Critique of Gurshstein’s “The Origin of the Constellations”

[This is a paper I wrote 6 years ago for an Astronomy elective at New St. Andrews College. I somehow forgot to post it online back then, and only found it today while cleaning up my hard drive. Not a particularly brilliant paper, but the subject was, and is still, interesting to me.]

It is difficult to understand what Alexander Gurshtein found so “provocative” about the hypotheses he advanced in his 1997 article “The Origins of the Constellations.” Though I am neither an astronomer nor an anthropologist, it seems to me that Gurshtein did little more than re-present the uncontroversial idea that ancient peoples used the stars to mark seasons and cycles. Anyone who reads the first chapter of the book of Genesis knows this, so Gurshtein’s article merely provides an interesting possible account of how ancient peoples may have organized the stars for this calendrical purpose.

Gurshtein’s paper concerns only the constellations that make up the well-known “zodiac.” His theory is that these constellations originated as ancient peoples learned to use the stars to mark four special days throughout the year: the summer solstice, the winter solstice, the vernal equinox, and the autumnal equinox. He notes that because of the “wobble” in the earth’s axis (called precession) “one of these four points passes through a particular zodiacal constellation about every 2,140 years.” Thus, every two millennia stargazers seeking to connect patterns in the night sky with one of these points would be faced with the need to create new patterns to match a “new age” inaugurated by the movement of the special point into a new constellation.

But Gurshtein is not content to theorize that the constellations originated for the demarcation of seasons. He imagines that the patterns themselves echo socio-cultural changes from primitive, rural societies steeped in paganism (the Gemini quartet, 6500 B.C. to 4400 B.C.) to more advanced pagan urban societies (the Taurus quartet, 4400 B.C. to 2200 B.C.) to the rise of a predominating monotheism (the Aries quartet, 2200 B.C. to 100 B.C.). Interestingly, though he does mention the Aquarius quartet (ca. 2000 A.D to ca. 4000 A.D.) in passing, he does not connect it with our own culture’s rapid slide back into paganism.

Thus, Gurshtein’s paradigm of choice is that of modern anthropology, which sees religion as being on the same sliding evolutionary scale as everything else in existence. The true understanding of nature eluded mankind until the rise of a mindset that could comprehend solar orbits and the precession of axes, while overthrowing the silliness of ancient people in attributing deeper spiritual meanings to such mundane, law-driven phenomena.

To be fair to Gurshtein, he does not, perhaps, make as much of this rationalistic paradigm as some modern scientists might, but it does dominate his thinking enough for him to suggest in several places that biblical religion owes some of its most important aspects to the complex inter-relationship between ancient stargazing and evolving cultural forms and rituals. For instance, he references a 1969 paper that tries to tie the epoch of Aries to Moses descending Mount Sinai “crowned with ram’s horns, while his flock disobediently dances around the golden calf, a metaphor for Taurus as the bull.” And all this time Christians thought that incident was about idolatry. Thanks to modern scholarship, however, we now know that the Israelites simply didn’t want to give up their favorite sky pictures to the inexorable demands of the god of precession.

Gurshtein’s history of religion is as fundamentally flawed as his pseudo-theological speculations about the constellations. He seems to be working from within the paradigm established by James Frazer’s 1912 book The Golden Bough, which collected much anecdotal evidence in service of the hypothesis that mankind’s religious sensibility evolved from animism to polytheism to henotheism and finally to monotheism. Thus, Gurshtein can write that “the transition from the Taurus to the Aries quartet is consistent once again with the sociocultural changes in the Near East” and call as support for this the notion that at this late date in history (after 2200 B.C.), “monotheism was on the verge of predominating.”

It would be beyond the scope of this paper to delve into the many evidences for an early beginning of and gradual perversion of monotheism (as Romans 1 teaches), but because Gurshtein marshals Babylonian tablets and Assyrian sculptures, it is appropriate to note that, according to one Christian scholar who surveyed the evidence for early monotheism:

Outside the Bible, the oldest records come from Ebla in Syria. And they reveal a clear monotheism declaring: “Lord of heaven and earth: the earth was not, you created it, the light of day was not, you created it, the morning light you had not [yet] made exist.”:”(Norman Geisler, Primitive Monotheism.)”:

Another source notes that the Ebla tablets (dated ca. 2300 B.C., during the last of Gurshtein’s “Taurus era”) confirm numerous details of the Old Testament time period contemporaneous with them,:”(See Ebla: Its Impact on Bible Records.)”: which further strengthens the rebuttal to Gurshtein’s thesis such that if the star images were being used to reflect social changes, the pagan uses of them actually shows a devolution in theology as time (and the constellation quartets) progressed across the sky.

So, if monotheism was the earliest form of religion, much of Gurshtein’s anthropological interpretation collapses. Strict monotheists such as Moses and Abraham would not have been gazing at the stars in order to alter their conceptions of God and bring about various social and cultural changes.:”(E.g., Gurshtein’s blurbs about Abraham “changing the ritual sacrifice from that of a human being to a ram” during the time of the Aries quartet and “bull imagery” of the Taurus quartet working its way into the Old Testament in the guise of the golden calf.)”:

Still, recognizing the critical role of presuppositions in all forms of intellectual activity, it is possible to recognize some elements of truth in Gurshstein’s thesis. As mentioned above, the book of Genesis tells us that one purpose of the stars being placed in the heavens is for the marking of times and seasons. I see no objection in principle to Gurshtein’s discussions of ancient Babylonian cosmology or symbolic similarities between various cultures’ mythologies about a three-tiered universe.:”(Indeed, there are other theories about the theological meanings of the constellations. A quick search on the Internet, for instance, turned up several pages detailing the correspondence of each sign of the zodiac and its constellation with various figures of Greek mythology. One document proposes a different theory than Gurshtein’s for the origin of the constellation Sagittarius. Another account is given here.)”: His point that the “air” images are concentrated in the northern belt of the sky, anthropomorphic images in the middle belt, and “water” images in the lower belt, is intriguing.

Despite the above context of defending biblical historical and theological claims against Gurshtein’s evolutionary theory, it is probably not necessary to generate some sort of biblical counter-argument to the actual way in which the precessing constellations were used to mark out the times and seasons. Even if the imagery itself was invented by pagans and imbued from the beginning with pagan motifs, there is no reason why a Christian could not use the images for the same purpose of marking seasons.

After all, they are our God’s stars, not Zeus’ or Marduk’s or Enuma Elish’s. And aside from all that, they are simply breathtaking to look at.

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