A recent discovery in a monastery in the Sinai Desert proves that ancient Greeks were remarkably accomplished in astronomy, cataloging the stars despite lacking telescopes.
Researchers from the French National Centre for Scientific Research, Sorbonne University, and the Tyndale House affiliated with the University of Cambridge announced the discovery of fragments of the Hipparchus Star Catalog composed in the 2nd century BCE. The researchers published their findings earlier this month in the Journal for the History of Astronomy.
The catalog was written about the year 129 BCE on the Isle of Rhodes by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus, known as the “father of scientific astronomy.” Part of an effort by the astronomer to map the entire sky, the fragments represent the oldest known attempt to determine the precise position of fixed stars by associating them with numerical coordinates. He cataloged the positions of roughly 850 stars.
The existence of the catalog was known as it was described in the writings of Claudius Ptolemy, a Greek astronomer, who composed a similar catalog 400 years after Hipparchus. The researchers determined that Hipparchus’ catalog was more accurate than that of Ptolemies, created three centuries later.
The original writings were scraped from the parchment in the medieval era to make way for a collection of Christian Palestinian Aramaic texts telling stories from the Old and New Testaments. This was not uncommon as parchment was quite expensive and the result is referred to as a palimpsest. The writings were concealed beneath leaves, or folios, of the religious Codex Climaci Rescriptus at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The codex was written in Syriac.
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The possibility that the manuscript was a palimpsest was first suggested in 2012. In 2019, the researchers took 42 photographs of nine pages from the codex across a broad range of wavelengths before scanning the photos with computer algorithms that picked out the text hidden underneath. The manuscript, written in Greek, describes the positions of the four stars of only one constellation – Corona Borealis, also known as the Northern Crown. Researchers believe that Hipparchus wrote a similar manuscript for each of the 850 stars he observed.
Using the positions of the stars described in the catalog, researchers determined that the catalog had been set down in the year 129 BCE, when it was believed that Hipparchus wrote his catalog. But studying the distinctive style of writing, a science called palaeography, they determined that the pages had been written in the 5th or 6th Century CE, showing that the catalog established by Hipparchus was still being used more than 700 years after being set down.
The fragments are the oldest known to date and refute a widespread belief that Claudius Ptolemy’s Star Catalogue is merely a “copy” of Hipparchus’ as the observations of the four constellations are different. The fragments are the oldest known to date and refute a widespread belief that Claudius Ptolemy’s Star Catalogue is merely a “copy” of Hipparchus’ as the observations of the four constellations are different.
Historians believe that Hipparchus’ document, predating the invention of the telescope, represents the first attempt to measure the precise positions of stars.
The researchers believe that more than 160 additional palimpsests in the monastery are hiding additional secrets from the past.
Though the new discovery seems to establish the roots of astronomy in ancient Greece, Josephus, a first-century Roman-Jewish historian, attributes the origins of studying the stars to Biblical Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve and brother of Cain and Abel, who preserved ancient astronomical knowledge in pillars of stone. Other Jewish sources attribute it to Enoch, another antediluvian Biblical figure, who recorded it in the astronomical section of the Book of Enoch, recorded about 72-80 BCE.
Talmudic sages focused on astronomy as it related to predicting the new moon in order to establish the calendar. Though it was not a Temple ritual, there was a priestly court in the Temple where testimonies of the sighting of the new moon were analyzed.
While the Torah explicitly forbids worshiping the stars (Deut. 4:19), in his book, Astrology in Ancient Judaism, Astronomy in Ancient Judaism, Prof. Meir Bar-Ilan, who teaches at Bar-Ilan University at both Talmud and Jewish History departments, suggested that the Biblical sages may have considered astronomy as practiced by Hipparchus and Ptolemies as a holy rite. Prof. Bar-Ilan noted that God Himself cataloged the stars, as stated in the Bible.
He reckoned the number of the stars; to each He gave its name. Psalms 147:4
Lift high your eyes and see: Who created these? He who sends out their host by count, Who calls them each by name: Because of His great might and vast power, Not one fails to appear. Isaiah 40:26
“When God is depicted as counting the stars and giving them names, it is apparent that any believer in God who practices astronomy works together with God while imitating Him, imitatio Dei, as the ultimate religious practice,” Prof. Bar-Ilan wrote.