tomorrow’s News Today: Astrology, Fate, and the Way Out. Representations, 95:105–22, 2006.

Anthony A. Long. Astrology: Arguments Pro and Contra. In J. Barnes, J. Brunschwig, M. Burnyeat, and M. Scholfield, editors, Science and Speculation; Studies in Hellenistic Theory and Practice, pages 165–92. Cambridge University Press and Éditions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris, 1982.

Ben Outhwaite and Siam Bhayro. Towards a Catalogue of the Magical, Astrological, Divinatory and Alchemical Fragments from the Cambridge Genizah Collections. In Gideon Bohak, editor, “From a Sacred Source”: Genizah Studies in Honour of Professor Stefan C. Reif, volume 1, pages 53–79. Brill, Leiden, 2010.

A. Scott. Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea. Clarendon, Oxford, 1991.

Kocku von Stuckrad. Das Ringen um die Astrologie. Jüdische und christliche Beiträge zum antiken Zeitverständnis, volume 49 of Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorarbeiten. De Gruyter, Berlin/New York, NY, 1999.

Idem. Jewish and Christian Astrology in Late Antiquity: A New Approach. Numen, 47(1):1–40, 2000.

Idem. Geschichte der Astrologie: Von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart. C.H. Beck, Munich, 2003.


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