The text is known from a fifteenth century Syriac manuscript (Rylands Syriac MS). The original may have been written in Hebrew or Aramaic, although Aramaic is more likely if the provenance is Alexandria, as Charlesworth thinks it is. The book was dated by Charlesworth to the early twenties B.C. based on the implication the author knows the battle of Actium and some details of Anthony’s political maneuvering in Egypt. Collins, however, notes there is no clear evidence of this date and it could come from much later (Athens, 164, n. 37).
John Collins called the Treatise of Shem “the most striking endorsement of astrology by a Jewish author” (Athens, 42, n. 63). While astrology is generally associated with evil and demonic forces (1 Enoch 8.3, SibOr 3.220-236, Jub. 12), we find a remarkable number of zodiac-related material in Judaism. Despite the anti-astrology statement in 1 Enoch 8.3, 1 Enoch 72.1-37 adapts the zodiac signs as gateways or portals. The zodiac is also present at Qumran: 4QCryptic (4Q186): a man’s characteristics are determined by the zodiac sign under which he was born. A man born under the sign of Taurus, for example, will be poor and have long thin toes.
Interest in the zodiac may have been more common in Judaism than we expect: “paganism, at least via astrology, had become attractive to, and made an impression upon, numerous Jews during the Hellenistic and Roman periods” (Charlesworth, “Jewish Astrology”, 200 note 59, commenting on the work of David Flusser, “Paganism in Palestine” in The Jewish People in the First Century (Compendia rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum, section 1) 1065-1099).
Each section of the Treatise describes the year beginning in a particular sign of the Zodiac. These oracles are stereotypical, using several repeated elements important to describing the general year. Nearly every chapter has a reference to the flood of the Nile (only 10 and 11 are missing this feature.) The activities of Rome are important in chapters 1, 2 and 11, the activities of Egypt are found in 1, 2, 6 (Alexandria), 9, and 12.
A striking feature of many oracles is that people whose names contain certain Hebrew letters will have misfortunes if the year begins in a particular Zodiac sign. For example, in chapter 2, if the year begins in Taurus, all those whose names contain a Beth, Yod, of Kaph will become ill or be wounded by iron. This feature is found in every chapter except 4 and 5. There is a tacit acceptance of fate in this sort of text. The general flow of a year is determined by the sign of a Zodiac.
Since the text dates to just before the first century, the Treatise of Shem is important for New Testament studies in showing that at least some of the Jews were interested in astrology. While the text is clearly Diaspora (Egyptian as the interest in the Nile indicates), we know the Qumran community preserved similar texts dealing with astrological predictions (4QCryptic = 4Q186).
An example of astrology in the New Testament is the Magi from the east who used a star to known when the King of the Jews had been born. While the Treatise of Shem deals simply with general predictions based on the beginning of a year, other astrological texts appear to have been in use by Jews despite the prohibitions of the Law.
James Charlesworth, “Jewish Astrology in the Talmud, Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Early Palestinian Synagogues,” Harvard Theological Review 70 (July-Oct 1977) 183-200.
Francis Schmidt, “Ancient Jewish Astrology: An Attempt to Interpret 4QCryptic (4Q186),” in Biblical Perspectives (Leiden : E J Brill, 1998), 189-205.