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Christianity, the Magi, & Astrology
Except from History of Astrology by Derek and Julia Parker

Almost the first story we hear about the birth of Jesus is of the wise men from the east who came to Herod to announce that they knew that the King of the Jews had been born because they had "seen his star in the east. Herod, having inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared sent them out to Bethlehem to seek for the child, "and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

There has been much speculation about what the star was: general opinion suggests it may have been a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, possibly with Uranus, which would have made for a very bright and apparently single star moving quickly enough to fulfill the conditions of the story. But that is astronomical speculation. The significance of the story for us is that it shows how, right at the beginning of the accounts of Christ's life, astrology played a part.

It would have been remarkable had it been otherwise. To most thoughtful men of the time there would have been no question of a god being born without the fact being announced in the heavens, probably by some strange but obvious celestial phenomenon rather than by his having a remarkable personal horoscope. Apart from the truth or otherwise of the story, it was to say the least extremely helpful to those set on establishing the divinity of Christ to have his birth associated with a spectacular astrological event; no scientist of the time would have accepted the possibility of such a phenomenon unless astrological observation supported it. In fact, of course, the appearance of a single rogue star has no astrological significance, and had none at the time; but the problem of inventing a significant horoscope for a divinity by choosing a propitious moment for the birth boggles the astrological mind, and was certainly beyond the early Christians, if the idea indeed ever occurred to them. The next best thing was some kind of spectacular ‘comet-like event, which was what is said to have occurred.

The presence in St Matthews Gospel of the three wise men, or kings, or Magi, or astrologers, was to be rather an embarrassment to some of the fathers of the Church; later generations were simply to deny that they were astrologers at all, although that was clearly what the author of the gospel intended. The earliest commentator to seize the nettle and attack the myth was St John Chrysostom (c 347-407), who made heavy weather of his criticism, not so much attacking the notion of astrology itself as berating the three astrologers for calling Jesus the King of the Jews when ‘his kingdom was not of this world, and suggesting that they were unwise to the point of foolishness in coming to Bethlehem, stirring things up with the king, and instantly leaving. He also pointed out (quite rightly) that the appearance of a single star was not in accordance with astrological tradition, although he agreed that its appearance was a sign that God favored the wise men. Tacitly, he admitted that he not only believed in the appearance of the star, but that it was shown to the astrologers for a purpose, so demolishing his own argument.

Speculation about the wise men was to continue for centuries, with various embroideries. There were not always three, for instance; Chrysostom suggested that there may have been a dozen, and in the earliest Christian art other numbers are given.

The Magi do not seem to have been promoted to royal status until as late as the 6th century, and the Venerable Bede, the English historian of the 7th century, seems to be the first man to give their names. Their original home was in Arabia, or Persia, or Chaldea, or India, according to which early authority one reads, and anyone interested in visiting their tomb should look in Cologne, for after their deaths the Empress Helena brought their bodies from India to Constantinople, whence they traveled to Milan and on to Germany.

Some Christian commentators invested them with various magical powers, perhaps to denigrate them, and thereby astrology in general; a 10th-century dramatist tells how they flew miraculously to Bethlehem after the birth, causing considerable surprise to the citizens of the cities over which they passed. But some sects seized on the story as proof of astrology as Gods means of regulating affairs on earth. A heretical sect, the Priscillianists, did so, prompting a 10th-century writer to put forward all the traditional anti-astrological arguments, and to present the wise men simply as the first Gentiles to seek Christ.

Christian opposition to astrology from earliest times to our own has been founded in temperament rather than theology. No considerable Christian scholar or theologian has argued that astrology is unthinkable, except when or if it claims to predict the future, and therefore contests the doctrine of free will. Many of the earliest authorities have astrological allusions. The Old Testament figure Enoch, for instance, claimed to be sixth in descent from Adam and Eve, has passages on the stars and herbs, gems and numbers, and claims that in the sixth heaven angels attend the phases of the Moon and the revolutions of stars and Sun, superintending the good or evil condition of the world. Enochs notions of angels are somewhat eccentric (some of them have privy members like those of horses), but it seems that two hundred of them so fancied earthly women that they came to live on earth, and betrayed to man various secrets, including the science of astrology, magic, witchcraft and divination, and the art of writing with ink and paper.

Read the full History of Astrology by Derek and Julia Parker on

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