Episodic Survey of the History of the Constellations

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S: Pioneer Western Constellation Studies

42: Franz Boll's Sphaera and Aus der Offenbarung Johannis

Copyright © Gary D. Thompson

Franz Boll.

Franz Boll was a renowned German classical philologist who specialized in ancient astronomy and astrology. He was also very much interested in the history of mathematics, and had a deep interest in Plato. Boll devoted much of his early work to studying Ptolemy. He is still highly regarded for his editorial and biographical work on Claudius Ptolemy. Later, Franz Boll devoted his scholarly research activities almost exclusively to the history of ancient Western astrology. Boll was born in 1867 in Rothenburg on the Tauber river and he died unexpectedly in Heidelberg in 1924. (See the obituary by Albert Rehm, Biographisches Jahrbuch für Altertumskunde 47 (1927) 13- 43.) His doctoral dissertation was on Ptolemy. He had the ability to combine astronomy, religion, and literature with great originality. His sudden early death in 1924 at the age of 57 put an end to his further masterly contributions to elucidating little-known traditions. His last academic position was Professor of Classical Philology at the University of Heidelberg. In 1908 he succeeded Albrecht [Albert] Dieterich (1866-1908) as Professor at the University of Heidelberg. (Studying ancient forms of magic and magic papyri was so suspect (circa 19th-century and early 20th-century) in the eyes of German traditionalistic philology that Albert Dieterich felt obliged to conceal the object of his Summer seminar in 1905 on magic papyri under under the tame (non provocative) title of "Selection of Greek Papyri." Such texts and interest in them were deemed to rob antiquity of the distinguished luster of classicism.)

Franz Boll was one of a number of early 20th-century philologists who contributed fundamental new insights into the theory, history, and European development of the Greek and Roman languages, literatures, and cultures. Gustav Müller who lived for a time at Franz Boll's house described him as a kind and jovial Bavarian, great teacher and impeccable scholar. Müller describes student life in Heidelberg as being under the shadow of poverty, gloom, and desperation. Students had few clothes and stood in long soup lines.

Franz Boll's Studien über Claudius Ptolemäus: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der griechischen Philosophie und Astrologie (1894) is still considered to be the most comprehensive study to date of Ptolemy's philosophical commitments. It examines the philosophy in several of Ptolemy's texts, including the Almagest, On the Kritêrion, Harmonics, and, especially, the Tetrabiblos. Boll takes a philological approach and traces the philosophical concepts of Ptolemy's texts to their predecessors and emphasizes the influence of Aristotle and Posidonius in particular. The inherent fault's in Boll's study are rectified in the 2009 doctoral dissertation by Jacqueline Feke, Ptolemy in Philosophical Context: A Study of the Relationships Between Physics, Mathematics, and Theology.

There had been some controversy in the early 19th-century whether Ptolemy authored the astrological work Tetrabiblos (comprised of 4 books). Franz Boll sufficiently demonstrated that the book in its general philosophic views, its language, and its astronomy, is entirely in accord with the works of Ptolemy (especially through textual comparison with Ptolemy's Almagest) whose genuineness has been unquestioned. Franz Boll had begun work upon a new edition of the Tetrabiblos prior to his death in 1924. His pupil, Emilie Boer, continued Boll's work but their completed text did not meet with critical approval. In some 75 instances Boll altered the text by outright emendation. Also, some 40 key mistakes are contained in the 2nd edition.

Towards the end of the 19th-century the Belgian scholar Franz Cumont organized and led a group of European scholars to collect, catalogue and edit all of the existing manuscripts on astrology that were written in ancient Greek during the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods. During the first half of the 20th-century Franz Cumont and Franz Boll, and others (including Wilhelm Kroll), systematically collected and edited a huge quantity of texts and fragments of ancient Greek astrological material. The project took over 50 years to complete. It involved scouring the world’s libraries and private collections for ancient texts and manuscripts that had been copied and preserved since their original composition. Initially the project culminated in the publication of a massive 12 volume compendium, Corpus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum (= Catalogue of the Codices of the Greek Astrologers) (1898-1953). It is most commonly known simply by its acronym as the CCAG. It is a catalogue of Greek astrological manuscripts that contains in its large appendices critical editions of many previously unknown texts. Although this massive compendium of astrological material has been available in print since the beginning of the 20th-century has has been somewhat neglected and unused due to the challenges involved in studying the material in the original Greek language.

Alexander Jones has commented: "Scholars like Hermann Usener (1834–1905), Auguste Bouché-Leclercq (1842–1923), Franz Boll (1867–1924), and Franz Cumont (1868–1947) laid the foundations of all subsequent research into the history of ancient astrology."

On astrology Boll is quoted as saying "Astrology wants to be religion and science at the same time; that marks its essence."

It was Franz Boll who discovered and reconstructed the history of the passage of the Sphaera Barbarica. The first major modern work devoted to elucidating the Sphaera Barbarica was the classic book-length study Sphaera by the German philologist Franz Boll (1903). (The word "Sphaera" refers to the celestial sphere, the map of the night sky. The title is plural because 2 sky maps existed in Graeco-Roman antiquity - the Greek and the Barbarian.)

Boll's most important and most outstanding work is perhaps Sphaera (1903). It is still an important work on ancient and Arabic astrology. The masterly work Sphaera was Franz Boll's ingenious recovery of the Sphaera Barbarica, based on the discovery of new manuscripts. Boll became aware of the Sphaera Barbarica through the discovery of excerpta (brief segments of writing taken from longer works) from the Byzantine period. Boll became aware of the Sphaera Barbarica through the discovery of excerpta (brief segments of writing taken from longer works) from the Byzantine period. In Sphaera Boll published and annotated the texts of then newly discovered Classical and Byzantine astronomical/astrological manuscripts by Teukros the Babylonian, Antiochus of Athens, Vettius Valens, and Johannes Kamateros, a 12th-century Byzantium astrologer.

He ingeniously reconstructed the Sphaera Barbarica and also traced the major stages of its journey from Ptolemaic Egypt and Babylon to the Islamic Persian Empire (in Persian manuscripts translated into Arabic) and back to Latin Europe (retranslated into Latin). Boll recognised the contributions of Teukros the Babylonian to constellation lore ahead of his contemporaries. The first part of the book is a critical discussion of the newly discovered texts, the second part describes the constellations in them, and the third part deals with the history of the "Sphaera Barbarica" as described by Nigidius Figulus and others. In Sphaera Boll first described the genre of paranatellonta writing and edited much of the material.

The belief of the Renaissance chronologist Joseph Scalinger that Book 5 of Marcus Manilius' work Astronomica was derived from the Sphaera Barbarica was shown by Boll in his Sphaera to be a (typically) confused description of the Greek sphere mixed/mingled with 'barbaric' doctrine. (Scalinger's 1st edition of Manilius was published in 1579.) However, the French scholar Joseph Scalinger (1540-1609, born in Agen, southern France, into the family of an Italian scholar and physician), in his 2nd edition (commentary) of Manilius (1600) (effectively a treatise on ancient astronomy), began the investigation of the Sphaera Barbarica on the basis of a version preserved in the writings of Rabbi Araham Ibn Ezra (1092-1167) - who had derived it from the writings of Abū Ma'shar.) It has been remarked that Scalinger over-simplified the problem of the Sphaera Barbarica. He believed it to comprise merely of the paranatellonta and 'clarae stellae' (of the zodiac) of the Greek sphere as seen in Egypt. He overlooked his own quotation from Nigidius Figulus that stated it included non-Greek constellations. In antiquity the name Sphaera Barbarica was inexactly used (i.e., far removed from its proper and original sense) for a scheme of non-Greek and Greek constellations i.e., the Latin astrologer Firmicus Maternus and the Greek physician Asclepiades of Bithynia. Marcus Manilius also does not strictly set out the Sphaera Barbarica.

Later, it was Aby Warburg who first recognised the resurgence of the Sphaera Barbarica in the imagery of the Renaissance period.

David Pingree stated: "Franz Boll was the first to recognize the importance of the study of the iconography of the Decans for a broader investigation of the transmission of ideas in antiquity and during the Middle Ages." Boll showed that prior to the 6th-century CE knowledge of the Egyptian decans had reached India.

In his book Sphaera [Spheres: New Greek Texts and an Examination of the History of the Constellations] Boll analysed ancient Greek traditions regarding Hades, the River Styx, and the Ferryman of the Underworld. Boll cited texts locating Hades in the sky at the southern crossroads of the Milky Way and the ecliptic, between the constellations Scorpius and Sagittaurius. Boll also pointed out the close relationship between Greek and earlier Babylonian traditions regarding Hades, and the Babylonian celestial location of Hades.

Many of Boll's papers are now difficult to access. A collection of his most important papers are gathered in the Kleine Schriften edited by Viktor Stegemann and published in 1950.

The joint work of Franz Boll and Carl Bezold on the history of Western astrology, Sternglaube und Sterndeutung (first published 1917, then revised by Carl Bezold, then again by Wilhelm Gundel (4th edition by Wilhelm Gundel (1931)), is still the best introductory history. A 5th edition appeared in 1966. It was in this book that Boll asserted his belief that the Chinese "years of animals" (the 12-year lunar calendar cycle used for dating the years) came from Egyptian dodekaoros. It was Franz Boll who suggested to Aby Warburg (a close friend who he first met in 1911) the origin of Ferrara Astrological Cycle frescos. Boll had completed an analysis of the frescoes in the Schifanoia Palace in Ferrara, Northern Italy. In his historical study of astrology Aby Warburg was influence by Franz Boll. Following Boll's death Warburg was keen to keep the Boll library together. Part of Boll's private library/book collection is in the Warburg library. Influenced by the work of Franz Boll, Aby Warburg read widely in the history of mythology, astronomy, and astrology and wondered about issues of cultural change, in particular, the continuity of star imagery from antiquity to modern times.

The collaboration between Aby Warburg and Fritz Saxl was a good one. Warburg had the contacts and Saxl had the "good nose" for manuscript discoveries. Fritz Saxl's multi-volume Verzeichnis astrologischer und mythologischer illustrierter Handschriften des lateinischen Mittelalters / Catalogue of Astrological and Mythological Illuminated Manuscripts of the Latin Middle Ages was made possible through the support of Boll. Fritz Saxl was a Viennese art historian. Through Boll's advice he was able to obtain funding to travel to Italy and work in the Vatican Library on medieval Latin manuscripts on astrology. Circa 1912, after Fritz Saxl has graduated from the University of Vienna in mid 1912 Aby Warburg contacted Franz Boll in Heidelberg, and Boll arranged a travelling scholarship for Saxl from the Academy of Sciences in Heidelberg to travel to Italy and work in the Vatican Library on medieval Latin astrological texts and mythological manuscripts. Saxl prepared a catalogue of medieval illuminated astrological manuscripts in Rome, which he published in 1915.

Title page of Boll's flawed astral interpretation of The Book of Revelation.

Franz Boll's controversial 1914 publication involving an astral interpretation of the New Testament Apocalypse. He was one of the early astral interpreters of the New Testament Apocalypse. Another early astral interpreter - but less credible - was Nikolai Morozov. (The Book of Revelation is the final book of the New Testament corpus. The continuing lack of consensus on any specific issue in the book of Revelation easily demonstrates that its contents are difficult to understand. Much of the book's symbolism is allusive, and therefore open to several possible identifications within a variety of biblical and non-biblical traditions.) The French author Charles Dupuis first published a similar thesis in his Origine de tous les cultes (1795). In 1914 Franz Boll developed the "astral mythology" interpretation of the Apocalypse at some length in his book Aus der Offenbarung Johannis. For Boll the Book of Revelation was solidly influenced by astral-mythology. Boll believed the origin of the symbolism of almost the entire book was astral mythology that had originated in Babylon and by the 1st-century CE had spread over the Graeco-Roman world. (Boll's interpretation ignored the fact that Old Testament imagery is prevalent in the book.) Boll focused on astral notions current in the Hellenistic period at the time the Apocalypse was written. The short book only deals with a select number of passages in the Apocalypse. However, Boll was neither a biblical scholar nor a theologian. Not surprisingly he chose to use those passages that best suited his astral theory. No detailed study of the Apocalypse is attempted. Selected passages are focused on but not discussed exhaustively. Selected passages that are examined in detail are: (1) the vision of the bowls and trumpets, (2) the first woe, (3) the apocalyptic horseman, and (4) the queen of heaven. Boll basically viewed the Apocalypse as containing astral ideas developed in the Graeco-Roman world but ultimately originating in Babylonian astral ideas. Boll emphasised the importance of the zodiacal signs for the interpretation of the book. For a while the ideas of Boll were influential in later commentaries. However, within a few years his book was largely ignored. Critics held that many of Boll's argument were too artificial/forced and actually find no real support in the texts used.

Boll was primarily interested in the sources which inspired the imagery. Also, he restricted his focus to the Hellenistic era. For Boll the imagery is mostly drawn form the astral notions current in the Hellenistic environment. The star Wormwood (a term for a bitter substance from a plant) in Jeremiah 9:15 was associated with the constellation Scorpio, known for its poisonous tail. The 4 apocalyptic horsemen were based on the stars in the lion, the virgin, the scales, and the scorpion.

Interpretation in terms of astral myth was particularly popular in the early 20th-century. It is not readily accepted by modern commentators that the book is basically built around astral mythology and is making astral prophecies. The well-informed German Old Testament scholar Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932) believed there was a strong influence of Babylonian mythology in Chapter 12. The focus of many modern historical investigations have been (1) the most likely original purpose of the text, and (2) the most likely audience of the text.

For a critical book-length rebuttal of Boll's ideas in this book see Die Apokalypse des Apostels Johannes und die hellenistische Kosmologie und Astrologie, by (the Catholic theologian/(later) bishop) Joseph Freundorfer (1929). In his review of Boll's Aus der Offenbarung Johannis, William Lowther-Clarke states (The Classical Review, Volume 30, 1916, Page 22): "At times the arguments are weak, and the method of treating a few only of the passages of the Apocalypse - those that fit the theory best - renders caution necessary in the reader ...." In recent times Bruce Malina, a Professor of Biblical Studies, has revived the ideas of Boll for interpreting the New Testament Apocalypse. See especially his book On the Genre and Message of Revelation published in 1995. Malina identifies Revelation as an astral prophesy.) In some ways Malina’s book is a revival and extension of Boll’s study. However, Malina also uncritically relies on the flawed publications of the amateur English Orientalist Robert Brown Junior for many of his concepts of the ancient constellations. For a succinct critique of Malina's astral ideas see also: Revelation by Ben Witherington III (2003).

For many scholars Malina's approach involves reading a great deal more astrological myth into the Book of Revelation than is clearly there. In his 2006 Master's Dissertation (for his MA (Biblical Studies), Apokaliptiek en Openbaring: 'n Kritiese evaluering van Malina en Pilch se "Social-Science commentary on the Book of Revelation," Cornelius Swart gives its summary (Abstract) as: "The aim of this study is to evaluate Malina & Pilch's Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Revelation. As stated on the cover of the book, this commentary claims to be unique: "The first social-science commentary on this extraordinary book." The question is whether the social-scientific method enhances the understanding of Revelation for modern interpreters? The method's relationship with traditional exegetical methods is also examined. In order to evaluate any work on Revelation, it is necessary to make a thorough study of the apocalyptic. Revelation is an apocalypse and is traditionally understood as part of the apocalyptic genre. It is also necessary to make use of findings of the historical-critical method in order to understand questions regarding the author, date and place of composition of Revelation. The social-scientific method's presuppositions and procedures are explained, as well as criticism against this exegetical method. This is followed by a discussion of Malina & Pilch's commentary as part of the Social-Science Commentary on…-series, as well as Malina's original work, On the Genre and Message of Revelation. It is clear that Malina & Pilch view Revelation as astral prophecy and John as an astral prophet. They interpret Revelation in the light of the first century Mediterranean sky. A case study of Revelation 12:1-18 compares Malina's On the Genre and Message of Revelation, with Malina & Pilch's Social-Science Commentary on Revelation and David Aune's Revelation. In conclusion academic reviews and comments regarding this commentary are discussed. It is my opinion that this commentary adds the best value if it is used together with traditional historical-critical commentaries. Unfortunately, Malina & Pilch has (sic) ignored modern Apocalypse scholarship in their work. Their intense focus on astrology and trying to force the whole of Revelation into an astrological mould is the greatest weakness of this work. This commentary however definitely adds a new dimension to the interpretation of Revelation. It forces an interpreter of Revelation to acknowledge the importance of John's social situation and the first-century Mediterranean world."

An earlier proponent of an astral interpretation of the Book of Revelation was the Russian scientist Nikolaus Morosow. His Russian-language book Revelation in Storm and Tempest (1907) was later translated and published in a German-language edition Die Offenbarung Johannis: Eine astronomish-historische Untersuchung (1912). The author believed that the Book of Revelation was based on events experienced during the day and night of 30th September, 395 CE. His basic premise is the events giving rise to the astronomical and astrological speculations were a thunderstorm and earthquake on the day of a solar eclipse and the course of the constellations during the night. Morosow further believed the author of the Book of Revelation was John Chrysostom (circa 349-407), the future bishop of Constantinople. Needless to say the premise of the book has not found support.

Several persons hold extreme views about astronomical content in the Book of Revelation. The archaeologist and geologist Jeffrey Goodman holds that cometary impact catastrophes are being described in the Book of Revelation. John Lewis (retired Professor of Planetary Sciences at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, and Co-director of the NASA/University of Arizona Space Engineering Center) also believes the Book of Revelation sets out details of commentary impacts.

Another early discussion involving an astral interpretation of the Book of Revelation was conducted by William Ramsay and Johannes Lepsius in a series of dual articles in The Expositor in 1911. Both were historians of religion. See: William Ramsay and Johannes Lepsius "The Symbolic Language of the Apocalypse." (The Expositor, Eighth Series, Volume 1, 1911; Pages 160-180, 210-230, 375-380, 461-475, & 504-519. Note: Pages 210-230, 461-475, & 504-519 are headed "The Symbolic Language of the Revelation.")  William Ramsey (1851-1939) was a British archaeologist, and historian, and classical scholar. Johannes Lepsius (1858-1926) was a German Protestant missionary, Orientalist, and humanist. He was the youngest son of the founder of Egyptology in Germany, the Egyptologist Carl Lepsius and his wife Elisabeth Klein (1828–1899).

The use of astral and other myths is inadequate in explaining the images and symbols of the Book of Revelation. The 'celestial realm' language of the Book of Revelation is mostly borrowed from the Old Testament books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.

Gregory Beale's recent monumental study (The Book of Revelation (1999)) has enabled significant gains to be made in understanding the Book of Revelation. Many scholars hold that Beale has written the best available contemporary commentary on the Book of Revelation. According to Vern Poythress, Beale shows convincingly that Daniel as a whole, and Daniel 2 and 7 most of all, is structurally the most dominant source behind Revelation 1, 4-5, 13, and 17, as well as for several themes and features of Revelation as a whole. (The Book of Revelation never quotes directly from the Old Testament.) It is the view of Beale that, however much use the Book of Revelation makes of Ezekiel, the ultimate purpose of its author is to present the Book of Revelation as a fulfilment of Daniel 7. Beale has also demonstrated that Isaiah 6 permeates the whole canon, from Genesis to Revelation. Beale's analysis of the use of Daniel in the Book of Revelation shows not only that the Book of Revelation refers to specific passages, but also that it is possible to narrow down these particular references to a specific version of the Old Testament.


The book of Daniel is called "the first of the apocalyptic writings." It was in the book of Daniel that the message of eschatology, "the end of the age," was first clearly set out (Daniel 9:24-27; 12.).  From the pattern established in the book of Daniel, all other canonical apocalyptic writings have taken their message. The Book of Revelation is related to Old Testament prophecy through the book of Daniel.



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