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 enquired 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 fulfil 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 Matthew's 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 favoured 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 travelled 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 God's 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. Enoch's 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.
Philo Judaeus, who lived in Alexandria soon after the death of Christ, hotly denied that the planets absolutely ruled men's lives, attacking astrologers who claimed that the whole of life was subject to the movements of the heavens. He did, however, believe the stars to be beautiful divine beings, intelligent animals who, unlike man, were incapable of evil. He believed also, indeed 'knew', that it was possible to predict 'disturbances and commotions of the earth from the revolutions of the heavenly bodies, and innumerable other events which have turned out most exactly true.'
A Syrian missionary called Bardesanes (154-222) has left in The Dialogue Concerning Fate a good account of what seems to be the most general early Christian attitude to astrology. It was evidently important to tackle the very strong public commitment to the subject, the result of centuries during which its truths had on the whole been accepted as self-evident. Bardesanes takes the pragmatic view: that it is obvious that there is some force from the planets, but this was given them by God and is therefore subject to His will, limited by Him through subjection to free will on the one hand and other natural forces on the other.
The Gnostics, an oriental religious movement which played a part in early Christianity, spawning many sects, believed (according to one text) that when Jesus ascended into heaven after the crucifixion, he changed the influences and even the movements of the planets (among other things making them turn to the right for six months of the year, whereas previously they had faced left), and determined how they shaped a new soul, controlled the process of conception and the formation of the embryo in the womb, and every event of life from cradle to tomb. (Incidentally, it is interesting that in the Arabic Gospel of the infancy, attributed to St James, Jesus is an astronomer, lecturing the priests in the temple on 'the number of the spheres and heavenly bodies, as also their triangular, square and sextile aspect; their progressive and retrograde motion; their twenty-fourths and sixtieths of the twenty-fourths and other things which the reason of man had never discovered...')
Many Christian thinkers saw astrology as a demonstration of the universe devised by God. The Recognitions, an anthology of letters allegedly written to James, Jesus' brother, by Clement of Rome, a friend and confidant of St Peter, represents the planets and stars as fixed in heaven by God in order that 'they might be for an indication of things past, present and future', although only to be understood by the learned who had studied the subject in depth. Abraham was one of these; being an astrologer, he 'was able from the rational system of the stars to recognize the Creator, while all other men were in error, and understand that all things are regulated by his Providence.'
Clement charmingly called the twelve Apostles the Twelve Months of Christ, who himself was the Year of our Lord. The planets are admitted to have an evil as well as a good influence; 'possessing freedom of the will, we sometimes resist our desires and sometimes yield to them'. Arguments against astrology are restricted to resisting the idea that there is no Providence and that everything happens by chance and genesis, that 'whatever your genesis contains, that shall befall you'. It is unthinkable that God should make man sin through an evil disposition of the planets, and then punish him for it! It is also pointed out - and later astrologers have often repeated this, both as explanation and excuse - that the movements and inter-relationships of the planets are so complex, and understanding and interpreting them so difficult, that no astrologer is to be blamed for misreading them.
The argument between Origen, an orthodox Christian who lived between 185 and 253, and the philosopher Celsus, who in 176-80 produced The True Word, an anti-Christian tract, inevitably involved astrology. Celsus took the view that the main idiocy of many practised by Christians was the denial of the power of the planets; Origen asserted that the whole idea of free will was demolished if one accepted that the stars were rational beings, and assigned by God to the nations on earth. He accepted that the planets' movements could foretell events, and was particularly attached to the idea of comets as omens, which had announced wars and natural disasters, but also the birth of Christ.
Tertullian, born in about 160, and an eloquent early writer about Christianity, argued that it was the fallen angels who had taught man astrology (and, incidentally, metallurgy and botany). These angels, who lived in the clouds conveniently near the stars, were inevitably excellent meteorologists. Nevertheless, Christians would do well to reject them and their notions, despite the fact that the Magi were astrologers. He obviously saw it as extremely worrying that 'astrology nowadays, for-sooth, treats of Christ; is the science of the stars of Christ, not of Saturn and Mars', and argues that since the coming of Christ the drawing up of horoscopes should be discontinued. He was especially pleased that at the time of writing astrologers were positively forbidden to enter Rome.
Many Christian apologists made it their business to read the published works of astrologers, in order to refute them; others took the short cut of simply reading anti-astrological works and repeating their arguments. Hippolytus, for instance, who lived in Italy and wrote in Greek (he was buried in Rome in 236) lifted his arguments straight from the writings of Sextus Empiricus.
The most prominent of all early antagonists of astrology, St Augustine, cannot entirely be freed from the accusation of taking a short cut, or at least not thinking the subject through thoroughly or originally. Augustine was born in 345 (he died in 430) in Numidia, of a devoutly Christian mother. A trained rhetorician, he was at first a Manichean, but was converted to Christianity by the sermons of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, where Augustine was teaching rhetoric. His early life, which included various sexual irregularities, is frankly described in his Confessions, and astrology is mentioned there too; but his main attack on it comes in the Christian Doctrine and The City of God.
His case against astrology is simple, unsubtle and mistaken: simply that it enslaves human will by claiming that the entire course of a life can be predicted from the stars. If predictions did come true, he said, it was through coincidence or demonic intervention. 'Those that hold', he writes in the fifth book of The City of God,
that the stars do manage our action, our passions, good or ill, without God's appointment, are to be silenced and not to be heard, be they of the true religion or be they bondslaves to idolatry of what sort soever; for what does this opinion do but flatly exclude all deity? ... and what part has God left him in thus disposing of human affairs, if they be swayed by a necessity from the stars, whereas He is Lord of stars and men.
He then produced the old argument that if astrology worked, twins should have precisely the same destiny. (If they did, incidentally, it was nothing to do with astrology, he said, but because their background, environment, upbringing was similar; if they did not, it was a proof that astrology did not work.) True, Nigidius had tried to explain the dissimilarity between the lives of twins by rapidly turning a pot on a potter's wheel and splashing ink upon it, showing how far apart the splashes landed, and adducing from this that on a swiftly turning earth the planets would be in different positions even for twins born with one holding the other's heel. St Augustine was unimpressed. If astrology was as complicated as that, how could an astrologer possibly claim to be able to make firm predictions? (He seems to have taken this, and several other arguments, more or less straight from Cicero's De divinatione.)
The trouble with Augustine's anti-astrological arguments is that they are founded (like those of so many other critics throughout history) on a misunderstanding of the nature of the astrological theory, even as it was practised in his own time. Very few astrologers argued that the planets absolutely controlled every aspect of the life of man, much less that every living thing was under a similar governance. When he points out that astrology is ridiculous because a cow and a human baby born at the same instant do not have precisely the same life, he simply displays his own ignorance of what astrology claims, and his stronger arguments are proportionally weakened. His supposition that astrologers claim that the time and place of birth and nothing else control a man's destiny leads him to concentrate on that point to the exclusion of more eccentric claims which would have offered him a wider target. He seems to have read very little astrological literature (not, for instance, the Tetrabiblos, which might be thought required reading for anyone preparing an attack on astrology).
St Augustine is still often set up as the prime Christian opponent of astrology; and so he is. But that is not saying much. Even he admits that the Sun and planets have an effect on some material things such as the tides, and hence on some living things such as shellfish. It might be argued that he performed a considerable service to astrology by attacking its occult aspects, while not condemning out of hand the kind of scientific astrology that was to provide the more rewarding areas of experiment in the future.
The City of God is seen as the apogee of Christianity's attacks on astrology, and so in a sense it was. That it is an unintelligent, derivative and ineffectual attack is neither here nor there; happily, the Christian church's generally antagonistic view of science in general has in the long run been equally ineffectual. When Augustine argued that 'Christians have many better and more serious things to occupy their time than such subtle investigations concerning the relative magnitude of the stars and the intervals of space between them', he was setting the tone for the official Church attitude to science for many centuries. It has not, in the end, prevailed, even in schools.
The fact that some Christian astrologers were not deterred is illustrated by the work of Julius Firmicus Maternus, a contemporary who is likely to have read Augustine. His Matheseos of c 354 accepted the doctrine of free will, but found it odd that man should think the stars and planets mere decoration of the heavens.
Firmicus, whose mind seems to have been a great deal keener than Augustine's (if we are to judge from the organization of his book and the deployment of his arguments), produced one by one the chief anti-astrological arguments and demolished them with ease, demonstrating clearly that the critics had not for the most part bothered to understand the subject. He admits that some astrologers are rogues and others fools, he admits the difficulty of the subject - but claims that the human spirit is capable of coping with it, as it is capable of coping with the mapping of the heavens and the prediction of the planets' courses.
In a brilliantly presented and enormously complex argument, Firmicus in the second half of Matheseos scathingly demolishes superstition and its practitioners, the 'magicians' who 'stay in temples in an unkempt state and always walk abroad thus in order to frighten people. While he accepts that 'magic' is a powerful force, he is violently opposed to secrecy in regard to it, and demands that astrologers, rather than shrinking from public view as though ashamed, should place themselves under the protection of God, praying that He should grant them grace to attempt the explanation of the courses of the stars
Matheseos was an important book, a major work that accurately and persuasively quoted earlier sources, and was itself to be quoted for centuries by Christian astrologers and theologians who wished to assuage the fears of laymen at times when the Church seemed to be condemning the practice.