Contents | Chapter One

Astrology and Judaism in Late Antiquity

A Dissertation

Submitted to the Faculty of Miami University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy Department of History

by Lester J. Ness Miami University Oxford, Ohio 1990

Lester J. Ness 1990

Copyright (C) 1993 by Lester J. Ness.

All rights reserved. This dissertation may be archived for public use in electronic or other media, as long as it is maintained in its entirety and no fee is charged to the user; any exception to this restriction requires the written consent of the author. The author reserves all rights surrounding the distribution of this text in print.


The goal of this dissertation will be to explain how it was that the Jews of the Hellenized world adopted and adapted astrology. There will be a focus on the zodiac mosaics found in the synagogues of Byzantine period Israel. The dissertation will begin with a chapter on the origins of astrology in Mesopotamia. There we will see how astrology grew from the beliefs that the planets manifested the gods, and that one could predict the gods' wills by predicting, mathematically, the planets' motions. The result was the first horoscopes.

The second chapter will tell how the Hellenistic world adopted the Mesopotamian practice and blended it with Greek science to produce the mathematical "scientific" astrology familiar to most twentieth century readers. The following third chapter will show how astrology's religious side fared in the Hellenized Near East. The planets were important gods, astrological art was used to praise the gods, and to portray their power and ability to care for the world and their worshippers. Horoscopes and astrological magic allowed one to communicate with the gods and persuade them to help one through life.

Chapter four will deal with Jewish astrology, both "scientific" and "religious." We will examine a variety of Jewish writings from the Hellenized Near East to demonstrate that Jews did indeed practice astrology. We will conclude that Jews adapted the polytheistic assumptions of astrology to their own monotheistic world-view by interpreting the planet gods as planet angels, beings superior to humans, but subordinate to the one genuine god, YHWH.

The fifth and final chapter will discuss the various zodiac mosaics, both as archaeological sites and as works of art, and the various theories which try to explain what they meant. Finally, we will conclude that, since the planets are the subordinates of YHWH, administering His will in the world as part of His creation, the zodiac mosaics are best explained as indirect portrayals of God. The sun and the zodiac signs were His creatures. They carried out His commands. They were the satraps of His cosmos. Thus, they were appropriate visual substitutes for the God whom even Moses might not see.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

  1. Diameter Aspect. Bouche'-Leclercq, p. 166, figure 18.
  2. Trine Aspect. Bouche'-Leclercq, p. 169, figure 19.
  3. Quartile Aspect. Bouche'-Leclercq, p. 171, figure 20.
  4. Sextile Aspect. Bouche'-Leclercq, p. 172, figure 21.
  5. Zodiac Ring. van der Waerden, _Dawn_, Plate 26.
  6. Signs of the Zodiac, _Academic American Encyclopedia_, s.v., "Astrology."
  7. Ptolemy's Planetary Domiciles. Bouche'- Leclercq, p. 188, figure 24.
  8. Exaltations and Depressions. Bouche'-Leclercq, p. 195.
  9. Zodiacal Dodecatemoria. Goold, lii, figure 10.
  10. Planetary Dodecatemoria. Goold, liv, figure 11.
  11. Decans. Goold, lxxxvi, figure 23.
  12. Planetary Decans. Bouche'-Leclercq, p. 288, figure 28.
  13. Mundane Houses. Bouche'-Leclercq, p. 280, figure 31.
  14. Lot of Fortune, after Manilius and Ptolemy. Bouche'-Leclercq, p. 290, figure 35.
  15. Lot of Daimon, after Paul of Alexandria. Bouche'-Leclercq, p. 295, figure 37.
  16. The Circle of the Athla. Goold, p. lxiii, figure 14.
  17. Zodiacal Melothesia. H. G. Gundel, frontispiece.
  18. Nut with Constellations Above, Decans Below. Decans on Boats. van der Waerden, _Dawn_, p. 30, figure 3.
  19. Horoscope of Antiochus I of Commagene. van der Waerden, _Dawn_, p. 149, Plate 18.
  20. Chart of Papyrus Horoscope. Neugebauer and Van Hoesen, Plate 1, no. -1.
  21. Plan of the Bel sanctuary. Colledge, Palmyra, p. 27, figure 6.
  22. Bel temple "Battle" relief. Colledge, Palmyra, p. 37, figure 15.
  23. Bel temple north thalamos relief. Colledge, Palmyra, p. 39, figure 18.
  24. Bel temple north thalamos ceiling. Colledge, Palmyra, Plate 21.
  25. Soffit relief of the Bel temple north thalamos lintel. Colledge, Palmyra, p. 38, figure 17.
  26. First-century relief of a divine triad, `Aglibol, Ba`alshamin, and Malakbel, Plate 35.
  27. Selection of tesserae. College, Palmyra, p. 56, figure 32.
  28. Selection of tesserae. Colledge, Palmyra, Plate 56.
  29. Graffito of god(s) from Khirbet Ab Dhr, north-west of Palmyra, Colledge, Palmyra, p. 50, figure 30.
  30. Fragment of ceiling with Zodiac. Michalowsky, _Fouilles_ II, p. 114, figure 129.
  31. Reconstruction of ceiling with Zodiac. Michalowsky, _Fouilles_ II, p. 115, figure 130.
  32. 232--face. Hajjar, _Triade_, Plate LXXXVIII.
  33. 232--reverse. Hajjar, _Triade_, Plate LXXXIX.
  34. 233--face. Hajjar, _Triade_, Plate XC.
  35. 233--reverse. Hajjar, _Triade_, Plate XCI.
  36. 186. Hajjar, _Triade_, Plate LXX.
  37. Nabataean Temple, Khirbet Tannur. Glueck, _Dolphins_, Plan A, p. 621.
  38. Nabataean Temple, Section, Period III. Glueck, _Dolphins_, p. 623.
  39. Stone horns and eagle finial over Vegetation Goddess. Glueck, _Dolphins_, Plate 32.
  40. Cronos-Saturn. Glueck, _Dolphins_, Plate 153.
  41. Hermes-Mercury with lyre. Glueck, _Dolphins_, Plate 146a.
  42. Helios relief with torches. Glueck, _Dolphins_, Plate 136.
  43. Enthroned Zeus-Hadad. Glueck, _Dolphins_, Plate 42.
  44. Nik -supported Zodiac Tych . Glueck, _Dolphins_, Plate 48.
  45. Mampsis. An impression of the seal of Rabbathmoba, indicating the month of Maraxon (Marheshvan) and depicting Scorpio. Negev, _Nabataean Archaeology_, p. 96, figure 57.
  46. Mampsis. An impression of a seal of Characmoba indicating the month of Xisleu (Chislew) and depicting Sagittarius. Negev, _Nabataean Archaeology_, p. 97, figure 58.
  47. Restored plan, Naaran. Vincent, "Sanctuaire," Plate 5.
  48. Mosaic pavement, Naaran. Vincent, "Sanctuaire," Plate 7.
  49. Naaran zodiac. Vincent, "Sanctuaire," Plate 19.
  50. Sun god and chariot, Naaran. Vincent, "Sanctuaire," Plate 21.
  51. General plan of Beth Alpha. Hachlili, _Art_, p. 147, no. 4.5.
  52. Prayer-hall mosaic, Beth Alpha. Hachlili, _Art_, p. 357, no. 10.
  53. Zodiac panel, Beth Alpha. Hachlili, _Art_, Pl. 73.
  54. Plan, Husifa. Hachlili, _Art_, p. 146, no. 9.
  55. Floor mosaics, Husifa. Hachlili, _Art_, p. 332, no. 5.
  56. Zodiac panel, Husifa. Avi-Yonah and Makhouly, "Isfiya," Plate 44, figure 3.
  57. Mosaic panels, synagogue IIb, Hammath- Tiberias. Hachlili, _Art_, p. 340, no. 1.
  58. Nave mosaic, synagogue IIb, Hammath-Tiberias. Hachlili, _Art_, p. 338, no. 9.
  59. Plan, Susiya synagogue. Hachlili, _Art_, p. 157, no. 6.
  60. Susiya mosaic. Shanks, _Judaism_, p. 102. Note that Shank's illustration is mislabelled "Eshtamoa."
  61. Yafia, a: plan, b: mosaic floor. Hachlili, _Art_, p. 290, no. 35.
  62. En Gedi, inscription. Levine, "En Gedi Inscription," in Levine, _Ancient Synagogues_, p. 141.
  63. Plan, En Gedi synagogue. Barag, Porat, and Netzer, "`En Gedi," in Levine, _Ancient Synagogues_, p. 117.
  64. Decorated Jewish Tomb, Via Nomentana, Rome. Leon, _Rome_, figure 43.
  65. Reconstruction, circular Mesopotamian astrolabe. van der Waerden, _Dawn_, p. 66, figure 6.
  66. Ecliptic. Dicks, _Astronomy_, p. 18, figure. 4.

List of Maps

  1. Geographical Syria and Mesopotamia. Glueck, _Dolphins_, p. 633, Nabataean and Related Sites.
  2. Edessa and Harran Region. Segal, _Edessa_, Map.
  3. Synagogues in Ancient Israel. Hachlili, _Art_, p. 142, map 2.


I owe debts of gratitude to many people throughout my life, and especially during the last few years, in which I learned to be a scholar. My late mother, Margaret, taught me the alphabet. My father, Harold, and grandfather, Adolph, raised me to respect learning and the study of history. My brothers and sisters provided irreplaceable support, both financial and emotional, as did my friends, especially Louis Nanassy, Joan Moynagh and Bob Howard.

My advisor and mentor, Dr. Edwin M. Yamauchi encouraged me by allowing me to study a not quite respectable topic, by giving many bibliographical hints, and with a great deal of patience. My other committee members also performed above and beyond the call of duty. But I owe much to informal advice, too. Jerry Colthorp and Dr. Timothy Rogers taught me word processing. Dr. Scott Carroll brought the Letter of Rehoboam to my attention, urged me to study Syriac, and took part in many stimulating conversations.

I want, also, to thank the staff of Miami University's Interlibrary Loan Department, especially Sarah Barr and Scott Van Dam, who brought to me many of the sources used in this dissertation.

To all of you, named and unnamed, who helped me thorough these years, many thanks!


Astrology is one of the most remarkable practices to come to us from the ancient world. Born in ancient Mesopotamia, reared in the Hellenistic world, it was at once a science and a religion. It quickly spread throughout the known world, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, and is with us still. Its appeal was and is varied. An important factor is the awe-inspiring beauty of the heavens. The developed system also had an intellectual beauty, which many still find appealing. Another factor was the belief that the planets were manifestations of important gods. If one could predict the gods' plans from the planets' movements, one could make plans for the future. Likewise, one could appeal to the planet gods to smile on one's goals. Thus, astrology was at once beautiful and practical.

Astrology was adopted by most of the peoples of the ancient world, who proceeded to adapt its principals to their peculiar needs and society. Perhaps the most interesting example of this phenomenon was the adoption of astrology by the Jews. Their religion differed from those of other ethnic groups within Hellenistic society in its allegiance to only one god, YHWH. Astrology was polytheistic; yet there is no doubt that more than a few Jews practiced it. Rabbinic literature often refers to it. There survive a number of astrological manuals written by Jews. The most dramatic and surprising evidence of a Jewish adaptation of astrology is on the floors of the synagogues of Byzantine period Israel. Jews were notorious in the ancient world for eschewing religious images as well as polytheism. Yet numerous examples of mosaics of the zodiac and the sun god may be seen today. This dissertation will describe the history of astrology broadly before concentrating on how Jews adopted and adapted astrology. It will demonstrate that astrology was seen as the power of YHWH managing the universe and caring for His people Israel, and that the zodiac mosaics symbolized His power and concern.

Contents | Chapter One