by John P. Pratt
Sat 10 July 2004
It has been proposed that the constellation figures which we inherited from the Greeks originally were drawn to depict the entire story of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is a startling idea to most of us who were taught that they were pagan monstrosities, so worthless that they should be removed from all serious star maps. Could there be any truth in such an outrageous claim?
This is actually a review of three classic books that introduced the topic, and which are still sold and gaining an increasing following. You can easily find many summaries of the theory and also of warnings about it on the internet. Why am I writing yet another summary? It is because I am often asked for my opinion about the theory, and I wish to be able to simply direct inquiries to my response, which differs from most. How does it differ? Most of the summaries of the work which I have seen either blindly accept everything in those three books, or they find all kinds of ways to discredit the work. This article provides my somewhat-balanced commentary on the basic work, and I have written my response to most objections in a separate paper, "Answering Objections to Gospel in the Stars."
The three books are Mazzaroth: Or the Constellations by Frances Rolleston (London: Rivingtons, 1862), Gospel in the Stars by Joseph Seiss (Philadelphia, 1882), and Witness of the Stars by E.W. Bullinger (London, 1893). All are currently in print, the former having been reprinted recently by Weiser Books (2001) and the latter much earlier by Kregel (1972, 1967). Rolleston did most of the original work, but her book was almost totally ignored, partly because it is mostly a set of notes, which she expected readers to link together. The work was first popularized by Seiss, a Lutheran minister in America and then Bullinger in England. Each of them contributed something to the theory, and for many decades those two books were the only voices supporting the belief. Then in the last few decades, the cause has been espoused by many new adherents, but to the best of my knowledge, no one has contributed anything new in the last century. Thus a review of those three books covers most of what has been done on the subject.
First, let us look at Rolleston's basic idea. She noticed many clues that she pieced together that the constellations were much more than merely pagan superstitions. Here are some of the lists of things she noticed:
1. There were so many "twelves" in the scriptures and they seemed to correspond to the twelve constellations of the Zodiac. The twelve sons of Jacob (twelve tribes of Israel) have each been associated with one of the zodiacal signs in traditional Judaism. The dream of Joseph even refers to his brothers as the 11 stars and they immediately knew it meant them. And there were twelve labors of Hercules, which show a lot of similarities to the zodiac.
2. The symbolism of the lion, bull, man, and eagle/serpent, found several places in scriptural symbolism (Ezek. 1:10, Rev. 4:7), corresponds to the four "corners of the earth" constellations of the Lion, Bull, Water Bearer, and Scorpion/Eagle. They are spaced every three around the zodiac, being near the four equinox and solstice points about 3,000 years before Christ.
3. The constellations show at least three heroes crushing the heads of monsters (Hercules/Dragon, Serpent Bearer/Scorpion, and Lion/Sea Serpent). Moreover, the first two have a foot that appears to have been wounded by that enemy. That was so reminiscent of the great promise given to Eve that her seed would bruise the serpent's head even though the serpent would bruise his heel (Gen. 3:15) that it is hard to conclude that it is all just a coincidence. Clearly it was Christ who would put all enemies under his feet (1 Cor. 15:25).
4. Many ancient sources attribute the origin of the constellations either to Seth, the son of Adam, or
Enoch, his descendant. Almost all ancient people believed the signs to be sacred.
5. She then saw how the entire set of 12 constellations could summarize the entire gospel. Perhaps quoting her own summary here is worthwhile because it capsulizes the whole theory:
"The primitive year began in the sign of Virgo, ... the splendid star Spica, the ear of corn, in the woman's hand, marking the leading idea, the Promised Seed. Thus was represented the subject of the first promise, the foundation of the hopes of fallen man. In the next sign, Libra, we have His work, which was to be to buy, to redeem, figured in the balance weighing the price against the purchase. Then in Scorpio follows the indication of what that price was to be; the conflict in which the seed of woman receives the wound in his heel, while his other foot is on the head of the enemy, here figured by a scorpion, a venomous reptile, who can sting even while his head is bruised.
Next we find the Archer, with his arrow in the act of going out from the bow, expressing that the promised Deliverer should be sent forth.
Then Capricornus, the goat, the victim or sacrifice sinking down as wounded, showing that the promised Deliverer must be slain as a sacrifice. In Aquarius we see the rising up and pouring forth of water, as to cleanse and fertilize, showing that the sacrifice was to bring purification and benediction by means of the risen Messiah.
In Pisces two fishes are bound together by a band, which is continued to and held by the fore-feet of Aries, figuring the leading idea of union. The fishes, a well known emblem of the Church among the early Christians, represent the redeemed...
The subsequent sign, the Lamb or ram ... now reigning triumphant, with one foot on the head of the enemy ...
We then see Taurus, the bull, showing forth the dominion of Him who had been a sacrifice for sin, now reigning over all.
In Gemini, the twins, ... expressing the union of the divine and human nature in the promised seed.
Cancer, the crab or beetle, holding fast its prey or its nest, well conveys the image of tenacious possession by Him who has assured us, as to His purchased flock, that no man can pluck them out of His hand.
Leo, the majestic lion, rending the prey, represents irresistible strength, and the final separation between good and evil." (Mazzaroth, Book I, pp. 9-10).
6. To fill in more detail, she discovered the description of the constellations of the non-Christian Arab astronomer of AD 850 who described the 12 constellations of the zodiac with each associated with 3 other constellations (called "decans"). Some of those descriptions unabashedly referred to Christ. Perhaps the most striking was that of a constellation which was lost before they were transmitted to the Greeks. It was of a virgin queen holding an infant son who was explicitly identified as Christ. I must admit, that one really caught my attention. She also found support in what was then the recently published Egyptian zodiacs of ancient constellations, and summarized the work of the Tartar prince Ulugh Beigh of AD 1450 on Arab astronomy.
7. Then she got the idea that ancient star names might have been transliterated rather than translated. That is, many star and constellation names may have had Semitic roots, and then were simply said in Greek, rather than having their unknown meaning being translated. When she translated well-known Arab star names as if they had been Hebrew, she found much evidence to support her theory.
To me, those seven points summarize her work, but the numbers and order of those points are my own. Before I comment on each point, let's look at what Seiss and Bullinger added.
Seiss read her work and saw that one reason it might have been ignored for two decades was that it needed to be presented in one smooth presentation, rather than long lists of correlations. He not only provided that in his book, he also added several ideas to strengthen the case. Among them was that the 12 chapters of the gospel book could be divided into three parts, each containing four constellations: the First Coming, the Church, and the Second Coming. He added many insights into the details of the presentation, and also answered many criticisms of the work, such as the complaint that the Southern Cross is not of ancient origin.
Seiss also made the first and only attempt until now, so far as I know, to actually identify the stars of the lost constellation of the infant held by the virgin. He superimposed the figure from the Egyptian zodiac of Denderah over the dim stars of Coma Berenices. To me that was not satisfying, because any star representing Christ should be at least somewhat bright, as is the case in all of the other constellations. But rather than use that weakness to discredit the entire theory, it led me to seek elsewhere for the constellation, which I now believe I have found (See "Lost Constellation Testifies of Christ").
A decade later, Bullinger, who had known Rolleston personally, added many new ideas in support of the theory. By literary analysis he showed that Psalms 19 ("The heavens declare the glory of God") does indeed refer to the constellations telling a story, not simply meaning that the heavens appear to be glorious wonders of nature. He showed evidence that the zodiac circle begins with Virgo and ends with Leo because Herodotus apparently stated that such was the real answer to the riddle of the sphinx, which was the head of Virgo on the body of Leo, and it is shown in some Egyptian hieroglyphs. He showed ancient examples of the scorpion trying to hold the balance in its claws. He also noted that the bands which held the Fishes (Pisces), most likely represented the "bands of death" because they were tied to the Sea Monster. The Ram's leg is apparently breaking those bands, even as Christ broke the bands of death (Psalms 107:14).
First of all, I see no way that the entire theory can be swept away by finding some weaknesses in it. I totally agree with the conclusion that there are too many wounded heros crushing too many heads to be a chance coincidence in matching the scriptures. Moreover, the symbols used are indeed the same from the holy writ: a ram breaking the bands that tie two fish to a sea monster is the same imagery of the Bible, where Christ is represented by a lamb, and death by bands, and the church by fish.
Thus, while I agree with the overall conclusions that whoever drew those figures knew a lot about God's plan of sending a Redeemer to save those menaced by the monsters of death and hell, the details leave a lot to be desired. The appears to be a huge amount of subjectivity in deciding just how the figures represent the gospel. There needs to be a much stricter guide to read this picture book than merely picking and choosing ideas which seem to apply. And what about the figures which don't seem to appear anywhere in scripture, such as a bear to represent a flock of followers. Rolleston argues that the constellation was indeed a flock to the Arabs, and that the Greeks might have mistranslated the name. This leads to the problem of picking and choosing which constellations from which countries seem to fit best, which opens the door to criticism of just selecting only the data which supports ones theory and ignoring the rest. That doesn't invalidate the whole idea, but it certainly weakens the support.
What is the biggest contribution of the theory? Probably the clear-cut conclusion that at least the great promise to Eve that her seed would be a Redeemer to overcome the serpent who had brought death has clearly been immortalized in the figures. And perhaps the second most important contribution was that, of several ancient lists of 48 constellations, she selected that of Albumazar as the best to represent the Gospel story. That list might have otherwise been lost, and I still do not know of one English translation of his work. It has been two decades since I hunted for it, but at that time all I could find was an early translation into Latin.
What is the weakest part of the theory? To me it is her translations of the star names. She had a good idea that some names might have been transliterated, such as proper names like Perseus or Hercules. But then she made it the rule that none of the star names had been translated, and proceeded to translate all names as if Hebrew. That is patently a false assumption. For example, the Arabic word for "tail" is Deneb, and at least half a dozen stars bear that name, each of which is located in the tail of an animal. She translates all of those names to mean "judge", like the Hebrew name "Dan", which has the same consonants. Thus most of the meanings she provided are probably worthless. But there may be a few which are excellent (those which were transliterated from a Hebrew origin), and those should be sought out. It is probably best to avoid her star name translations entirely, and depend only on independent sources.
Thus, my conclusion is that there is much merit to the theory, and the overall idea is probably correct. But there is much more research that needs to be done, rather than simply to repeat her conclusions which are now a century and a half old. To me there is no question that the gospel was indeed drawn in picture form in the stars and that our modern constellations miraculously have preserved much of that information. But the details need a lot of work to be fully understood.