(Review of) Mladen Popovic, Reading the Human Body: Physiognomics and Astrology in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Hellenistic-Early Roman Period Judais

Dead Sea Discoveries, 21.1 (2014), pp. 118-120  Meir Bar-Ilan


This book originated as a 2006 doctoral dissertation at the University of Groningen under the supervision of Eibert Tigchelaar and Florentino García Martinez. Before a word is written about this book it should be stated from the very beginning that this is a very learned scholarly work that reflects a deep level of understanding, not that of a young scholar but rather of a mature researcher who has mastered his art proficiently.

The aim of the study seems to be narrow: analyzing only two small fragments of a physiognomic nature (4Q186 and 4Q561) from Qumran, but the more one reads the study the more he is convinced of the importance of these texts and the broad background they provide to cultural history of the past in general and to Qumran in particular. The importance of the text should be stated from the very beginning (though it appears on p. 188): ‘A physiognomic inquiry was a means of controlling the admission of candidate members into the community’.

The study is divided into an introduction, five chapters, an appendix, a bibliography and indexes of scholars and sources. The 'contents' of the study is very detailed (as might be expected from a PhD), but there is no room here to describe it in detail, just to state its main points. The book begins with an 'Introduction' where one learns about the basic findings of physiognomy and astrology at Qumran. The study continues (pp. 8-11, 128) with the observation that in these texts there is nothing sectarian, or even Jewish. In other words, the sectarians preserved the Hellenistic concepts of the perception of the human body that are not attested in other Jewish sources, and some of the concepts must be compared with similar ideas that come from ancient astrology.

The first chapter discusses the texts and their readings and interpretations, with a special discussion of the word עמוד, column, concerning its zodiacal meaning. Former opinions are examined and the hypothetical conclusion is that 'the second column' is the second position in the zodiacal circle. Both texts (4Q186 and 4Q561) are thoroughly considered, translated and commented upon, and their assumed literary connections are analyzed. Chapter two brings forward physiognomics in Babylonia and Greco-Roman culture and literature, and this is a blessing by itself. While it is clear that Popovic had no intention of writing an 'Introduction' to ancient physiognomics or astrology, on more than one aspect one may find in his book rich material and references that show the assumed connections between the closed sectarian circle and the surrounding culture. Since the esoteric relationships between Mesopotamian and Hellenistic cultures are extremely hidden, this chapter is a 'must' for historians of ancient culture. Pythagoras and other Greek philosophers are examined (pp. 89-90, 102-103), and this discussion should be added to the assumed connections between the Qumranites and Pythagoras.1

Chapter three deals with the meaning of 'in the foot of Taurus', and Popovic puts forth all former hypotheses one by one, showing that the interpretation of this phrase is much more complicated than former scholars were apt to note. Though Popovic mentions 4Q318 (Zodiology and Brontology ar) a few times, it is regrettable that he does not delve into this matter. The text mentions 'thunder in Gemini', and a discussion of weather-signs according to specific Zodiacal signs might yield a better understanding of the role of the Zodiac at Qumran.2 In this chapter one can read the very beginning of the concept known in the Middle Ages as Homo Zodiacos: that each and every organ in the human body is influenced by a certain Zodiacal sign.

Chapter four is a combination of theology, ‘relative dualism’, magic, spirits and physiognomy connected with philology and literary criticism. Popovic discusses former studies and related subjects, such as the Two Spirits Treatise, while arguing in a persuasive way that 4QZodiacal Physiognomy ‘could very well have been read in comparison with the entire Two Spirits Treatise in 1QS’. A connection between The Testament of Solomon and Qumran is made because they shared the same idea: demons were identified with signs of the zodiac.3

Chapter five discusses the way astrology and physiognomy were interwoven into the Qumranic society. Though there is no definite answer to this question, one gets the impression that the writer did his best to analyze and describe the intellectual and social environment concerning this problem.

In honor of the learned scholar who authored this work I would like to add two notes. On p. 218, in a discussion of education among the Jews in Antiquity, this statement appears: ‘There is no clear data for institutionalized schools in the period’. This assertion is not completely accurate. As a matter of fact, we have two traditions concerning the establishment of schools in Late Antiquity; one ascribes them to a rule made by Joshua ben Gamla (b. Bava Batra 21a) and the other to Shimon ben Shatah (j. Ketubot 8:11, 32c), in the first century BCE. One may argue for the authenticity of either of these traditions, but in any event it is clear that in such rudimentary schools nobody studied astrology. The system was one of studying while being apprenticed (pp. 89-90, 102-103), as it was centuries later, as one may assume from the mention of a physician by the name Theodoros, in the 2nd century, who came to observe a case of forensic medicine, cited as: ‘Theodoros the physician and all the physicians with him’ (t. Ohalot 4:2, Zuckermandel p. 600). This is certainly not a colloquium of physicians but rather the master with his apprentices. As is evident from the sources Popovic discusses, it was only a small step from astrology to medical-astrology, so it is assumed that the apprentice system was practiced by both physicians and astrology-medical physicians (known as Iatro-mathematics = medicine by mathematics).

One last note: attention should be drawn to a text (Seder Eliyahu Rabba, ed. Friedman, p. 50b) that S. Lieberman translated as follows: ‘The sages taught in the Merkabah: If thou seest a man whose eye-brows are fair and whose eyes are fair, know that he is wicked and sinful before our God’.4 Lieberman quotes Scholem concerning another text that derives from the Hekhalot,5 but this is beyond the scope of this study. It is true that Seder Eliyahu is considered to be a relatively late text (probably from the 10th century), but it seems the compiler of the text knew some of the ancient sources that were interwoven into his text. If these texts were really from Late Antiquity, then we may assume that the rabbis in Antiquity practiced physiognomy more than this phenomenon is attested to in the rabbinic corpus.


The third or fourth generation of Qumran scholars had the pioneers’ achievements before their eyes, and here is a case when the children wanted not only to equal their parents’ achievements but to surpass them as well. Popovic portrays this interdisciplinary study in a manner that has never been seen before in this arena, and he is even bolder than former scholars: he is ready to put his hands in the dirt of “nonsense”, unlike earlier researchers who preferred to be more “conservative”. No doubt, this book will lead the whole subject forward.

Popovic was privileged to be taught by excellent teachers and the result is a very impressive book, the first step of a great scholar.

1. J. Taylor, Pythagoreans and Essenes: Structural Parallels, Paris: Peeters, 2004.

2. A. H. Hunger, ‘Astrologische Wettervorhersagen’, Zeitschrift für Assyriologie, 66 (1976), pp. 234-260.

3. Addendum to p. 200: for a female demon see: J. Mann, The Bible as Read and Preached in the Old Synagogue, II. Cincinnati 1940, p. 47.

4. S. Lieberman, ‘(Review of) Torah Shelemah’, JQR, 36 (1946), pp. 317-324 (esp. 323-324).

5. See also: Esther Liebes (ed.), Devils, Demons and Souls: Essays on Demonology by Gershom Scholem, Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 2004, pp. 246-305 (Hebrew); R. Margolin, ‘Physiognomy and Chiromancy: From Prediction and Diagnosis to Healing and Human Correction (Zohar 2, 70a – 78a; Tiqqunei Zohar, Tiqqun 70)’, TE‘UDA, XXI-XXII, (2007), pp. 199-249 (Hebrew).