The Structure of Heaven and Earth: How Ancient Cosmology Shaped Everyone’s Theology

The Bible is often difficult to make sense of without the proper conceptual framework. Why is Paul concerned about mysterious angels, principles, powers, forces, and archons in his epistles? Why are interactions with demons at the forefront of Jesus’ ministry in Mark? Why is heaven sometimes described as having different levels? Why does Paul describe people under the law as being enslaved to the elements? What motivated early Christians to worship a heavenly saviour? It’s hard to answer these questions without a detailed understanding of ancient Jewish and Greek cosmology, so I’ve spent a great deal of time reading the best books I can find on the subject. Much of what I learned surprised me; perhaps it will surprise you too.

This article might seem to ramble at first. There are dozens of different threads that need to be explored before we can see the tapestry they produce in Christianity.

In the Beginning: Mesopotamian Cosmology

Most students of the Bible are probably aware that the Old Testament authors followed the cosmological model used in Mesopotamia and Egypt. This model of the world was usually tripartite: Heaven, Earth, and Netherworld. Heaven consisted of a cosmic ocean held back by a great sky-vault, the firmament. It was here that the high gods had their abode, and no human could hope to join them there. The sun, moon, and stars would pass through doors or gates in the firmament as they became visible in the sky. Earth was flat and circular, with the continents surrounded by an ocean and a ring of mountains at the base of the firmament. The Netherworld was a shadowy realm below Earth, “a gloomy place that had a social and political structure much like the urban life of Mesopotamia”. (Wright, p. 41) Some thought that the sun passed through the Netherworld at night. A subterranean ocean lay beneath the Netherworld.

The traditional Israelite view we find in the Bible reflects this tripartite structure, with the Netherworld taking the name Sheol:

You shall not make for yourself an idol or an image of anything that is in heaven above, or on earth below, or in the water under the earth. (Exodus 20:4)

Where can I go from your spirit; where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there (Psalm 139:8) 

The word for “heaven” or “sky” in Hebrew was the plural noun shamayim, but the plural expressed the vastness of the sky rather than a belief in multiple skies or heavens. The word itself might originate with the Akkadian shame, meaning “place of water”. (Wright, p. 54) The firmament (raqiaʻ, something stamped or forged out of metal) was the dome-shaped structure that separated heaven from earth, and as a metonym, it could also refer to heaven or to the air between earth and heaven.

So Elohim made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. Elohim called the dome “Sky”. (Genesis 1:7–8a)

In both Genesis and the Babylonian account of creation, Enuma Elish, the sun, moon, and stars were given the role of keeping time and seasons. The biblical authors also tended to view the sun, moon and stars as celestial beings—the “host of heaven”—who served Yahweh. The common epithet “Yahweh Sabaoth”, sometimes translated “Yahweh of Hosts”, refers to his status as commander of these beings.

Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! (Psalm 148:3–4)

While there is plenty of variation in the details of the structure of the cosmos, both in Mesopotamian texts and in the Old Testament, the basic model looks something like this diagram from Schwegler, Probleme der bibliscen Urgeschichte, 1960:

Why did the Babylonian astronomers and their Near Eastern neighbours never discover the spherical shape of the earth? One of the clearest pieces of evidence of Earth’s spherical nature is that the appearance of the sky varies according to latitude. According to Wright, “To notice the difference in the rise and set azimuths of the sun and moon, one would need to travel 110 miles due north and south, and remain there some time to make observations” (ibid. 1999). Thus, the astronomers of the ancient Near East lacked the observations needed to make this leap.

Early Greek Cosmology

The Greeks of the Homeric Age (c. 1200–700 BCE) also thought the world was a flat mass encircled by water. The early myths of gods and Titans reflected this worldview. The main three tiers of the world — Heaven, the Sea, and the Netherworld — were governed by Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades, and the gods could travel freely between them. Another realm, Tartarus, existed far below Hades and was used by Zeus to imprison gods who had opposed his decrees (Wright, p. 110).  

This simple view of the cosmos did not last. Classical Greek civilization was spread over a vast empire, and in time, observations from different latitudes prompted Greek thinkers to develop new models of the cosmos.

Anaximander and the Ionians

The first breakthrough in Greek astronomy came with Anaximander of Miletus (610–547 BCE) in Asia Minor. Based on his observations, Anaximander offered three key insights that changed astronomy and philosophy forever (Couprie, p. 99):

  1. The celestial bodies make full circles, passing under the earth as well as over it.
  2. The earth floats free and unsupported in the center of the cosmos.
  3. The celestial bodies are not all at the same distance from the earth. 

Anaximander believed that the earth was a cylinder with a flat surface, like a drum or hockey puck. He also thought that the celestial bodies were holes in giant invisible wheels filled with fire. He proposed that the stars were closest to the earth, with the moon in the middle, and the sun farthest away, establishing a cosmology of three heavenly levels (Flamant, p. 226). A successor of his, Anaximenes, proposed that some heavenly bodies rode through the air, while the stars were fastened to a crystalline sphere around the earth. A later successor, Anaxagoras, believed the planets were spherical fiery rocks that flew through the ether, a substance that differed from the air found closer to earth.

School of Athens (cropped), Raphael, 1509, Vatican Museums Collection — Portion depicting Plato and Aristotle

Plato

It isn’t clear who first proposed earth to be a sphere, but the idea was promoted by the Pythagoreans (Couprie, p. 201). Plato (c. 427–347 BCE) adopted their idea in his highly influential model of the cosmos. The fullest description of Plato’s model is provided in the Timaeus, a book that was the culmination of his life’s work. Plato’s primary intent was not to describe the cosmos with perfect accuracy, but rather to use cosmology in order to demonstrate his philosophy (Couprie, p. 213). However, his Timaeus became the foundational model for all Western astronomy until Copernicus. 

Everything I discuss in this section will have religious significance later on.

According to the Timaeus, the universe was created by a transcendent god called the Demiurge, or craftsman. (In a sense, Plato was a monotheist.) He gave the universe a body (soma) in the shape of a sphere — the most perfect and uniform shape — by crafting it out of four elements (stoicheia): Fire, Air, Water, and Earth. The visible and tangible body of the universe was made possible by bonding these elements together in the correct proportions. (Timaeus 31–33).

The Demiurge also created a World Soul to provide motion for the universe. The World Soul was created from three parts — Sameness, Difference, and Existence — bound together in exact proportions. Two strips taken from the fabric of the World Soul were formed into rings that criss-crossed each other in the shape of X, the Greek letter chi (Timaeus 36), which according to most scholars describes the planes of the equator and the Zodiac (cf. Cornford, p. 73).

It might help, at this point, to review some basic astronomy. As we know today, Earth’s axis of rotation is tilted about 23° from the axis of its orbit around the sun. This tilt is responsible for the fact that the midday sun is at different elevations throughout the year. Earth’s rotation causes the daily motion of the sun, moon, stars, and planets to follow earth’s equatorial plane, an invisible plane that extends from the equator in all directions. However, the Zodiacal constellations that are visible in the night sky shift about one degree each day because of our orbit around the sun. Thus, the Zodiac moves in a different plane than daily motion of the planets and stars, and the intersection of these two planes resembles the letter X.

Plato’s model of the heavens, from Andrew Gregory, Ancient Greek Cosmogony, 2008, p. 195 Fig. 1

Within these rings the Demiurge created seven planetary rings or spheres, whose distance from Earth depended on their apparent speed of movement. The Moon was the closest, followed by the Sun, Venus, Mercury,¹ Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. These planets became the heavenly gods, who were subservient to the Demiurge. By creating the planets, the Demiurge also created Time itself, since the planets (particularly the sun and moon) controlled the days, months, and seasons (Timaeus 38–39). The traditional anthropomorphic gods of Greek mythology, Plato supposed, were created by the planetary gods — whose existence was more certain, since they could actually be seen.²

The Demiurge also created the souls of humans — one for each star in the sky — out of the same ingredients used for the World Soul. These souls are implanted in bodies “according to the dictates of Necessity (Ananke)³”, and if a person lives a righteous life by mastering the passions (pathemata) inflicted on him, his soul journeys back to its consort star upon death.⁴ Because the Demiurge could only create perfect, immortal things, the bodies of human mortals had to be made by the planetary divinities, who were also tasked with governing and guiding mankind. The mortal body, then, is fashioned by the gods who borrow from the elements to do so. This loan must be repaid when the person dies (Timaeus 42). Here, we see the origins of the idea that people could look forward to an afterlife in heaven — an idea that would displace the older view of an afterlife in the netherworld.

Like the God of the priestly creation account in Genesis 1, Plato’s Demiurge was a benevolent being who had made the cosmos good by endowing it with a soul and reason. Thus, the whole cosmos operated according to the Demiurge’s foresight — called Pronoia, or Providence. The only allowance for evil was that human souls were implanted in bodies that had to overcome various earthly influences in order to live righteously.

Aristotle and the Corruption of the Elements

Aristotle (c. 384–322 BCE) promoted the Platonic model, but had some different ideas about purity and corruption. In his treatise On the Heavens, he taught that the heavens from the moon to the outermost spheres were perfect and unchanging realms composed of ether rather than the four earthly elements. Below the moon, however, “imperfection, impurity, and disorder reigned” (Wright, p. 102). Plutarch, a Platonist contemporary of the apostle Paul, contrasted the unchanging celestial spheres to the earth, where everything was subject to generation and destruction, birth and death, due to the discordant elements. In particular, the elements were responsible for earthquakes, droughts, storms, pestilence, and even lunar phases and eclipses (Isis and Osiris 373C-D). Philo of Alexandria, the influential first-century Jewish philosopher, also maintained that the sublunar sphere admitted generation and corruption because it was made from the four elements (QG IV.8).

Plato, Seneca, and Aristotle, Devotional and Philosophical Writings, MS Hunter 231 (U.3.4), page 276, c. 1325–1335

Providence, Fate, and Cosmic Pessimism

Under both Platonic and Stoic cosmology, the cosmos was essentially good, and everything was directed by Providence, which was the cosmic energy and will of the creator under the Platonic model, and divinity itself — an eternal cycle of cause-and-effect — under the pantheistic Stoic model, which understood the cosmos itself to be the visible manifestation of God.⁵ (Hahm, p. 55 n. 45; Lewis, p. 88; Preus, p. 250) The Stoics under Zeno further described Fate (Heimarmene), which controlled the destinies of men, as an aspect of Providence that functioned as a “kinetic force”. To allow for the existence of evil, Zeno’s successor, Cleanthes, acknowledged that Fate could allow things that were not Providential. In Plato’s system, evil could exist because of the passions men were subjected to by Necessity. In either case, the stars and planets were gods who governed humans in accordance with Providence (Lewis, pp. 90–92).⁶ 

From the second century BCE to the second century CE, a new movement began to reconcile the teachings of Plato with other intellectual streams (Lewis, p. 109). Known today as Middle Platonism, this school grappled with the problem of evil among other matters. Apuleius (De Platone) and Pseudo-Plutarch (On Fate), two of the Middle Platonists whose works survive today, wrote that while Providence acted beneficently on humans, Fate was a more capricious mechanism administered by the planetary gods and, to some extent, the daimones, whom we will discuss below. Random and unjust fortune, then, were attributed to Fate (Lewis p. 34) and the celestial beings that governed it. This correlated well to the rising popularity of astrology, which taught that a person’s character and destiny were determined by the positions of the planets and stars at their birth (Barton, pp. 96ff). This “scientific” astrology had been already spreading throughout the Greco-Roman world since the end of the 3rd century BCE (Flamant, p. 223).

A related Middle Platonist trend was the rise of cosmic pessimism in the late first century. An important example can be found in the writings of the Numenius, who taught that human souls became infected with vices while descending through the planetary spheres to earth. These vices were associated with the planetary gods, and everything on earth was therefore corrupted by evil.

These new, widespread teachings had unavoidable religious implications for the common people. How could a person survive the corrupting influences of the elements, escape the fatalistic control of the stars and planets during life, and ensure a safe ascension to heaven after death? We’ll come back to this question in a bit.

Demons in Greek Philosophy

As Greek philosophers fleshed out the details of their cosmological models, the pre-classical notion of spiritual entities called demons was given new life.

The early Homeric literature already spoke of daimones, or demons, as a general term for divine spirits. The exact meaning of the term is fluid; as one scholar puts it, the Homeric poems “generally apply [the word daimon] in situations where one does not know which god one is dealing with, or…to denote a factor which is responsible for what is unexpected or not otherwise explicable.” (Algra, p. 75) Plato wrote about the daimonia in his Symposium. The great distance and contrast between the celestial spheres and the mortal realm according to Plato’s cosmology made it necessary for mediating beings to go between gods and mankind. Prayers and sacrifices made on earth would be conveyed by the daimonion to the gods (Symp. 202e). 

After Plato, the usual Platonic view was that daimones were intermediary or lower divinities. Many believed that they were spirits that inhabited the air, particularly its upper reaches near the moon (Brenk, pp. 2085-2089). Some Middle Platonists believed that the sublunary region was teeming with daimones who were responsible for administering Fate (Lewis, p. 112). According to Plutarch, influence from the demons and the stars gave each person a unique mix of passions (pathemata) that was responsible for the unevenness of human nature (On Tranquility of Mind 474). A major factor motivating the development of demonology was that “it made it made it possible to reconcile traditional polytheism with the increasingly pressing needs of monotheism, the ancient gods becoming daemons under the authority of a supreme god.” (Brisson, p. 68)

Demons and Angels in Judaism

While these developments were taking place in the Greek-speaking world, new ideas about the spiritual inhabitants of the cosmos were taking hold among Jews as well.

Evil Spirits and Demons

As I have written before, demons do not really figure into the Old Testament. Evil spirits exist, but the rare times they are mentioned, they are depicted as Yahweh’s servants (e.g. 1 Sam 16:14–23). Second Temple Jewish literature provided a new explanation for evil spirits. According to 1 Enoch and Jubilees, sexual congress between immortal Watchers and human women in primeval times had produced giants with immortal souls. When the giants were destroyed by the Flood, their souls remained on earth as evil spirits (Stuckenbruck, p. 102). The Greek of 1 Enoch refers to them as pneuma (spirits), not daimones (demons).

When the Jewish scriptures were translated into Greek, a number of Hebrew words were translated as daimon or daimonion. Most important is shedim, a term that refers to the gods of other nations. Perhaps due to the influence of these translation choices, “demon” functioned primarily as a negative term in Judaism, and daimones came to be seen as evil spirits.

In contrast to Greek philosophy, Jewish religion in the late Second Temple period also developed the idea that the evil spirits or daimones were led by a singular prince. In Jubilees, the leader of the evil spirits is named Mastema or Belial. Belial is also the leader of the enemies of God in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, where he is also called the Angel of Darkness. In the Testament of Solomon, it is Beelzebub who rules the demons. The influence of the dualistic Persian religion that taught of both a benevolent god and a supreme evil being is widely acknowledged in these developments.

Angels as Mediators

In older sections of the Hebrew Bible, such as the Deuteronomistic History and the prophets, that portrayed God as communicating directly with prophets and priests, there was little need for intermediaries to convey God’s message. In later texts, however, God was more distant, and the role of the divine messenger — mal’ak in Hebrew — became important. When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek, these beings were described using the term angelos (angel), which was already in use in Greek religion. For example, Hermes is described as the angel of the gods in The Odyssey (5.29), and numerous inscriptions in Asia Minor honour divine angels alongside gods such as Zeus. Such references to angels are often thought to represent Hermes or Hekate, who were both messenger deities (Arnold, pp. 70ff).

According to Philo, the angels of Jewish scripture were the same beings that other philosophers called demons (Somn. 1.41), and they were needed as intermediate beings because mankind could not endure direct contact with God (Somn. 1.142–143; see Feldmeier, p. 558). Philo himself did not mind calling angels daimones. He said the air reaching from earth to the moon was full of them, equal in number to the stars. They were the words (logoi) and ministers of God to humanity (Brenk, p. 2099). Philo’s writings represent a novel and influential attempt to interpret Jewish religion into a Middle Platonic cosmological framework.

Angels became instrumental both in conveying God’s messages and carrying out his will in late texts such as Daniel, 1 Enoch, Tobit, Jubilees, and 2 Maccabees (“Angel II”, DDD, p. 51). Belief in a Great Angel who could mediate on behalf of Israel and oppose the forces of evil also emerged during this period. The archangel Michael acts as the mediator and saviour of the Jews in Daniel; in 3 Baruch, he is the only angel who can directly approach God as the heavenly high priest; and in the War Scroll from Qumran, he is the Prince of Light who fights on behalf of God. Testament of Levi 5.5–6 and Testament of Dan 6.1–3 both speak of an angel who serves as the sole mediator between Israel and God, interceding on Israel’s behalf. In the Prayer of Joseph, an angel named Jacob is the firstborn of God’s creation who serves as a mediator of some kind (the full text is not extant). Philo called this angelic mediator the Logos, God’s Firstborn and the Son of God (Confusion of Tongues 146–7 and De Agricultura 51) who served as high priest in the cosmic temple. Several other examples could be given.

Hellenistic Salvation Cults

To recap our progress briefly: the flourishing of Greek astronomy and philosophy in the classical era led to the gradual deprecation of the old worldview of a flat, tripartite world ruled by anthropomorphic gods. It was replaced with a model in which the earth sat at the center of a spherical cosmos comprised of concentric spheres or levels that corresponded to the planets and stars. The perfect creator God was inaccessible to mortal men, whose bodies were borrowed from the elements yet possessed immortal souls that had descended from the stars. Planetary/astral gods controlled the fortune and destiny of mortals through the principle of Heimarmene (Fate), which was in part administered through intermediary beings called daimones (demons). The earthly realm and all mortals in it also suffered from corruption due to its distance from the gods and the influence of the elements, the passions, and Ananke (Necessity). The popularity of astrology reinforced the view that one’s fortune and destiny was controlled by celestial bodies and forces.

Under this Weltanschauung, people desired a saviour who was powerful enough to breach the earthly realm on behalf of humanity, vanquishing the capricious daimones and cosmic divinities to free people from the servitude of Fate, and teaching devotees the knowledge needed to ascend back to heaven upon death (Cf. Nilsson, p. 115; Knox, pp. 39–40).

“I overcome Fate. Fate submits to me.”

In some cases, people looked to the Oriental religions for salvation. The religion of Isis, the Egyptian goddess, became a prolific mystery cult in the Roman Empire. She was called “Mistress of life, ruler of fate and destiny” (Müller, p. 84 n. 8. Cited by Lewis, p. 138). Her followers believed that she could control Fate through her sovereignty over the celestial bodies. The goddess proclaims in an early aretology (account of miraculous deeds):

I showed the paths of the stars.
I ordered the course of the sun and the moon.
I am living in the rays of the sun.
I govern the path of the sun.
Everything obeys me.
I deliver those who are enchained.
I overcome Fate [Heimarmenon].
Fate submits to me.
(Ibid.)

In The Golden Ass by Platonist philosopher Apuleius, Isis tells Lucius: “You shall know that I and I alone have the power to prolong your life beyond the bounds appointed as your fate.” (Metam. 11.15; translation by Lewis, p. 139). Being converted to the Isiac cult meant that one was “born again” — freed from one’s original, astrally ordained destiny to live a new life (Lewis, p. 139).

Isiac water ritual, 1st-century fresco from Herculaneum

Isiac water ritual, 1st-century fresco from Herculaneum

Mithras and the Cosmic Axis

Mithraism provides another relevant example. Although the central saviour deity, Mithras, was nominally a Persian deity, Mithraism itself was a Roman mystery religion with a remarkable interest in astronomy. Mithraic art often featured the twelve signs of the zodiac as well as the sun, moon, and planets. Mithraic temples, called Mithraeums, were built underground and meant to represent the cosmos (Ulansey 1989, p. 132).

The central feature of the religion was a scene, called the Tauroctony, in which Mithras, wearing his distinctive cape and Phrygian cap, slays a bull. This scene is present as a painting or engraved monument at every Mithraeum ever excavated, of which there are hundreds across the former Roman empire. The Tauroctony always contains several other figures as well: a dog, a snake, a raven, a scorpion, and sometimes a lion and a cup. It is widely recognized that the Tauroctony is astronomical in nature: the bull is the constellation Taurus, and the other figures represent Canis Minor, Hydra, Corvus, Scorpio, Leo, and Crater. 

Although the precise meaning of the Tauroctony is still debated, Mithraic scholar David Ulansey offers the intriguing theory that its symbolism is related to the findings of the astronomer Hipparchus (190–120 BCE), who discovered the precession of the equinoxes — the phenomenon that the positions of the zodiac shift a bit each year, which we now know is due to a slow wobble in the earth’s axis. This meant that over a long period of time, the constellation of the spring equinox, the astrological new year, had shifted from Taurus (the Bull) to Aries. It also meant that the sphere of the stars was moving in a previously unknown way not accounted for in the Platonic model (Ulansey 1989). 

What had caused the spring equinox to abandon Taurus? According to Ulansey’s theory, it was believed that Mithras, represented by the constellation Perseus (“the Persian”) which stands directly above Taurus in the sky, had been responsible for turning the axis of the universe itself, symbolized in the Tauroctony as the slaying of Taurus. The other creatures in the Tauroctony were all constellations that lay along the celestial equator during the age of Taurus and lost their privileged positions.⁷ This meant that Mithras was in control of the cosmos, and with the power to alter it, he could deliver his followers from the power of Fate and guarantee safe passage in the afterlife (Lewis, p. 140; Ulansey 1989, p. 133). 

Even if Ulansey’s theory is mistaken in some respects, there is no doubt that Mithras’ mastery over the cosmos was a central belief (Lewis, p. 141). Mithras’s incarnation—born from a rock—is “that of a god who now assumes responsibility for the cosmos, that of a kosmokrator [lord of the cosmos]. …The sovereignty of Mithras coincides with the final salvation of Creation.” (Turcan, p. 248)

Strasbourg-Koenigshoffen, Second-Century Mithraic Relief, Reconstruction c. 140 –160 CE

Strasbourg-Koenigshoffen, second-century Mithraic relief, reconstruction c. 140 –160 CE

Cosmic Symbolism in Hellenistic Judaism

A fair amount of evidence has accumulated showing that Jews in the hellenized world were similarly concerned with astrology and the influence of the cosmos. Several early Jewish synagogues have been uncovered with intact floor mosaics that feature images of the zodiac, the seasons, the moon, and the sun in the form of Helios the sun god with his chariot. Jewish amulets from the first century onward feature a personified sun and moon as well as the stars and planets, represented in a manner implying astral piety. In some, the sun is identified as Iaō (Yahweh in Greek). (Goodenough, pp. 116-126)

The great temple in Jerusalem featured astral symbolism as well. According to Josephus, the outer veil of the temple, an enormous curtain 80 feet high, depicted a “panorama of the entire heavens”, i.e. the starry sky (J.W. 5.5.4). According to both Josephus and Philo, the “holy candlestick” (menorah) in the temple had seven branches to represent the seven planets (cf. Philo, Heir of Divine Things, 221-24). Philo also identified the twelve stones on the high priest’s breastplate as symbols of the zodiac, worn in imitation of the true temple, which was the cosmos itself (Som. 1.215). Rabbinical sources averred that the twelve tribes of Israel were an allusion to the zodiac,⁸ as were the various furnishings of the first temple that came in twelves: basins, cups, spoons, oxen, etc. The round brazen sea in the temple was supposed to have represented the cosmos. (See Goodenough, p. 149 for sources.) Erwin Goodenough, in his authoritative work on the subject, concludes astral symbolism must have had a “great deal of meaning” for Jews, despite the opposition of the rabbis (ibid. p. 154).

Herod’s Temple, interior view, illustration from HCSB Study Bible [source]

The Dead Sea Scrolls provide another example of a first-century Jewish community that was interested in the stars. Some of the Qumran documents focus on astronomy for the purposes of keeping religious calendars, and others for astrological purposes. Examples include 4Q186, an astrological handbook, and 4Q318, a document containing a zodiacal calendar with astrological predictions at the end.

Astral immortality — the Platonic conception of the afterlife — also gained a significant following in Judaism during this period. Daniel, written in the 2nd century BCE, already states that “those who are wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever” (Dan. 12:3). 1 Enoch, which devotes eleven chapters to the workings of the cosmos, states that the departed righteous are in the heavens with the Elect One and his angels (1 En. 39:3-7). As Goodenough notes, “it seems that the old Sheol has quite disappeared” (ibid. p. 157). 1 Enoch and numerous other Jewish texts depict heaven as a series of levels or spheres, clearly inspired by Platonic cosmology, although the authors often have a poor grasp of the astronomy behind them. Philo for his part enthusiastically embraced astral immortality: “But does not every wise soul live like an immigrant and sojourner in this mortal body, after having for habitat and country the most pure substance of heaven, from which it migrates to this habitat by a compelling law?” (QG 4.74)

Early Christianity: Jewish Tradition Meets Greek Cosmology

It becomes apparent now (to me, at least) that early Christianity was a form of Hellenistic Judaism that had been released from its ethnic restrictions — a blend of Jewish tradition with Platonic cosmology focused on a heavenly redeemer figure who was reconceived as the saviour not of Israel, but of the entire cosmos. Standing in opposition to Christ the saviour was a hierarchy of unruly or ignorant demons and planetary divinities who had corrupted earth and, in some cases, the lower heavenly realms. This can be illustrated through a survey of early Christian texts. The analysis that follows is not comprehensive; many more texts could be examined in the same way.

The Ascension of Isaiah

The early (probably first-century) text known as The Ascension of Isaiah contains a brief proto-Gospel about the descent and ascent of Jesus as revealed to Isaiah in a vision. First, Isaiah is given a tour of the heavens, which consist of seven levels above the firmament, clearly inspired by Platonic models of the seven planets (Wright, p. 158). Isaiah sees how the corrupt, violent angels of Samael inhabit the air below the firmament, while the levels of heaven above are increasingly glorious. He is pleased to be told that pious believers will be transformed and ascend through the heavens after death (celestial immortality).

In the sixth and seven heavens, Isaiah learns about the Lord Christ, God’s Son, who will be called “Jesus” when he descends to the corruptible world (earth). Christ is to take on the form of a man and will be crucified unawares by “the god of that world” (9:14) before conquering the angel of death and ascending again. In keeping with the Platonic models of Aristotle and Plutarch, the realm of the world is corrupt, and the air below the heavenly spheres is filled with demons, which the author calls angels. A bit further on, we read that even the lower levels of heaven are ruled by gods who do not yet glorify Christ. As Christ descends the five lower levels of heaven, he must take on the visual appearance of the angels who inhabit each stage to avoid discovery by the “princes and angels and gods” who control those realms, until he has fulfilled his mission (Asc. Is. 10:12).

The Ascension of Isaiah clearly derives its cosmology and understanding of immortality from the Greek philosophy described above. It differs, however, in that the immortal beings below the firmament are wholly corrupt, and that they have a leader, the angel Samael. These elements clearly come from the Enoch-Jubilees tradition, and the name Samael itself originates in 1 Enoch. Christ as an angelic figure in heaven who descends to save righteous believers also comes from the Jewish traditions previously discussed.

Paul and the Cosmic Gospel

We can conclude from 2 Cor. 12:2, in which Paul describes his vision of Paradise located in the “third heaven”, that the apostle holds to a Platonic cosmology with multiple heavens (Wright, p. 133).

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven…. And I know that such a person…was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. (2 Cor. 12:2–4)

One of Paul’s core teachings seems to be that Christ offers deliverance from the influence of cosmic entities and forces:

For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor archons nor powers … nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:39)

Paul’s vocabulary of angels, archons and powers has cosmic meaning in both Jewish and philosophical texts (see below), and ‘height’ and ‘depth’ are drawn specifically from the astronomical vocabulary of the first century CE (see Lewis, p. 59 for references; Van Kooten, pp. 93ff.).

Cosmic fatalism is also in view when Paul teaches that “when we were children, we were enslaved by the elements of the cosmos” (Gal. 4:3). This cryptic doctrine is readily explained by the contemporary teachings of Plutarch and Philo, who say that mortals are subject to the generative and destructive nature of the elements (Van Kooten, pp. 60–65). 

This helps us understand what Paul means in the ensuing verses (Gal. 4:4–9), where he equates the conversion of non-Jewish Galatians to the Jewish law as a return to servitude under the cosmic elements. For Paul, the “Law” (Nomos) is an oppressive cosmic system, identical to the elements of Greek cosmology, and not merely a set of religious rules. This may fit with Pseudo-Plutarch’s description of fate as a cosmic law administered by planetary forces (see Dillon, p. 321). Furthermore, as Van Kooten shrewdly observes in his insightful book on Pauline cosmology, for Paul’s argument to make sense, he must intend both Jewish and Gentile religious legislation alike when he refers to “those under the law” (Gal. 4:5):

The “law” in Gal 4.5 cannot refer only to Jewish law, since there is a clear parallel with the “elements of the cosmos” (Gal 4.3) under which both Jews and non-Jews were enslaved. Because Christ came “under the law” in order to redeem “those under the law,” it cannot refer exclusively to the Jewish law — otherwise, Christ could only be considered to be redeeming those who were under Jewish law, and non-Jews who were enslaved by the elements of the cosmos but not the Jewish law would be excluded from salvation. (ibid. p. 77)

Here we find the core of Paul’s cosmic gospel: Christ had to be “made”¹⁰ under the law (Gal. 4:5) — in other words, be given a body composed out of the elements — so he could redeem everyone under their fatalistic control, with the Jewish law being one such form of subjugation. This redemption was accomplished when, on the cross of Christ, the cosmos itself was crucified (Gal. 6:14), resulting in a new creation (Gal. 6:15).

Additional details are found in 1 Corinthians 15, which describes how at the end, Christ will subdue and destroy the principles (archai), powers (exousia), forces (dunameis), and lastly, death (thanatos).¹¹ After Christ has full dominion of the cosmos, he will hand that dominion over to God (1 Cor. 15:23–28). These entities dominate human activity in the present “evil age” (1 Cor. 2:6), but the present form of the cosmos is in the process of ending (1 Cor. 7:31). Paul’s cosmic vocabulary and belief in celestial immortality¹² are derived from Platonism, but he combines them with the Jewish apocalyptic tradition found 1 Enoch 61, in which the heavenly Son of Man judges all the angels, and Daniel 7 LXX, in which the ‘powers’ (exousia) of the world submit to the Son of Man (Van Kooten, pp. 93-94).⁹

Valentin de Boulogne (attributed), Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, c. 1618–1620

Principles, Powers, and Forces

Although the eschatological ‘powers’ in Daniel refers to earthly kingdoms, later Jewish and Christian writers applied the term to angelic beings, as does Paul (Van Kooten, pp. 95-96).¹³ In 1 Corinthians, it is combined with two other terms: ‘principles’ (archai) and ‘forces’ (dunameis). These labels sometimes referred to angels in the Septuagint and Hellenistic Jewish texts (Van Kooten, pp. 93-99), but Paul might have their philosophical usage in mind. Philo uses ‘principles’ as a synonym for the four elements, and ‘forces’ sometimes denotes the qualities of the four elements: dry, wet, cold, and hot (see ibid. pp. 100-102 for references). According to Plutarch, the four ‘principles’ that dominate the sublunar realm, also called ‘forces’, are life, motion, generation, and dissolution (death; De Iside 369B–D). Whatever precise definitions Paul has in mind, it is the totality of the cosmos — particularly, the parts of the sublunar cosmos that control and enslave humans — that Christ will eventually subdue.

Paul’s Cosmic Crucifixion

As mentioned above, Paul understood the crucifixion not just as something that happened on earth to the Jesus of flesh, but as a cosmic event as well. In 1 Cor. 2:8, he explains that the Lord of glory was crucified by “the archons of this age (aeon)” out of ignorance because they did not understand the secret wisdom (sophia) of God (Lewis, pp. 55ff).

The Epistle to the Colossians

The author of Colossians has a very specific view of Christ’s role in the cosmos. According to him, Christ was the firstborn of creation (as described by Philo), and the entirety of the heavens and earth, including the thrones, dominions, principles, and powers, were created in Christ (Col. 1:15-16).¹⁴ According to theologian James Dunn, in light of parallel references in Colossians and other texts, these words all refer to invisible entities in the heavens (see Dunn, p. 92). Van Kooten notes that ‘throne’ was also a technical term in astronomy for the powers exerted by the planets (Van Kooten, p. 122).¹⁵ All these terms together stand for the entire cosmos. Furthermore, the cosmos is bound together in Christ (1:17), and Christ is the visual representation of the invisible God (1:15), which both Dunn and Van Kooten take to mean that Christ himself is the body of the cosmos. Van Kooten sees Stoic influence here, because making Christ the body of the cosmos allows the invisible God who is immanent throughout the cosmos in Stoicism to fully inhabit Christ (1:19).

In Colossians, not only is Christ the body of the cosmos, but he is its creator as well (1:15–17; see Talbert, p. 5; Van Kouten, p. 126). This might reflect a trend in the Middle Platonism that attributed creation to a second god, the Intellect (Nous) or Logos of the Supreme God (Dillon, pp. 7, 46). Similarly, according to Philo, the Logos as the “firstborn son of God” was the one through which the cosmos was created (Dillon, p. 160). This concept is not reflected in Paul’s genuine writings.¹⁶

There are (at least) two important differences between how Paul and the author of Colossians understand Christ’s salvific work. First, unlike Paul, Colossians states that all the rebellious cosmic principles and powers have already been subdued by Christ and reintegrated into Christ’s body (1:20, 2:8–10). This is a mystery that was “hidden throughout the ages” but has now been revealed (1:26). Through baptism, then, believers share in Christ’s death and resurrection (described as “putting off the body of flesh”, 2:11), thereby escaping the captivity of the cosmic elements (2:8) which are ruled by the power of darkness (1:13). Secondly, this idea of Christ subjugating and bringing unity to the cosmos differs from the doctrine of a new creation taught by Paul and other Christian writers.

According to Van Kooten, an analogous notion to Christ’s subjugation of the cosmos can be found in Plutarch. In De Facie, the philosopher describes a primordial state in which the cosmic principles were in chaos until they were bound together by Aphrodite or Eros, bringing unity to the cosmos. In De Iside, Plutarch describes the present mastery of Osiris over the opposing principle of disorder.

Plutarch, source unknown

Colossians sets out to deliberately refute a rival philosophy that does not recognize Christ’s role as head of the cosmic body, but whose practitioners remain enslaved to the elements and focused on unnecessary dietary and calendrical laws. In its arguments, however, Colossians assumes the same basic Middle Platonist cosmology (Van Kooten pp. 144–145).

The Epistle to the Ephesians

Ephesians reuses the basic structure and content of Colossians, with a few additions, and it was apparently presented as a companion letter to Colossians (Van Kooten, p. 196).¹⁷ According to its author, the mystery of Christ that was hidden for generations (until it was revealed to Paul; see Eph. 3:1–5) is that “in the fullness of time” both heaven and earth will be put under Christ’s authority (1:10). For now, Christ is in “heavenly places” (1:20) above every principle, power, force, and dominion (see 1 Cor. 15:24 for a nearly identical list). For the present, it is only the church which enjoys Christ’s rule (1:22); and the church has a cosmic mission: to make known God’s wisdom (sophia) to the heavenly principles and powers (3:10). This is possible because both humans and the principles and powers who inhabit the heavens are descended from the Father (3:14; see Van Kooten, p. 175).¹⁸

According to Ephesians, those outside the church remain bound to the world and the archon (ruler) of the power of the air (2:2), the Jewish devil (6:11). Thus, while Christ currently inhabits the highest heavenly realm, the air (sublunar realm) remains under the control of a demonic archon. In chapter 6, the author warns the church to defend themselves not against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against principles, powers, “cosmic rulers” (kosmokratores) of darkness, and evil spirits in the heavenly realms. The cosmic rulers were, according to some contemporary writers, the planets who controlled the elements (Van Kooten, p. 192). Thus, Ephesians appears to distinguish between the realm of the air ruled by the devil, and the heavenly (supralunar) realms overseen by cosmic rulers, but both parts of the cosmos are characterized — for the time being — by corruption and opposition to God’s wisdom (much like in The Ascension of Isaiah). Ephesians also demonstrates how a Middle Platonist cosmology of multiple heavens, capricious planetary rulers, and a earthly sphere composed of corruptible elements and inhabited by demons could be combined with the Jewish concepts of God’s wisdom, the devil, distrust toward demons and spirits, and a heavenly saviour figure.

Despite the differences between the Pauline and pseudo-Pauline letters, they and their rivals have a shared worldview that Lewis summarizes as follows: 

Celestial beings populate the cosmos. These beings appear to exert some form of contingent control over a significant portion of the human race through three specific means. They control vice, they control human behavior, and finally, they control law. In the Pauline worldview, these beings act in direct opposition to Christ, whom they had crucified in their ignorance. Christ, however, emerged victorious from his confrontation with the powers. (Lewis, p. 67)

Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Baptism of Christ, 1486-90

The Gospel of Mark

Mark’s Gospel was, as far as we can tell, the earliest document to describe the earthly ministry of Jesus, and it embeds cosmological ideas that are key to understanding it. 

Jesus’ ministry itself is bookended by cosmological events. It begins with a baptism, during which the heavens are torn apart, signifying the cosmic nature of Jesus:

And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved….” (Mark 1:10–11)

This is, in fact, one half of an inclusio or “Markan sandwich”, because there is a second instance at Jesus’ death where something is similarly torn and a voice is heard declaring Jesus to be the Son of God: the tearing of the veil of the temple, which Ulansey (Ulansey 1991) points out must have been, for various reasons, the outer veil on which a panorama of the heavens was depicted.¹⁹ Given Mark’s affection for using inclusios to establish the meaning of the narrative contained within, it seems reasonable to assume that Mark intends to portray Jesus’ entire ministry and death as an event that alters the cosmos. It also links baptism to Christ’s death as analogous events with cosmic meaning.

The sundering of heaven that herald’s Jesus’ arrival is immediately followed by the temptation of Jesus by Satan, although Mark offers none of the colorful detail that Luke and Matthew add. This is followed a few verses later by Jesus’ first miracle in which he demonstrates his authority over demons by performing an exorcism (1:21–27). More exorcisms follow (1:32–34), and in every case, it is only the demons, with their innate cosmic knowledge, who recognize Jesus’ identity and must be silenced. This secrecy motif, of course, is also present in the Ascension of Isaiah and can be found in other early Christian writings. The positioning of this pericope at the start of Jesus’ ministry signals its importance (Van Oyen, p. 108).

Jesus’ mission to conquer the demonic forces is made even more explicit in the Beelzebul controversy (3:19b–27), following his selection of twelve disciples (a cosmically meaningful number). After identifying Satan as the ruler of the demons, Jesus defends his exorcisms with the analogy of a thief who ties up a house’s owner in order to plunder it. The house clearly represents Satan’s kingdom, the earthly realm, and Jesus is an infiltrator who has come to plunder the world — i.e. to liberate humanity from demonic control. Mark’s depiction of Jesus as cosmic saviour is thoroughly in keeping with Hellenistic religion and cosmology, although the setting and other details are Jewish. I must emphasize that Mark’s narrative would not make sense under traditional Old Testament Judaism, in which the whole world was firmly under God’s control.

James Tissot, The Pharisees Question Jesus, c. 1886–1894, Brooklyn Museum

Other Second-Century Writers

The Christian concern with deliverance from cosmic forces (demons) and cosmic fatalism continued into the second century. Justin Martyr, despite his objections to philosophical teachings on Fate (particularly Stoicism), describes the process of baptism as one by which the believer is reborn from being “children of Necessity (Ananke)” to being “children of freedom and knowledge” (Apol. I 61; see Korteweg, p. 155). Furthermore, Justin’s conception of salvation is entirely rooted in demonology; he repeats the Enoch-Jubilees myth of fallen angels which, to Justin, were demons, and he teaches that these same demons keep humans enslaved through magic. Only the believer who has undergone baptism is freed from their spells (Korteweg, p. 158).

Justin Martyr, 16th century, from André Thevet, Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres grecz, latins et payens

Tatian (120–180 CE), a pupil of Justin’s, acknowledged the activity of Fate (heimarmene) in the world. According to Tatian, the Christian faith “dissolves the cosmic slavery” (Ad Graec. 29.2) and liberates the believer from the planetary demons who control Fate (Ad Graec. 9.2; see Korteweg, p. 155, and Lewis, p. 159). “We are exalted above Fate, and in place of the planetary demons, we know but one ruler of the cosmos.”

Athenagoras (c. 133–190 CE) wrote in his Legatio ad Graecas that God, the “eternal mind” (Nous), had established angels to administer the elements and the heavens through Providence (pronoia). Like Justin, he uses the Jewish Enoch-Jubilees myth, interpreted through Platonist cosmology, to explain the origin of sin and corruption. It was the angels given control of matter (i.e. the sublunar elements) and the angels assigned to the region of the firmament, he says, who were subjugated by the flesh and became negligent in the things entrusted to them (Leg. 24). They now haunt the earth and air (sublunar realm), unable to return to the heavens, and it is their “demonic movements” that produce “irrational movements” in men (Leg. 25). He refers to the leader of these angels as the “prince of matter”.

The Excerpta ex Theodotus, a collection of notes attributed to the second-century theologian Theodotus, states that Christ appeared as a star, doing away with the ancient astral ordinances and delivering believers from Fate into the hands of Providence. “Before baptism … fate is real, but after it the astrologers are no longer right.” (Exc. Theod. 78) 

According to Ignatius’ Epistle to the Ephesians, Christ’s incarnation and death took place in secret, but afterward were manifested as a new star that shone so brightly in the heavens that it rearranged the sun, moon, and other stars around itself. Its brightness caused sorcery and magic to lose their power, and the overthrow of death was set in motion (Ep. Eph. 50).

Although I won’t delve into it here, Gnosticism of the late second century and beyond was, in essence, a strand of Christianity that delved even further into cosmology with an intense focus on the composition of the heavens, the names of astral archons, and the mechanisms by which Christ had overthrown Fate.

Baptism and Rebirth

Throughout all these texts, we see the emphasis on baptism as the method by which Christ’s redemption could be claimed by the individual. In order to be freed from the influence of demons, celestial forces, and the astrological power of fate — the horoscope that was bound to a person from birth — one had to die and be reborn. The philosopher Seneca had taught that only death freed the soul from fate, but the Christian believed that this could be achieved sacramentally. According to the aforementioned Theodotus, baptism was the mechanism by which that transformation of the soul took place. The same sentiment is expressed in Paul’s letters when he speaks of those who are “perfected” and “mature”, and in the Gospel of John which teaches that believers must be “born again” (Lewis, pp. 154–158).

Plato’s Cross and the Cross of Light

Justin Martyr was keen to show that the Greek cosmologists had taught Christian doctrine learnt from Moses. For example, Plato in his Timaeus had described the cosmic soul as having the shape of a cross (the letter X). Justin Martyr claims that Plato was describing the Logos, which was “placed crosswise in the cosmos,” and that furthermore, Plato had borrowed this idea from the Pentateuch, which told of a brazen cross that had saved Israel in the wilderness (Apol. I 60). Justin understands Moses’ serpentine cross as signifying the cross of Christ (Apol. I 91). In other words, for Justin, the cross is not merely an earthly gibbet, but part of the structure of the cosmos. Irenaeus explicitly equates the cross with the World Soul in his Epideixis, writing that Christ was “imprinted in the form of a cross on the universe” and “brought to light the universality of his cross” (Epid. 70).

Citing a few ancient sources, George Latura argues that Plato’s cross was interpreted not as the invisible intersection of the equator with the zodiac, but rather as a visible phenomenon: the Milky Way and the zodiacal light, which form a cross of light in the night sky visible mainly during the spring and fall equinoxes.²⁰ This cross may have been associated with astral immortality; a depiction of it appears on a number of consecratio coins that celebrated the deification of Roman emperors (Latura, pp. 880–886). 

Roman coins depicting deified emperors with the celestial orb and Plato’s X, according to Latura

Is it possible that other Christian writers, such as the author of Colossians, believed the cross was visible in the cosmos? In the Apocryphal Acts of John, the apostle is shown a vision of a celestial cross of light that separates the inferior lower world from the heavens, while the earthly crucifixion is in progress (Luttikhuizen, p. 134). Acts of Thomas 113 describes Christ as the “word of light who rose like the sun” and gave new life through the Cross of Light. A connection between the Cross of Light motif and Plato’s cruciform World Soul was already made over 100 years ago by the theologian Wilhelm Bousset (Bousset, pp. 273-85).

The zodiacal light — an interplanetary dust cloud that glows from sunlight — intersecting the Milky Way (Source: Wikipedia)

Final Thoughts

There are many more Christian texts that could be analyzed from the perspective of ancient Greco-Roman cosmology, and we would probably come away with similar conclusions. Christianity seems to owe a great debt to the Middle Platonist and Stoic thinkers, just as it does to the Septuagint and the apocalyptic literature of Judaism. As both an off-shoot of Judaism and a Hellenistic mystery religion, Christianity offered a compelling message about a divine redeemer who had taken on temporary human form to defeat the demonic powers of fate and overcome death. This message is inseparable from the cosmological worldview that allowed it to take shape. 

The religion of the earliest believers bore little resemblance to the faith we recognize today. Some early Christians continued to develop intricate cosmological doctrines based on Platonism and astrology, becoming the sects known as Gnostics. Mainstream Christianity went the other direction, forgetting its cosmological roots as it grew into the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, the church remains indebted to Plato, Aristotle, Philo, and other Greco-Roman astronomers and philosophers in its basic theology — its dualist concepts of heaven and earth, its hopes for an immortal afterlife, its belief in angels and demons, the oppression of sin and corruption on earth, the need to be reborn to achieve salvation, and more.

Christ depicted as Helios the sun god, a pre-Constantinian mosaic discovered at Mausoleum M under the Vatican


Footnotes

  1. Because Venus and Mercury are closer to the sun than the earth, their apparent movement is quite different from that of the outer planets. Thus, the order of the Sun, Mercury, and Venus could vary in models based on Plato’s.
  2. In fact, some of Plato’s predecessors, notably Socrates, expressed doubt that the invisible gods of Greek mythology even existed.
  3. Many of the terms used throughout this essay were technical terms in Hellenistic philosophy and religion. I will draw attention to them by using the Greek word in italics at times.
  4. The souls of unrighteous men, however, would be reincarnated as women or animals.
  5. The Stoics believed the cosmos was eternal and not created by any deity. They also believed all things, including God himself, must be corporeal in order to exist. Their views came very close to atheism in some respects.
  6. In the case of Stoicism, the stars rather than the planets may have been seen as the governors of fate, due to the cyclical determinism of their own movement. (See Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, 1989, p. 128.)
  7. Except for Leo, which, according to Ulansey, belonged in the scene because it marked the summer solstice.
  8. The idealized notion of twelve tribes never reflected historical reality, as I have written previously, and much of the Old Testament is unaware of it.
  9. The planetary gods were also called archons in Hermetic theology, which blended Platonism with other religious influences.
  10. The verb used here is γίγνομαι (gigomai). Though it can refer to birth, it more broadly means to come into being or to be put into a certain state. The usual verb for being born, used elsewhere in the New Testament, is γεννάω (gennao).
  11. Note Philippians 3:21, which explains that Christ’s power enables him to make all things subject to himself. Apparently, in Paul’s view, this power will not be fully exercised until the parousia.
  12. Paul takes pains to explain in 1 Cor. 15:42–49 that immortality will involve a spiritual body and not a physical one, which I take to mean a body not made from the corruptible elements. He does so after establishing that the bodies of the heavenly realms, such as those of the sun, moon, and stars, differ from those of beings on earth. When he says that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” I understand this as a further rejection of the compatibility between the earthly elements and the heavens above the moon.
  13. In one instance, Philo of Alexandria also refers to the planetary divinities who took part in creation as Powers. See Dillon, p. 172 n. 1.
  14. In Col. 1:18, the parenthetical words “the church” appear after the statement that Christ is the head of the body, which occurs within a summary of Christ’s cosmic characteristics. Many interpreters suspect that “the church” is a later gloss in the text. Cf. Dunn, pp. 94–95.
  15. My own brief research shows that the term “throne” (thronos) was used to describe planets in certain configurations that allowed them to exert astrological influence (cf. Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos I.23; see note 125 on this page for sources). In the Ascension of Isaiah, each of the seven levels of heaven (= seven planetary spheres) has its own throne. This might be an example of astronomical language being interpreted literally by a Christian writer.
  16.  Irenaeus also states that Christ was the “creator of man” (Fragm. 65).
  17. The Letter to the Ephesians may have originally been addressed to the Laodiceans to take advantage of the fact that such a letter is mentioned in Colossians. Colossae and its neighbour Laodicea would have been ideal locations for addressing pseudo-Pauline letters to, since both cities were destroyed by an earthquake in the early 60s. (See Van Kooten, pp. 137 and 196.)
  18.  As Van Kooten argues (pp. 175–178), this may be based on the Stoic concept of a cosmic city shared by humans and celestial gods alike. Cicero in On the Nature of the Gods (2.154) writes: “First of all the world itself was made for the sake of gods and humans, and whatever there is in it was prepared and devised for the enjoyment of humans. For the world is, as it were, a common home of gods and humans, or the city of both groups; for only those who have the use of reason live by law and right.”
  19. Ulansey points out several other parallels: a motif of descending, the presence of Elijah in some form, and the use of the term spirit (pneuma).
  20.  Note that Easter is timed to coincide with the spring equinox.

Bibliography

  • J. Edward Wright, The Early History of Heaven, 1999.
  • Dirk L. Couprie, Heaven and Earth in Ancient Greek Cosmology, 2011.
  • J. Flamant, Sotériologie et systèmes planétaires, La soteriologia dei culti orientali nell’ Impero Romano, 1982.
  • Francis MacDonald Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology: The Timaeus of Plato Translated, with a Running Commentary, 1934.
  • David E. Hahm, The Origins of Stoic Cosmology, 1977.
  • Nicola Denzey Lewis, Cosmology and Fate in Gnosticism and Graeco-Roman Antiquity: Under Pitiless Skies, 2013.
  • Anthony Preus, Historical Dictionary of Ancient Greek Philosophy, 2007.
  • Tamsyn Barton, Ancient Astrology, 1994.
  • Keimpe Algra, “Stoics on Souls and Demons: Reconstructing Stoic Demonology”, Demons and the Devil in Ancient and Medieval Christianity, 2011.
  • Frederick E. Brenk. “A Most Strange Doctrine.” Daimon in Plutarch, The Classical Journal, Vol. 69, No. 1 (Oct. – Nov., 1973), pp. 1-11.
  • Luc Brisson, trans. Catherine Tihanyl, How Philosophers Saved Myths: Allegorial Interpretation and Classical Mythology, 2004.
  • Loren T. Stuckenbruck, “The Origins of Evil in Jewish Apocalyptic Tradition: The Interpretation of Genesis 6:1–4 in the Second and Third Centuries B.C.E.”, The Fall of the Angels.
  • Clinton E. Arnold, The Colossian Syncretism: The Interface Between Christianity and Folk Belief at Colossae, 1996.
  • R. Feldmeier, “Mediator II”, DDD.
  • Martin P. Nilsson, “The High God and the Mediator”. Harvard Theological Review 56 (1963).
  • Wilfred L. Knox, Some Hellenistic Elements in Primitive Christianity, 1942.
  • D. Müller, “Ägypten und die griechischen Isis-Aretalogien,” ASAW 53/1 (1961).
  • David Ulansey, “The Mithraic Mysteries”, The Scientific American, December 1989. 
  • David Ulansey, “The Heavenly Veil Torn: Mark’s Cosmic Inclusio” JBL 110/1 (Spring 1991).
  • R. Turcan, “Les dieux et le divin dans les mystères de Mithra”, Knowledge of God in the Graeco-Roman world, 1988.
  • Erwin R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, Abridged Edition, 1989.
  • Geurt Hendrik van Kooten, Cosmic Christology in Paul and the Pauline School, 2003.
  • John Dillon, The Middle Platonists: 80 B.C. to A.D. 220, 1996.
  • Charles H. Talbert, Ephesians and Colossians (Paideia Commentaries), 2007.
  • James Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, 1996.
  • Geert Van Oyen, “Demons and Exorcisms in the Gospel of Mark”, Demons and the Devil in Ancient and Medieval Christianity, 2011.
  • Theodoor Korteweg, “Justin Martyr and His Demon-Ridden Universe”, Demons and the Devil in Ancient and Medieval Christianity, 2011.
  • George Latura, “Plato’s Visible God: The Cosmic Soul Reflected in the Heavens”, Religions 3/2012.
  • Gerard Luttikhuizen, A Gnostic Reading of the Acts of John, in Jan N. Bremmer, Ed., The Apocryphal Acts of John, 1995,
  • W. Bousset, Plato’s Weltseele und das Kreuz Christi, ZNW 14 (1913).

27 thoughts on “The Structure of Heaven and Earth: How Ancient Cosmology Shaped Everyone’s Theology

  1. Hi Paul,

    Some of this argumentation is very similar to what mythicists lay out as a prelude to arguing that Jesus was originally understood as a purely cosmological figure, and only later did people try to “reify” him as an actual person. They point to things like Paul’s portrayal of the crucifixion as a cosmological event and Jesus overcoming the “sky demons.” The idea being that Jesus was not originally conceived of as an actual human being, but later authors made him into one.

    Do you think the data supports that line of reasoning? On an initial reading of your article (which I need to read again), it looks as though you might almost be presenting the opposite flow – that Jesus begins as a human, messianic figure to Israel that later takes on cosmological significance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The mythicist position is that Jesus is executed in space by demons. The actual view of Paul is that Jesus, as a human, was executed under a human death by human powers, and this the cosmological significance of this is that it brings about the kingdom of God.

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    • I was going to ask the same thing, especially after reading this line: “Paul understood the crucifixion as a cosmic event, whatever terrestrial story may have underlain it.”

      Like

    • Coming to earth in a body of flesh and then crucifying that body seems to be an essential part of Paul’s theology. You have to remember that, as explicitly stated by Philo, the Jews of that period viewed things on earth as having a heavenly counterpart, and that might have included the crucifixion. The earthly crucifixion reflects a cosmic event.

      There is no obstacle to an earthly, historical Jesus here. Paul is largely uninterested in (or ignorant about) the mundane life of Jesus, a fact that has been widely acknowledged by scholars, and that’s probably because his religious views are cosmic in scope. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t a real Jesus, obviously.

      Paul claims personal revelation for his teachings about Christ; but as it is plain to see, the celestial redeemer / Son of Man was already a well-established figure in Judaism that Paul and other Christian theologians appropriated.

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  2. The saints of the New Testament or disciples of Christ , also called christians by men not God .
    Believe in the God of eternal past and eternal future , that no man can find out or understand , without revelation from God . God has given us his word , inspired by God beyond man in so many ways to me is obvious .
    Men either believe Gods testimony that only he knows , or man is forever questioning Gods word and never able to come to a final absolute truth .

    Looking for truth any where else than Gods revealed word is inaccurate at best

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  3. Hey Paul. You wrote,

    “When the Jewish scriptures were translated into Greek, a number of Hebrew words were translated as _daimon_ or _daimonion_. Most important is _shedim_, a term that refers to the gods of other nations. Perhaps due to the influence of these translation choices, “demon” functioned primarily as a negative term in Judaism, and daimones came to be seen as evil spirits.”

    Can you kindly point out where you get the notion that _shedim_ (singular, _shed_, שֵׁדִ) refers to the gods of other nations? I’ve been curious about this word for a while. There’s somewhat long but rather inconclusive article in HALOT that starts out saying the word is definitely Akkadian to begin with, and shows them to be more or less like the _daimonia_ of Greeks, as you describe them— “a) beneficial, protecting spirit; b) malevolent demon”; they have some connection with the underworld and with the west;—

    “Stolz. . . . maintains that it appears from Dt 3217 and Ps 10637 that the שֵׁדִים were local gods which were worshipped particularly in Jerusalem, but which were also recognised in Mesopotamia; but this idea fails to explain the relationship to the [Akkadian] singular _šēdu(m)_. It may have been that one such deity could have risen to prominence from that group of deities.”

    The HALOT article comes to rest in the statement that “the rendering of Sept. δαιμονίοις mentioned in the introduction supports a translation of שֵׁדִים in Dt 32.17 Ps 106.37 (both times with זָבַח) as _fiend, demon_.”

    In any case, since it appears only those two times in the entire OT, i’m not sure what you mean in saying that _shedim_ was “most important” among the terms translated as _daimon_ in the LXX— and i’m very curious who says it has any reference to the gods of other nations. Alas, the DDD— one place where we might hope for a full discussion— doesn’t even mention it!

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    • Hi, John. A more thorough examination of the uses of “demon” in the Septuagint is provided by Dale Martin, “When Did Angels Become Demons?”, JBL 129 (2010). Here’s what he says:

      According to some modern commentators, the word šd originally meant simply “lord” and served as a divine title like “Baal” or “Adonai.” It could, therefore, be taken to refer to ancient gods of Canaan and other surrounding peoples, who could have viewed them as good powers or gods. The Jewish translators, therefore, use the word δαιμόνια to refer to the gods of other peoples. (pp. 658–659)

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  4. Well, I take that last sentence back. It occurred to me to look at what DDD had to say about “demons”, and found that under that entry, it does say, “in LXX Deut 32:17, the foreign divinities whom Israel worshipped, properly described in the Hebrew text as _šedim_ (tutelary spirits), are again called “demons” (”They sacrificed to demons and not to God”; cf. LXX Ps 105:37; Bar. 4:7)”. But there’s no discussion of why the writer thinks these are “foreign divinities”.

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  5. Many thoughts on this feat of scholarship.
    1) I’d like you to turn this into a book; or preferably into two books, since I’m less interested in Christianity than Judaism; one on the precursors to Jewish doctrine and its development up until, say, Akivah, and one specifically on Christianity.
    2) why did the Egyptians not realise that the Earth was a sphere, given the length of the North-South Empire?
    3) Herodotus as I recall, in his account of the Phoenician circumnavigation of Africa, passes on the claim that the sun crossed behind the mast, which he regarded as incredible, but which to us is confirmation.
    4) What is the significance of Jacob/Israel’s struggle with the angel, and the ladder up to heaven?
    5) What was the meaning to contemporaries of the physical ascension of Jesus into heaven, as described in Acts?
    6) How does the rabbinical doctrine of the Chariot, and of Akivah surviving the perilous experience of visiting paradise, relate to all this? (There is an account based on Mishnah Sanhedrin at https://thenutgarden.wordpress.com/tag/marble/ , which I do not know enough to make any kind of sense of) but ISTR there is a connected narrative of an enormously long distance between the levels of heaven)

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    • I’d happily write a book if someone paid me. My notes for this article are quite vast, and there’s much more that could be fleshed out.

      I don’t know if I can answer all your questions, but I’ll tackle a few.

      2) I think the answer is that the Egyptians just weren’t very good astronomers. The Babylonians were more interested in astronomy for religious and astrological reasons. This is how Couprie explains it. It was the precise star measurements of the Babylonians, after all, that allowed Hipparchus to recognize the shift in their position in the past when he compared them to his own observations.

      4) The answer would depend a lot on when that part of Genesis was written. Under Philo’s cosmology, the cosmos was like a ladder with the angels or logoi of God moving up and down as demonic mediators. The Mithraists represented the cosmos as a seven-gated ladder composed of seven metals with a planet that guarded each gate. On the other hand, Jacob’s ladder might have simply represented the fact that Bethel was supposed to serve as a gateway to the Samarian God (for the temple and priests at that location), like Etemenanki in Babylon.

      5) I think a physical ascent is a logical next step in trying to express the cosmic Jesus through a real-world setting, which the Gospels were already doing to some extent. In Mark, the ascent and resurrection seem to be the same thing, but later Gospel writers wanted to work in post-resurrection appearances and needed Jesus “on the ground”, so to speak, for a while after the crucifixion. Acts, then, has Jesus spend 40 days with the disciples, giving them secret teachings that are never revealed to the reader. This has obvious advantages for early church leaders, who could attribute their doctrines to Jesus after the fact. Gnostics made quite obvious use of this technique.

      6) I can’t answer this without further study.

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      • “Acts, then, has Jesus spend 40 days with the disciples, giving them secret teachings that are never revealed to the reader. This has obvious advantages for early church leaders, who could attribute their doctrines to Jesus after the fact.”

        —Interesting point, especially in view of the fact that they never did so, *except* for the gnostics!

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        • Perhaps not in the same way the Gnostics did, but if I’m not mistaken, one of the original purposes for “apostolic succession” was that bishops could be claiming to teach doctrine passed on from the first apostles, who learned it from Jesus.

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        • Yes but no one claimed any esoteric doctrine at all. The history of early christianity (and later christianity, for that matter) is remarkably free of such things. The purpose of “apostolic succession” was not to support innovative “secret teachings” but to anchor the tradition *against* those who were making such claims.

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        • Fair enough. That’s almost more problematic for church tradition in a way. If the resurrected Jesus really delayed his ascension for 40 days to give his disciples additional teaching, why did no one bother to record and pass it on? 🙂 On a more serious note, though, Acts was quite an obscure text until at least the third century. Almost no early homilies or commentaries on it.

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    • “why did the Egyptians not realise that the Earth was a sphere,”

      Centralization of scholarship and learning. You need astronomers looking at the sky from widely dispersed locations who compare notes. Egypt and Babylon were large empires, but each had just one capital city, one ruler, one centre of learning, and thus one place where you’d find astronomers. Greece was a bunch of independent city states, each acting as its own centre of learning. So you got Greek astronomers spread across the islands of the Eastern Mediterranean, writing to each other and comparing notes.

      Plus, Greece had another advantage – as a sea faring civilization, they had direct experience with the way ships sailing away from port seem to descend below the horizon, while ships coming in to port seem to rise up out of the waves. That bit of extra evidence of the earth’s curvature wasn’t available to land-based civilizations like Egypt or Babylon.

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  6. Why do you think Paul and other Christians so closely associate the resurrected body with glorious astral elements like stars, sun, and sky? Did the early Christians believe the resurrected martyrs would live in the sky/heaven?

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    • It’s hard to give a precise answer about Paul, because he isn’t very specific about his afterlife/immortality beliefs. When he raises the topic, it’s usually to address an issue among his audience, such as his assurances to the Corinthians that resurrection (a Jewish notion) will play a role in the transition to immortality. There’s a certain amount of tension in Paul about how immortality and resurrection fit together. (Paul tries to emphasize the fact that stars have bodies too when he explains resurrection as the transformation into a spiritual body.). Later Christian writers would set aside astral immortality and double down on resurrection of the exact same physical body that had died.

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    • When reading both of these posts, I was reminded of a commentary on rhetoric. Condit discusses Kenneth Burke’s dramatism and how our language assumes agency. Burke described a pentad of act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. It is very hard to avoid this feature and still communicate effectively. Scientific explanation, which often assumes no agent, agency, and purpose, resorts to agent-based language; scientists are almost forced to do so by the structure of language.

      The Rhetoric of Intelligent Design: Alternatives for Science and Religion
      Celeste Michelle Condit
      Rhetoric and Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 4, Special Issue on the Intelligent Design Argument (Winter 1998), pp. 593-602

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  7. “Throughout all these texts, we see the emphasis on baptism as the method by which Christ’s redemption could be claimed by the individual. In order to be freed from the influence of demons, celestial forces, and the astrological power of fate — the horoscope that was bound to a person from birth — one had to die and be reborn. The philosopher Seneca had taught that only death freed the soul from fate, but the Christian believed that this could be achieved sacramentally. According to the aforementioned Theodotus, baptism was the mechanism by which that transformation of the soul took place. The same sentiment is expressed in Paul’s letters when he speaks of those who are “perfected” and “mature”, and in the Gospel of John which teaches that believers must be “born again” (Lewis, pp. 154–158).”

    Is the origin of the Catholic belief that baptism removes Original Sin?

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  8. Very interesting read. I am reasonably sure the procession of the equinoxes is present in the New Testament. The current age, the age of Aries, is characterised by God communicating with Shepherds like Moses, David and Amos, lambs and several parables from Jesus about shepherds. However the messengers of the new age, the Age of Pisces, will be fishermen, The miraculous draft of fishes in Luke and John is about, among other things, the differing hauls on one side – the current age, and the other, the new (in John given a post resurrection position and a number which might be the number of years before it happens). The only sign of the New Age Jesus promises is the sign of Jonah, three days and nights in the belly of the fish. The Cosmic Jesus is a (slain) lamb, but the symbol of Christ for the New Age was a fish.

    Although Mark places Jesus’s earthly death around the Spring Equinox, he also places it around the full moon, making it unlikely a Christian following his timing could see the Zodiacal light crossing the Milky Way.

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    • Thanks for the comment, Chris. The gnostic text Pistis Sophia describes the precession of the equinoxes as a feat carried out by Jesus, so there were at least some Christians who knew about it.

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  9. This article reminds me of one of the more interesting modern Eastern Orthodox theological debates, on the the existence of the aerial toll houses. The soul, after death, ascends to heaven and is met by a series of demon-staffed toll houses, each presiding over a particular sin. There are variations in the tradition, but the outcome for a soul is a foretaste of its eternal destination. The intercession of loved ones is a major help towards passing through the demonic toll houses unscathed. The debate is primarily about how literally one should take this teaching, but there are some who say the idea has pagan origins. A fairly authoritative volume has been published recently, which defends the idea of the toll houses as a patristic teaching using early writings, sayings of the Desert Fathers, lives of the saints, icons, and liturgical texts. It’s called “The Departure of the Soul,” and can be found at https://amzn.to/2lsL6qu (though you may not be up to perusing it, since it’s 1112 pages long!)

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    • I’m aware of the aerial toll house doctrine but have never studied it. It sounds a bit like the Neoplatonic idea of planetary gods/demons being responsible for various human vices, or the Mithraic and Gnostic ideas of passing through cosmic gates on the way to heaven.

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