Jesus, the Lord of Pisces: Hipparchus and the Gospels
Originally printed in the March - April 2003 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Williams, Jay G. "Jesus, the Lord of Pisces: Hipparchus and the Gospels." Quest 91.2 (MARCH - APRIL 2003):44-50.
By Jay G. Williams
For us who live in the Copernican world, the universe above with its novas, black holes, and immense galaxies is a very impersonal place, which may contain threatening forces and amazing possibilities—perhaps even living beings—but which seems to have little to do with our everyday lives. God doesn’t live there any more. Therefore, when people speak of heaven in religious terms, it is a spiritualized and mythologized place that has little to do with the heavens above.
Premodern people saw very differently. Heaven was a transcendent and mysterious realm that constantly impinged on their own lives. After all, it is heaven that gives us time. Without the heavenly realm, there would be no days, months, or years. The seven “planets” (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) evoked particular interest because of their unique movements. While the crystalline sphere of stars moves inexorably forward through the night sky, each of the seven planets has a special path of its own.
Working with the basic principle “as above so below,” ancient people concluded that what happens in the heavens is a major key to understanding what happens on earth. Just as the Sun’s cycle is directly related to our waking and sleeping, to crop growth and many other phenomena, and just as the moon relates to tides, menstruation, and some say childbirth, so it seemed reasonable that all the other planets must have their subtle effects too. At first, these planetary powers were understood as affecting primarily the social and political spheres, but by the Hellenistic period planetary effects upon individuals were also being charted out. The individual horoscope had become a reality. Looking at the heavens was comparable to peering into the inside of the skull; planetary and psychic forces were seen as synchronous.
Everything correlated. The seven planets were seven gods, the same gods who shape and move society and nature and the same gods who dominate the human psyche. In the heavens they move against a backdrop of “fixed” stars, within a zodiac that constituted a chart of the human body, with Aries as the head and Pisces as the feet. Each of the twelve signs corresponded to a part of the human anatomy. Much can be learned, they thought, by charting out the positions of the gods within this zodiacal, bodily framework.
Jews, of course, could not agree, for they were strict monotheists and, therefore, did not accept the notion of the seven gods. This does not mean, however, that for them the heavens were unimportant. The heavens (hashamayim) were seen as the abode of only one God, though the sun and moon were still understood to be the “governors” of the day and night (Gen. 1.16). Above the firmament of fixed stars, the King of the universe sat upon his throne surrounded by the cherubim and seraphim and his host of angels. With eyes much sharper than an eagle’s, God, from his heavenly vantage point, could look down on earth and see everything.
God’s heavenly realm correlated, moreover, with his earthly, political, and social presence, for he was also enthroned in the Temple and, through his Spirit, in the hearts of true believers. Nevertheless, his presence in heaven was regarded not so much mythologically as factually. One could point overhead to the foundation of God’s dwelling place. Sometimes he would actually speak to people from his throne in heaven. At other times, he would send angelic messengers with his instructions. Although Hellenistic astrology was officially denied, Jews could be sure that all the heavenly movements had a divine reason and were also messages from God. Like the Greeks and Romans, they too believed in multiple heavens, whether three, seven, or ten.
In the early books of the Bible, clear lines of demarcation were drawn between humanity, earth, and heaven (Williams). Not only was it considered wrong for humans to try to build a tower reaching to heaven (Gen. 11.1-9); it was equally dangerous and wrong for the Sons of God to break through the barrier, to come down and cohabit with human women (Gen. 6.1-4). Humans should know that the earth is their abode and learn to accept that lot. Going up to heaven was not an allowable possibility. At death the nephesh, or life, descended to Sheol, the Pit.
Elijah, the prophet, seems to have been the first to break the heavenly barrier legitimately, for he was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. Later, works were written in which many others (Enoch, Moses, and Baruch among them) not only went to heaven but came back with new knowledge. In his second letter to the Corinthians (12.2-4), the apostle Paul says that he knew a man (presumably himself) who was taken up to the third heaven and who literally visited Paradise, learning things that it is not allowable to discuss. He also entertains the notion that this could have been done “in the body,” a not impossible notion because heaven at that time was a definite place, right “up there.” For him, visiting heaven was as comprehensible as someone today landing on the moon. If one learned how, or was enabled by God, to do it, the trip was quite possible. Jewish Merkabah mystics also explored, in some detail, ways to ascend to heaven to see God’s throne. Presumably Jesus’ ascension in his resurrected body was seen as a literal change in location from here to there.
The Greco-Roman world into which Christianity was born was a civilization that placed considerable and growing emphasis upon the importance of the heavens. What we call astrology was not considered occult but rather was the cutting edge of science. The Stoics, who represented in many ways the very best of Hellenistic philosophy, were captivated by the power of the stars in the determination of human fate. It is not surprising that we find synagogues decorated by zodiacs and many works, such as the Book of Enoch, exploring astronomical mysteries. It was also commonplace for Jews to refer to God as “Heaven” and to emphasize thereby his cosmological and astronomical dimensions.
Because of this intense interest in Heaven as the ruler of earth and as purveyor of social and personal secrets, any new astronomical discovery would have been seen by virtually everyone as of the utmost significance. Therefore, the discoveries of the Greek astronomer Hipparchus in the second century B.C.E. (circa 128) must have seemed astounding. By comparing his observations with those of Timocharis, an astronomer who lived about 150 years earlier, Hipparchus discovered an amazing fact: the sign of the Zodiac which rose at the time of the vernal equinox was slowly changing—over a period of more than 2100 years. Because he did not accept the heliocentric theory, he could never have guessed that the phenomenon is caused by the slow polar wobble of the earth. Nevertheless, he discovered what has come to be called the precession of the equinoxes.
The zodiac is a belt of stars divided into twelve thirty-degree segments. Each segment is named according to a cluster of stars within it. Everyone assumed that this belt of stars operated like clockwork and never changed. Hipparchus proved it is not so, but rather that in a little more than seventy years the zodiac moves backward one degree. Therefore, at the beginning of the third millennium, the sign of Taurus had been the sign of the vernal equinox, but before that millennium closed, Aries had taken over as the first sign of the year. Moreover, and this is the point which will interest us, in a few more decades after Hipparchus, Aries would give way to Pisces, the Fish, as the equinoctial sign.
For those who believed in the significance of heavenly movement—and that included most educated people of the Hellenistic world—this must have been an astoundingly important discovery. It meant that the whole theory of correspondences would have to be revised. Either that or astrologers would have to live in denial—a situation which has actually existed from that day until this. Astrology today is based upon a zodiac that begins with Aries as the sign of the vernal equinox, a situation that hasn’t existed since about 50 B.C.E. Perhaps the reason for the denial is that the zodiacal change threw everything out of place. The cycle now began with the feet (Pisces), instead of the head (Aries) and ended with the calves (Aquarius), not a very rational way to organize things. In any event, in the face of long-standing scientific and religious belief, Hipparchus predicted on the basis of hard data that a new age was about to dawn.
David Ulansey has argued persuasively that this discovery lies behind and, to a large extent explains, the origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, a secret religion that was one of the chief competitors with Christianity during the Roman Empire period. He explains how Hipparchus’s discovery provides interpretive clues for the once enigmatic iconography of the Mithraic temples that were built across Europe in the first centuries of our era. According to Ulansey, what the Mithraists worshipped was that tremendous power, the cosmocrator, which moves the heavens to create the precession. The picture of Mithra slaying the bull actually depicts the death of the sign Taurus so that the sign of Aries could rule. Other apparently obscure symbols, he says, also directly relate to this phenomenon. Although Mithraism may have changed as it developed, when it began in the city of Tarsus, this was its essential theme. What was whispered in secret meetings and initiation rites had to do with the great heavenly cycle.
Whether Ulansey is entirely correct I will leave to experts in the Roman Mysteries to decide. The question, however, that his work raises is this: to what extent did Hipparchus also influence the gospels and the early Christian movement? Was the proclamation of the imminence of the kingdom of heaven based in any way upon the recognition that the Age of Aries was past and that the age of Pisces was beginning? Does the movement of the heavenly spheres help to explain what Jesus was talking about in his proclamation of the kingdom and why people were attracted to his and other so-called apocalyptic movements? Is this the reason why Justin Martyr accused the followers of Mithra of copying Christianity?
These may seem odd questions, for Jesus is frequently interpreted primarily within the context of Jewish culture and that culture is seen as an island largely separated from the world of Hellenism that surrounded it. The truth of the matter, however, is that Jesus, if we can believe the Bible, was brought up in Galilee, an area strongly influenced by Hellenistic thought and culture. Jews who lived there could be expected to be fully acquainted with Hellenistic ideas and perhaps even rather disengaged from their own Semitic traditions. Sepphoris, a major city just a few miles from Nazareth, was a center for Hellenism and all that it stood for. Jesus could have attended Greek tragedies, visited temples dedicated to the Greek gods, viewed chariot races, and frequented the popular public baths. If Hipparchus’s discovery was at all common knowledge, Jesus certainly could have heard about it.
I do not wish, however, to try to reconstruct Jesus’ thought or life history. Whether there actually was in ancient times a town called Nazareth or even whether there was a person called Jesus are historical questions about which there is and should be much debate. It seems quite possible that, as Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, the authors of The Jesus Mysteries, assert, Jesus is a mythical character invented for the celebration of a Semitic form of the holy Mysteries. What I do wish to address is the question: do the Gospels show evidence of the influence of Hipparchus’s discovery? How, if at all, is the proclamation of the kingdom related to the monumental change caused by the precession of the equinoxes?
Perhaps the first thing to say is that any answer we come to will be hypothetical at best. It is doubtful that there will ever be any absolute proof, for if the proof were obvious, scholars would have discovered it long ago. Whatever evidence we have will be somewhat circumstantial. This is particularly true because the Gospel according to Mark, generally thought to be the earliest canonical gospel, emphasizes that Jesus concealed as much as he revealed in his teaching. “To you,” he says to his disciples, “has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but to those outside everything is in parable” (Mark 4.11). We can only guess what the disciples were told in secret. Moreover, this secrecy was maintained during the first years of the church. If Christianity was not a mystery religion, it certainly looked like one from the outside. Ulansey says that the mysteries of Mithra had to do with the precession. Could the mystery of the kingdom also be related to Hipparchus’s discovery?
Mark condenses Jesus’ early message in a few words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1.15). Although this translation is not inaccurate, the same Greek words could also be rendered: “The season is finished, the reign of God is here; turn around and trust in the good news.” One must ask: What season? Why does the conclusion of this season imply doing a complete about-face in life? And what makes this news good? These are relevant questions because later in the gospel Jesus makes clear that the changes that are occurring will involve political and natural upheavals that entail much individual suffering (Mark 13).
Luke offers no parallel passage to Mark 1.15. Instead he describes as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry his visit to his hometown synagogue (Luke 4.16ff), where he reads from Isaiah 61.1 –2, concluding with another interesting temporal phrase: “To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Since Jesus read the passage in Hebrew, the words might be rendered “To announce the year of the Lord’s goodwill.” Again, the emphasis is upon a time that, as Jesus says, is now fulfilled or completed.
Matthew’s account parallels Mark’s but is briefer: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4.17). Most scholars would argue that “heaven” is used here as a substitute for “God,” and that is certainly true, but it is also a particular sort of circumlocution which differs in connotation from “Lord” or “the Almighty” or “Father.” “Heaven” directs the reader’s attention to God as a transcendent, cosmic being who dwells above and regulates the heavenly spheres and, in so doing, regulates the earth. Mark’s emphasis upon “the time or season” is missing but is implied in the word “heaven.” The phrase “the kingdom (or reign) of heaven” encompasses all those great cycles that heaven controls. This certainly would include the precession of the equinoxes.
Matthew could rightly be called the “heavenly gospel,” for the author employs the word ouranos (heaven) in its several forms more than eighty times. Moreover, he begins his gospel with a genealogy of Jesus divided into three segments of fourteen generations each which covers the last eon (the Age of Aries?). This is particularly interesting because astrology divides eons into three ages: the cardinal, the fixed, and the mutable. Having provided knowledge of roots in the past age, he tells the story of the “genesis” of Jesus and in so doing introduces the so-called wise men and the star.
Magi, presumably Chaldean astrologer-priests, are said to have seen “his star” in the East and subsequently come to worship the toddler Jesus. Scholars and astronomers have often speculated about what the star was. I have seen star shows at Christmas featuring the conjunction of planets and various novas as possibilities. One cannot help but ask, however, whether a better candidate might not be the first star of Pisces rising at the vernal equinox, a clear sign that the old age had passed away and the new age was arising. Of course, it is probable that this story is a fictional narrative, not a recording of an actual event. In that case it is a clear hint that Matthew’s whole narrative has to do with something in the heavens that is new and observable, something in which astrologers would have had interest.
Matthew, throughout his gospel, distinguishes between the last age and the new one that is dawning. “It was said of old . . . but I say unto you” is the format that dominates the second section of the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew never says that Moses was wrong, but rather that he spoke in a different age. In fact, his Torah will remain in effect until the kingdom of heaven is in place. Nevertheless, the reign of heaven is at hand and the rules have changed. In this new age, the old laws of the Torah will no longer apply. Jesus seeks to prepare his listeners for the age to come, for an age that initially will involve radical disruption and suffering. After that, however, there will be a strikingly new order in which everything known at present will be turned upside down. The meek will inherit the earth, and the poor in spirit will receive the kingdom while the rich will be, in the words of Luke, “sent empty away” (Luke 1.53).
To help him in his mission to proclaim the kingdom, he calls disciples who are, significantly enough, fishermen. In the Hebrew Scriptures, little is said about fish and fishermen. This is not surprising, for the coast of Israel has no natural harbors and Israelites were not particularly tempted to develop a fishing industry in the Mediterranean Sea. People probably had fished the Sea of Galilee for centuries, but this so-called sea is no bigger than a small lake and could never have supported a very large number of fishermen. In the Gospels, however, fish and fishing become very important symbolically, and the early church seems to have adopted the sign of the Fish as one of its primary symbols. It is also interesting to note that in one of the few events which all four gospels record, Jesus feeds the 5000 with five loaves and two fish. The loaves seem reminiscent of manna from heaven, but the two fish? One can only ask: are they not a symbol of the new age, now ushered in by the reign of heaven, the Age of Pisces?
All the synoptic gospels emphasize Jesus’ direct relation to heaven. At crucial times, such as his baptism and his epiphany on the mountaintop, the heavens actually open and a voice identifies Jesus as the beloved Son. This close connection between Jesus and heaven is also underlined in the prayer he teaches his disciples. In the space of a few words, Jesus refers to heaven twice. A fairly literal translation of his words might read: “Our Father in the heavens, may your name be hallowed, may your kingdom come, may your will be done, as in heaven so on earth.”
In this most important of Christian prayers, Jesus directs his hearers to the Father in the heavens andto the coming of the kingdom that he has emphasized so often. He teaches his disciples to pray that thekingdom may be realized on earth as it is in heaven. In other words, the disciples are to put their hearts and minds in agreement with what is happening in heaven. That the kingdom will come on earth, however, is a foregone conclusion. Jesus promises it within a generation.
At the end of his gospel, Matthew describes the risen Christ commissioning his disciples on a mountaintop in Galilee. His very last words to them and to us are “And lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age (aion)” (Matt. 28.20). Although perhaps one can read too much into this passage, it seems to imply that Jesus is ushering in and presiding over a new age, an age which itself will eventually end. Is he the herald and ruler of the age of Pisces? And when that age ends, will Jesus be replaced by a new herald, the herald and ruler of the Age of Aquarius? Perhaps, but if the old age can serve as an example, the Power which is in Jesus will die only to be resurrected in new form. The Lamb was slain, but only to become the great Fisherman.
When we turn from the synoptic Gospels to John, we find an author who deemphasizes some of the major themes of the synoptics. For instance, in John there is very little mention of the kingdom of God at all. Apocalyptic imagery is also somewhat subdued. Nevertheless, the strong connection between Jesus and heaven remains. Jesus is seen as the earthly manifestation of what is happening in the heavenly realm. In John 3.12-13 Jesus says to Nicodemus: “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” This is a theme that John repeats frequently, particularly in chapter 6. Jesus is seen as the one who has come down from heaven and who will ascend to heaven. He is, in fact, everything, including the manna, that Heaven has ever sent. What goes up is the Son; what comes down is the Son. So to go to heaven one must become one with him.
Moreover, it is John who introduces the theme that parallels quite exactly that of the Mithraic mysteries. Just as that cult emphasized the death of the bull as the symbol for the death of one age in preparation for the birth of the next, so John portrays Jesus as the Lamb of God who is slain and through his death ushers in a new era. Although this imagery of the Agnus Dei has become familiar in Christianity, it is, apart from the precession theme, quite difficult to interpret. When John the Baptist says, “Behold the Lamb of God” (John 1.36), he introduces an image that is by no means self-explanatory.
It also seems significant that, aside from his mention of the two fish in the feeding of the five thousand, John saves the fish imagery until the very end of his gospel. In fact, from John’s gospel one would not even know that Peter and his brother were fishermen. After the resurrection, however, in what appears to be an appendix to the book, the disciples decide to go fishing, which at the very least, seems an odd thing to do. There in Galilee, beside the sea, Jesus meets them and teaches them how to fish in this new age, and they are amazingly successful. Jesus also eats a fish, symbolizing perhaps the transition from one age to another. He becomes the Lord of Pisces.
Does all this prove that the gospel writers knew about the precession of the equinoxes and saw it as the root of the proclamation of the gospel? No, not really. At most the idea has only become more plausible. The proposal will remain quite hypothetical until much more work has been done. Perhaps, because of the secret nature of early Christianity, we will never be sure. By the time the Church gave up its secrecy, the new age had proved to be far less idyllic than predicted and, although the symbolism remained, the epochal nature of Christianity was deemphasized.
Still, I believe this hypothesis is important to explore more fully, for it explains not only some of the symbolism of the gospel but why so many were ready to flock to the movement. Great symbols always contain multiple meanings and can be read several ways. If that were not so, they would wither away after a generation or two. Certainly the New Testament can bear a number of different readings. What I have presented here is one reading that I believe is a significant angle on the gospels, one that needs much further exploration.
|Freke,||Timothy, and Peter Gandy. The Jesus Mysteries: Was the “Original” Jesus a Pagan God? New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999.|
|Ulansey,||David. The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.|
|Williams,||Jay G. “Symphony # 1, The Genesis:The First Two Movements.” Journal of Religious Studies 9.2 (1982): 24-33.|