Astrology in the Dead Sea Scrolls

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John M Addey

It is now well known that in 1947 there came to light one of the most remarkable and important discoveries ever made in the field of biblical archaeology - perhaps in any archaeological field.

In the Judaean desert, about 14 miles east of Jerusalem and high up in the cliffs bordering on the shores of the Dead Sea, was found a cave containing what proved to be part of the library of a monastic sect who had lived in that region from about the end of the second century B.C. until just before the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

In the ensuing years more caves were found in the vicinity and. gradually a very large number of library scrolls, preserved, as they had been in the dry desert air and in their protective earthenware jars, were accumulated and subjected to the scrutiny of scholars. There were, of course, mishaps of one sort and another with some scroll material and even that which was successfully garnered consisted chiefly of fragments, large or small; complete scrolls being very much the exception rather than the rule.

The extraordinary light thrown by the contents of these literary fragments on the Old and New Testaments and on the origins of Christianity is also now more or less common knowledge. The period had been but sparsely documented, especially in relation to the religious background in which Christ's teachings had first taken root. Now, at last, written evidence had come to light, not merely about this period, but (what had seemed impossible) actually from it, to tell us at first hand about beliefs and customs which had hitherto remained in obscurity.

Among these texts at least two documents of astrological significance have been found, but, in order to understand their significance, it is necessary to glance briefly at the origins of this sect, sometimes called the Essenes, who had hidden their sacred books so effectively before being driven out by the advancing Romans in the summer of A.D. 68.

The Maccabean Revolt of B.C. 168 arose out of the efforts of the Jews to free themselves from the Hellenistic culture which Antiochus Epiphanes, the Greek ruler, sought to impose on them. Under the leadership of the Maccabean family the Jews won a series of military victories to throw off their oppressors (who, to tell the truth, had more important matters to attend to); but from the outset there were some Jews - the Pious Ones as they became known - who looked on the afflictions visited upon their country as but well-merited punishments from a deity who wanted, not victories at arms, but repentance and purity of heart. If we keep His Law and return to a righteous way of life, they would have said, then all these sufferings will be removed; no other way can permanently succeed.

The worst fears of this austere school of thought must have seemed to them fully justified when the Maccabean House, flushed with triumph, succeeded in obtaining for themselves the High Priesthood of Israel, an office of the most sacred character to which they had but scant claim - and then, later, followed this up by seizing the Kingship of Israel as well. Little by little life under this regime became increasingly intolerable to the sectarians and by the end of the century they had removed themselves and their families - as many as could - to the monastery which they built for themselves in the `wilderness' at Qumran, where they could celebrate the sacred rites and preserve their traditions under the leadership of a priesthood whom they regarded as pure and worthy.

Their life in that region must have been very hard; they had a strict rule of life, held all things in common, enjoined a long period of novitiateship upon those who wished to join the community and devoted much of the day and night to religious observances.

Whatever the precise relationship of Jesus of Nazareth to this sect, certain strong links are recognised.

Like all powerful religious revivals the movement which this sect embodied was one which (whilst no doubt in its worst aspects verging towards fanaticism) did nevertheless exert a most invigorating influence upon the whole religious life of the country and one which was not confined to the closed order within the monastery at Qumran. For it appears that the sect had a kind of lay order who lived in the world and tried to carry the teachings and beliefs of the order among the people at large. The nucleus of this side of the order was no doubt composed originally of those members of the sect who had not entered the monastery, for one reason or another, and they were probably more numerous than those who had.

In this way certain ideas and concepts which played a most significant part in the coming and acceptance of Christianity became widely disseminated, for it was among those people in whom these ideas had taken root that Christ's person and teachings found the readiest acceptance.

In the first place this sect, from the intensity of their religious fervour, were possessed by the belief that their Order was to bring forth a Messiah - or, to be precise, two Messiahs. The one, a Priestly Messiah who would be the head of the monastic life of the sect, and a lay Messiah, `a Prince of the line of David, begotten of God', who would live and teach in the world, reclaiming for the Kingdom of God all who would follow `the Way'.

As a reminder of this anticipated coming of the Messiahs, the community had a frequently-observed ceremony in the form of a shared meal which was preceded by the blessing of the bread and wine and which was regarded as a rehearsal of the Messianic Banquet to be presided over in due time by the Messiahs and shared by the elect when the Kingdom, now near at hand, was finally established. Certain details of this observance make it quite clear that it must have been the basis of some of the episodes in Jesus' life, such as the feeding of the multitudes and the Last Supper.

Among other beliefs which were spread abroad from the same source was that a New Testament or Covenant was to be given to the world and that the final battle between the Children of Light and of Darkness was approaching. Similarly the prophetic scriptures were searched for appropriate utterances which could be interpreted as applying to the sect and the times in which they flourished and these same passages were again quoted in the Gospels as applicable to the life of Jesus. The sect were of course utterly opposed to the official priesthood at Jerusalem and this too is perhaps reflected in the life and attitudes of Jesus. Altogether there can be no possible doubt of the strong links between this sect and the early Christians.

This is a very brief outline of the history and character of the sect from whom our scrolls came and their relevance to the origins of Christianity. For those who wish to probe more deeply, the Pelican book, The Dead Sea Scrolls, is a good introduction. This was written by John M Allegro of Manchester University to whose lot fell the piecing together and translation of the small fragment which constitutes the first of the two astrological texts we have to consider.

This fragment was an early find at Qumran and it is now many years since it was translated; however, it is only recently that it has been published, in the Journal of Semitic Studies, Vol. 9 No. 2 Aut. 1964 under the title An Astrological Cryptic Document.

This document, which deals with the physical characteristics given by the nativity and the mixture, in the native, of the spirits of Light and Darkness, does no more than show that astrological traditions were cultivated by the sect and that they were integrated with other beliefs held by them.

The text, which comprises parts of four columns of writing (and is largely included in the illustration on page 19) was written in a simple code which consisted in reversing the order of the letters and employing a number of different alphabets.

Only a few lines of the first column and a word or two of the fourth column remain. The translation is as follows (the figures referring to the numbers of the lines) :

Col. I.

...) 4 and a man who will become (...) 5 broad and rounded (...) 6 pleasing and not the flesh of (...

Col. II.

1 ...) unclean (Z...) granite (3...) a man of (4...) clean 5 and his thighs are long and thin, and his toes 6 are thin and long, and he is of the Second Vault. 7 He has six (parts) spirit in the House of Light, and three in the Pit of 8 Darkness. And this is the time of birth on which he is brought forth - on the festival of Taurus. He will be poor; and this is his beast - Taurus.

Col. III.

2 And his head (3...) and his teeth are ... and the fingers of 4 his hands are thick, and his thighs are thick and each covered with hair; 5 and his toes are thick and short. He has eight (parts) spirit in the House of (6 Darkness) and one (part) from the House of Light. And a man...

The idea of the two spirits of Good and Evil is familiar from Zoroastrian thought and presumably emanated, in this context, from that source.


The idea, in the scrolls, had a twofold application; that is, both to a metaphysical framework in which the conflict of events in the world was to be seen and also, in psychological terms, to individual men and women and their inclination to the Light or the Darkness. The doctrine of the two spirits is developed at length in the sect's Manual of Discipline (abbreviated in scroll literature as 1QS) of which several copies have been found. The following extract gives perhaps a fair impression of the sect's thought on this theme:

It is for the wise man to instruct and teach all the sons of light concerning the genealogies of mankind, with respect to both kinds of their spirits with their different characters of their action in their generations, and with respect to their visitation of afflictions together with their time of peace. From the God of knowledge comes everything which is happening now and happens at any time. Before they happen he sets down all their designs, and when they come into existence they carry through their activity according to His glorious design. Nothing can be changed. In his power are the qualities of all things, He being the one who sustains them all in their doings. He created man to rule over the earth, designing two spirits for him in which to walk until the time fixed for his visitation, namely the spirits of truth and deceit. From a spring of light emanate the generations of truth and from a well o f darkness emerge the generations of deceit. (1QS iii, 13-20).

...According to his share in the truth and righteousness a man hates deceit, and according to his assignment in the lot of deceit and ungodliness thus he loathes truth. For God...knows the work of their actions in all times and he allots them to mankind for knowledge of good and evil, thus deciding the fate for every living being according to his spiritual quality. (iv. 24-26).

(From The Manual of Discipline, translated by P. Wernberg-Moller).

It will be seen that the elements of dualism and determinism come through very strongly. But even the writer of the Manual of Discipline seemed to find it possible to reconcile both elements with traditional Jewish Monotheism and with the saving of even those in whom the spirit of darkness was strongly established. The reconciliation was found in the power of God to intervene to save those who would, to the best of their ability, apply themselves to the study of God's Word and a life of piety.

In St. John's Gospel where the theme of the spirits of Light and Darkness recurs often - clearly deriving from this source - the harshness of the apparent dualism in the scrolls is softened still further and when he says enigmatically, "for he giveth not the spirit by measure" (iii. 34) he may in fact have been seeking to counteract the somewhat rule-of-thumb beliefs, about the way the spirits of good and evil were apportioned in a man's nativity, which we have seen above. The second astrological fragment from Qumran was also discovered a number of years ago but, again, has only recently been published, in France, by the Abbe Starky who is in charge of this fragment. It is written (according to The Guardian of 31 July '65) in the Aramaic language in a clear Hebrew script but has, however, suffered even more damage than the other fragment. It is said to be the text of a religious prophecy consisting in nothing less than a prediction of the horoscope of the Messiah!

I have not been able to obtain the full text of this fragment but it has been the subject of comment by Professor Dupont-Sommer at the Academie des Inscriptions who translates the key passage attributing glory and success to the Messiah `... the elect of God, will be his son, and his plans will last for ever', or, according to Abbe Starkey: `Because he is the elect of God, his descendents and the spirits of his breath (are perfect?) and his plans will be for eternity'.

Professor Dupont-Sommer has suggested, in the light of the two scrolls described above, that the astrologers who came to pay homage and bring gifts to the infant Jesus were representatives of this sect and that the gospel phrase, `from the east' was simply a general term intended to conceal a heresy from the eyes of orthodoxy whilst indicating the general direction from which the `wise men' came.

At first sight, this seems an unconvincing theory, for two reasons. First, one cannot help suspecting that the members of this sect would have been as recognisable to Herod, by their dress and demeanour, as, say an English Quaker was in the seventeenth century. The Jewish historian, Josephus, recounts in fact, that Herod was sympathetically disposed to the Essenes because one of their number had made predictions about certain of his activities, which had turned out well. It is as difficult to believe that he would have failed to recognise the `Wise men' as Essenes as it is to believe that Essenes would have gone to Herod asking `where is he that is born king of the Jews?'

The second reason is that from about the time of the earthquake of 31 B.C. (which devastated the Monastery of Qumran) until shortly after the end of Herod's reign (4 B.C.) the Monastery was deserted by the sect, so that even the phrase `from the East' would no longer be applicable.

But this raises some fascinating questions.

If the Monastery was abandoned, where did the Essenes go? Could they have made what, indeed, seems the obvious move and gone south to Egypt?

Looking for confirmation of this we find, in Mr Allegro's book already referred to, the following (p.78) :

`The nearest parallel to the characteristic large (scroll) jars of Qumran is certainly to be seen in the vessels found in Egypt at the beginning of this century and similarly containing documentary material ...It is not improbable, therefore, that the general shape of the jars and the idea of scroll storage were borrowed by the Qumran sect from Egypt, and this is by no means the only indication of fairly close contact between it and this area'.

Very interesting. The custom of making jars for their scrolls could thus date from the second tenure of the Qumran site, from just after the death of Herod until 68 A.D. or, indeed, they may have had long-standing contacts with Egypt.

One cannot escape the implication here that when Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt they knew that they were going - not alone and on a journey which must otherwise have been almost as dangerous, surely, as the terrors from which they were fleeing - but under the protection of friends and to a community with whom they already had strong bonds and who already looked upon their child as the longed-for Messiah.

This notion receives some confirmation from the evident fact that both the Holy Family and the Qumran sect returned to Palestine shortly after the death of Herod.

If this hypothesis is untrue then it must, at least, be virtually certain that the record of the visit of the astrologers to the infant Jesus does owe its existence to the strong astrological traditions which were cultivated among those associated with this sect.

Either way, it is a fascinating story and one of which we may yet learn more.

* * * * *

Copyright, the John Addey Estate.


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