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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Chaldean Philosophy

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claims attention on account of its very high antiquity. The most ancient people, next to the Hebrews, among the eastern nations, who appear to have been acquainted with philosophy, in its more general sense, were the Chaldeans; for though the Egyptians have pretended that the Chaldeans were an Egyptian colony, and that they derived their learning from Egypt, there is reason to believe that the kingdom of Babylon, of which Chaldea was a part, flourished before the Egyptian monarchy; and that the Egyptians were rather indebted to the Chaldeans, than the Chaldeans to the Egyptians. Nevertheless, the accounts that have been transmitted to us by the Chaldeans themselves, of the antiquity of their learning, are blended with fable, and involved in considerable uncertainty. There are other circumstances, independently of the antiquity of the Chaldean philosophy, which render our knowledge of it imperfect and uncertain. We derive our acquaintance with it from other nations, and principally from the Greeks, whose vanity led them to despise and misrepresent the pretended learning of barbarous nations. The Chaldeans also adopted a symbolical mode of instruction, and transmitted their doctrines to posterity under a veil of obscurity, which it is not easy to remove. To all which, we may add that, about the commencement of the Christian aera, a race of philosophers sprung up, who, with a view of gaining credit to their own wild and extravagant doctrines, passed them upon the world as the ancient wisdom of the Chaldeans and Persians, in spurious books, which they ascribed to Zoroaster, or some other eastern philosopher. Thus, the fictions of these impostors were confounded with the genuine dogmas of the ancient eastern nations. Notwithstanding these causes of uncertainty, which perplex the researches of modern inquirers into the distinguishing doctrines and character of the Chaldean philosophy, it appears probable that the philosophers of Chaldea were the priests of the Babylonian nation, who instructed, the people in the principles of religion, interpreted its laws, and conducted its ceremonies. Their character was similar to that of the Persian magi, and they are often confounded with them by the Greek historians. Like the priests in most other nations, they employed religion in subserviency to the ruling powers, and made use of imposture to serve the purposes of civil policy. Accordingly, Diodorus Siculus relates, that they pretended to predict future events by divination, to explain prodigies, and interpret dreams, and to avert evils, or confer benefits, by means of augury and incantations. For many ages, they retained a principal place among diviners. In the reign of Marcus Antonius, when the emperor and his army, who were perishing with thirst, were suddenly relieved by a shower, the prodigy was ascribed to the power and skill of the Chaldean soothsayers. Thus accredited for their miraculous powers, they maintained their consequence in the courts of princes. The principal instrument which they employed in support of their superstition, was astrology. The Chaldeans were probably the first people who made regulars observations up on the heavenly bodies, and hence the appellation of Chaldean became afterward synonymous with that of astronomer. Nevertheless all their observations were applied to the sole purpose of establishing the credit of judicial astrology; and they employed their pretended skill in this art, in calculating nativities, foretelling the weather, predicting good and bad fortune, and other practices usual with impostors of this class. While they taught the vulgar that all human affairs are influenced by the stars, and professed to be acquainted with the nature and laws of their influence, and consequently to possess a power of prying into futurity, they encouraged much idle superstition, and many fraudulent practices. Hence other professors of these mischievous arts were afterward called Chaldeans, and the arts themselves were called Babylonian arts. Among the Romans these impostors were so troublesome, that, during the time of the republic, it became necessary to issue an edict requiring the Chaldeans, or mathematicians, (by which latter appellation they were commonly known,) to depart from Rome and Italy within ten days; and, afterward, under the emperors, these soothsayers were put under the most severe interdiction.

The Chaldean philosophy, notwithstanding the obscurity that has rendered it difficult of research, has been highly extolled, not only by the orientals and Greeks, but by Jewish and Christian writers: but upon recurring to authorities that are unquestionable, there seems to be little or nothing in this branch of the barbaric philosophy which deserves notice. The following brief detail will include the most interesting particulars. From the testimony of Diodorus, and also from other ancient authorities collected by Eusebius, it appears, that the Chaldeans believed in God, the Lord and Parent of all, by whose providence the world is governed. From this principle sprung their religious rites, the immediate object of which was a supposed race of spiritual beings or demons, whose existence could not have been imagined, without first conceiving the idea of a supreme Being, the source of all intelligence. The belief of a supreme Deity, the fountain of all the divinities which were supposed to preside over the several parts of the material world, was the true origin of all religious worship, however idolatrous, not excepting even that which consisted in paying divine honours to the memory of dead men. Beside the supreme Being, the Chaldeans supposed spiritual beings to exist, of several orders; gods, demons, heroes: these they probably distributed into subordinate classes, agreeably to their practice of theurgy or magic. The Chaldeans, in common with the eastern nations in general, admitted the existence of certain evil spirits, clothed in a vehicle of grosser matter; and in subduing or counteracting these, they placed a great part of the efficacy of their religious incantations. These doctrines were the mysteries of the Chaldean religion, imparted only to the initiated. Their popular religion consisted in the worship of the sun, moon, planets, and stars, as divinities, after the general practice of the east, Job 31:27 . From the religious system of the Chaldeans were derived two arts, for which they were long celebrated; namely, magic and astrology. Their magic, which should not be confounded with witchcraft, or a supposed intercourse with evil spirits, consisted in the performance of certain religious ceremonies or incantations, which were supposed, by the interposition of good demons, to produce supernatural effects. Their astrology was founded upon the chimerical principle, that the stars have an influence, either beneficial or malignant, upon the affairs of men, which may be discovered, and made the certain ground of prediction, in particular cases; and the whole art consisted in applying astronomical observations to this fanciful purpose, and thus imposing upon the credulity of the vulgar.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Chaldean Philosophy'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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Saturday, October 24th, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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