|Ruins of Hellenistic theater|
It turned out to be the temple to MenEskenu, of ancient Phrygian origin, around 4000–3000 BC. The temple was a place of astrological worship to the god connected to the constellation (what we would call) Taurus. All around the ruins were carvings and markings declaring “the Bull” (Taurus) was in “the house” (temple?).
Central to ancient pagan religions has always been the worship of the stars. In ancient cosmology, the belief was that the earth existed in a “vault,” a bubble of existence which was surrounded by chaotic waters. You can find this belief spelled out clearly in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, as well as Hittite belief, Babylonian/Chaldean/Sumerian belief, and even Hellenistic Greek belief. They believed the stars were great people who had gone before them (you may remember the Apostle Paul encouraging his readers to live like “stars” in the universe).
However, there were seven “stars” that didn’t hold to the same movement as the cosmic ocean — the sun, the moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus. Often, pagan worship connected these seven stars to the gods of their system. Those gods were so powerful that they existed outside the movement, constraint, and influence of the cosmic ocean. Obviously, the zodiac played into these beliefs in many different ways. But in the days of Jesus, on the spring solstice, the sun (the big “star”) would rise into the “house” (i.e., the sign) of Aries. If you go out and look up into the morning sky this March 21, you will see the sun rising into the sign of Aries.
However, in 167 BC, a Greek philosopher/astrologer made a startling discovery. As he studied ancient astrological thought in Egypt, he noticed all records indicated the sun rose every spring into the house of Taurus (hence, “the Bull is in the House” in the ancient Phrygian temple). Assuming the ancient Egyptians had made an error, he travelled to Babylonia, only to find their records said the same thing. Out of this discovery, a stunning conclusion was reached. There must be some god who is so big that he entered the system (from outside of the system), altered the cosmic ocean, and left the system.
That is one powerful god.
Needless to say, the rise of Mithra worship was underway — the worship of a god so big that he was outside the system. In the first century, the worship of Mithra was the fastest-growing religion of the Roman world (Christianity being the second). This belief was rocking the world as they knew it. What we understand today is that the earth has a very slight wobble in its rotation that causes it to move in reference to the zodiac (or maybe vice versa?) every 2200 years or so. In just over one century, we will actually move into the house of Aquarius. They did not understand these scientific truths and instead assumed that “somebody” had changed the heavens.
This entire conversation is to say two things:
First, who are the magi who come to visit Jesus? My belief is that the magi are, in fact, Mithra priests from the region of Babylon. If this is the case, it would help explain why they knew WHEN and WHERE to come looking for Jesus. One of their very own prophets would have spoken about this many centuries before. Balaam, a Chaldean star-gazer, was once called in to prophesy against the children of Israel. Here is what he said:
“I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near.
A star will come out of Jacob;
a scepter will rise out of Israel.
He will crush the foreheads of Moab,
the skulls of all the people of Sheth.
Edom will be conquered;
Seir, his enemy, will be conquered,
but Israel will grow strong.
A ruler will come out of Jacob
and destroy the survivors of the city.”
You don’t suppose a few pagan priests would be willing to trust the Text, do you? Well, if they did, that Text led them to the birth of the Prince of Peace. This would sure fit the agenda of Matthew, an author who portrays the gospel of the outsiders and those who don’t belong. Attending the birth of the King of Kings will be a bunch of people who don’t belong.
Second, it is incredibly interesting to notice how Mark deals with his gospel in light of the fastest-growing religion of his day. Mark is the only gospel writer who states that at Jesus’s baptism, the heavens are torn open (versus simply being “opened”). His gospel will end with the tearing of the curtain. Now, the temple of Herod had two curtains; there was the famous curtain before the Holy of Holies and the curtain at the entrance to the Temple itself. This would be the only curtain a Roman audience would be familiar with. We know from Josephus that the front curtain had the zodiac on it.
That means Mark deliberately bookends the life and ministry of Jesus with the heavens being torn open. His message? You are now reading about a God that is so big he tore open the heavens and entered our world. He messed with the system and then left to return to His place outside the system.
Simply put, that’s awesome.
I continue to be amazed at what these gospel writers are able to do within their writings.