Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.03.07

Mladen Popovic, Reading the Human Body. Physiognomics and Astrology in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Hellenistic-Early Roman Period Judaism. Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah vol. 67.   Leiden/Boston:  Brill, 2007.  Pp. xx, 346.  ISBN 9789004157170.  €104.00; US $155.00.  

Reviewed by Joanna Komorowska, Paedagogical University, Cracow (
Word count: 1254 words

The interrelated issues of both the presence and spread of astrological doctrines within the Jewish communities at the turn of eras may well be defined as presenting one of the more openly fascinating problems in the investigation of antiquity. After all, most of us are well acquainted with the famous 'star of Bethlehem' question: what was this star Matthew talks about, the phenomenon that forced the Magi to abandon their homes to search for the new-born Messiah? Was there any such phenomenon or was the passage added solely for its possible effect on the learned and astrologically sensitive gentiles? Now, any attempt to answer these or similar questions involves the necessity to deal with a far more intricate problem, namely the need to address the question of the presence and spread of astrological (and preferably, Greek astrological) doctrines within the Jewish community. Popovic's analysis of two important texts from the Qumran library forms a valuable contribution to our knowledge of the subject, both confirming the presence of astral lore in the community and, possibly even more importantly, suggesting its relative prominence.

The structure of the book appears clear enough: starting from the presentation of the issues to be discussed in the relatively brief, yet comprehensive Introduction (p. 1-16), P. moves to the presentation of the central texts, i.e. 4Q Zodiacal Physiognomy (4Q186) and 4Q Physiognomy ar (4Q561). Laudably, he presents his version of the text, together with translation, and general notes, referring the more philologically oriented reader to the purely textual Appendix One (p. 240-276), a maneuver which serves to preserve the principal focus on the cultural importance of the analyzed passages, while allowing for a lengthy discussion of the various variants elsewhere (still, one should note, P. stresses certain possibly meaningful features of the texts in question, e.g. the left-to-right writing in 4Q186). Next (Ch. II, p. 68-118), P. turns his attention to the development of physiognomic doctrines in Mesopotamia and Greece, highlighting the fundamental impossibility of diagnosing the Qumranian physiognomy as either Greek or Mesopotamian in origin and/or character.

Having discussed the issues of pure physiognomy, P. addresses the astrological import of the 4QAstrological Physiognomy, and pays particular attention to its unusual and suggestive wording (thus we read 'this is a horoscope under which he was born: in the foot of Taurus' and then 'there is a spirit for him in the house of light of six parts, and three parts in the house of darkness'). The respective chapter (Ch. III, p. 119-171) is exhausive, as he discusses the already existing interpretations, duly stressing the input of Bergmeier, Schmidt and Albani, and, after indicating their insufficiencies, moves on to develop his own explanation of the controversial passages (p. 164-171) 1. In this regard, he stresses the importance of the Ascendant point so predominant in Greek astrology and that of the internal division of the sign of Taurus attested in the Teucer-Rhetorios' description of the sign (CCAG VII. 197.24-27) in order to emphasize the possibility that the mysterious ratio 6:3 (or the other mentioned in the Qumran text, namely 8:1) reflects the actual position of the Zodiacal sign with respect to the eastern horizon at the moment of birth--this position, he argues, would be of particular interest to anyone interested in the future disposition of the individual in question.

Relying on the above interpretation, P. moves to yet another problem posed by his text, namely to the exposition of the phrase 'there is a spirit for him', hitherto interpreted either explicitly within the context of the Two Spirits Treatise (Ch. IV, 172-208) or, at least, against the background of the respective two-spirits doctrine 2. While opposing the latter comparison, P. argues for a close link with the Testamentum Solomonis and similar works, hence suggesting that the spirit in question would actually be the Zodiacal spirit, beneficial or evil according to the portion of the sign already visible above the horizon.

Finally (Ch. V, 209-239), he concludes with a general discussion of the role played by the knowledge of physiognomy and astrology in the Qumranian community and of the spread of this knowledge in ancient Judea, all the while stressing the importance of physiognomy as an art of uncovering the Zodiacal makings of man and, hence, as the means to assess individual's worth for the community. His argument is supplemented with two appendices--the first, already mentioned here, deals with the textual problems arising from the text, the other provides a short outline of physiognomy as attested in Second Temple literature.

Now, to the possible weaknesses (as seen from the perspective of an historian of Greek astrology). Firstly, while P.'s suggestion that the spirit featuring in 4Q Zodiacal Physiognomy is the Zodiacal spirit comparable to those mentioned in the Testamentum is perfectly reasonable and persuasive, one could probably expect at least a mention of the kleros daimonos doctrine attested elsewhere. The kleros, calculable on the basis of the Sun-Moon distance deducible from the Ascendant point, is mentioned in some surviving horoscopes (thus, e.g. P. Oxy. 4277, 4284), and considered one of the seven major points of the nativity by none other than Paul of Alexandria (El. 23, p. 47-53 Boer). Clearly, one would be hard pressed even to try to argue that the spirit mentioned in the document analyzed by P. is identical with this particular daimon, but one wonders whether the concept of the latter would not exert some influence on the image we get from the scroll. As it is, the question remains open. Secondly, at some points of the work (e.g. p. 165) the reader may get an impression that P. considers Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos to be a standard manual of ancient astrology. Given the biases and agenda of the latter author, which may account for some unexpected gaps in his treatise, this is at best risky. Thirdly, while P. discusses the related issue of the decans (or their absence) in Greek astrological tradition, one would expect a mention of the quite vivid trace of an actual employment of the decanal division of the Zodiac for the purposes of genethlialogy in Hephaestio's Apotelesmatica I, 1. Also, contrary to P.'s assertion of Ptolemy's uniqueness (p. 146), Hephaestio does enter, albeit briefly, into the conception vs. birth debate (Apotelesmatica II, 1). Finally, one could ask whether any indication that character may be reflected in the outward appearance should be interpreted as indicative of physiognomic awareness, which is an impression one could easily get from Appendix Two.

Nevertheless, in spite of such reservations, P.'s work is a magnificently argued and careful piece of scholarship. Its additional merits lie in providing a reader with a comprehensive picture of the prior academic debate, both accounting for its merits and achievements and stressing possible points of disagreement. P.'s own solutions to the controversial issues are careful, lucidly presented and corroborated by adequate textual and comparative evidence. His conclusions, indicating a strong presence of a lively interest in both physiognomic and astrological matters, an interest possibly endowed with certain far-reaching practical consequences (it seems likely that physiognomic would be used to determine, by referring to astrological tenets, the suitability of an aspiring member of Qumran community), are carefully formulated and appear reasonable enough. Significantly, those conclusions would possibly indicate the importance and, indeed, prominence of astrological lore among the elites of the Qumranian community, a fact with some additional consequences for our perception of Judea in the first century BCE. Certainly, the book is hardly easy or accessible to read--yet it is, at the same moment, a highly rewarding one.


1.   See respectively R. Bergmeier Gaube als Gabe nach Johannes: Religions- und theologiegeschichtliche Studien zum prädestinatianischen Dualismus im vierten Evangelium, Stuttgart 1980, p. 79-81, F. Schmidt "Astrologie juive ancienne: essai d'interprétation de 4QCryptique (4Q186)" RevQ 18/69 (1997) 125-41, M. Albani "Horoscopes in the Qumran Scrolls" in P. W. Flint, J.C. VanderKam (eds) The Dead Sea Scrolls after Fifty Years: A Comprehensive Assessment, Leiden 1999, p. 279-330.
2.  Characteristically, the connection is regarded as a matter of 'common opinion' in M. Albani's article 'Horoscopes' (L.H. Schiffman, J.C. VanderKam (eds) Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls vol. I, p. 370-72).

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