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The Magi and the Star in the Gospel of Matthew and Early Christian Tradition

  • Tim Hegedus

…plus d’informations

  • Tim Hegedus
    Waterloo Lutheran Seminary
    Wilfrid Laurier University

Corps de l’article

The observation of the sun, moon and stars and the calculation of their position with respect to the zodiac was developed by the ancient Babylonians. In the early Hellenistic period these practices were imported into the Mediterranean world where they were combined with themes from Greco-Roman mythology, as well as with the notion of fate, to produce the classical system of astrology. Over the centuries astrology came to be a fundamental and pervasive aspect of Greco-Roman culture ; indeed, astrology has been characterized by Luther H. Martin as “the most important and widespread Hellenistic system of piety.” [1]

Greco-Roman astrology was commonly rejected by the early Christians because of its association with fatalistic determinism. Despite the fact that in practice many ancient astrological writers found ways to mitigate absolute fatalism and to accommodate free will, the charge of fatalism occasioned numerous passages of virulent anti-astrological polemic in early Christian literature. [2] However, the widespread popularity of astrology in Greco-Roman culture and society into late antiquity should lead us to expect other responses to astrology in early Christianity aside from sheer monolithic repudiation ; and, indeed, upon closer examination of the sources this turns out to be the case. [3]

In particular, elements within Christianity itself that touch on astrology necessitated a more complex type of response, and among these perhaps the most pressing was the pericope of the Magi and the star in Matthew 2.1-12. The presence of this account in the scriptural context of the nativity story posed a very real problem for early Christian commentators, raising a number of questions. Had some Magi actually managed to locate Jesus by means of astrological knowledge ? Did the Matthean pericope offer some sort of scriptural warrant for the validity of astrology ? And, most significantly, what did it mean that the Saviour had been born under a star ? Such questions prompted early Christian writers to find creative ways to deal with astrology in the course of interpreting this pericope. This article surveys the interpretation of the two features of the Matthean pericope which relate most directly to astrology : the Magi and the star.

I. The Magi and the Star in Matthew 2.1-12

The order of Magi (Μάγοι) was well known in Greco-Roman antiquity. In Book 1 of the Histories Herodotus refers to Magi as originally members of the priestly caste of the Medes and Persians who possessed special power to interpret dreams. During the Hellenistic period, the Magi developed a reputation as learned practitioners of magic and of various types of divination, especially astrology [4] ; as such, they were esteemed or condemned according to the various views of such practices held by Greco-Roman writers. [5]

The portrayal of the Magi in Matt 2.1-12 is remarkably positive ; there is no hint of explicit or implicit criticism of them in this pericope. [6] Since in this text the Magi direct their attention to the rising of a star it seems evident that we are to take them to be professional astrologers. The text (2.1) says that they came from the east (ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν) ; while no exact place of origin is named, the phrase may refer to Persia or Babylon. [7] Moreover, they ask for “the newborn king of the Jews” whose star they have seen “at its rising” (ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ) (v.2, cf. v.9). (This translation is preferable to “in the east” of older versions [so KJV and RSV], which would be properly ἐν [ταῖς] ἀνατολαῖς. [8]) The statement of the Magi is not a reference to a time of day, but rather is calendrical (cf. the phrase “the time of the star’s appearing” [τὸν χρόνον τοῦ ϕαινομένου ἀστέρος] in 2.7 [9]) : “rising” means the star’s heliacal rising, i.e. the first time in the year that it was visible rising ahead of the sun before dawn. The usual technical term for this was ἐπιτολή but ἀνατολή could be used for the heliacal rising as well [10] ; the latter seems to be the case in Matt 2.2. According to the narrative, the heliacal “rising” of the star held significance for the Magi as an astrological omen. It was this more ancient form of astrology, rather than horoscopic astrology, in which the Magi were engaged.

A recent study by Michael Molnar argues that the most likely horoscope in which professional astrologers such as the Magi would have been interested was the appearance of the Sun, Moon, Jupiter and Saturn (all regal signs) in Aries on April 17, 6 B.C.E. [11] However, Molnar’s conclusions are overly sophisticated : there is no need to interpret the Matthean text in terms of technical or sophisticated astrology such as that of Ptolemy and Firmicus Maternus. Rather, the star of Matthew 2.1-12 derives from the common, widespread belief (found already in Plato) that all people have a “natal star” that appears at their birth and passes away with them. [12] Moreover, celestial phenomena are of course frequently associated with important terrestrial events in ancient literature : it seems most plausible to read the Matthean pericope as yet another example of this literary topos. Despite this common-sense view, however, over the centuries many attempts have been made to identify the star of Matthew with spectacular celestial phenomenon such as a supernova [13], a comet [14] or a planetary conjunction. [15]

Despite various efforts to offer scientific explanations the relevance of such explanations to the text cannot be assumed. Furthermore the text itself contains a number of uncertainties. For example, it is unclear how the contemporary ascent of two planets could be termed a “rising” (vv. 2, 9) [16], or even strictly speaking a “star”. [17] A related puzzle is the notion of the star “going before” the Magi “until it came to where the child was” (προῆγεν αὐτούς, ἔως ἐλθὼν οὗ ἦν τὸ παιδίον, v. 9) [18] : even granted that this refers not to the entire journey of the Magi but only to their trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, [19] it is still unclear how any planetary movement (which was believed to correspond with the movement of the sun) could be understood as a guide for travelling in a southward direction from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. [20] Ultimately, Raymond E. Brown’s emphasis is apposite : “Really no one, including the astronomers, takes everything in the Matthean account as literal history” [21] ; the historical and astronomical data in the Matthean pericope are clearly subordinate to its overriding theological character and purpose.

Matt 2.1-12 has many parallels in ancient literature : the story of Astyages (Herodotus, Histories 1.107ff.), a king (of the Medes) who consults Magi and then tries unsuccessfully to kill his prophesied successor, a male child (Cyrus) [22] ; the story of the visit of the Armenian king Tiridates and his entourage to Rome in 66 C.E., told by Dio Cassius (Roman History 63.1-7) and Suetonius (Life of Nero 13) [23] ; and also the Biblical story of Moses. [24] In particular, scholars have long noted the connection between Matt 2.1-12 and Num 24.17b, “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel”, found in one of the oracles of blessing upon Israel uttered by Balaam in Numbers 22-24. [25] Num 24.17 was clearly regarded as a messianic prophecy among some Jewish groups in the Second Temple period, including the early Christians. Already the Septuagint of Num 24.17 translates the term “sceptre” as ἄνθρωπος, and in the Targumim the “star” is rendered as “king” and the “sceptre” variously as “redeemer, ruler, or Messiah.” [26] The best known instance of Jewish messianic interpretation of Num 24.17 occurred in the early second century C.E. when fulfilment of the text was ascribed by some Jews to Bar Kosiba, the leader of the last great Jewish revolt against Rome, who came to be known as Bar Kochba (meaning “son of a star”), an allusion to Num 24.17. It is also possible that Num 24.17 was invoked in the context of the first Jewish revolt against Rome of 66-70 C.E. : Martin Hengel claims that Josephus likely had this text in mind when he referred to Jewish belief in an oracular pronouncement found in Holy Scripture that prophesied a world ruler (Jewish War 6.312). [27] In the context of early Christianity, Matt 2.1-12 also clearly invokes the messianic prophecy of Num 24.17 by means of the motif of the star. With regard to this motif (which is also of course astrological), the theological point that is developed in the Matthean text is that the star’s appearance signalled the birth of the “King of the Jews”.

As with the star, the theological treatment of the Magi in the Matthean text also relates to the Balaam account in Numbers. Like Balaam, the Magi too are foreigners who appear in the text from outside the tradition of Israel. Indeed, the identical phrase is used of the origin of the Magi in Matt 2.1 and of Balaam in Num 23.7 : both are said to come “from the east” [28], with all the exotic connotations that conveyed. Moreover, Balaam as well as the Magi were associated with divination : as astrologers, the Magi in Matthew would have been associated with divination, while Num 22.7 speaks of certain “fees for divination” that were paid to Balaam (cf. Num 23.23). [29] There are further parallels between the story of Balaam and Matthew’s account of the Magi. In Numbers 22-24, Balaam honours Israel and prophesies the rise of its ruler despite the fact that he had originally been summoned by Balak, king of Moab, to curse Israel. Similarly, in Matt 2.1-12 King Herod tries to use the Magi for his own purposes against the newborn “King of the Jews”, but his evil plot is thwarted and the Magi pay honour to Herod’s enemy nevertheless. [30]

These various parallels suggest strongly that the Matthean account was shaped by the story of Balaam in Num 22-24. The latter text also provided the background to Matthew’s theological point concerning the Magi, i.e. that the Magi (who are Gentile “outsiders”) are included among those who recognized and worshipped the “King of the Jews” at his birth. [31] The parallels between Balaam and Matthew’s Magi also prepared the way for interpretation of Matt 2.1-12 among the early Christians, enabling the astrological motifs of the Matthean text to be brought into line with earlier Biblical traditions regarding Balaam and thus rendered acceptable for exegetical and homiletical usage in the early church.

II. The Magi in Early Christian Interpretation of Matt 2.1-12

Let us begin with various early Christian traditions which connected Balaam and the Matthean Magi. Not only did Num 24.17 provide a prophetic text for the coming of Christ, but establishing a line of association between Balaam and the Magi helped early Christian writers to justify the astrological knowledge by which, according to the Matthean pericope, the Magi recognized the significance of the star which led them to Bethlehem. Thus in his commentary on Luke 2.48, Ambrose of Milan writes :

But who are these Magi unless those who, as a certain history teaches, derive from the stock of Balaam, by whom it was prophesied “a star shall arise out of Jacob” [Num 24.17] ? Therefore these are heirs not less of faith than of succession. He saw the star in spirit, they saw it with their eyes and believed.

CSEL 32/4, p. 67-68.2

The reference to a “certain history” (historia quaedam), also mentioned by Eusebius of Caesarea [32], suggests that there was a literary tradition in which Balaam was portrayed as an ancestor of the Magi of Matthew’s Gospel. Origen states the association explicitly :

If Balaam’s prophecies were included in the sacred books by Moses, how much more would they have been copied by those who were then living in Mesopotamia, among whom Balaam had a great reputation and who are known to have been disciples in his art. It is said that the race of Magi descends from him, and that their institution flourishes in eastern lands, and that they [the Magi] had copied among them all of Balaam’s prophecies, including “A star shall arise out of Jacob” [Num 24.17]. The Magi had these things written among themselves, and so when Jesus was born they recognized the star and understood that the prophecy was fulfilled. [33]

Homilies on Numbers 13.7

The connection between Balaam and the Matthean Magi also appears in early Christian iconography in scenes of the adoring Magi, or Mary with the Christ child in her lap, which include the figure of Balaam pointing to a star shining overhead. [34] In early Christian literature Balaam himself came to be seen as an astrologer (so Diodore of Tarsus, Κατὰ Εἱμαρμένης [35]), and he was even identified with Zoroaster, the legendary figure who was widely regarded in antiquity as the founder and inventor of astrology. [36] In Contra Celsum 1.60, Origen again presents the Matthean Magi as inheritors of the tradition of Balaam, adding that the reason that the prophecies of Balaam had been recorded in the books of Moses was that Moses himself had been “skilful in the same arts”. [37]

By the fourth century the tradition connecting Balaam and the Magi of Matthew seems to have been well established, since it is referred to by Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrosiaster and Jerome. In a sermon on Christ’s nativity Gregory claims that the Magi were looking forward to the rising of the star because of the prediction of Balaam their forefather. [38] The writings of Ambrosiaster frequently condemn astrology as a demonically inspired denial of human free will. Because of this, Ambrosiaster frankly admits in Quaestio 63 that to him the Magi’s confirmation of Balaam’s messianic prophecy was unexpected : “[Balaam] received confirmation from a source that is usually condemned ; for astrologers are enemies of the truth” (CSEL 50, p. 112). Jerome, for his part, portrays the Matthean Magi as righteous Gentiles who responded to Balaam’s prophecy in faith : the Magi’s astrological learning thus receives at least tacit approval, in effect becoming a type of natural revelation. Jerome also praises the Magi by contrast with the Jews who did not believe in the coming of Christ (Commentary on Matthew 1 ; CCL 77, p. 12.128-13.134). However, he does not want to encourage his audience to develop a favourable view of astrology. In his Commentary on Isaiah 13.47.12-15 Jerome admits that the Magi did follow the star either from their knowledge of astrology (“ex artis scientia”) or from the prophecy of Balaam in Num 24.17 ; however, he adds a warning to his readers against astrology and its practitioners (CCL 73A, p. 525). Earlier in the Isaiah commentary (7.19.1) Jerome writes that no matter whether the Magi knew of Christ’s birth from the teaching of demons or the prophecy of Balaam, the coming of God’s Son meant the destruction of the whole power of astrology (CCL 73, p. 278.19-279.22). Jerome’s view of the Magi indicates that the Magi were used within the Adversus Iudaeos tradition of the early church. Similar anti-Jewish readings of the Matthean pericope — in which the Magi serve as a foil to show up Jewish “faithlessness” — are found in Basil of Caesarea (Homilies on the Birth of Christ 5 ; PG 31.1469), Ephrem of Edessa (Hymns on the Nativity 24.20 [39]), Ambrose (Exposition of Luke 2.47 ; CSEL 32/4, p. 67.22-23), John Chrysostom (Homilies 6.3 ; PG 57.65) and the Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum, an anonymous Arian commentary on Matthew written in the fourth century (PG 56.641). In the latter work the writer exclaims : “O blessed Magi, who before the gaze of the cruellest king were made confessors of Christ before they had even seen Christ !” [40]

III. Early Christian Interpretation of the Star

The other motif in Matt 2.1-12 which directly pertains to astrology is the star. The rehabilitation of this star — its being rendered positively useful for Christian exegetical and homiletical purposes — occurred by means of an anonymous tradition depicting one star that scores a decisive victory over the other stars and planets. This tradition seems to have been the source of an extended passage from Ignatius’ Letter to the Ephesians 19.2-3 in which astral imagery features prominently :

[2] How then was he [Christ] revealed to the aeons ?
A star shone in heaven,
brighter than all the stars,
and its light was ineffable,
and its novelty caused astonishment ;
all the other stars
together with the sun and moon
became a chorus for the star,
and it outshone them all with its light ;
and there was perplexity [as to] whence [came] this novelty so unlike them.
[3] Thence was destroyed all magic,
and every bond vanished ;
evil’s ignorance was abolished,
the old kingdom perished,
God being revealed as human
to bring newness of eternal life,
and what had been prepared by God had its beginning ;
hence all things were disturbed
because the destruction of death was being worked out. [41]

It is unclear that Ignatius was drawing on Matthew 2.1-12 per se in this passage : in his commentary on Ignatius’ letters, William Schoedel has argued that this passage derives from a version of the story of the star of the Magi which predated the Matthean account. [42] Another possible source was Gen 37.9, in which Joseph reports his dream that the sun, moon and eleven stars bowed down before him. [43] What is most significant for our present purposes is the distinctive element of the tradition elaborated by Ignatius in the passage above, i.e., the star that was victorious over the other heavenly bodies.

Schoedel notes the tendency of earlier scholars to see in this Ignatian text evidence for a “Gnostic redeemer myth” concerning a redemptive figure who descends to earth and then ascends in victory to the heavens. [44] However, instead of a victorious ascent Ignatius actually portrays the confounding of the cosmic powers (αἰῶνες) at Christ’s incarnation, which has mighty cosmological effects : to Ignatius, the birth of Christ was itself a victory over cosmic evil forces, corresponding to the later victory of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. [45] According to Schoedel, Ignatius’ text, with its motif of the single star that is victorious over the other stars, is an example of “popular magic […] being resisted in the name of a higher magic.” [46] More specifically, it should be remembered that the ancient world widely held to a belief that pre-eminent among the cosmic αἰῶνες was fate (εἱμαρμένη), that is, the fatal domination exercised over the sublunar realm (including earth) by means of the planets and the fixed stars. The pernicious influence of fate’s power is implied in Ignatius’ use of the term “bond” (πᾶς δεσμός) : in his classic study The Origins of European Thought, Richard Broxton Onians cites numerous examples in ancient Indo-European thought in which the concept of fate or destiny was conceived in terms of “binding” and related images (e.g. spinning or weaving ropes, cords, webs, nets, etc.). [47] It was from this power that the early Christians believed the coming of Christ had set humanity free : Ignatius parallels the phrase “every bond of evil vanished” (πᾶς δεσμὸς ἠϕανίζετο κακίας) with “all magic has been destroyed” (ἐλύετο πᾶσα μαγεία) to express the view that Christ had set people free from the bonds which held them fast, including magic and astrological fate. [48] This early Christian idea of liberation from astrological fate was expressed succinctly by John Chrysostom in Homilia 6.1 : ἀστρολογίαν ἔλυσε, “he [Christ] set [us] free from the power of astrology” (PG 57.61).

According to Schoedel, the particular issue that Ignatius addresses in Ephesians 19 relates to the larger polemic against docetism which pervades the Ignatian correspondence. How can the humble and ignominious event of Christ’s birth be construed as a victory over the αἰῶνες, the cosmic powers of the universe ? How did the birth of Christ confound these powers, considering that it was also hidden from them ? How did the incarnation as it were “slip by” the αἰῶνες so as to bring about their defeat ? [49] In Ephesians 19.2, Ignatius portrays the αἰῶνες as a chorus (χορός) of lesser stars which are outdone by the appearance of Christ’s single bright star. A comparable text is Protevangelium of James 21.2 (dating from the second half of the second century), where the Magi say to Herod : “We saw an immense star shining among these stars and making them dim, so that the stars no longer shone. And so we knew that a king was born for Israel.” [50] Prudentius also vividly portrays the signs of the zodiac quailing before the “new star” : Serpens withdraws ; Leo flees ; Cancer contracts its claws at its side as if maimed ; the bullock (Taurus) having been tamed groans with its horns broken ; Capricorn withers, its coat torn to pieces ; here the banished water boy (Aquarius) glides down, there too Sagittarius ; Gemini wander, separated as they flee ; shameless Virgo gives up her silent lovers in the vault of heaven ; the other fiery orbs that hang in the terrible clouds are afraid before the new star (Apotheosis 617-626). [51] Elsewhere, in an Epiphany hymn Prudentius writes :

This star which surpasses the wheel of the sun in splendour and light […] It alone possesses the sky [and] governs the course of the days […] As soon as it began to shine the other stars withdrew, Nor did beautiful Lucifer dare show his form in comparison. [52]

Liber Cathemerinon 12.5-6, 11-12, 29-32.

For Ignatius, the Protevangelium of James, as well as Prudentius, the other stars serve as a foil for the brighter star which represents the appearance of Christ : the lesser stars represent the αἰῶνες which the early Christians believed Christ had defeated. As Lietzmann notes :

The stars and their cosmic power, magic, and the pagan belief in daemons, were real to Ignatius, and not merely metaphors : and their conquest by the power of God in Christ was for him another real thing […] he consciously describes it in a metaphorical analogy which […] expressed graphically the victory of the Lord over the evil spirits. [53]

The same could be said of the author of the Protevangelium of James and of Prudentius. [54] Moreover, whether or not these authors took it metaphorically, the imagery that they used in these passages is striking. Collectively, these texts provide evidence of a tradition which used the image of a star (appropriately) to express the early Christian conviction of the defeat of the power of fate mediated by the stars.

In his version of this “star tradition” reflected in Ephesians 19.2, Ignatius had referred to the “newness” of the star (ἡ καινότης αὐτοῦ). It is this wording in particular which is parallelled in several other early Christian writers. For example, Theodotus affirmed that

[…] a strange and new star arose destroying the old order of constellations, shining with a new light that was not of this world, which turned toward a new and saving way — the Lord himself, guide of humanity, come to earth in order to transpose from Fate to his providence those who believe in Christ. [55]

Excerpta ex Theodoto 74.2

Here again, the image of a “new star” is used to convey the notion of Christ’s victory over astrally-mediated fate : in this passage “the Lord himself, guide of humanity” is in apposition to the image of the “strange and new star” which is victorious over fate (τὴν παλαιὰν ἀστροθεσίαν, “the old order of constellations”). Another text featuring similar terminology is Sibylline Oracles 8.475-476 : “The heavenly throne laughed and the world rejoiced./ A wondrous, new-shining star was venerated by Magi.” [56] In turn, Origen understands the “new star” as a comet, a sensible interpretation of an astral phenomenon which makes a sudden appearance (Contra Celsum 1.58). [57] The motif of the “new star” was still evident in a sermon of Gregory the Great (Homilia In Evangelia 10.4 ; PL 76, 1111-1112).

The domination of the other stars/αἰῶνες by the one star representing Christ was also portrayed in early Christian iconography. For example, the arcosolium vault of the tomb of Callistus I, bishop of Rome in the early third century, is decorated with numerous eight-rayed stars, and at the top the largest star is set apart and enclosed in a circle ; the christological identification of this pre-eminent star is evident from the chi-rho monogram placed immediately beneath it. [58] By the fourth century, the star of Bethlehem was used as an attribute in representations of Christus Basileus, the ruler of the world. [59]

Thus by the fourth century this theme of the “newness” of the star which appeared at Christ’s birth had become well established. Gregory of Nazianzus writes, “For this is not the kind of star dealt with by expounders of astrology, but rather a star without precedent which had never previously appeared” (Poemata Arcana 5.56-57). [60] In a Christmas sermon Gregory of Nyssa refers to the “rising of the new star” which was anticipated by the Magi. [61] Commenting on Luke 2.48, Ambrose writes : “the Magi saw a new star which had not been seen by any creature in the world, they saw a new creation and not only on earth but also in heaven” (CSEL 32/4, p. 68.3-4). The tradition is also evident in the writings of Augustine : the star of Bethlehem was not an astrological sign nor an ordinary star,

[…] one of those which from the beginning of creation keep the order of their way under the law of the Creator, [but] with the new birth from the Virgin appeared a new star, which demonstrated its service as a guide to those Magi who were seeking for Christ when it went before their face [cf. Matt 2.9].

Contra Faustum 2.5 ; CSEL 25, p. 259.19-24

John Chrysostom similarly claims that the star of Bethlehem was not to be classified with the other stars of the heavens. Its size and beauty were what drew the Magi to the Christ child : since they would not have paid attention to visions or prophetic writings alone, God showed them “a large and unusual star, so that by means of its greatness and the beauty of its appearance, and manner of its course, they would be amazed” (Homilia 6.3 [62]). In his Epiphany sermons Leo the Great also makes mention of the “unusual star”, the “star of new splendour, brighter and fairer than the other stars.” [63]

John Chrysostom further concludes that what appeared to the Magi only seemed to be a star, and was really “an unseen power altering its appearance” (Homilia 6.1). [64] Similarly, in Homilia 8.1 John says that the star as well as “the illumination produced by God in their minds” led the Magi to leave their home and travel to the Christ child. [65] It is not far from this to John’s identification of the star as an angel : in Homilia 7.3 he writes that after the Magi visited Herod in Jerusalem “an angel took them up again and taught them all things”. [66] Similarly, Prudentius refers to the star as a “winged messenger, most like the rapid south wind” (Apotheosis 611-612). [67] The view of the star as an angel is also found in the so-called Arabic Infancy Gospel 7, a section that was part of the original stratum of the work which was composed in Syriac before the fifth century. [68] The association is also evident in iconography of the period : a Milan sarcophagus dating from the end of the fourth century depicts a male figure pointing towards the sky, i.e. in the stance of Balaam (see above), which has been identified as an angel. [69] Of course, the association of angels with the stars and planets was widespread in the ancient world [70] ; it is also possible that connecting the star of Matt 2 with an angel was prompted by the appearance of an angel in the other canonical nativity account (Luke 2.9-12).

In sum, the presence of the astrological motifs of the Magi and the star in Matt 2.1-12 presented the early church with an opportunity to develop creative responses to astrology. Such responses are evident in two larger traditions of interpretation of the Matthean pericope which can be discerned within early Christianity. In the first, by establishing a link between Balaam and the Magi of the Matthean nativity story, early Christian writers were able to develop an acceptable, even favourable, view of the practitioners of astrology depicted in Matt 2.1-12. In the second tradition, a myth in which a “new star” is victorious over the other heavenly bodies illustrated the Christian belief in Christ’s victory over the cosmic power of fate that held humanity in bondage, and that the star of the Matthean account signalled this victory already at Christ’s birth. In these ways the astrological content of the Matthean pericope was re-interpreted in a remarkably benign manner that stood in more or less explicit tension with the prevalent anti-astrological stance of early Christianity.

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