Please tell us first how you came to write this book. Is this a study or a belief you have considered for a long time?
Bill Darlison: The idea for the book came to me quite by accident. I was teaching Religious Studies for many years, and had always been puzzled by the figure of the man carrying the jar of water who appears in Mark’s Gospel (chapter 14, verse 13). No commentary could explain what role he was playing in the story. I knew that it was a representation of the zodiac sign Aquarius, but I didn’t see the relevance of this. One day, while idly flicking through the text of Mark, I realised - with a start - that the basic themes associated with each of the signs of the zodiac were present in perfect zodiacal order, from new beginnings in the springtime sign of Aries to death and resurrection in Pisces. I realised, too, that this had to transform our understanding of the nature of the text. It wasn’t history; it was a narrative account of very important esoteric teachings about the nature of the self and the journey of the human soul towards enlightenment. I have worked on the book, on and off, for about 15 years
How has your theory been received by more orthodox Christians?
Bill Darlison: There has not really been enough time for these theories to break through the great wall of prejudice and assumption that informs most orthodox ideas about the nature of the Gospels. Most Christians think that the Gospels are a kind of ‘potted history’ of a man called Jesus, and even liberal scholars believe that history of a kind underlies these stories, despite their implausibility. To accept my theory would involve the reassessment of centuries of theological speculation, particularly about the ‘redemption’ won for us on the cross by Jesus. It would also involve a serious reappraisal of such notions as the virginal conception of Jesus, his bodily resurrection, and his ability to perform miracles - all of which are pretty central to conventional Christian thought.
The orthodox Christians to whom I have introduced my theories have listened politely, but felt duty bound to ignore my conclusions, because to accept them would involve losing too much which they feel is precious to them. And I can understand this. As a culture, we have a great sentimental attachment to the figure of Jesus, and many non-believers love his ideals and respect his courage. I love the figure of Jesus myself, and would not hesitate to call myself a Christian - that is, one who is inspired by Jesus, and who tries to live according to the principles set out in the teaching sections of the Gospels. The fact that I am doubtful about the historical basis of the Gospel stories in no way diminishes my commitment to the person of Jesus as I find him in the pages of the Gospels, whether he existed as an actual person or not. I am not trying to ‘debunk’ Christianity (as many who write on these themes seem to be); I am trying to give a different perspective on old stories, which, by their very familiarity, have lost some of their power to transform.
In putting forward this theory, are you ruling out historical, cultural, sociological and political interpretations?
Bill Darlison: I don’t think so. In fact, I think I am really exploring a cultural dimension which orthodox commentators completely ignore. Astrology was the lingua franca of the ancient world, practised by seers and charlatans for many centuries before the Gospels were written. Franz Cumont, the great historian of religion, writing about a hundred years ago, said that astrology penetrated every aspect of the thinking of ancient peoples. Yet one can read contemporary commentators on the Gospels who never mention astrology, and who probably seem unaware of its centrality to the culture which produced the story of Jesus. The Jewish scriptures (what we Christians insultingly call the Old Testament) contain a great deal of astrology, but this is completely overlooked by conventional scholars and preachers.
Some years ago I outlined my theories to a Professor of New Testament Studies at a British university. ‘I’m afraid I’m unable to comment,’ he said. ‘I know nothing about astrology’. This seems to me like an ‘expert’ on sixties music admitting he knows nothing about the Beatles! The ancient peoples could see the stars - they had no television to distract them, no pollution from light or atmosphere to impede their vision. We, who never really get the opportunity to look at the star-strewn heavens, rarely experience the awe-inspiring vision of the night sky. Our ancestors were not so oblivious.
My own theory does not deny any other plausible explanations for the Gospels as we have them. I accept that there are other factors to consider, besides astrology. I even accept that there may well have been a historical figure whose heroism and wisdom inspired the Gospel writers. My interpretation does not exhaust the subject, but it does bring in an ingredient which has been ignored, or deliberately suppressed, for centuries.
At a time when there has been a resurgence in the trite denial of the existence of God (I am thinking of Dawkins’ book), do you think that this kind of interpretation adds to the epistemological debate - how can we know God?
Bill Darlison: I have been rather shocked (and amused) to find my book mentioned favourably in a list of books for atheists! It was never my intention to promote atheism. I am a minister in the Unitarian Church, and I believe that the world has a purpose and that human beings are not merely the chance product of blind processes. My book adds to the debate about God because it presents the figure of Jesus in a way that is comprehensible to the sceptical contemporary mind. In affirming that the miracles of the Gospels describe spiritual processes and not historical events, I am removing one of the major stumbling blocks to belief in western society. Critics of religion will often point out the implausibility of the scriptural stories and perhaps even make fun of these stories. I think that the stories are deliberately meant to be historically and scientifically implausible so that we won’t be tempted to treat them as history or as science. Of course, we have not heeded this, and we have spent our time trying to untie the historical and scientific conundrums, an approach which has brought nothing but scorn from intelligent people, and rightly so. We do not come to know God by forcing ourselves to believe what our intellect tells us is highly unlikely. To read the Gospel of Mark as a treatise on the spiritual life and not as a rudimentary biography of a god-man elevates the author of the text immeasurably. People might begin to take the Gospels seriously again!
Do you think that coming to terms with your argument depends on age? Young people tend to want to know facts, not symbolic meanings.
Bill Darlison: I think that just the opposite is true! Young people have a hard time accepting the Gospel stories at face value. I taught courses on the Gospels for many years and rarely found a student who honestly believed that the narrative described real events. The young are very much open to new ways of looking at things, and young people today are more familiar with astrological terminology than their parents were.
Has anything else been written on this subject? Are you planning any more studies in the same vein?
Bill Darlison: There are a few works which cover similar territory. The books of Acharya S explore the idea that the Bible is informed by celestial cycles, as are other ancient scriptures. Some of these works seem very negative in tone, almost accusing the biblical writers of plagiarism or deceit. However, I have no such point of view. I believe that the author of the Gospel of Mark was a genius. No work that I am aware of is able to trace the signs of the zodiac through a complete Gospel and to give cogent reasons for such a structure. In that sense The Gospel and the Zodiac is unique. The book also attempts to tease out the spiritual lessons of each zodiacal stage of the Gospel story. This is also a unique feature.
It is important to add that my theory about Mark is really a re-presentation of a theory put forward by the Gnostic, Valentinus, at the end of the second Christian century. His theological opponent, Irenaeus, a champion of orthodoxy, accuses Valentinus of claiming that Jesus’ ministry lasted only one year, and that the stages of his ministry correspond with the signs of the zodiac. Irenaeus says that this is untrue, and that Jesus exercised his ministry over many years, dying on the cross in old age (well past the age of 50). So, the theory is old; it’s just been ignored.
As I said above, I am convinced that the Bible contains much more astrology than is generally acknowledged, and I intend to write about this in the future.
What would you most like readers to take from this book?
Bill Darlison: This book completely transforms our understanding of the Gospels; from being historical, or quasi-historical documents, to be ‘believed’ in, they are shown to be repositories of arcane wisdom. The miracle stories, which have been considered troublesome by scholars and believers alike, are rehabilitated as dramatic accounts of spiritual principles. The book shows how Christianity is related to other world faiths and so is deeply ecumenical. It is not meant to be a ‘debunking’ of Christianity so much as a rediscovery of its dynamic character; it interprets the Gospels in the light of the culture in which they were produced, rather than viewing them through the distorting lens of contemporary prejudices.
You say in your introduction, "What is one to make of those Bible stories which contain accounts of talking snakes . . . etc." Is your book just one more version of that sort of tale?
Bill Darlison: The stories we find in the narrative portions of the Bible are almost without exception ‘incredible’ - animals talk, the sea parts, God walks about. The dead are raised. Literalists take these stories at face value and ask us to believe that such incidents really took place. Liberals dismiss them as ‘primitive’ or ‘mythological’. I take the view that these stories were deliberately written in such incredible terms so that the reader would not be tempted to stick at the surface meaning but would be encouraged to take an imaginative journey into the story’s real meaning. This approach is not in any sense new. It was advocated by Philo of Alexandria - a contemporary of the writer of Mark’s Gospel - by Origen in 2nd century Alexandria, and by the 12th century Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides. The trouble is we have not heeded the advice of these scholars. We don’t use our imagination on these stories but spend our time trying to find some underlying historical reality. We don’t trust stories. We don’t trust our imagination. We want ‘the facts’.
You say, "Extra-Biblical evidence for the existence of Jesus . . . turns out to be pretty thin, when examined closely". What do you say to people whose faith is based on Jesus’ humanity?
Bill Darlison: I don’t know what ‘Jesus’ humanity’ means. The Jesus who is presented to us in the Gospels is hardly a human figure. He has amazing powers which you or I do not have; he was not born as you and I were born. Everything we think we know about him is based on conjecture. We don’t know what he looked like; we don’t know about his personal predilections; we don’t know whether he was married; apart from one incident in Luke’s Gospel which occurred when he was 12, we know nothing about his early life. When the Gospels open, he is 30 years old, but we don’t know how old he was when he died. The tradition we have inherited says that he died at the age of 33, but Irenaeus, writing in 2nd century, says that he has it on good authority that Jesus was well over 50 when he died. The ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ of popular piety is constructed from the sentimentalities of Hollywood and Sunday school, not from the Gospel texts. In truth, we know more about a Dickens’ character than we know about the ‘historical’ Jesus.
Is belief in a historical Jesus essential to Christian faith? Does releasing the idea of a historical person then negate what has been viewed as his sacrifice?
Bill Darlison: A ‘historical’ Jesus is no more essential to Christianity than a ‘historical’ Moses or a ‘historical’ Abraham are essential to Judaism. For those who believe that Jesus’ death was a necessary sacrifice for human sin, then a historical Jesus is a requirement, but for liberals, who follow the ethical teachings of the Gospels, an actual living, breathing Jesus as the source of these principles is not necessary. The Sermon on the Mount - which I believe is the most comprehensive and most noble guide to human behaviour ever devised - does not need to have originated on the lips of one man. It could have developed within a religious community. The great teachings of the Gospels are not true because Jesus uttered them; they are true because our hearts acknowledge them as true. The Jesus of the Gospels was undoubtedly brave, but no braver than the countless thousands of men and women down the ages who have died for what they believe in. However, I do not deny that Jesus existed. I tend to agree with Edward Carpenter, who said that there is probably a historical nucleus for such personages as Osiris, Mithra, Krishna, Hercules, Apollo, and the rest, and that in the course of human evolution there have been certain ‘nodal’ points at which an actual heroic man (or woman) has appeared and given his (or her) name to a new movement.
What can the rest of us draw from your conclusions? Should we put more stock in the stars and less in the words attributed to Jesus? Should we pay more attention to serious astrologers? Is this re-interpretation a more helpful way to look at the world? Does it put Christian faith more in line with, say, Hinduism, which relies on astrology for setting weddings and important dates?
Bill Darlison: My conclusions in no way require people to ‘believe’ in astrology. They just require us to accept that in the ancient world astrology enjoyed a status which we can barely imagine. Franz Cumont, the early 20th century historian of religion, said that astrology, ‘the most persistent superstition ever to infect the mind of man’, penetrated every aspect of life, including the spiritual and religious life of ancient peoples. I certainly don’t want to encourage a belief in ‘blind fate’; I don’t want people to start reading their ‘horoscopes’ in the newspapers, or looking to omens and portents. I consider that astrology, as studied today in India and in the West, has some important lessons to teach us about the nature of life, but this is not the place to explore this vast and complex subject.
In the publicity material for the book, you say, "It satisfies the needs of those who want to follow a spiritual path using Christian vocabulary, but who are uncomfortable with the sacrifice of intellectual integrity which traditional Christianity often requires." Can you expand on that idea?
Bill Darlison: Taking the Gospel stories literally is obviously not an option for religious liberals like ourselves, so we are left with a stripped-down New Testament, something like the Jefferson Bible, which is the New Testament without the miracles. The miracles make us uncomfortable, so we have to find ‘naturalistic’ explanations for them - like suggesting that the Feeding of the 5000 was really just Jesus shaming the crowds into sharing what they had hidden away. My theory is that these miracle stories are full of profound teaching. They are not historical events but ‘psychological’, ‘spiritual’ events which need to be explored with our imagination. ‘Eternal life’, ‘rebirth’, ‘transfiguration’,‘crucifixion’, ‘resurrection’, ‘walking on water’, ‘raising the dead’ - all these are part of the Christian vocabulary; literalists render them nonsensical to the modern mind, but simply ignoring them, or explaining them away, as liberals do, has robbed them of their power.