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  • Josephus’ Armies in the Sky February 28, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

    One of the most celebrated reports from antiquity of bizarre goings on in the sky appears in Josephus, History of the Wars relating to c. 65 AD.

    Besides these, a few days after that feast [of the unleavened bread], on the twenty first day of the month of Artemisius, a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared: I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it [the destruction of the temple in 70] of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armour were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding the cities (6,5,3).

    These sky armies have been marshalled over the years for many causes. If you ask a certain kind of Christian they are the angels of Revelation beginning the work of God’s kingdom. Jewish scholars, meanwhile, are quick to note that God is often associated with chariots. If you inquire of Erik von Daniken and his emulators they are ancient foo fighters jumping around the sky. If you ask unexcitable, over-rational sorts they will talk here about the fata morgana: an optical illusion in the heavens and the unexcitable, over-rational sources might in this case have a point – the fata morgana is perhaps more common at sunset and dawn.  Could the chariots have even been ships projected into the sky by unusual atmospheric conditions?

    But this same event is almost always taken out of context. Beachcombing offers up here the entire passage where Josephus is describing the various portents for one of the most traumatic events in Jewish history: Vespasian’s burning of the temple and also the way in which the ‘stupid’ people misinterpreted them. For ease of reference Beachcombing numbers these portents in bold.

    (1) Thus there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and (2) a comet, that continued a whole year. Thus also before the Jews’ rebellion, and before those commotions which preceded the war, when the people were come in great crowds to the feast of unleavened bread, on the eighth day of the month Xanthicus, and at the ninth hour of the night, (3) so great a light shone round the altar and the holy house, that it appeared to be bright day time; which lasted for half an hour. This light seemed to be a good sign to the unskilful, but was so interpreted by the sacred scribes, as to portend those events that followed immediately upon it. At the same festival also, (4) a heifer, as she was led by the high priest to be sacrificed, brought forth a lamb in the midst of the temple. Moreover, (5) the eastern gate of the inner [court of the] temple, which was of brass, and vastly heavy, and had been with difficulty shut by twenty men, and rested upon a basis armed with iron, and had bolts fastened very deep into the firm floor, which was there made of one entire stone, was seen to be opened of its own accord about the sixth hour of the night… Besides these, a few days after that feast, on the one and twentieth day of the month Artemisius a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared: I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, (6) before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities. Moreover, at that feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner [court of the temple] as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that, (7) in the first place, they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude, saying, ‘Let us remove hence’.

    Some of these seven need no serious explanation: e.g. (2) the comet – a year? – was almost certainly a comet seen in the skies in 64 AD. Others can be likewise dismissed without too much concern. (7) and perhaps (5)  involved earthquake activity and touched raw local sensibilities. Others can be dismissed with a little more struggle (4) the heifer giving birth to a malformed or peculiar calf in the wrong place at the wrong time. This game could go on. The point is though that this was an age primed for portents and that the Jewish people were about to enter a period of suicidal messianic revolt against the Roman authorities: something that could only add to that susceptibility even if retrospectively.

    Tacitus (H 5,13) has his own gloss on these events that is almost Beachcombian in its dismissiveness.

    ‘Prodigies had occurred, which this nation, prone to superstition, but hating all religious rites, did not deem it lawful to expiate by offering and sacrifice. There had been seen hosts joining battle in the skies, the fiery gleam of arms, the temple illuminated by a sudden radiance from the clouds. The doors of the inner shrine were suddenly thrown open, and a voice of more than mortal tone was heard to cry that the Gods [sic!] were departing. At the same instant there was a mighty stir as of departure. Some few put a fearful meaning on these events, but in most there was a firm persuasion, that in the ancient records of their priests was contained a prediction of how at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers, coming from Judaea, were to acquire universal empire. These mysterious prophecies had pointed to Vespasian and Titus, but the common people, with the usual blindness of ambition, had interpreted these mighty destinies of themselves, and could not be brought even by disasters to believe the truth.’

    Any other thoughts on this: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    28 Feb 2011: JMH writes ‘According to Comet by Carl Sagan, Halley’s Comet passed by  in AD 66. Perihelion was January 26. The duration of a year is impossible, but there may have been more than one comet that year,separated by weeks or months, which were misinterpreted as the same one reappearing.’ Thanks JMH!

    3 March 2011: Moonman writes in with this comment – ‘Sure a number of different events could be documented as somehow connected.  But still, these old records do have merit in relating to cometary appearances, even though they are described in some quaint and odd manner.  These armies in the sky need significant misinterpretation to be formed from comets or even optical illusions. Battles and movement in the clouds could also be a lighting storm. Still, I would have thought these folk would know a lightning storm from chariots or troops or an army.  Anyway, events from other times happen in daylight in clear skies.  Its not clear what psychology is going on here.’ Beachcombing tends to agree and would favour, as suggested above, a fata morgana – though he does so in desperation given the absence of other easy suggestions. But he has also been struck at British and Irish records of dragons in the sky that seem to correspond to periods of activity of the Aurora Borealis. If AB can be dragons… Moonman replies ‘I am just baffled by what went on, surely some technical papers have analyzed this. [If the infamous Koro panic (i.e. the genital shrinking mania) can have a slew of medical and psychiatric articles, then at least one on the mass sightings of armies in the sky is all I expect!]  If Fata Morgana, then we should have them today in a similar spectacular manner.  Did global warming stop them?  There are mirage web sites whose photos I have examined and they are not that confusing/impressive.  Can people see objects from an Aurora or collection of stars or even clouds and really think they are those objects?  How many people in the past said a cloud looked like something rather than mistake a cloud for that something?  Likely very few today’. Thanks Moonman!