Eastern and northern peoples: Bardaisan of Edessa’s Book of the Laws of Countries and the Pseudo-Clementines on astrology and peoples (second-third centuries CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Eastern and northern peoples: Bardaisan of Edessa’s Book of the Laws of Countries and the Pseudo-Clementines on astrology and peoples (second-third centuries CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 29, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=6527.

Ancient authors: Bardaisan of Edessa (late-second to early-third century CE) as presented by Philippos, Book of the Laws of Countries, or Dialogue on Fate = FGrHist 719 F3, sections 1, 12-14, 18-31 (link to Syriac and full translation; link to FGrHist); Pseudo-Clement (second-third centuries, but 406 CE in this Latin translation by Rufinus of Aquileia), Recognitions 9.1-2, 12-29 (link; link to Latin text of Rufinus’ translation).

Comments: The dialogue about the relation between Fate (as in Chaldean astrology), freedom and nature below is presented as though it is written by Philippos, a student of Bardaisan (also spelled Bardesanes) of Edessa in the kingdom of Osrhoene (ca. 154-222 CE). Most importantly for our purposes, the writer presents an extensive description of the customs of various eastern and northern peoples, concluding with Judeans (Jews) and Christians, in order to confirm that laws or customs are not given by nature or determined by Fate but rather differ from people to people. The work is also concerned with the competitive idea that Chaldean or Babylonian astrology cannot fully account for the role of human freedom and choice.

The author draws on various materials regarding the customs of peoples (including the Book of the Chaldeans), in some cases highlighting supposedly upside-down customs, such as human sacrifice (e.g. non-Brahmanic Indians), unusual funerary customs, and alternative sexual practices (e.g. incestuous Persians). So this work is also an example of the ways in which gender and sexuality (e.g. the Gelians on the Caspian sea and the Baktrians further east) were incorporated within ethnographic discourses. But in this case we have a Jesus adherent positioning himself in relation to various peoples and ancestral traditions, including Judean custom. It is notable that, when the Romans are mentioned, there is a bit of hesitancy about them “perpetually seizing other lands” and hindering the performance of some ancestral customs. During Bardaisan’s time, the kingdom of Edessa (under Abgar VIII) was absorbed into the Roman empire by Caracalla (214 CE). Nathaniel Andrade (2020a) explores these anti-Roman sentiments in the context of Osrhoene of the time. Andrade’s other article (2020b) attempts to argue that the author’s ethnographic information comes almost solely from unnamed Greek and Latin sources rather than from eastern informants or sources, but I am doubtful that we need to decide strictly between the two.

The significant discussion of women and gender in connection with Gelians, Baktrians, and others, in which those peoples are pictured inverting normal gender roles, makes it worthwhile placing this post in the gender and sexuality category as well.

I have now (June 11, 2023) also added below the similar discussion of astrology (especially with respect to the influence of the birth-star) from the novelistic story about Clement (known as the Pseudo-Clementines, in this case from the Recognitions). Although it seems clear that that author is drawing directly on some version of Bardaisan’s work, there are also some variations in the discussion and in the peoples mentioned. The issue of astrology (the birth-star and astral determinism overall) plays a somewhat key role in that narrative since the main protagonist, Clement, is eventually reunited with his father, who is depicted as having a deep knowledge and interest in astrology (on which also see Recognitions 10.7-12, not included here). However, the same work has a place for Abraham as the ultimate source of (good) astrology, it should be noted (link). For the importance of that novel for the issue of Judean wisdom, go to this link.

Works consulted: N. Andrade, “Romans and Iranians: Experiences of Imperial Governance in Roman Mesopotamia,” in Reconsidering Roman Power, ed. K. Berthelot (Rome: l’École française de Rome, 2020a), 291–308; N. Andrade, “Bardaisan’s Disciples and Ethnographic Knowledge in the Roman Empire,” in Literature and Culture in the Roman Empire, 96–235 (Cambridge: CUP, 2020b), 291–308; N. Kelley, “Astrology in the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions,” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 59 (2008): 607–629.


Bardaisan / Philippos

[Introduction to the dialogue on Fate, nature, and freedom]

(1) Some days ago we were visiting our brother Shemashgram, and Bardaisan came and found us there. When he had asked about Shemashgram’s health and found out that he was well, Bardaisan asked us: “What were you talking about? For I heard your voice outside as I was coming in.” For it was his habit, whenever he found us talking about anything before he came, to ask us “what were you saying?”, so that he could talk about it with us.

We said to him: “Awida here was saying to us, ‘If God is one, as you say, and if he is the creator of men, and if it is his will that you should do what you are commanded, why did God not create men in a way that prevented them from doing wrong, but allowed them to constantly be doing what is right? For in this way his will would have been accomplished.’”

Bardaisan said to him: “Tell me, my son Awida, why it has come into your mind that the God of everything is not one, or that he is one but does not want men to behave themselves in a just and upright manner?” . . . [material omitted]

[On fate, nature, and freedom]

We questioned him again, and said to him: “There are others who say that men are controlled by the decree of Fate, so that they sometimes act wickedly and at other times act well.” He replied: “I am also aware, Philippos and Bar Jamma, that there are men like this, those who are called Chaldeans, as well as others who are fond of this subtle knowledge, as I myself also once was. For I have said elsewhere that the soul of man longs to know what many others do not know. Those men make it their aim to do this; they say that every wrong and right action which men commit (13) and that everything that happens to men with regard to riches and poverty, sickness and health, and bodily deformities takes place under the control of the stars which are called “the seven” [i.e. the seven planets], by which they are controlled. But there are others who affirm the opposite view on these things: how this art is a lying invention of the astrologers or that Fate has no existence whatever but is an empty name. On the contrary, they affirm that all things, great and small, are placed in human hands, and that bodily deformities and faults simply take place and happen to him by chance. But others, again, say that whatever a man does, he does of his own will in the exercise of the freedom which has been given to him, and that the faults, deformities and other undesirable things which happen to him are received as punishment from God.”

“In my humble opinion, the matter appears to be like this: these three opinions are partly right and partly wrong. They are true because men speak about how things appear as they see them, and also because these men see how things happen to them as if accidentally. They are false because the wisdom of God is too profound for them, that wisdom which founded the world, created man, and established ‘Guiding Signs,’ and gave to each the power suited to each. What I mean is, that this power is possessed by God, the angels, the ‘Rulers,’ the ‘Guiding Signs,’ the elements, humankind, and animals. However, this power has not been given to all these orders of beings with respect to everything (for he that has power over everything is one), but they have power over some things and do not have power over other things, as I have been saying. This is done in order that the goodness of God may be seen in those things over which they do have power, (14) and that they may know there is a superior power over those things over which they have no power.”

“So there is such a thing as Fate, as the astrologers say. Moreover, it is clear that everything is not under the control of our will: the majority of men have had the will to be rich, to exercise leadership over their fellows, to be healthy in their bodies, and to have things in subjection to them as they please. Yet that wealth is only found among a few, leadership is held by only one here and another there, and not all men are healthy. Even those who are rich do not have complete possession of their riches, nor do those who are in power have things in subjection to them as they wish. Sometimes things go against men’s wishes: at one point the rich are as rich as they desire, and at another point they become poor. Those who are very poor have homes that they do not want and pass their lives in the world as they do not like, and want many things which only escape from them. Many have children, and do not rear them; others rear them, and do not retain possession of them; and, others retain possession of them, and they become a disgrace and a sorrow to their parents. Some are rich, as they want, and are afflicted with poor health, as they do not want; others are blessed with good health, as they want, and afflicted with poverty, as they do not want. There are those who have an abundance of the things they want but few of those things they do not want, and there are others who have in abundance of  the things they do not want but few of those they want.”

“And so the matter is found to be like this: wealth, honours, health, sickness, (15) children, and all the other various objects people want are placed under the control of Fate, and are not in our own power. Yet, on the contrary, while we are pleased and delighted with such things as are in accordance with our wants, we do not want what is forced upon us. Those things which happen to us when we are not pleased make it clear that those things also with which we are pleased do not happen to us because we want them; but that things just happen the way they happen, and with some of them we are pleased and with others, not. In this way, human beings are all found to be controlled by nature in the same way, controlled by Fate in various ways, and controlled by our freedom as each chooses.”

“But now let us proceed to show that Fate does not have power over everything. . . [material omitted].

[Illustration from the various customs and laws of different peoples –Laws of Countries”]

(18) . . . Awida said: “I am convinced by your arguments that it is not from his nature that a man does wrong, and also that all men are not controlled in the same way. If you can further prove also that it is not from Fate and Destiny that men do wrong, then we will be obliged to believe that man possesses personal freedom and that by his nature man has the power both to follow what is right and to avoid what is wrong, therefore being justly judged at the last day.” Bardaisan said: “Are you, by the fact that all men are not governed alike, convinced that it is not from their nature that they do wrong? Well then, you can not possibly escape the conviction that they do wrong exclusively due to Fate, if we are able to show you that the sentence of the Fates and the ‘Rulers’ does not influence all men in the same way but that we possess freedom, so that we can avoid serving physical nature and being influenced by the control of the ‘Rulers’.” Awida said: “Prove this to me and I will be convinced by you, and whatever you ask me to do, I will do.”

Bardaisan said: “Have you read the books of the Chaldeans who are in Babylon (19), where they describe what effects the stars have in their various combinations at the births of people? Have you read the books of the Egyptians, where they describe all the various characters which people happen to have?” Awida said: “I have read books on astrology but I do not know which ones belong to Babylonians and Egyptians.” Bardaisan replied: “The teaching of both lands is the same.” “Yes, this is known,” said Awida.

Bardaisan said: “So listen and observe that the things that stars decree by their Fate and their portions are not practised by everyone in different parts of the world in the same way. For men have made laws for themselves in various lands in order to exercise the freedom which God gave them and to oppose Fate emanating from the ‘Rulers,’ who assume power that was not given to them. I will begin my enumeration of these laws, so far as I can remember them, from the east, the starting place of the whole world:”

           [Customs of eastern peoples]

“Laws of the Serians [Chinese]. The Serians have laws forbidding murder, committing impurity, and worshipping idols. There are no idols throughout Serika, and no prostitutes nor any one that kills a man or is killed, even though they, like other men, are born at all hours and on all days. In this way the fierce Mars, whenever he is positioned in the zenith, does not overpower the freedom of the Serians, forcing someone to shed the blood of his fellow with an iron weapon. Nor does Venus, when positioned with Mars, force any of the Serians to have sexual intercourse with his neighbour’s wife, or with any other woman. However, there are rich and poor, sick people and healthy people, and rulers and subjects there (20) because these matters are under the power of the ‘Guiding Signs.’”

“Laws of the Brahmans who are in India: Similarly, among the Hindus the Brahmans (who number in the thousands and tens of thousands) have laws forbidding murder, paying reverence to idols, committing impurity, eating meat, and drinking wine. Among these people not one of these things ever takes place. Thousands of years, too, have elapsed, during which these men have been governed by this law which they made for themselves.”

“Another law which is in India: There is also another law in India (in the same region) practised among those who are not of the caste of the Brahmans and do not embrace Brahmanic teaching, a law calling them to serve idols, commit impurity, murder, and do other bad things which the Brahmans disapprove. In the same region of India, too, there are men who are in the habit of eating human flesh, just as all other peoples eat the flesh of animals. In this way the evil stars have not forced the Brahmans to do evil and impure things; nor have the good stars prevailed on the rest of the Hindus to abstain from doing evil things. Nor have those stars which are well positioned in the regions which properly belong to them, and in the signs of the zodiac favourable to a humane disposition, prevailed on those who eat the flesh of men to abstain from using this foul and abominable food.”

“Laws of the Persians: The Persians also have made themselves laws permitting them to take as wives their sisters, their daughters, and their grand-daughters (21). There are some who go even further and marry their mothers. Some of these Persians have migrated away from their land and are found among the Medians (in Atrapatene [on the Caspian sea]), the Parthians, the Egyptians, and the Phrygians – they are called ‘Magians.’ In all the lands and regions in which they are found, they are governed by this law which was made for their ancestors. Yet we cannot say that for all the Magians and for the rest of the Persians Venus was positioned with the Moon and with Saturn in the house of Saturn in her portions, while the aspect of Mars was toward them. There are also many places in the kingdom of the Parthians where men kill their wives, their brothers, and their children without incurring any penalty. While among the Romans and the Greeks, someone who kills one of these family members receives capital punishment, the most severe penalty.”

“Laws of the Gelians [on the southern shores of the Caspian sea]: Among the Gelians the women sow, reap, build, and perform all the tasks of labourers. They wear no coloured clothing and do not wear shoes. They use no pleasant ointments. No one finds fault with them when they have sexual intercourse with strangers or engage in intimacies with their household slaves. But the husbands of these Gelians are dressed in garments of colours, ornamented with gold and jewels, and anoint themselves with pleasant ointments. They do not act this way due to any effeminacy, but on account of the law which has been made for them. In fact, all the men are fond of hunting and addicted to war. But we cannot say that, for all the women among the Gelians, Venus was positioned in Capricorn or in Aquarius, in a position of bad luck. Nor can we possibly say that, for all the Gelians, Mars and Venus were positioned in Aries, where it is written that brave and sexually unrestrained people are born.

(22) “Laws of the Baktrians [located in what is now Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan]: Among the Baktrians, who are called Kushanians, the women wear men’s clothing and jewellery of gold and costly jewels. The slaves and female slaves serve them more than to their husbands. They also ride on horses decked out with gold and precious stones. Moreover, these women are not chaste but have sexual intercourse with their slaves and with strangers who go to that land. Their husbands do not blame them and the women do not have any fear of punishment, because the Kushanians look upon their wives only as mistresses. Yet we cannot say that, for all Bactrian women, Venus, Mars and Jupiter are positioned in the house of Mars in the middle of the skies, the place where women are born that are rich and adulterous and that make their husbands subservient to them in everything.”

“Laws of the Rakamians, the Edessians [Bardaisan was among this people], and Arabians: Among the Rakamians, Edessians, and Arabians not only is an adulterous woman put to death, but even a woman who is suspected of adultery is punished.”

“Laws in Hatra [a settlement on the Tigris]: There is a law in force in Hatra that whoever steals any little thing, even if it is as worthless as water, will be stoned. Among the Kushanians, on the contrary, if any one commits such a theft as this, they merely spit in his face. Among the Romans, too, the one who commits a small theft is scourged and released. On the other side of the Euphrates, and as you go eastward, he that is stigmatized as either a thief or a murderer does not resent it much. But, if a man is accused of sexual intercourse with boys, he will avenge himself even to the point of murdering the accuser. . .”

“Laws (23) [of the Greeks (?)] . . . [passage largely missing]: Among. . . boys. . .to us, and are not. . . Again, in all the region of the east, if any persons are in this way stigmatized, and are known to be guilty, their own fathers and brothers put them to death. Very often they do not even identify the graves where they are buried.”

          [Customs of northern peoples]

“Such are the laws of the people of the east. But in the north, and in the land of the Germans and their neighbours, men marry handsome male youths, and they even have feasts on the occasion. This is not considered a disgrace or a reproach because of the law which prevails among them. But it is impossible that all those in Gaul who are branded with this disgrace should at their births have had Mercury positioned with Venus in the house of Saturn, and within the limits of Mars, and in the signs of the zodiac to the west. For men born under these conditions, it is written that they are branded with infamy as being like women.”

“Laws of the Britons: Among the Britons many men take one and the same wife.”

“Laws of the Parthians: Among the Parthians, on the other hand, one man takes many wives, and all of the wives stay with him only, because of the law which has been made there in that land.”

“Laws of the Amazons: Regarding the Amazons, all of them – the entire people – have no husbands. Like animals, once a year in spring-time, they come from their territories and cross the river. After crossing it, they hold a great festival on a mountain and the men from those parts come and stay with them fourteen days. They have sex with them and they become pregnant before returning (24) to their own land. When boys are delivered, they are thrown away, and they raise the girls. Now it is clear that, according to the laws of nature, since they all became pregnant in one month, they also in one month are all delivered, a little sooner or a little later. As we have heard, all of them are robust and warlike; but not one of the stars is able to help any of those males who are born so as to prevent their being thrown away.”

[Book of the Chaldeans]

“The Book of the Chaldeans: It is written in the Book of the Chaldeans that, when Mercury is positioned with Venus in the house of Mercury, Mercury produces painters, sculptors, and bankers; but that, when they are in the house of Venus, they produce perfumers, dancers, singers, and poets. Yet, in all the lands of the Tayitians, the Saracens, the Mauritanians in Upper Libya, the nomads at the mouth of the Ocean; in outer Germany, in Upper Sarmatia, in Spain, and in all the lands to the north of Pontos; and, in all the lands of the Alanians, the Albanians, the Zazians, the Brusians (on the river Dur), one does not see sculptors, painters, perfumers, bankers, or poets. On the contrary, this decree of Mercury and Venus is prevented from influencing the entire circumference of the world.”

“Throughout Media, the dead and even some who are still a bit alive are cast to the dogs and the dogs eat the dead everywhere in Media. Yet we cannot say that all the Medians are born having the Moon positioned with Mars in Cancer in the day-time beneath the earth: for it is written that those born under those conditions are eaten by dogs.”

“The Hindus, when they die, are burned (25) and many of their wives are burned alive along with them. But we cannot say that all Hindu women who are burned alive had at their birth Mars and the Sun positioned in Leo in the night-time beneath the earth, as those persons who are burned are born.”

“All the Germans die by strangulation, except those who are killed in battle. But it is impossible, that, at the birth of all the Germans, the Moon and Hora should have been positioned between Mars and Saturn. The truth is that in all lands, every day and at all times, men are born under different birth days from one another. The laws of men prevail over the decree of the stars, and they are governed by their customs. Fate does not force the Serians to commit murder against their wish, nor the Brahmans to eat flesh. Nor does Fate hinder the Persians from marrying their daughters and their sisters, nor the Hindus from being burned, nor the Medes from being devoured by dogs, nor the Parthians from taking many wives, nor the Britons from taking one and the same wife, nor the Edessians from cultivating chastity, nor the Greeks from practising gymnastics, . . . nor the Romans from perpetually seizing other lands, nor male Gauls from marrying one another. Nor does Fate force the Amazons to rear the males. Nor does his birth day force any man in the entire world to cultivate the art of the Muses. Instead, as I have already said, in every land and among every people everyone takes advantage of the freedom of their nature in any way they choose, and, by reason of the (26) body in which they dwell, do service to Fate and to nature, sometimes as they want and at other times as they do not want. For in every land and among every people there are rich and poor, rulers and subjects, and healthy and sick people, each one affected by Fate and his birth day.”

[Summary of the argument by Bardaisan]

I [Philippos] said to him: “You have convinced us of these things, father Bardaisan, and we know that they are true. But do you know that the Chaldeans say that the earth is divided into seven portions, which are called zones; that seven planets (stars) have authority over those portions, each over one portion; that in each one of those portions the will of its own planet prevails; and, that this is called its ‘law’?” He replied: “First of all, my son Philippos, know that the Chaldeans have invented this statement as a device to disseminate error. For, although the earth is divided into seven portions, yet in every one of the seven portions many laws are to be found differing from one another. For there are not seven kinds of laws only found in the world, according to the number of the planets, or twelve, according to the number of the signs of the zodiac, or thirty-six, according to the number of the ‘decans’. But there are many kinds of laws as you go from kingdom to kingdom, from land to land, from region to region, and in every place where people live, each differing one from another. For you remember what I said to you: in one zone, that of the Hindus, there are many people who do not eat the meat of animals, and there are others that even eat human flesh. Again, in speaking about the Persians and the Magians, I told you that it is not in the zone of Persia only that they married their daughters and sisters, but that in every land to which they have settled (27) they have followed their ancestral laws, and have preserved the mystic arts contained in that teaching which their ancestors delivered to them. Again, remember that I told you of many peoples spread across the entire world who have not been confined to any one zone, but have dwelt in every quarter from which the wind blows in all the zones, and they do not have the arts which Mercury and Venus are said to have given when in conjunction with each other. Yet, if laws were regulated by zones, this could not be, but they clearly are not regulated in this way, because the people I have spoken of are far from having anything in common with many other peoples in their habits of life.”

“Then, again, how many wise men do you think have abolished from their lands laws which appeared to them not well constructed? Also, how many laws are there which have been set aside because of necessity? And how many kings are there who, when they have gained possession of lands which did not belong to them, have abolished their established laws, and made such other laws as they chose? And, whenever these things occurred, not one of the stars was able to preserve the law. Here is an instance at hand for you to see for yourselves: it was just recently that the Romans took possession of Arabia, and they abolished all the laws previously existing there, especially the circumcision which they practised. The truth is that the one who is his own master is sometimes forced to obey the law imposed on him by another, who himself in turn becomes possessed of the power to do as he pleases.”

[Judeans and Christians]

“But let me mention to you a fact which, more than anything else, is likely to convince the foolish and those lacking in faith. All the Judeans who received the law through Moses circumcise their male children on the eighth day without waiting for the arrival of the appropriate stars or without standing in fear of the law (28) of the land where they are living. Nor does the star which has authority over the zone control them by force. Instead, whether they are in Edom, Arabia, Greece, Persia, the north, or the south, they carry out this law which was made for them by their ancestors. It is evident that what they do is not based on a birth day: for it is impossible that, for all the Judeans, on the eighth day, on which they are circumcised, Mars should be in the ascendant, so that steel should pass upon them, and their blood be shed. Moreover, all of them, wherever they are, abstain from worshipping idols. One day in seven, also, they and their children cease from all work, from all building, travelling, and buying and selling. Nor do they kill an animal on the Sabbath day, nor kindle a fire, nor administer justice. There is no one among them whom Fate forces, either to go to law on the Sabbath day and gain his cause, or to go to law and lose it, or to pull down, or to build up, or to do any one of those things which are done by all those other people who have not received this law. There are other things they do not do like the rest of humanity on the Sabbath, though on this same day they both bring forth and are born and fall sick and die: for these things do not pertain to the power of man.”

“In Syria and Edessa men used to castrate themselves in honour of the goddess Tharatha [paralleling Atargatis]. But when King Abgar [VIII, of the kingdom of Edessa] became a believer, he commanded that every one that did so should have his hand cut off, and from that day until now no one does so in Edessa.”

“What shall we say of the new family of us Christians, planted by the Messiah in every land and in every region (29) at his arrival? Wherever we are, we are all called – after the one name of Christ – “Christians.” On one day, the first of the week, we assemble ourselves together, and on the days of the readings we abstain from taking food. The brothers who are in Gaul do not take other men as wives, nor those who are in Parthia two wives, nor do those who are in Judea circumcise themselves; nor do our sisters who are among the Gelians have sex with strangers; nor do those brothers who are in Persia take their daughters for wives; and, nor do those who are in Media abandon their dead, bury them alive, or give them as food to the dogs. Nor do the brothers who are in Edessa kill their wives or their sisters when they commit impurity, but they withdraw from the women and give them over to the judgment of God. Nor do the brothers who are in Hatra stone thieves to death. Instead, wherever they are and in whatever place they are found, the laws of the lands do not stop them from obeying the law of Christ. Nor does the Fate of the celestial ‘Guiding Signs’ force them to come into contact with things which they regard as impure. Still, they can be sick or healthy, rich or poor, since those things are not within the scope of their freedom and happen to them wherever they are.”

“For although the freedom of man is not influenced by the compulsion of the seven planets (stars) or, if it is influenced at some point, it is able to withstand the influences exerted upon it. Yet, on the other hand, viewed from the outside this same person cannot at any moment liberate himself from the control of his ‘Guiding Signs’: for he is a slave and in subjection. For, if we were able to do everything, we should ourselves be everything. If we had no power to do anything, we would be the instruments (30) of others. But if God wills, all things are possible and may happen without hindrance: for there is nothing that can stop that great and holy will. For even those who think that they successfully withstand it, do not withstand it by strength, but by wickedness and error. And this may go on for a little while, because God is kind and patient towards all beings that exist, so as to let them remain as they are and be controlled by their own will – notwithstanding that they are held in check by the works which have been done and by the arrangements which have been made for their help. For this order and direction which have been instituted, each intermingling with the other, serve to repress the violence of these human beings, so that they should not inflict harm on one another to the full, nor yet to the full suffer harm, as was the case with them before the creation of the world. A time is also coming when this propensity to inflict harm which still remains in them will be brought to an end by way of the teaching that will be given to them amidst another kind of mixture. At the establishment of that new world, all evil commotions will stop and all rebellions will end. The foolish will be convinced and all deficiencies will be remedied. There will be quietness and peace through the gift of the Lord of all existing beings.”

Here ends the Book of the Laws of Countries.


Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions

[Introduction to Clement’s debate with the old man about astrology of a Chaldean variety: fate, free-will, and providence]

(9.1-2) On the following day, Peter, along with us, hurried early on to the place in which the discussion had been held the day before. When he saw that great crowds had assembled there to hear, and saw the old man [who had debated with them the day before] with them, he said to him: “Old man, it was agreed yesterday that you should confer today with Clement, and that you should either show that nothing takes place apart from the influence of the birth-star (genesis) [i.e. fate as determined by celestial bodies], or that Clement should prove that there is no such thing as the influence of the birth-star, but that what we do is in our own power.” To this the old man answered: “I both remember what was agreed upon, and I keep in memory the words which you spoke after the agreement was made, in which you taught that it is impossible for man to know anything, unless he learns from the true Prophet [i.e. Jesus].” Then Peter said: “You do not know what I meant; but I will now explain to you. I spoke of the will and purpose of God, which he had before the world was, and by which purpose he made the world, appointed times, gave the law, promised a world to come to the righteous for the rewarding of their good deeds, and decreed punishments to the unjust according to a judicial sentence. I said that this counsel and this will of God cannot be found out by men, because no man can gather the mind of God from conjectures and opinion, unless a prophet sent by him declare it. I did not therefore speak of any doctrines or studies, that they cannot be found out or known without a prophet; for I know that both arts and sciences can be known and practised by men, which they have learned, not froth the true Prophet, but from human instructors.”

“Since, therefore, you profess to be conversant with the position of the stars and the courses of the heavenly bodies, and that from these you can convince Clement that all things are subject to the influence of the birth-star, or that you will learn from him that all things are governed by providence, and that we have something in our own power, it is now time for you two to get started.” To this the old man answered: “Now indeed it was not necessary to raise questions of this kind, if it were possible for us to learn from the true Prophet, and to hear in a definite proposition that anything depends on us and on the freedom of our will. For yesterday’s discourse affected me greatly, in which you disputed concerning the prophetic power. From this I assent to and confirm your judgment that, undoubtedly, nothing can be known by man with certainty, seeing that he has but a short life and has a brief and slender breath by which he seems to be kept in life. However, since I am understood to have promised to Clement, before I heard anything of the prophetic power, that I should show that all things are subject to the influence of the birth-star, or that I should learn from him that there is something in ourselves, let him do me this favour, that he first begin by propounding and explaining what may be objected. For ever since I heard from you a few words concerning the power of prophecy, I confess, I have been confounded, considering the greatness of the foreknowledge. Nor do I think that anything should be received which is collected from conjectures and opinion.” . . . [omitted many sections of the debate].

[Clement’s critique of astrologers’ misinterpretations]

(9.12-15) “So the astrologers, being ignorant of such mysteries, think that these things [occurences in life] happen by the courses of the heavenly bodies: hence also, in their answers to those who go to them to consult them as to future things, they are deceived in very many instances. Nor is this surprising, because they are not prophets. Instead, by long practice, the authors of errors find a sort of refuge in those things by which they were deceived, and introduce certain critical-periods (climacteres) so that they may pretend to have a knowledge of uncertain things. For they represent these critical-periods as times of danger, in which one sometimes is destroyed, sometimes is not destroyed. They do not know that it is not the course of the stars, but the operation of demons, that regulates these things. Those demons, being anxious to confirm the error of astrology, deceive men to sin by mathematical calculations. The result is that, when they suffer the punishment of sin either by the permission of God or by legal sentence, the astrologer may seem to have spoken truth. And yet they are deceived even in this, because if men are quickly turned to repentance and remember and fear the future judgment, the punishment of death is remitted to those who are converted to God by the gift of baptism.”

[Free-will and sin]

“But someone will say: ‘Many have committed even murder, adultery, and other crimes, and have suffered no evil.’ Actually, this rarely happens to men, but to those who do not know the counsel of God, it frequently seems to happen. But God, who knows all things, knows how and why the person who sins does sin, and what cause leads each person to sin. This, however, is in general to be noticed: if any persons are evil, not so much in their mind as in their actions, and are not led to sin on purpose, upon them punishment is inflicted more quickly and more in the present life. For everywhere and always God renders to every one according to that person’s actions, as God judges to be expedient. But those who practise wickedness on purpose, so that they sometimes even rage against those from whom they have received benefits, and who take no thought for repentance, God defers their punishment to the future. For these men do not, like those of whom we spoke before, deserve to end the punishment of their crimes in the present life. But they are permitted to occupy the present time as they want, because their correction is not such as to need temporal punishments, but such as to demand the punishment of eternal fire. There their souls will seek repentance, where they will not be able to find it.”

“But if, while in this life, they had placed before their eyes the punishments which they will then suffer, they would certainly have bridled their lusts, and would in no way have fallen into sin. For the understanding in the soul has much power for cutting off all its desires, especially when it has acquired the knowledge of heavenly things, by means of which, having received the light of truth, it will turn away from all darkness of evil actions. For as the sun obscures and conceals all the stars by the brightness of his shining, so also the mind, by the light of knowledge, renders all the lusts of the soul ineffective and inactive, sending out upon them the thought of the judgment to come as its rays, so that they can no longer appear in the soul.” . . . [omitted example of fear relating to lust].

[Old man’s response]

(9.16-17) Then said the old man: “My son Clement has wisely framed his argument, so that he has left us nothing to say to these things. But his entire discourse which he has delivered on the nature of men has this sense: that along with the fact that freedom of will is in man, there is also some cause of evil outside of him, whereby men are in fact incited by various lusts, yet are not forced to sin. For this reason, he said, because fear is much more powerful than they are, and it resists and checks the violence of desires, so that, although natural emotions may arise, sin still may not be committed, those demons being put to flight who incite and inflame these emotions. But these things do not convince me, because I am conscious of certain things from which I know well, that by the arrangement of the heavenly bodies men become murderers or adulterers, and perpetrate other evils. In a similar way, honourable and modest women are compelled to act well.”

“In short, when Mars, holding the centre in his house [i.e. astrological house or area], regards Saturn quarterly, with Mercury towards the centre, the full moon coming upon him, in the daily birth-star, he produces murderers, as well as those who are to die by the sword, bloody, drunken, lustful, devilish men, inquirers into secrets, criminals, sacrilegious persons, and such like. This is especially the case when there was no one of the good stars looking on. But again Mars himself, having a quarterly position with respect to Venus, in a direction toward the centre, while no good star looks on, produces adulterers and incestuous persons. Venus with the Moon, in the borders and houses of Saturn, if she was with Saturn, and Mars looking on, produces women that are bad-tempered, ready for agriculture, building, and every manly work, to commit adultery with whom they please, and not to be convicted by their husbands, to use no delicacy, no ointments, nor feminine robes and shoes, but to live like men. But the unpropitious Venus makes men to be like women, and not to act in any respect like men, if she is with Mars in Aries. On the contrary, she produces women if she is in Capricorn or Aquarius.”

[Clement’s response: Various peoples’ ancestral customs and laws are more influential than the birth-star]

(9.18-29) And when the old man had pursued this subject at great length, and had enumerated every kind of mathematical figure, and also the position of the heavenly bodies, wishing thereby to show that fear is not sufficient to restrain lusts, I answered again: “Truly, my father, you have argued most learnedly and skilfully. Reason herself invites me to say something in answer to your discourse, since indeed I am acquainted with mathematics as a body of knowledge, and gladly hold a conference with so learned a man. Listen therefore, while I reply to what you have said that you may learn distinctly that fate (genesis) is not at all from the stars, and that it is possible for those to resist the assault of demons who have recourse to God. As I said before, not only by the fear of God can natural lusts be restrained, but even by the fear of men, as we will now instruct you.”

“There are, in every country or kingdom, laws imposed by men, enduring either by writing or simply through custom, which no one easily transgresses. In short, the first Serians (Seres) [Silk-people, or Chinese], who dwell at the beginning of the world, have a law not to know murder, nor adultery, nor prostitution, and not to commit theft, and not to worship idols. In all that country, which is very large, there is neither temple, nor image, nor prostitute, nor adulteress, nor is any thief brought to trial. But neither is any man ever killed there, and no man’s free will is compelled – as in your teaching by the fiery star of Mars – to use the sword for the murder of man. Nor does Venus in conjunction with Mars compel to adultery, although of course with them Mars occupies the middle circle of heaven every single day. But amongst the Serians, the fear of laws is more powerful than the configuration of the birth-star.”

[Indian Brahmans]

“Among the Baktrians in the Indian countries, there are also immense multitudes of Brahmans who according to both the tradition of their ancestors and the peaceful customs and laws, neither commit murder nor adultery, nor worship idols, nor have the practice of eating meat, are never drunk, never do anything maliciously, but always fear God. They actually do these things even though the rest of the Indians commit both murders and adulteries, worship idols, are drunken, and practise other wicked things of this sort. Yes, in the western parts of India itself there is a certain country where strangers that enter are captured, slaughtered and eaten. Favourable alignments of stars have neither prevented these men from such wickednesses and from accursed food, nor have malignant stars compelled the Brahmans to do any evil. Furthermore, there is a custom among the Persians to marry mothers, sisters, and daughters. In all that district the Persians arrange incestuous marriages.”

[Persians and emigrant Magusaians]

“Those who study mathematics [i.e. calculations regarding the stars, or astrology] may not be able to use that trick by which they say that there are certain regions of the heavens to which it is granted to have some things peculiar to them. Because some among the people of the Persians have gone to foreign countries, who are called “Magusaians,” of whom there are some to this day in Media, others in Parthia, some in Egypt, and a considerable number in Galatia and Phrygia. All of these Magusaians maintain the form of this incestuous tradition without variation, and hand it down to their descendants to be observed, even though [by moving geographically] they have changed their [corresponding] district of heaven. Nor has Venus with the Moon in the confines and houses of Saturn, with Saturn also and Mars looking on, compelled them to have a birth-star among other men.”

[Gelians / Gelonians]

“Amongst the Gelians (Geli) there is a custom that women cultivate the fields, build, and do every type of manly work. They are also allowed to have intercourse with whomever they want, and are not found at fault by their husbands or called adulteresses for doing so. They have promiscuous intercourse everywhere, and especially with strangers. They do not use ointments, nor wear dyed garments, nor shoes. On the other hand, the men of the Gelonians (Gelones) [sic] are adorned, combed, clothed in soft and various-coloured garments, decked with gold, and smeared with ointments. This is not through lack of manliness, for they are most war-like and most keen hunters. Yet the entire group of Gelonian women did not have the unfavourable Venus in Capricornus or Aquarius at their birth. Nor did all their men have Venus placed with Mars in Aries, by which configuration the Chaldean body of knowledge asserts that men are born effeminate and dissolute.”

“Furthermore, among Susians [i.e. inhabitants of Susa in Elam] the women use ointments, and indeed of the best sort, being decked with ornaments and precious stones. Also they go abroad supported by the aid of their female servants with much greater ambition than the men. They do not, however, cultivate modesty, but have intercourse indifferently with whomsoever they please, with slaves and guests, such freedom being allowed them by their husbands. Not only are they not blamed for this, but they also rule over their husbands. And yet the birth-star of all the Susian women has not Venus, with Jupiter and Mars in the middle of the heaven in the houses of Jupiter. In the remoter parts of the East, if a boy is treated unnaturally, when it is discovered, he is killed by his brothers, or his parents, or any of his relations, and is left unburied. Furthermore, among the Gauls, an old law allows boys to be treated in this way publicly. There is no dishonour associated with this. Is it possible that all those who are so basely treated among the Gauls have had Lucifer [Morning-star] with Mercury in the houses of Saturn and the confines of Mars?”

“In the regions of Britannia several men have one wife. In Parthia many women have one husband. Each part of the world adheres to its own manners and institutions. None of the Amazons have husbands but, like animals, they go out from their own territories once a year about the vernal equinox and live with the men of the neighbouring people. They observe a sort of solemnity all the while, and when they have conceived by them they return. If they have a male child, they cast him away, and they only raise girls. Now, since the birth of all is at one season, it is absurd to suppose that in the case of males Mars is at the time in equal portions with Saturn, but never in the section of the birth-star of females. It is also absurd to suppose that they do not have Mercury placed with Venus in his own houses, so as to produce either painters, or sculptors, or money-changers, or in the houses of Venus, so that perfumers, or singers, or poets might be produced.”

[Lack of certain occupations among Saracens, Libyans, Maurians, and Pontic peoples]

“Among the Saracens; Upper Libyans; Maurians [or: Moors]; those who live around the mouths of the ocean; those who live in the remote districts of Germany; the Sarmatians and Scythians and all the peoples who live in the regions of the Pontic shore [Black Sea]; and those who live on the island Chrysea there is never found a money-changer, nor a sculptor, nor a painter, nor an architect, nor a land-measurer, nor a tragedian, nor a poet. Therefore the influence of Mercury and Venus must be wanting among them.”

[Paradoxical burial customs among Medes, Indians, Germans]

“The Medes alone in all the world, with the greatest care, throw men still breathing to be devoured by dogs. Yet they do not have Mars with the Moon placed in Cancer all through their daily birth-star. The Indians burn their dead, and the wives of the dead voluntarily offer themselves and are burned with them. But all the Indian women who are burned alive do not have the Sun under the earth as a nightly birth-star, with Mars in the regions of Mars. Very many of the Germans end their lives with a rope. But all of them do not have, therefore, the Moon with Hora surrounded by Saturn and Mars.”

“From all this it appears that the fear of the laws holds sway in every country, and the freedom of will which is implanted in man by the Spirit complies with the laws. The influence of the birth-star can neither compel the Serians to commit murder, nor the Brahmans to eat flesh, nor the Persians to shun incest, nor the Indians to refrain from burning, nor the Medes from being devoured by dogs, nor the Parthians from having many wives, nor the women of Mesopotamia from preserving their chastity, nor the Greeks from athletic exercises, nor the Gallic boys from being abused. Nor can the birth-star compel the barbarian peoples to be instructed in the studies of the Greeks. Instead, as we have said, each people observes its own laws according to free-will, and annuls the decrees of the birth-star by the strictness of laws.”

[Climates (klimata) / zones corresponding to the geographical location of the person]

“But some one skilled in the knowledge of mathematics will say that determination of the birth-star (genesis) is divided into seven parts, which they call “climates” [i.e. seven zones corresponding to the geographical location of the person]; that over each “climate” one of the seven heavenly bodies rules; that those diverse laws to which we have referred are not given by men, but by those dominant stars according to their will; and, that whatever pleases the star is observed by men as a law. To this we will answer, in the first place, that the world is not divided into seven parts. In the second place, that if it was divided into seven parts, we find many different laws in one part and one country. Therefore, there are neither seven laws according to the number of the heavenly bodies, nor twelve according to the number of the signs, nor thirty-six according to that of the divisions of ten degrees. Rather, they are innumerable.”

“Moreover, we should remember the things which have been mentioned: that in the one country of India there are both persons who eat on human flesh and persons who abstain from the flesh of sheep, birds, and all living creatures; and, that the Magusaians [Persian emigrants] marry their mothers and daughters not only in Persia, but that in every country where they dwell they keep up their incestuous customs. Then, besides, we have mentioned also innumerable peoples who are wholly ignorant of the studies of literature. Also some wise men have changed the laws themselves in several places.”

“Some laws have been voluntarily abandoned, on account of the impossibility of observing them, or on account of their baseness. Certainly we can easily ascertain how many rulers have changed the laws and customs of peoples who they have conquered and subjected them to their own laws. This is manifestly done by the Romans, who have brought under the Roman law and the civil decrees almost the whole world, and all peoples who formerly lived under various laws and customs of their own. It follows, therefore, that the stars of those peoples who have been conquered by the Romans have lost their “climates” and their portions.”


“I will add another thing which may satisfy even the most incredulous. All the Judeans who live under the law of Moses circumcise their sons on the eighth day without fail, and shed the blood of the tender infant. But no one among the peoples (gentes) [i.e. non-Judeans, traditionally rendered “gentiles”] has ever submitted to this on the eighth day. On the other hand, no one among the Judeans has ever omitted it. How then will the account of the birth-star stand with this, since Judeans live in all parts of the world, mixed with the peoples, and on the eighth day experience the cutting of a member? And no one of the peoples, but only the Judeans themselves, as I have said, do this. The Judeans are induced to it not by the compulsion of any star, nor by the perfusion of blood, but by their ritual law. In whatever part of the world they are, this sign is familiar to them. But also the fact that there is one name for everyone [“Judeans”], no matter where they are, does this also come through the influence of the birth-star? And also that no child born among them is ever exposed, and that on every seventh day they all rest, wherever they may be, and do not go upon a journey, and do not use fire? Why is it, then, that no one among the Judeans is compelled by his birth-star to go on a journey, or to build, or to sell or buy anything on that [Sabbath] day?”

[Conclusion: Message of Jesus as a civilizing influence that is more important than the birth-star]

“But I will give a still stronger proof of the matters in hand. For – pay attention – scarcely seven years have yet passed since the arrival of the righteous and true Prophet [i.e. Jesus]. In the course of these years, men from all peoples – coming to Judea and having been moved both by the signs and miracles which they saw and by the grandeur of his teaching – received his faith. Then, going back to their own countries, they rejected the lawless rites of the peoples and their incestuous marriages. To put it briefly, among the Parthians (as Thomas, who is preaching the message (evangelium) amongst them, has written to us) not many now are addicted to multiple marriages. Nor among the Medes do many throw their dead to dogs. Nor are the Persians pleased with intercourse with their mothers, or incestuous marriages with their daughters. Nor do the Susian women practise the adulteries previously permitted. Nor has the birth-star been able to force people who have received the teaching of piety (religio) into crimes.”


Source of translations: B.P. Pratten, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 8, A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A. C. Coxe, eds. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886 [link]), public domain, adapted by Harland in consultation with the translation in H.J.W. Drijvers, The Book of the Laws of Countries: Dialogue on Fate of Bardaisan of Edessa (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1964). T. Smith, “The Recognitions of Clement,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, Volume 8, eds. J. Donaldson and A. Roberts (Buffalo: The Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1916), 75-211, public domain, adapted and modernized by Harland.

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