Is the Bible really historically accurate? Who wrote the New Testament and for what purpose? What can we learn about Jesus from the gospel stories? Is Jesus the Son of God, Savior, miracle worker, who was born of a virgin, died, came back to life and ascended into heaven? Or perhaps proponents of recently introduced Christ-Myth hypothesis are “onto something” big ?
Warning: Don’t read this post if you are a “die-hard” Christian. You might think it is a blasphemy…
Refurbished Pagan Stories?
When we study the Old Testament within the social and geographic context in which it was developed, we will see that the main stories of the Old Testament – David and Goliath, Moses and the Ten Commandments, Joseph, the Ark, the Garden of Eden – are all refurbished pagan stories; assimilated and transformed to give Jews their own national heroes. This demonstrates that Jewish scribes, rather than writing in a vacuum, were already relying on a rich and very ancient literary tradition. The best example of this is from the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh, the greatest literary accomplishment of Mesopotamia, was widely translated throughout the ancient Middle East. There are many parallels between the Epic of Gilgamesh, pagan mythology, and the Old Testament. We will focus on just one (the story of the flood) to demonstrate how closely the parallels run and how it can be effectively proven that the Old Testament borrowed from earlier sources. The similarities between the story of Noah should be apparent to anyone familiar with the biblical account of the flood.
The Babylonian Noah was named Utnupishtim, who with his wife became immortal after surviving the great flood. Gilgamesh, in his quest for immortality, seeks him out and gets to hear the story first hand. The gods had decided to destroy mankind, but one god, Ea, was friendly and determined to save Utnupishtim. He told him to disregard his possessions, construct an ark according to exact specifications, and take the seed of all living plants and creatures (as well as his wife, adequate supplies and crew). Cyrus Gordon, an American scholar of Near Eastern cultures, notes that the Babylonian account is “more detailed and realistic than the biblical version because the Mesopotamians were more advanced than the Hebrews in material civilization in general and specifically in the arts of naval construction and operation.”
- Rains came and the ark was carried on the waters.
- Finally it came to rest on a mountain.
- The survivors sent out a dove, and then a swallow, and then a raven to determine whether the earth was dry.
- Utnupishtim got out and sacrificed to the gods, who hovered over the sweet-smelling sacrifice like flies.
Exploring the similarities between these two literary traditions, Gordon makes a clear argument regarding their relationship:
Here we need to say a special word about the relationship between the flood accounts as preserved in the Bible and in the Gilgamesh Epic. It is obvious that the two versions are strikingly similar and must be related in some way. The consensus of scholars is that the Babylonian version influenced the Israelite version. The reasons for this are manifold. First, all things being equal, a greater society is more likely to influence a lesser society than vice versa. Babylonia was the dominant culture of the Asiatic near East and Israel represented a backwater of sorts. Secondly, the manner of destruction, i.e., by flood, is typical of Mesopotamia, where the great Tigris and Euphrates Rivers regularly flooded their banks and cause havoc and destruction. Israel, by contrast, is very arid; it is unlikely that anyone in that part of the Near East would conceive of a divine destruction of the people through flooding. Third, the geography of the biblical accounts points to a Mesopotamian origin. Noah’s ark lands on the mountains of Aratat, at the headwaters of the Tigris and the Euphrates; if the story had originated in Canaan we would expect Mount Hermon (c 7,500 feet high), for example, as the locale of the ark’s resting place. Fourth, as we have seen, the Gilgamesh Epic was the literary masterpiece of antiquity, and one fragment even has been found in the land of Israel (at Megiddo). Fifth, the earliest Hebrews come from Mesopotamia, and it is unlikely that Abraham and his entourage would have been unfamiliar with the story.
Interestingly, the fact that flood stories appear also in other cultural myths have been used to support the reliability of the Bible; however in this instance, the parallels are so precisely mirrored – the releasing of the birds, the sweet-smelling sacrifice that pacified the god (Genesis 8:20-12) – that this cannot be an instance of a universal tradition, but rather a direct influence. Although the Bible seems to give a clear picture of the history of mankind from the beginning of creation until the establishment of the Kingdom of Christ, the truth is that there were already extremely advanced and developed civilizations before the Old Testament was written, and the Old Testament authors were undoubtedly influenced by these civilizations.
The Forgotten “Prefigures” of Christ
Central ideas shared between paganism and Christianity predate Jesus Christ by several centuries, if not millennia. At the same time, basic features of these traditions, despite minor differences in practice, are likely to be homogenous. While some of these figures are almost definitely historical, and others completely mythological, the line is often blurred: even the most extremely fictional characters were thought by ancient cultures to have once been historical rulers or kings, while the very historical figures are so wrapped up in mythology it is almost impossible to see them clearly.
Some of the most interesting and relevant prefigures of Christ were: Gilgamesh, Dionysus, Pythagoras, Orpheus, Asclepius, Osiris, Adonis, Attis, Mithras.
Of course these gods are not exactly the same thing as Jesus Christ – they are each unique cultural manifestations and syntheses of older traditions. However, a number of them share very precise similarities. Moreover, the ritual practices of many of these gods, (a communal meal, baptism, fasting or asceticism, and the ideas they held about their gods’ divine natures and saving roles), show common ground that should not be ignored. Below is an example of such “prefigure” of Christ.
Pythagoras is one of the most intriguing and mysterious figures in ancient history. Although today known mostly by his mathematical legacy, he was much more than a philosopher or mathematician – he was also the founder of a very secretive spiritual cult with serious political influence, focusing on initiation of the worthy, purification, and salvation.
Born around 570BC, Pythagoras emigrated to Croton in Southern Italy, and there founded a movement that was a blend of politics and mysticism. “Without a doubt, Pythagoras aimed for a viewpoint of the divine, and the opinions he expressed were taken by his followers as sacred revelations.” Although it is difficult to separate the man from the myth, there are striking parallels between Jesus and Pythagoras; most likely due to the extensive influence Pythagoreanism seems to have had on the Greco-Roman world through other mystery cults and schools of philosophy, especially Orphism and Platonism.
It is said that when Pythagoras arrived in Croton, he first appeared to the fishermen on the outskirts of the city and performed a miraculous sign; he told them exactly how many fish were in their nets, and he was right (they counted). News of the miracle spread into city and prepared the way for him. In the gospels of Luke and John, Jesus performs a similar miracle, although instead of counting the fish, he causes the fisherman to catch a great quantity. In Luke, this happens at the beginning of his ministry (5:1-11); in John, it occurs after Jesus had resurrected. Interestingly, we are even given the precise number of fish caught: “Simon Peter went aboard and dragged the net ashore, full of big fish, one hundred and fifty-three of them” (John 21:1-14).
Although we are not given the exact number of fish in the Pythagorean story, the Pythagoreans regarded 153 as a sacred number due to its use in a mathematical ratio called “the measure of the fish,” which produces the mystical symbol of the Vesica Pisces – the intersection of two circles which yields a fish-like shape. It is unlikely that the Christian use of this number is accidental.
Pythagoreans believed (much like Orphics and modern day Buddhists) in reincarnation, or a wheel of rebirth. They were vegetarians and tried to cultivate purity. Although the soul was immortal, it had to be freed from the contaminating influences of the body. Only a “lover of wisdom” leading the best of lives could escape the prison of the body at the moment of death and break free of the cycle.
Tradition holds that Pythagoras gained his mystical knowledge by spending seven years in the underworld or land of the dead. Diogenes Laertius records the claim of Hieronymus, who said “that when he descended to the shades below, he saw the soul of Hesiod bound to a brazen pillar, and gnashing its teeth; and that of Homer suspended from a tree, and snakes around it, as a punishment for the things that they had said of the Gods.” Laertius also mentions how Austophon says in his Pythagorean:
He said that when he did descend below
Among the shades in Hell, he there beheld
All men who e’er had died; and there he saw,
That the Pythagoreans differ’d much
From all the rest; for that with them alone
Did Pluto deign to eat, much honouring
Their pious habits. (Diogenes Laertius, XX)
There is also the story told by Hermippus, about how when Pythagoras returned from the underworld, he was considered a God:
Pythagoras came up again after a certain time, lean, and reduced to a skeleton; and that he came into the public assembly, and said that he had arrived from the shades below, and then he recited to them all that had happened during his absence. And they, being charmed by what he told them, wept and lamented, and believed that Pythagoras was a divine being; so that they even entrusted their wives to him, as likely to learn some good from him; and that they too were called Pythagoreans. And this is the story of Hermippus. (Diogenes Laertius, XXI)
According to legend, in a past life Pythagoras had been a son of Hermes named Aethalides. Hermes promised him any gift (except immortality), and Aethalides/Pythagoras wished to remember everything, even after death. Thus, Pythagoras remembered all of his previous lives. While staying at Argos, for example, he saw a shield from the spoils of Troy nailed up to the wall. He began to weep, claiming that the shield had been his in a last life when his name was Euphobus and that he had used it at the battle of Troy. He even offered proof: his previous name, Euphobus, was written on the inside. They took the shield down from the wall and found the name written as he had claimed.34 In another story, he recognizes the reincarnation of an old friend in a stray dog:
And once, they say, when he passed by a dog which was being maltreated, he pitied the animal and said these words: “Stop! Don’t beat him! For he is the soul of a friend whom I recognized straight away when I heard his voice.”
Pythagoras believed that the entire universe was musical: each planet made a certain vibrational frequency as it passed through the heavens, and everything on earth could be assigned to one of these seven frequencies: there are 7 notes on a scale, 7 colors of the rainbow, and 7 primary organs of the body:
According to a legend told by Iambliochos, when Pythagoras heard the different sound made by hammers in a forge, he realized that tones can be expressed in quantitative relationships, and hence in numerical values and geometrical measures. Using stringed instruments, he then discovered the connection between vibration frequencies and pitch. The whole world, according to Pythagoras’ theory, consisted of harmony and number.
This life, Pythagoras claimed, was a sentence for a sin or evil done at the mythical level in pre-history. Therefore, we should do our time well and get out quickly, rather than avoiding our punishments and stretching the sentence out longer. Earth was not meant to be enjoyed:
“Do not assist a man in laying a burden down; for it is not proper to be the cause of not laboring (also translated as ‘idleness’ or ‘lack of effort’); but assist him in taking it up.”
Christianity has parallels in its monasticism, valuation of the poor, the weak and the suffering, and ascetic traditions. There are also passages like the following:
Then, speaking to all, he said, “if anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me. Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, will save it. What benefit is it to anyone to win the whole world and forfeit or lose his very self.” (Luke 9:23-26)
The life of a Pythagorean was “governed by strict rules and routines that covered a wide range of issues, everything from dietary restrictions to purification ritesto religious taboos to the observance of decorous behavior, not to mention a host of magical practices.” These pedantic rules inspired a constantly introspective lifestyle:
Tradition does mention, though, a great number of taboos and prescriptions, such as ‘Do not wear a ring’, ‘Do not step over a broom’, ‘don’t use cedar, laurel, myrtle, cypress or oak to cleanse your body or clean your teeth: they are for honouring the gods’. The observance of all these rules must have made the life of the Pythagorean an extremely self-conscious one, in which a moment of carelessness could be fatal.
Although the similarities between the actual life of Pythagoras and Jesus may be limited, it is interesting to notice the parallels between the two movements each figure left behind. As we shall see, it was the bureaucratic organization of the Christian movement, more than the originality of its beliefs or practices, which really ensured its survival; this organization may have had its roots in Pythagoreanism. As Professor Konstantine Boudouris of the University of Athens reports, the Pythagorean communities were “unions of people, the members of which had accepted certain principles and doctrines, and who lived, thought, and acted collectively, and whose acts were dictated or related to the beliefs that they had accepted.” The chief characteristic of the Pythagorean movement, however was secrecy – with underground political motivations:
While the overall tone of Pythagoras’ teaching appears concerned with morality, virtue, and religious piety, the mission of the secret group seems to have been the infiltration and takeover of the government. Thus, it functioned as a political conspiracy on the one hand, while on the other projecting the outward appearance of a bona fide political association.
The speeches ascribed to Pythagoras that have been handed down to us are nothing particularly special: be good, honor your elders, refrain from evil, etc. There was certainly more to the movement than his words of wisdom (although there may have been much that was lost). The power of the movement was in its initiations and secrecy. Membership was extremely selective, and the initiation process not for the faint of heart. There was first a series of tests for candidates, followed by a background check involving the applicant’s personal life, relationships and behavior: “Did he talk too much or laugh on the wrong occasions? How did he get along with other students? What, for example, made him happy or sad?”Finally there was a physical examination. If he passed these preliminaries, he was sent away for three years and totally ignored, but secretly watched (not unlike Tyler Durton’s modern day initiation cult rendition in Fight Club).
If they were admitted, candidates had to turn over all of their belongings – money, properties and income – to a special board of trustees, and for the first 5 years, they took a vow of silence. If they were later rejected from the higher levels of initiation, they had their investments returned in double but were treated as if they were dead by members. Likewise, in the earliest periods of Christianity, such socialist practices were also the rule, and strictly enforced. Luke has Jesus caution, “None of you can be my disciple without giving up all that he owns” (Luke 14:33), and according to the Acts of the Apostles, “And all who shared the faith owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and distributed the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed” (Acts 2:44). Acts also relates the curious incident of Ananias and Sapphira; new converts to Christianity who secretly held back some of their earnings rather than sharing it with the Church. Their transgression was punished by a miraculous execution – they fell down dead when confronted by Peter.
Like the Pythagorean cult, the early church had “administrators” who were responsible for maintaining the wealth and finances of the community. This feature of early Christianity didn’t last (later converts were allowed to keep their property), but its presence and inclusion into the Bible suggests external influences. Although Judaism, especially during the decades surrounding the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, did have socialistic sects where Christianity may have found this feature, these sects were themselves more similar to Pythagoreanism than to traditional Judaic worship.
According to Josephus, the Essenic communities shared all of their property and wealth communally, had no personal possessions, did not sacrifice animals, and focused on cleansings and purity. After a three year probation, newly joining members would take an oath that included the commitment to practice piety towards “the Deity” and righteousness towards humanity, to maintain a pure life to abstain from criminal and immoral activities, to transmit their rules uncorrupted and to preserve the books of the Essenes and the names of the Angels (The Wars of the Jews, 2.137–142). They also believed in the immortality of the soul and that they would receive their souls back after death (Antiquities of the Jews, 18.18, The Wars of the Jews. 2. 153–158).
Another source of commonality is the theme of secrecy, with truth being revealed only to an inner group.
The notion that Pythagoras founded a movement whose mission was the “education and enlightenment of the masses” is wonderfully romantic, yet the very sources who have sought to convey this impression have also persevered old sayings that paint a very different picture.
The eventual fall of Pythagoreanism may have been due to the contradiction inherent in a selective, spiritual minority ruling the alienated majority. Likewise, although Jesus Christ is often heralded for his democratic inclusion of all people, there are passages in the Bible which make it clear that not everybody would make it into the kingdom, but only the worthy, and characterize the Christian cult as a small, non-inclusive group of separatists: “So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen” (Matthew 20:16). Moreover, Jesus frequently speaks in riddles and parables, which he later explains only to his inner group of disciples. Although in theory a community of brothers, it should not be forgotten that Christianity was managed by a select authoritarian group that demanded absolute allegiance and complete surrender of personal property, and which quickly grew in wealth and power.
Finally, like Christians, Pythagoreans were taught to fight against sin and lawlessness. They even had a custom of confessing each day’s sins:
As soon as they got up in the morning,members were required to disclose to one another a detailed account of the activities and events of the previous day. Supposedly, this exercise had a twofold aim: to train a person’s memory and to teach him to assess his conduct, in order to, as Diodorus says, “gain knowledge and judgment in all matters.”
Some of these lifestyle choices, beliefs and practices would become fairly common in the centuries before and after the coming of Jesus Christ; mostly in various mystery cults and religions. Their inclusion into Christianity is not surprising, and yet proved problematic for the early church, who constantly needed to differentiate themselves somehow from other groups who believed very similar things and practiced similar rituals and habits.
The powerful figure of Pythagoras would grow to supernatural proportions; as we have seen, he was believed to have been born of a God (Hermes, in a previous life descended into the underworld, and taught specific instructions about surviving after death. In the religious-political system that he created, Christianity had a ready template for its own organization.
Jesus Christ and the Journey of the Sun
“I am the light of the world; anyone who follows me will not be walking in the dark, but will have the light of life.” –John 8:12
The idea that Jesus Christ was the historical founder of Christianity is so heavily defended by Christians and biblical scholars that to even raise the possibility of an alternative theory – one in which the savior figure of the gospels may not have been historical – is automatically derided.
In the year 1600, scientist and astronomer Giordano Bruno reiterated Celsus’ argument that the gospel stories of Jesus Christ were akin to pagan mythologies. Unfortunately, at the time, the Church did not permit such blasphemous accusations – after a seven-year trial he was burned on the stake. As R.E. Witt relates:
Excommunicated by an obscurantist ecclesiasticism he went to the stake for his beliefs. He was convinced that the wisdom and magic-born religion of ancient Egypt excelled the fanatical theory that burnt dissident thinkers as heretics. For the Biblical record was on par with the Greek myths. Refusing to retract his teachings, he met his doom dauntlessly, for he had less cause than his judges to fear the verdict of history and could snap his fingers at them in warning. Giordano Bruno, the unfrocked monk, perished on 16 February 1600, for his intransigent denial that Christianity was unique.
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) mythologist Joseph Campbell explores the similarities between Eastern and Western religions. Later, in his four-volume series of books The Masks of God (1959-1968), Campbell tried to summarize the main spiritual threads common throughout the world while examining their local manifestations. He made it clear that it is the stories themselves that are important – not whether or not the stories have historical basis:
We may doubt whether such a scene ever actually took place. But that would not help us any; for we are concerned, at present, with problems of symbolism, not of historicity. We do not particularly care whether Rip van Winkle, Kamar al-Zaman, or Jesus Christ ever actually lived. Their stories are what concern us: and these stories are so widely distributed over the world – attached to various heroes in various lands – that the question of whether this or that local carrier of the universal theme may or may not have been a historical living man can be of only secondary moment. The stressing of this historical element will only lead to confusion; it will simply obfuscate the picture message.
The central themes in Christian folklore and practice relating to Jesus Christ are very similar to various older pagan deities, which may lead the impartial reader to the conclusion that Christianity extensively modeled on earlier organizations, customs and beliefs. However, enormous questions remain unanswered. Where did the shared symbols come from in the first place? Why didn’t Christianity choose completely different symbols? Why did vastly diverse cultures often maintain central motifs in the story of their mythical heroes: the miraculous childhood, the escape from an evil ruler, growing up in the wilderness, symbolized by a lion and fighting against a serpent, coming of age to avenge his father, being captured, tortured, and put to death before rising up and defeating his enemies?
If the communities who worshiped these similar gods gave their saviors a new name, altered rituals, and even changed the allegorical meaning of their customs, why did the biographical events of the story stay so rigorously exact? And why can we find traces of this same story from Asia to South America?
The answer is that the commonalities in the stories come from a very ancient drama, which humans have been watching play out in the skies since the dawn of time – it is the annual story of the sun’s passage through the heavens.
Astrology in Ancient Times
It should come as no surprise that Greeks and Romans thought of the planets as gods – the names we use for them today are the Roman names given to these deities. In the massive space of the sky, these celestial orbs are distinctive in having autonomous movements and actions. Unlike the great masses of stars, which appear to move together as the earth turns, the planets alone have their own unique trajectory; giving the impression that they are free to move as they like or have some urgent business to attend to. The various hues, size and speed of these planets inspired their humanistic features.
- Mercury- Messenger of the gods with winged feet; the fastest moving planet
- Venus – Goddess of love and beauty; the brightest planet
- Mars – God of war and bloodshed; the planet with a distinctive red hue
- Jupiter- King of the gods; the largest planet
- Saturn – Oldest god, ruler of time and agriculture; slowest moving planet
- There is also Neptune, god of the sea and Pluto, god of the underworld – but these planets are modern discoveries and were named using appropriate figures from mythology.
- Finally there is the Sun, whose life giving energy is the benefactor of all life on earth,
- and the Moon, whose cooling nocturnal influence reflects the sun’s light when he is away.
As ancient astronomers studied the skies, they found that the planets trace the same path annually. Every year, they pass through the same constellations, rise and fall on the same spots of the horizon, and routinely run into each other in small groups – easily leading people to wonder what they were up to.
Over the years, people began telling stories that explained their behavior and also allowed priests to forecast events and keep track of time. Elaborate myths were constructed, in considerable detail, chronicling the events, conflicts, reunions and challenges that the “gods” faced in their journeys.
At the same time, constellations were made by grouping nearby stars into recognizable figures, patterns and shapes, and held together in the tapestry of folklore. Great deeds and events, it was believed, merited “eternal life.” Hence, heroes and their accompanying items or companions were said to have “ascended into heaven” – or been preserved eternally in the night sky.
Different cultures would adapt existing myths to create their own cultural heroes, redefining existing constellations. The sign of Ophiuchus “the snake bearer” for example, which for a brief time was considered the 13th zodiac sign between Scorpio and Sagittarius, was originally viewed by the Sumerians as their god Enki. Later, Egyptians viewed him as Imhotep and the Greeks as Aesclepius. These diverse figures shared many of the same qualities, such as healing powers, and were all associated with the snake.
The Sun Myth
For many early cultures, the sun was seen as the source of all life; an idea which, although scientifically precise, is often taken for granted today. According to an ancient Egyptian hymn which scholars have compared with Psalm 104 of the Old Testament, death comes when the sun sets or “hides its face”:
The world becomes on your hand, as you made them; when you dawn, they live, when you set, they die; you yourself are lifetime, one lives by you. (Akhenaten’s hymn 111-114)
Thou hidest thy face: they are troubled; thou takest away thy breath: they die and return to their dust; Thou sendest forth thy breath: they are created and thou renewest the face of the earth. (Psalm 104)
Of all the stories told about constellations and planets, the most important was the epic struggle of the sun with the forces of darkness. Each year, the sun defeated his enemies in the spring, rose to power and strength in the summer, and was overcome by darkness again in the fall. In the winter he was at his weakest, but people knew that somehow he would come back and save the world again.
The sun was usually depicted as male and had a female counterpart, the moon. Many cultures saw them as lovers, or sometimes twins, separated tragically and trapped in the cycle of time. The relationship between these two, the delicate balance, created and maintained the world. During solar eclipses, the pair were re-united, and their encounters generated life on earth.
One of the earliest written characters, found in pre-historic cave paintings, is the solar cross. The equilateral cross meant many things to early cultures, but at the earliest it was a probably a pictograph for the sun’s rays. It is often found by a full circle, or a crescent, which stood for the moon. The solar cross is a composition of these two symbols. Another is the Egyptian Ankh.
The astronomical alignment of ancient monuments show that December 25th was marked as a special day for thousands of years before the advent of Christianity. In the face of a long winter, it was celebrated as a time for hope in the eventual return of life and light. That December 25th was originally a pagan holiday is generally well known, but not everyone realizes that it was a birthday celebration for the infant sun. On December 24th, the priests waited for a sign that the sun had returned, so that they could announce the birth of a divine child. The sign the priests saw was probably the star Sirius, one of the brightest stars in the winter sky, which rises just before dawn. Edward Carpenter confirms this in Pagan and Christian Creeds:
The coming of Sirius therefore to the Meridian at midnight became the sign and assurance of the sun having reached the very lowest point of his course, and therefore having arrived at the moment of his re-birth.
Jesus through the Zodiac
Before King Herod tried to find and kill the infant Christ, who was smuggled safely into Egypt, a Pharaoh tried to kill the infant Moses, who also survived. Both returned to triumph over their adversaries. Before either of them came Horus and many others, all based on the sun myth. In the most recent adaptation of this story, the infant Harry Potter survived an attack from his enemy Voldemort, went into hiding, and likewise came back to challenge his would-be murderer.
Only two of the four biblical gospels even include a birth story, and there are few scholars today who would deny that they were copied wholesale from pagan mythology. However, there is much more to say about Jesus than his miraculous birth. In this section, I’ll explain how the biographical details in the gospel account of Jesus Christ may be based on observations of the sun, and how specific symbols identified with the Christian movement like the crucifixion, the lamb and the fish also came from astrology.
What follows is an “astrological exegesis” of the life and ministry of Jesus. It may sound far-fetched at first; however the fact that the gospel story presents us with the exact figures, numbers, motifs and animals needed to construct this interpretation is, in itself, extremely telling. Moreover, as we will see, the interpretation of Jesus’ ministry as symbolizing the annual journey of the sun was confirmed and approved of by some very early Christian writers.
After the infant sun ran away from the powerful ruler (Saturn), we hear nothing about him until he is grown into adulthood. Jesus also leaps from a child to a 30 year old man in the gospels, apparently because there is nothing worth mentioning during the early part of his life. Many authors have written about where Jesus might have spent these years, failing to appreciate the nature of mythological literature.
When specific numbers are used in mythology, they are rarely random; instead they help preserve astronomical trivia and are a way of passing on wisdom to those who could decode their meaning. In the sun myth, the number 30 has an astrological significance.
There are 360 degrees in the zodiac wheel, giving each of the 12 signs exactly 30 degrees (each section is called a Semisextile). Saturn’s reign is finished at the end of Capricorn, which means that after 30 degrees, the sun can come out of hiding. For a real man, 30 years is a long time, but for the sun myth, the number 30 only represents the degrees of Capricorn and is just 1/12th of the distance the sun will have to go. This is the reason why the first 30 years of the sun savior are only the very beginning of the story.
By the end of January, the sun has escaped the persecution of Saturn, but he is still weak and the weather is cold. Climbing up to the celestial equator, and defeating his enemies by crossing over it and ending winter, will be his final struggle and challenge. This process is often tied to the number forty, which like the years of the sun’s age, has an astrological significance. The winter solstice in the sign of Capricorn lies 16 degrees below the celestial equator. The spring equinox in the sign of Aries, where the sun will triumph over darkness, is 24 degrees above the celestial equator. Starting from his birth in Capricorn, the sun must climb a total of 40 degrees (16+24=40) before he escapes from the clutches of winter. According to Malik H. Jabbar in The Astrological Foundation of the Christ Myth:
This term forty represents the struggle of the sun in the wilderness, climbing toward salvation. With Israel, it was forty years in the wilderness, and with Noah, it was forty days of torrential rain, but regardless, the symbolism is the same; the plight of the young sun in the valley of Amenta, the Nether World, fighting his way to cross the forsaken territory between the zodiacal sign of the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
Jesus begins his ministry by spending forty days in the desert being tested by the devil. Like the sun, he then passes through Aquarius, the Water Bearer (baptism by St. John, portrayed with flowing hair and a jug of water) and Pisces, the Fish (calling his first fishermen disciples to become “fishers of men”) before he can be exalted at the spring equinox in the beginning of Aries, the Ram (as the crucified lamb of God.) After climbing these forty degrees, the sun is finally strong enough to defeat the darkness that has plagued him since birth. The length of days and nights on the spring equinox are exactly equal, but after the long battle that marks this day, the sun will be the victor. Crossing the celestial equator on the spring equinox was seen as the sun’s definitive triumph over evil, but it was also viewed as a kind of perpetual suffering.
Every year the sun had to face the same enemies, suffer defeat, and fight to regain his kingdom. Many myths illustrate the idea of the sun leading a life of toil for mankind, who brought light and life to the world at great personal cost. Tragic figures like Sisyphus, who was forced to push a boulder up a hill and then let it roll back again for eternity, or Prometheus, bound to a rock so his liver could be eaten every day, may represent the perpetual toil of the sun. Although climbing over the celestial equator is just one piece of the sun’s never-ending torment, it became a symbol for his great sacrifice.
As we already know from Justin Martyr, Jesus was not the first to be crucified; many sun saviors met their deaths on a cross of some kind, or else were hung from trees or nailed to boulders. (Osiris was locked in a coffin that got stuck inside the trunk of a tree that was later used as a temple pillar.) While these grim endings may appear dissimilar, drawings or representations of these saviors usually show them in an X or cross-shaped position.
The argument can be made that the motif of “crucifixion” comes from astronomy. The ecliptic, or path of the sun, crosses over the celestial equator at an angle, making the shape of an X.
Plato, in his dialog, “Timaeus,” said that when the Creator of the universe first formed the cosmos, He shaped its substance in the form of the letter X: the intersection between the sun’s apparent path and the celestial equator.
The massive event of critical importance, signifying the triumph of the sun and the end of winter, takes place on this cross. Many heroes met their fate with this cross, including the Greek King Sixion and St. Andrew, underscoring their divine status.
Here someone might interject that Jesus was crucified on a vertical cross, like the one worn by modern Christians; but there is no evidence for this. More likely, Romans would have used a T-bar shaped cross because they were easier to build. However, Jesus Christ may not have been crucified any more than Dionysus was actually ripped apart and eaten by his followers. The vertical cross is a spiritual symbol referring to a specific restorative salvation, not a historical fact.
The sun continues upwards until he reaches his northern-most peak at the beginning of summer. The summer solstice is the height of the sun’s glory and the beginning of his reign, but he has also reached the end of his path and will begin to regress. He may warn that his enemies will overthrow him, or that he has to leave but will return again. On the fall equinox, when the night is again longer than the day, the sun is weakened, captured, and taunted.
Just as the sun had to wait thirty degrees after his birth before beginning his mission, he also has to go through the last thirty degrees that lead to his death. After passing through the twelve signs, he is delivered to his death at the beginning of Capricorn by the sign Sagittarius. For each degree that Sagittarius gains, the sun is closer to his death, leading to the idea of a betrayer who gets paid off to lure the sun to his death. In the gospels this is Judas, who sold Jesus to his enemies for thirty pieces of silver. Some scholars contend that Judas represented the sign of Scorpio, who is lord of the fall equinox. In this case, Judas leads Christ to his enemies at the beginning of the fall season, where he is tormented and afflicted for three months until his death at the hands of Sagittarius on the winter solstice. (Matthew relates the number thirty to the Worthless Shepherd of Zecharaiah 11:12-13, in an attempt to fulfill Jewish prophecy.)
When the sun reaches the winter solstice and holds still for three days, he has died and been buried in the tomb or cave where he began. He will remain in the underworld, in the land of the dead, or in the tomb, for three days, until he begins his return. While maintaining the three-day hiatus, some versions of the sun myth placed the death and resurrection together in the spring in order to tie it into the great victory reached when the sun crosses over the celestial equator.
Making connections between Christianity and astrological symbolism may be intriguing – but is it true? How can we prove that it isn’t all a big coincidence, or that Christianity didn’t just blindly copy symbols from their contemporaries without also importing the esoteric meaning? While Christianity could have borrowed the symbolism and immediately reinterpreted everything as relating to their personal, historical savior and founder, devoid of any astrological associations, it appears that some early Christians deliberately identified Jesus with the sun. Problematically, the gospels themselves, upon which the paradigm and conception of the familiar, personal, human figure of Jesus Christ is based, may have been originally constructed with deliberate astrological associations.
Of the four gospels in the New Testament, Matthew, Mark and Luke largely share the same stories and parables, but the order varies with each one. In Matthew’s version of events, the parables and imagery appear to be arranged to match the progression of the sun through the zodiac. The following exegetical exercise is in no way given as proof; this is only a theoretical interpretation. Nevertheless, it is pertinent and interesting. Moreover, given the (already established) likelihood that gospel writers were familiar with similar pagan cults, who were openly associated with solar worship, and given the extent of astrological influence that pervaded Greek and Roman spirituality, it should not be surprising if the gospel writers recognized and expanded upon these parallels.
In Matthew, the parables of Jesus’ life are grouped into themes that match either the symbol or the influence of the zodiac signs. The imagery changes with the seasons and completes exactly a one year cycle, from December to December. Either the actual zodiac animal or the traits of the zodiac sign are used to keep the order. In some cases only a hint of the weather gives us an indication of the time of year, as if the author were trying to leave subtle clues. Notice the chronological order of the verse numbers.
Aquarius, the Water Bearer – Matthew 3:13 (January). Although modern astrology begins with Aries, the first sign the sun encounters after his birth in Capricorn is Aquarius. This constellation is shown as a solitary figure with long hair, living in the wilderness of winter, pouring water from a vase. Jesus begins his ministry with his baptism at the hands of John, who is often portrayed standing in a river with long hair, pouring water out of a vase. John also lives alone in the wilderness, like Aquarius.
Pisces, the Fish – Matthew 4:18 (February). Jesus calls his first disciples. They are fisherman, mending nets and fishing boats. Jesus tells them they will now be fishers of men.
Aries, the Ram – Matthew 5-11 (March). Aries is ruled by Mars, the Roman god of aggression and war. Jesus asserts his growing power and gives his first sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. He pities the crowd of people, calling them sheep without a shepherd.
Jesus cautions against pride and anger, (both traits of Aries) but also admits that he came not to bring peace, but the sword.
Jesus also asks us to look at the birds of the sky and think of the flowers in the field, demonstrating that it is spring.
Taurus, the Bull – Matthew 11:28 (April). “Come to me, all you who labor and are overburdened, and I will give you rest.
Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light.” This curious metaphor is wedged into the story abruptly, and has no parallels in the other gospels, nor anywhere else in the Bible, although it is similar to bull-centered cults like that of Attis and Mithras. Its inclusion at just this point, rather than anywhere else, is necessary to preserve the zodiacal order.
Gemini, the Twins – Matthew 12:1 (May). This is a sign of restlessness, communication, and inconsistency. The Pharisees began to plot against Jesus, trying to trap him with loaded questions about Jewish law. Jesus says, “Everyone who is not with me is against me.” His disciples pick ears of corn from the stalks, showing it is early summer and the harvest has not yet begun.
Cancer, the Crab – Matthew 12:25 (June). Cancer is a water sign and represents domestic life. Jesus uses three parables here.
The first is a reference to Jonah and the whale. The next two concern the home and family, both within the influence of Cancer.
Leo, the Lion – Matthew 13:1 (July). It is late summer now, and time for the harvest. Jesus speaks about “reaping the rewards of what you sow.” His parables are about the sower, the darnel, the mustard seed, and the yeast.
Virgo, the Virgin – Matthew 13:53 (August). Virgo is concerned with order, cleanliness and purity. Jesus quarrels with scribes over purity laws, saying, “What goes into the mouth does not make anyone unclean; it is what comes out of the mouth that makes someone unclean.” This section also begins a new chapter, called “First Fruits of the Kingdom.” The harvest is over and it’s time to prepare for winter. Two separate miracles of loaves are here. People are hungry and Jesus produces bread for them.
Libra, the Scales – Matthew 16:13 (September). Libra’s focus is on equality and justice. Jesus discusses heavenly rewards, rules and laws, judgment and financial matters. Topics include the danger of riches, the reward of renunciation, and the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. The themes of judgment and retribution come up frequently. This is also where Jesus casts the money changers, along with their fancy scales, out of the temple.
Scorpio, the Scorpion – Matthew 12:18 (October). This section begins with the story of a barren fig tree. Often used to demonstrate the power of faith, it is also another indication of the season. There is no fruit on the tree because it is fall. Scorpio is the sign of union and marriage, so it is not surprising we find the entire collection of wedding parables here. Jesus talks about the bride, the bridegroom and the wedding chamber. There is a feeling of urgency, as Jesus warns that the end is very near and we must be careful not to be locked out in the cold. He tells us that when he is gone, we need to help those who thirst, are hungry, sick or without clothes. Winter is coming.
Sagittarius, the Archer – Matthew 26:36 (November). Many sun gods, although crucified, were actually killed on the cross (or under a tree, like Krishna and Attis) by an arrow; symbolically combining the betrayer Sagittarius at the beginning of December with the cross of the celestial equator. Jesus is betrayed by one of the twelve disciples for thirty pieces of silver. When confronted by a group of armed men he asks, “Am I such a bandit that you had to set out to capture me with swords and clubs?”
(In John’s gospel, Jesus was killed by the soldier who stuck a lance into his side. “Lance” – Greek belos or Latin telum – can refer to any sharp object such as a spear, sword tip, or arrow.)
Capricorn, the Goat – Matthew 26:57 (December). Jesus is scourged, tried and crucified at “Calvary” (from the Latin Calvaria; original Golgotha) which means “place of the skull.” The sun has reached its farthest, weakest point. There is an emphasis on darkness. “From the sixth hour there was darkness all over the land until the ninth hour,” showing that it is December 21st, the darkest day of the year. Jesus is buried in a tomb, which is found empty three days later. He has been resurrected, and will come again in power.
Even if we ignore the astrological associations and only look at the seasonal clues, it is clear that the ministry of Jesus in this gospel lasted for one year and ended in December.
But why, if Matthew shows his death in winter, do Christians celebrate Easter during the spring? Actually, many early Christians were also confused by this issue; enough of them, in fact, to make church fathers commit the heresy to ink and lasting memory:
There was one John, a day-baptist, who was also, according to the method of combination, the forerunner of our Lord Jesus; and as the Lord had twelve apostles, bearing the number of the twelve months of the sun, so also he, John, had thirty chief men, fulfilling the monthly reckoning of the moon, in which number was a certain woman called Helena that not even this might be without a dispensational significance. (Clementine Homilies, 2.23)18
Although people soon began to see Jesus as a human figure, the sun symbolism nevertheless has influenced Christian art since its inception. In dozens of cathedrals across Europe and Africa, the center dome is decorated with a giant zodiac wheel, with Jesus in the center radiating light and his twelve apostles surrounding him in even sections.
Fresco from the Cathedral of Living Pillar in Georgia depicting Christ within the zodiac circle.
The Great Canterbury Psalter
Note: The above post is based on the book “Jesus Potter Harry Christ” by Derek Murphy
( Images in this post are not from the book.)
Copyright 2011 Derek Murphy