Since early in history, humans have studied the stars and given names to the unique groupings called constellations. We do not know who originated the names of constellations or the names of the more famous stars, but there are many theories.
One theory, proposed in the nineteenth century, was that the constellations represent the vestiges of a primal gospel that God gave to early man. We call this view the “gospel in the stars.” According to this theory, God presented His full plan of salvation to Adam, and either Adam or his early descendents preserved that knowledge by naming the constellations and stars. With the coming of the written Word of God, the gospel message in the stars was no longer needed and faded from use. With the passage of time, ungodly men perverted the original gospel in the stars, mingling it with pagan mythology and ultimately turning it into the religion of astrology.
The English woman Frances Rolleston supposedly rediscovered this long-hidden truth and published her work 140 years ago in Mazzaroth. Many authors since then have uncritically accepted Rolleston’s work.
Rolleston assumed that Hebrew is the closest language to that of Adam, which is a common belief among Christians but is not necessarily true. She also assumed that pronunciation and little else was altered at Babel. Based on these assumptions, Rolleston searched the Hebrew language for similar-sounding words in other languages (homophones) to match star and constellation names.
For instance, Rolleston reasoned that Latin was derived from Etruscan, which was derived from Assyrian, and since Assyrian was a Semitic language, it was probably derived from Hebrew. Thus, Rolleston thought that she could find meanings of Latin names from Hebrew roots. Given the highly speculative nature of this approach, her conclusions on particular meanings from Hebrew are very suspect at best.
As an example of Rolleston’s methodology, consider the meaning that she found for the star Deneb, the brightest star in the constellation Cygnus. She reasoned that it was a perversion of the Hebrew dan, which means “judge.” Because Hebrew scribes added marks for vowels much later, one could suppose that this is possible. However, why search for some other meaning when the traditional Arabic meaning works so well? The Arab word deneb means “tail,” and it marks the tail of Cygnus. Incidentally, several other stars contain deneb as a portion of their names, and in each case they mark the tails of their respective constellations. Yet Rolleston persisted with her reinterpretation of words.
The name Orion appears three times in the Bible (Job 9:9, 38:31; Amos 5:8). Rolleston correctly noted that Chesil is the Hebrew word translated as “Orion” in all three instances and that Hebrew tradition generally identified Orion with Nimrod. Orion is a hunter, and Nimrod was a mighty hunter before the Lord (Genesis 10:9), so this connection makes sense.
Rolleston viewed Orion as a type of Christ. On most star charts a hare lies beneath the feet of Orion, but Rolleston noted that in some ancient charts a snake lies below his feet. Presumably, this snake has bitten, or bruised, Orion’s heel, but Orion is crushing the serpent’s head in fulfillment of the first messianic prophecy (Genesis 3:15). She also noted that in some mythologies Orion was stung to death by a scorpion. Some of those stories have Orion stung on the foot, but others do not specify where the scorpion stung Orion.
There are several problems with this interpretation. First, a scorpion is not a snake. To claim that a scorpion illustrates Genesis 3:15 is a tremendous stretch. Second, there are other stories of Orion’s demise, so Rolleston was very selective in which stories she wished to use and which she wished to ignore. Then there is the matter of the identification of Christ with Nimrod, who is hardly a positive character in the Old Testament.
The theory that the plan of salvation can be seen in the stars has several problems.
Far more problematic is the Hebrew word used for Orion. Elsewhere in the Old Testament this word is translated “fool.” For instance, chesil is the word translated “fool” eight times in Proverbs 26. Thus, by the Hebrew name for him, we can see that Orion is not an individual worthy of respect and devotion. To equate this fool with a type of Christ borders on blasphemy, and most Christians ought to find this offensive. If Rolleston had been as proficient in Hebrew as required to do word studies, then she ought to have known that the Hebrew word for Orion is the same as a “fool.”
But there is a far more serious objection to the gospel in the stars: it contradicts biblical texts. The New Testament calls the gospel a “mystery” (1 Corinthians 2:7; Ephesians 6:19, 3:8–12; Colossians 4:3). In the New Testament, a mystery is something that was previously unknown but now is revealed to us. Romans 16:25–26 states that this mystery was hidden for long ages and was revealed through prophetic writings (that is, in the Old Testament, not in the stars). 1 Corinthians 2:8 further tells us that, if the princes of this world had known of this mystery, “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” 1 Peter 1:10–12 suggests that, while the prophets “searched diligently,” they failed to grasp fully the gospel before its time.
Is there anything that we can salvage from all of this? Despite the damage wrought by purveyors of the gospel in the stars, the surprising answer is yes, we can. In speaking about the constellations, such as in planetarium shows, we can make parallels to spiritual truths. For instance, a discussion of Virgo the virgin can easily lead to discussion of the conception and birth of Jesus Christ. This is not so different from using parables as Jesus did—He alluded to everyday examples that His listeners could relate to. It also is similar to what Paul did in his sermon at Mars Hill (Acts 17:23–31), where Paul took the inscription at a pagan shrine and launched into a gospel message. Paul even quoted from a poem of Aratus that described many of the constellations.
The beauty of Christ’s work does not require us to embellish it with half-truths or outright errors. The key is for us to share the gospel with simplicity, integrity, and fervor.