When Was Jesus Born?
This will be a lengthy overview, but two things ought to be embedded in your mind as you continue to read this post:
The book of Revelation was written by an astral prophet: John the Apostle.
The birth of Jesus is conceptually and theologically linked to Genesis 6:1–4 and the sin of the “watchers”. In other words, the birth of Jesus would have alerted literate 1st century Jews that the Messiah’s arrival would reverse the sin of the “watchers”.
First, an extensive review of preliminary observations are needed, because we are now at the heart of this book, since it establishes and summarizes the core theme of the biblical epic: the war between God/his people and the dragon/his people, and between the Lamb and the beast. Scholars who research this section label it as an international myth, because stories resembling this can be found in virtually every religion of the ancient world. In other words, John draws from the combat myth motif, a story form that has many parallels in the literature of Israel’s neighbors. The basic plot line describes a dragon, often under the influence of another beast, elevating itself above the ruling god or gods. The dragon achieves a temporary victory, which results in a period of chaos. However, the defeated god [or a promised deliverer] conquers the dragon and reasserts the sovereignty of the appropriate ruling people. Here are some examples:
In Egypt, the mother goddess Isis is pursued by the red dragon Seth [or Typhon] and flees to an island, where she gives birth to the sun god, Horus.
In Ugaritic myth the storm god Baal defeats the seven–headed serpent Leviathan and sets up his kingdom.
In Mesopotamia, Marduk, the god of light, kills the seven–headed dragon Tiamat, who had thrown down “one–third” of the stars.
In Greco–Roman myth, the goddess Leto was pregnant with Apollo by Zeus. Her antagonist was Python the dragon, who tried to kill her in order to prevent her from giving birth. She was rescued by Poseidon [the north wind], which carried her away to the island of Delos in the Aegean Sea. There she gave birth to Apollo and Artemis, who received arrows as gifts. Four days later, Apollo pursued the dragon, soon slaying the monster to avenge his mother. This Leto–Apollo myth provides the closest parallel.
Here is Leto with Artemis and Apollo escaping from Python [from the 4th century b.c.]:
The main question is: why would John tell the story in mythical form? Yet this is not unusual in a biblical context. For example, titles of other gods are applied to God in the Old Testament [like the Baal title “cloud–rider” in Psalm 68:4], in order to say that God has conquered the other gods and taken their names. Thus, the purpose of this is evangelistic, that what the Greeks have known only as myth has now been actualized in history. In other words, the New Testament demythologizes Greco–Roman myth by historicizing it. What the pagans longed for in their myths has now become true in Jesus! Thus, the form is both deliberate and brilliant, using what scholars call a redemptive analogy to present the gospel in such a way as to capture the interest and hearts of the non–Christian reader. Thus, since scholars call this narrative a combat myth, it is because John unites several themes from ancient sources to develop this story about the dragon [v. 3] that produces chaos and disorder [v. 4] and then attacks the child [v. 4], the ruler [v. 5] who dies [v. 5] but recovers [v. 7]. The battle ensues and ends in victory [vv. 7–9], and order is both restored and confirmed [vv. 10–12], but the dragon still has his reign [vv. 12–17]. This is based on an ancient legendary mythic narrative pattern of combat between a hero and his adversary, or a primordial cosmic struggle between two divine beings and their allies for sovereignty. In mythical combats, the antagonist is often depicted as a monster, serpent, or dragon. The protagonist represents order and fertility, while the antagonist represents chaos and sterility. While the names of the combatants [as well as their roles] change from culture to culture, many of the constituent folklore motifs of the combat myth either remain constant or are subject to a limited range of variation. Some scholars have assumed that the common pattern exhibited by many combat myths suggests a unitary origin. They develop and use what is called a historical–geographical method, so that common patterns [when correlated with geographical distribution] provide them clues in their quest for the archetypal version. Other scholars instead opt for a chimerical–prototypical method. For example, the protagonist and antagonist were:
In Babylon: Marduk and Tiamat or Gilgamesh and Humbaba.
In Canaan: Baal and Yamm [Sea] or Baal and Mot [Death].
In Egypt: Osiris and Seth [or Typhon] or Rê [the Sun] and Apophis [the serpent representing night].
Likewise, the Greek world knew many versions of the combat myth, often narrated as a succession myth:
Ouranos and Kronos.
Zeus and Kronos.
Zeus and the Titans [the Titanomachy].
Zeus and the Giants [the Gigantomachy].
Otus and Ephialtes [giant sons of Zeus] tried to ascend to heaven, but were repulsed by Artemis.
Zeus and Typhoeus.
Bellerophon and the Chimaera.
Helios and Phaethon [particularly important for Revelation 12].
Apollo and Python.
Satan becomes the chief adversary only in early Jewish apocalyptic literature and in the New Testament [1 Peter 5:8], though never in the Old Testament. Various versions of the combat myth were adopted from other cultures and adapted to Israelite–Jewish traditions at various times and places throughout the history of Judaism. Canaanite myths of the struggle between Baal and Yamm/Mot [understood as chaoskampf, or the “struggle against chaos”] were causally connected with creation [Psalm 74:12–17; 89:9–14; Job 26]. In these poetic passages, the conflicts were transposed into stories of God’s conquest of Leviathan [the Hebrew liwyātān]. This word is related to the Ugaritic term ltn for “dragon.” In Isaiah and Ezekiel, language from the cosmic rebellion aspect of this combat myth was used metaphorically to describe Israel’s historical enemies [Isaiah 14:10–15; Ezekiel 28:1–9]. Egypt or its Pharaoh was designated as the primordial dragon Rahab [Isaiah 30:7; 51:9–10; Ps 87:4] or the dragon Tannin [Ezekiel 29:3–5; 32:2–8; Isaiah 27:1]. The application of language drawn from the primordial cosmic rebellion myths to the historical enemies of Israel is based on the perception of the paradigmatic character of the original conflict. Israel’s memory of Egypt as an oppressor, coupled with the divine delivery through water that constituted the Exodus [compare Isaiah 51:9–11 with Exodus 15:1–8], provided the link that made it possible to describe the historical conflict in mythical terms. The sea and rivers were used as metaphors for Assyria [Isaiah 17:12–14; 8:5–8] and Babylon [Habakkuk 3:8–10, 15]. Babylon was also designated as a sea monster [Jeremiah 51:34]. Further, the cosmic waters are a designation of hostile nations in general [Psalm 18:5–18; 46:3–4; 144:5–7]. God was expected to do to Israel’s current historical enemies what he once did in the distant past to his mythological enemies. In proto–apocalyptic texts, God will repeat his primordial victories of the past: “At that time, with his fierce, mighty, and powerful sword, the Lord will punish the gliding serpent Leviathan—the coiling serpent Leviathan—and he will kill the dragon that’s in the sea.” [Isaiah 27:1]
Thus, such texts show the way in which eschatological combat myths were developed out of protological combat myths. In Daniel 7, the four beasts from the sea represent Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece; these beasts are conquered by divine intervention [v. 12], with the introduction of an everlasting kingdom represented by the “Son of Man” figure [vv. 13–14]. Thus, recall Genesis 6:1–4 and the apkallu context of the “watchers.” That passage in particular was reinterpreted as a cosmic rebellion myth in 2nd Temple literature [for example, 1 Enoch] and thereafter became an essential part of early Jewish apocalyptic tradition. Specifically, we saw in 1 Enoch 6–11 how 200 “watchers” [led by Semihazeh], rebel against God by lusting after mortal women, who conceive giants and bring evil to the earth. Azazel, who comes to the fore as a leader of the “watchers,” is bound and thrown into an abyss where he is to be confined in darkness until the great day of judgment when he will be cast into fire [1 Enoch 10:1–6]. In fact, this has similarities with the Prometheus myth. The initial binding of Azazel coincides with the judgment of the flood [1 Enoch 10:2]. In a parallel story, Semihazeh and the rest of the “watchers” are bound and confined in the abyss until the day of judgment, when they will be cast into eternal fire [1 Enoch 10:11–14]. After this, a period of perpetual righteousness and peace will dawn upon the earth [1 Enoch 10:16–11:2]. Thus, the primary function of these myths is to account for the origin of evil in the world. Hence, what we see in John’s version of the combat myth is an exalted divine being challenging the power of God and now has control of earth. Jesus functions as the divine warrior who [though Satan attempts to defeat him through his crucifixion] has freed humanity from the tyranny of Satan, though his final banishment has yet to take place. Thus, the atonement is based on divine conflict and victory. Jesus fights against all the evil powers in the world [that enslave humans in bondage and suffering], and decisively triumphs over them, thereby reconciling the world to himself.
In summary: John’s use of the combat myth has been discussed by a number of scholars who have proposed that various myths from particular ancient cultures were incorporated into it, especially the following:
Babylonian combat myth involving Damkina–Marduk–Tiamat.
Greek combat myth involving Apollo–Leto–Python.
Egyptian combat myth involving Isis–Osiris–Horus–Seth.
There are a number of important issues that need to be raised in this quest for the oral and literary traditions that have influenced John:
Is it reasonable to suppose that John would have used pagan traditions in addition to Old Testament Jewish traditions, either directly or mediated through Hellenistic Judaism?
Are the parallels with pagan myths phenomenological, or are there genetic historical links indicating that John has actually borrowed from pagan sources?
Did John base his narrative on a single coherent myth, or did he create a pastiche based on a variety of ancient mythical traditions?
We can answer these questions using the Greek myth: “Python, offspring of Terra, was a huge dragon who, before the time of Apollo, used to give oracular responses on Mount Parnassus. Death was fated to come to him from the offspring of Leto. At that time Zeus lay with Leto, daughter of Coeus. When Hera found this out, she decreed that Leto should give birth at a place where the sun did not shine. When Python knew that Leto was pregnant by Zeus, he followed her to kill her. But by order of Zeus the wind Boreas carried Leto away, and bore her to Poseidon. He protected her, but in order not to make void Zeus’s decree, he took her to the island Ortygia, and covered the island with waves. When Python did not find her, he returned to Parnassus. But Poseidon brought the island of Ortygia up to a higher position; it was later called the island of Delos. There Leto, clinging to an olive tree, bore Apollo and Artemis, to whom Hephaestus gave arrows as gifts. Four days after they were born, Apollo exacted vengeance for his mother. For he went to Parnassus and slew Python with his arrows. Because of this deed he is called Pythian. He put Python’s bones in a caldron, deposited them in his temple, and instituted the funeral games for him which are called Pythian.”
Thus, some scholars argue that there was a distinctive form of this myth of the birth of Apollo and Artemis on the Island of Patmos, where John may have become familiar with it. These scholars then highlight nine constituent motifs of the combat myth by John:
The dragon [v. 3].
Chaos and disorder [v. 4].
The attack [v. 4].
The ruler [v. 5].
The ruler’s death [v. 5].
Recovery of the ruler [v. 7].
Battle renewed and victory [vv. 7–9].
Restoration and confirmation of order [vv. 10–12].
The dragon’s reign [vv. 12–17].
Scholars then summarize the version of the Leto–Apollo myth:
Reason for Python’s attack: possession of oracle.
Zeus impregnates Leto.
Python pursues Leto to kill her.
Zeus orders north wind [Poseidon] to rescue Leto.
Poseidon aids Leto.
Birth of Apollo and Artemis.
Apollo defeats Python.
Apollo establishes Pythian Games.
Thus, here is a brief analysis of the overlapping motifs by John:
A woman on the point of giving birth [v. 2].
A dragon intends to devour the child [v. 4].
Birth of the child [v. 5].
Kingship of the child [v. 5].
Woman is aided by God [v. 6].
Woman is aided by the large eagle [v. 14].
Woman is aided by the earth [v. 16].
Michael defeats the dragon [vv. 7–9].
However, other scholars note flaws in this analysis:
It does not end with the defeat of the dragon [but in Revelation 20].
The woman flees not to an island but to the wilderness.
The woman gives birth before she flees, not after.
In the Greek myth, the motivation for Python to pursue Leto is to prevent the birth of her twins. But here there is no obvious motivation for the dragon to pursue the woman after she has given birth and after her child has been snatched away to heaven.
The designation of the child as the “ruler” [v. 5] is hardly appropriate for a mere cameo role in such a narrative.
Similarly, to speak of the death of the “ruler” [v. 5] is also inappropriate, for the child was in fact “snatched” by God to heaven and “to his throne.”
Thus, in the context of the Greek myth, John has not used a coherent pagan myth; rather he has created a pastiche of mythological motifs. The use of these motifs from Greek mythology in this way constitutes a kind of narrative polemic in which Greek stories are shown to validate important aspects of the Christian gospel. In fact, John also carefully adds elements from the Old Testament so as to fill out the truths entailed in the story.
Now that we have the background combat myth context in mind, we next turn to John as an astral prophet, and how this fits directly into the timing of the birth of Jesus. In fact, the birth of Jesus is conceptually and theologically linked to Genesis 6:1–4 and the sin of the “watchers.” The birth of Jesus would have alerted 1st century Jews that the arrival of the messiah would reverse the sin of the “watchers.” Our starting place is in Romans 10:5–18, where Paul is clearly describing the necessity of believing in Jesus for salvation [vv. 9–10]. But in order to believe in Jesus, people must hear about Jesus. Paul then raises the expected objection: not everyone has heard about Jesus. Paul then gives an unexpected fascinating answer to this objection. He asserts that they have heard about Jesus [v. 18]. How is this possible? The answer is in Paul’s use of Psalm 19. Paul was not arguing that the story of the cross was in the starry heavens, but that the stars communicated the arrival of a divine messianic king! In that sense, Paul believes it was possible for the news about the coming of Jesus to be known to everyone. His task in the gospel was to explain what that coming meant, particularly with respect to the cross. Thus, for Paul, there were people who understood the arrival of a Jewish messianic king. Thus, David writes: “The heavens are declaring the glory of God, and their expanse shows the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech, night after night they reveal knowledge. There is no speech nor are there words—their voice is not heard—yet their line goes out into all the world, and their words to the ends of the earth.”
The “line” is the astronomical ecliptic. Notice that David says the heavens communicate information. Thus, this takes us into the ancient concept of astral theology, a subset of which is astral prophecy. In briefest terms, and with respect to a biblical perspective [as opposed to the pagan conception], astral theology was the idea that God made the celestial objects in the heavens [the sun, moon, and stars] to act as “signs for seasons, days, and years” [Genesis 1:14]. There is a good deal of evidence [from zodiac mosaics in ancient Jewish synagogues], that 2nd Temple Jews believed that divine activity and earthly events could be discerned in the skies. This is activity that they were careful to attribute to the true God. For example, here is the mosaic floor of a 4th century synagogue in Tiberius Galilee.
At the bottom, near the entrance, a set of Greek inscriptions honours the donors of the mosaic. To the right and left of the names of the donors stand two lions. The large middle panel has at its corners four female figures representing the seasons of the year. In the round medallion set into the square panel is a full zodiac with all 12 signs. A fallen wall has bisected the panel. The zodiac is to be read counter–clockwise with its first panel [centre left] at the very top. In the centre of the zodiac is Jesus with rays streaming from his head, driving his chariot directly to the observer. The top panel depicts the Torah shrine with two menorah and other holy objects.
Thus, how did Paul think the heavens communicated the coming of Jesus? And how did gentile people [like the Magi] know when to look for the birth of Jesus [as Paul argued that they did in Romans 10:18]? The answer is in understanding the Star of Bethlehem. At that time, the Chinese were the only ones that recorded the heavens. There were no bright stars that appeared when Herod was alive. This leads us to the Magi, astrologer priests of the Zoroastrian religion in Persia. Their astronomy was in signs of the positions of the planets that would go unnoticed to the Jews. Conjunctions where two or more planets gathered together were the most powerful of these configurations. There was an extremely close conjunction between Jupiter and Venus in 3/2 b.c. But, all of this depends on the death date of Herod the Great. Scholars argue for his death date to be on the 13th of March in 4 b.c. But newer scholarly re–evaluations are challenging this date, re–positioning it to the 28th of January in 1 b.c. Incidentally, these re–evaluations also solve the Quirinius census problem in Luke 2. Josephus [1st century Jewish historian] is the only source we have for timing the death date of Herod. He writes about Herod dying after a lunar eclipse [but before a Passover feast]. Thus, the problem with the 4 b.c. lunar eclipse is that there was only one lunar month between that eclipse and the Passover feast which begins on the day of the full moon. Since it was a slight partial eclipse occurring in the morning, it would not have been very noticeable to the general population. Josephus records many events that transpire between that eclipse and the Passover feast. According to Josephus, the eclipse is mentioned in connection with the burning of Matthias and his companions for sedition. Then Herod became ill. His doctors suggested that he go to the baths at Callirrhoe. He took their advise and crossed the Jordan River [since Herod resided in Jericho, it takes ~20 km to travel there and back]. Later on, Herod gave his kingdom to his son Archclaus and died ~5 days after having Antipater executed. If his death date was on the 13th of March in 4 b.c., this allows room for ~29 days that we see all the events above take place. Instead, the next lunar eclipse that occurred on the 10th of January in 1 b.c. was a total lunar eclipse that was seen most of the night. There were three lunar months between that eclipse and the Passover that year, therefore plenty of time for all of Herod’s final activities, having ~90 days for all the events to take place. Thus, the lunar eclipse on the 10th of January in 1 b.c fits better. Notice the visual differences between the two:
This fits with many early Christians placing the birth of Jesus in 3/2 b.c:
Irenaeus [2nd century Bishop of Lyons] says 3/2 b.c.
Clement [2nd century] says 3/2 b.c.
Tertullian [2nd century] says 3/2 b.c.
Julius Africanus [2nd century] says 3/2 b.c.
Hippolytus [3rd century] says 3/2 b.c.
Origen [3rd century] says 3/2 b.c.
Eusebius [3rd century Bishop of Caesarea] says 3/2 b.c.
Epiphanius of Salamis [4th century Bishop of Salamis] says 3/2 b.c.
Orosius [5th century] says 2 b.c.
Cassiodorus [6th century] says 3 b.c.
Thus, returning back to the Star of Bethlehem, on the 12th of August in 3 b.c., Jupiter [the king planet] and Venus briefly merged in the early morning skies against the constellation of Leo [the zodiacal sign of Judah]. From September 3 b.c. to May 2 b.c., Jupiter made three conjunctions with Regulus [the king star in Leo]. These three conjunctions would have shown Jupiter making a type of crowning effect over the star Regulus.
Then ~9 months later [coincidentally the human gestation period], after sunset on the 17th of June in 2 b.c., the two planets again joined as one in Leo. Notice that Matthew records: “After listening to the king, they set out, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.” [Matthew 2:9] This “star” [which is Jupiter] came and “stopped” over the place where Jesus was. At first this seems impossible for an astronomical object, but not to an astronomer. Simply, this is Jupiter reaching its stationary points at the beginning and end of its retrograde motion, as seen in this diagram:
Jupiter becomes stationary at its times for retrogression and progression. When we look at Jupiter we see the planet normally moving eastward. This apparent movement is called proper motion. However, the earth is moving in its orbit around the sun faster than that of Jupiter. When the earth reaches point A, an observer would see Jupiter nearly along the same line as the earth’s own orbital movement. When the earth is travelling more or less in a direct line toward Jupiter, the planet will continue to show proper motion. But when earth reaches point B, it is no longer heading toward Jupiter. The faster velocity of the earth as it makes its turn to B and beyond, causes the apparent motion of Jupiter to slow down. This continues until the earth reaches point C. At that point the speed of the earth in relation to Jupiter is the same as Jupiter’s. That is when Jupiter appears to become stationary within the background of the stars. As the earth progresses from points C to D, it has greater relative speed than Jupiter and this causes Jupiter to retrogress. Thus, Jupiter reverses its motion and travels westward. However, at point D, the speed of the earth and Jupiter are again matched [relative to each other] and Jupiter stops its reverse motion. When point D is passed, Jupiter returns to proper motion. Here is the astronomical pattern that emerges:
The times are expressed in UTC [or +3 hours for local time in Babylon]. The northernmost planet is listed first. Angular separations are expressed in degrees and arc–minutes [1 arc–minute = 1/60th of a degree]. Notice the triple occultation [or obscuring] of Regulus [the brightest star in Leo], by Jupiter, on the 11th of September in 3 b.c., the 17th of February in 2 b.c., and the 8th of May in 2 b.c. This triple occultation of Regulus refers to that crowning effect mentioned earlier.
On the 12th of August in 3 b.c., Venus and Jupiter are in their 1st conjunction, visible low in the eastern twilight before sunrise. Both are moving eastward against the stars. This is what the Magi described when they met Herod [Matthew 2:1–2].
On the 11th of September in 3 b.c., Jupiter and Regulus are in their 1st conjunction. It is on this date that Jesus was born. Thus, as Jesus began his ministry in October/November of 28 a.d., he was ~2 months past his 30th birthday [precisely as in Luke 3:23].
On the 17th of February in 2 b.c., Jupiter and Regulus are in their 2nd conjunction, as Jupiter is in retrograde motion.
On the 8th of May in 2 b.c., Jupiter and Regulus are in their 3rd conjunction.
On the 17th of June in 2 b.c., Venus and Jupiter are in their 2nd conjunction, appearing to merge into a single star low in the west at sunset. This is the Star of Bethlehem! Jesus is ~9 months old.
Thus, it was on the 25th of December in 2 b.c. at 7:00 am that Jupiter was in retrograde and appeared to stop in Virgo. This was the day when the Magi visited Jesus [Matthew 2:9–12], because when they saw Jupiter [the king planet] ahead of them to the south [sitting 65° above the horizon], it appeared to stop over the town of Bethlehem! Thus, it was the 1st conjunction on the 12th of August in 3 b.c. that set the Magi on their journey. Magi were known to have knowledge of planetary motions, and they could indeed calculate and predict the 2nd conjunction that would occur ~10 months later. Thus, they timed their journey to arrive around that 2nd conjunction [Matthew 2:3–6]. It is a reading from Micah 5:2 that sends them to David's birthplace: Bethlehem. As they left Jerusalem, the Magi saw the star again [Matthew 2:7–9]. Here we see v. 9 describing Jupiter’s move and then halt in its retrograde motion on 25th of December in 2 b.c., over Bethlehem. Even more fascinating is that this date took place in the season of Hanukkah, and thus is the date later chosen to celebrate Christmas! This was an 8–day celebration feast.
Bede [7th century] writes: “The first dedication of the temple was by Solomon in the autumn; the second was by Zerubbabel and the priest Joshua around that same time of year; a third dedication was conducted by Judas Maccabeus during the winter time when he instituted an annual commemoration of the dedication and cleansing of the temple by the priests.”
In 2 b.c., Hanukkah began on the 23rd of December. The Magi gave their gifts to Jesus on the 3rd day of the Jewish festival. This is a significant and symbolic time to present their gifts to the messianic king. This is because Hanukkah is a time for gift giving. From a Jewish context, there would have been no better time for the Magi to present their gifts to the Jewish messiah. Furthermore, the Jews would not have been honouring the season as devoted to the renewal of pagan gods. For the Jews, it was their time to celebrate their triumph over the idolatry of the gentiles and the renewal of their lives to the God of Israel. Thus, notice that Matthew records a specific age–range for all the male children that Herod wanted to murder, specifically those: “who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had determined from the wise men” [Matthew 2:16].
Jesus was ~1.25 years old when Herod died on the 28th of January in 1 b.c. Thus, how did the Magi know to look for a star that would hail the birth of a Jewish messiah? The answer is amazing and simple: Daniel in Babylon. Daniel was always associated with Babylonian astrologers [Daniel 1:19–20; 2:12–13, 47; 4:7–9; 5:11–12], since Nebuchadnezzar made Daniel the head of all the astrologers of Babylon. A day came when Daniel was able to save the lives of all of the Babylonian astrologers. Nebuchadnezzar had an unusual dream. When the astrologers were unable to interpret his dream, he sentenced every one of them to execution [Daniel 2:12]. Among the ones arrested were Daniel and his three friends, because from the viewpoint of the Babylonians, these four Hebrews were part of the Babylonian School of Astrology, thus to be executed. But Daniel requested an audience with the king, and he received it. Then Daniel successfully interpreted the dream of Nebuchadnezzar, and saved the lives of all the other astrologers. This is how he became the head of the Babylonian School of Astrology [Daniel 2:48]. Since Daniel himself mentioned the Mosaic law [Daniel 9:11–13], a line of Babylonian astrologers from generation to generation would know about the prophecies of Balaam, specifically the one that says: “I can see him, but not right now. I observe him, but from a distance. A star streams forth from Jacob; a sceptre arises from Israel. He will crush Moab's forehead, along with all of Seth's descendants.” [Numbers 24:17]. The term “sceptre” is a symbol of royalty and kingship. This “star” that would rise out of Jacob, represents a divine king. It was the tribe of Judah [the Lion] that was prophesied to possess this sceptre in Israel [Genesis 49:9–10]. The only star in the heavens that fits this combination mentioned by Balaam is the star Regulus [the king star]. Furthermore, even more significant is that Balaam came from the city of Pethor, a city on the banks of the Euphrates River in Babylonia [Numbers 22:5; Deuteronomy 23:4].
Thus, we have a double Babylonian connection:
Daniel who spelled out how many years would transpire before the birth of the Jewish messiah [the 70 weeks in Daniel 9].
The prophecy of the Babylonian astrologer Balaam about a “star.”
Thus, what would have alerted the Magi before these significant conjunctions in 3/2 b.c.? The answer lies in a very rare triple conjunction [where two planets meet each other three times in a short period] in 7 b.c., of Jupiter and Saturn. In other words, since ancient astronomers believed that the Earth was the centre of the universe, they thought that the sun, moon, and the five visible planets [Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn] circled around the Earth at different distances and speeds. Farthest away was the great celestial sphere in which the stars and constellations they formed were embedded. Thus, the constellations on the celestial sphere appeared as a backdrop to the sun, moon, and planets as they moved across the heavens.
Evidence for how ancient astronomers would have understood this conjunction in 7 b.c., has been revealed by excavations in Babylon uncovering clay tablets bearing astronomical computations for that year. A cuneiform celestial almanac from Sippar predicted the triple conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars in 7 b.c., where at the beginning of the year, Jupiter and Saturn were continuously visible in Pisces for ~11 months. The movements, stationary points, risings and settings of both planets are accurately registered month by month. They came at 1° and 4 arcminutes on the 29th of May, the 29th of September, and the 4th of December.
The ~11 month conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces is an extremely rare event, occurring only once every 800 years. A triple conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter has been observed only twice, in 786 a.d. and 1583 a.d. However, for the ancient Babylonian Magi, the conjunction was not only important astronomically, but astrologically and politically. In the Babylonian system, Jupiter, the largest and brightest planet, was known as the star of Marduk, the supreme god of Babylon. Saturn, the 2nd largest planet, was the star of the king, the earthly representative of the god. The Babylonians called Saturn kaiwanu which means “the steady one.” We see evidence for this from the Old Testament: “And you carried the tent of your king—and Saturn, your star god idols that you crafted for yourselves” [Amos 5:26]. The constellation Pisces was associated with Ea, the god of wisdom, life, and creation. Pisces was also the last sign in the zodiac, the last constellation that the sun passes through. Therefore, they believed that the conjunction of the planets in Pisces accordingly portended two things:
The end of the old world order.
The birth of a new saviour king chosen by their chief god.
This is because Babylonian astronomers applied their mathematical skills to the calculation of the positions of the planets and produced [as was their regular practice] an almanac for the year 241 of the Arsacid Era, which corresponds to year 305 of the Seleucid Era [or in modern terms, March of 7 b.c. to March of 6 b.c.]. Thus, they discovered that Jupiter and Saturn would reside together in the constellation Pisces for ~11 months. During that time they would come into conjunction three times, surely a series of propitious omens. Why? Because it is at this time that the priests of Marduk knew that Babylon was fallen. The city lay in ruins, and jackals ran where royal chariots once drove. Only rubble remained of the tower that once reached toward heaven. Weeds sent out their parched roots in vain search of moisture where water once rose to the hanging gardens. Where Hammurabi styled himself “King of the Universe,” the Parthians now ruled. Yet on this sacred ground faithful priests still observed the ancient ways.
Pliny the Elder [1st century Roman author] writes: “Babylon, the capital of the nations of Chaldea, long enjoyed the greatest celebrity of all cities throughout the whole world: and it is from this place that the remaining parts of Mesopotamia and Assyria received the name of Babylonia. The circuit of its walls, which were 200 feet in height, was 60 miles. These walls were also 50 feet in breadth, reckoning to every foot three fingers breadth beyond the ordinary measure of our foot. The river Euphrates flowed through the city, with quays of marvellous workmanship erected on either side. The temple there of Jupiter Belus is still in existence; he was the first inventor of the science of Astronomy. In all other respects it has been reduced to a desert, having been drained of its population in consequence of its vicinity to Seleucia, founded for that purpose by Nicator, at a distance of ninety miles, on the confluence of the Tigris and the canal that leads from the Euphrates.”
Pliny calls Marduk “Jupiter” because the highest Babylonian god was identified with the highest Roman god; and “Belus” because the Babylonians considered the name Marduk too holy for profane use, substituting the term “Bel” [meaning “Lord”] in common usage. Thus, standing on the wall of the Esagila [Marduk’s temple], in the ruins of Babylon on the 29th of May in 7 b.c., astrologers could see Jupiter and Saturn rise above the eastern horizon in Pisces ~2 hours after midnight, only 1° separating them. Jupiter was the star guided by their god Marduk, and dimmer Saturn was the steady star of the king. Since this conjunction was in Pisces, it meant that the realm of the gods was appointing a new king, who would bring about a new world order. As the light from the two planets near the horizon was distorted and colored by the roiling currents of hot air from the ground, from time to time the astrologers saw a beam of light flash from the brilliant Jupiter down toward Saturn. These flashes looked rather like the hand of Jupiter reaching down to grasp the hand of Saturn. They interpreted this as Marduk taking the hand of the newborn king to raise him to the throne and make him lord of the nations.
This again has a biblical parallel, since the expression “take by the hand” was used in ancient texts both for the God of Israel and the god Marduk taking the hand of Cyrus to make him king and conqueror. In the Cyrus cylinder, Marduk searches the whole land looking for a righteous prince to take his hand and rule the land. Likewise, we read from Isaiah: “This is what the LORD says to his anointed, Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him, as I strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him and gates that cannot keep closed” [Isaiah 45:1]. In a similar way, God takes the hand of his mysterious servant [later identified as Jesus], and destines him to be a light to the nations [Isaiah 42:6]. Thus, the prediction of such a king would have held wide interest in 7 b.c., when a power vacuum prevailed during this time. The Seleucid Empire created by the successors of Alexander the Great had collapsed in 64 b.c., and its remnants, which included Judea, had been annexed to Rome as a province named Syria. However, the power of Rome had not yet been consolidated in the area. Even after Augustus changed Rome into an autocratic monarchy in 27 b.c., his authority was questioned in the East, for the Roman emperor, unlike the Seleucid kings and their predecessors, did not derive his authority from God. For this reason, many people considered Roman rule illegitimate and hoped that a local Near Eastern king appointed by God would drive the Romans out of the country and create a better world. Thus, the triple conjunction in 7 b.c. would have been interpreted as a portent of the birth of this Near Eastern king. When the year 7 b.c. began, Jupiter was already visible in the night sky. Saturn appeared soon after on the 3rd of April. The planets met for the first time on the 29th of May. The second meeting of the planets occurred on the 29th of September, where Mars would also move into the constellation Pisces while Jupiter and Saturn were still together there. Mars was the planet of Amurru [meaning Syria–Palestine in the West]; hence this second meeting would have inspired the Magi to head in that direction. The third conjunction occurred at the time of the full moon, on the 4th of December, ~3 weeks before the winter solstice, when the Babylonians held their annual celebration of the victory of their saviour god Nabu, over the forces of darkness. The Magi may well have associated the birth of the child they were looking for with this festival, for the Mesopotamian king was commonly regarded as an incarnation of Nabu. Interestingly, the Babylonians proclaimed Nabu’s victory as bussurtu which means “good news” [the same meaning as the Hebrew word bĕśōrâ for “gospel”]. Thus, after the triple conjunction in 7 b.c., and because of the later confirmation of the Venus and Jupiter conjunction on the 12th of August in 3 b.c., the Magi understood the message of Balaam’s “star” [that a messiah–king would be born in Syria–Palestine], and they headed to a leading political centre in the region: Herod’s court. Indeed, the Magi would have rejoiced over the good news [or bussurtu], since their saviour king was born! Indeed, when “they saw the star, they were ecstatic with joy” [Matthew 2:10]. This finally leads us to John’s visions in our study here.
Starting with vv. 1–2, it is quite clear that the signs in the heavens are indisputably astronomical: sun, moon, and stars. The key figure [and logical starting point] is the “woman.” John depicts the “woman” using elements from both Jewish and Greco–Roman traditions, and there are four main ways of understanding her identity [apart from the astrology]:
The People of God In this interpretation, the woman represents a community rather than an individual. Some of her traits are those of ancient Israel. The initial scene pictures the woman suffering the pain of labor, which was an image for Israel’s distress [Isaiah 26:17; Jeremiah 4:31]. Her child is the messianic ruler, who comes from Israel [Psalm 2:9]. Later, the woman’s experience is like that of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, for she escapes danger and is carried on an eagle’s wings into the desert, where she is nourished, much as Israel was fed with manna [later in vv. 13–17; Exodus 16:4; 19:4]. Yet the woman’s children are those who keep the commandments of God and the witness of Jesus, which means that her identity is broad enough to encompass the Christian community [later in v. 17]. This approach fits this book, which uses traits of the 12 tribes and those of the followers of Jesus for the community as a whole [recall Revelation 7:1–17]. Personifying a people or city as a female figure was common. For John, Babylon is depicted as a whore, and the New Jerusalem as a bride [later in Revelation 17:1–6; 19:7–8; 21:9]. Biblically, Israel or Zion was depicted as a wife, mother, or daughter [Isaiah 52:2; 66:7–8; Jeremiah 4:31; 6:23–24; Lamentations 1:6; Micah 4:10; Zephaniah 3:13]. In ancient art, Rome could appear as a woman at ease on seven hills, and conquered nations were depicted as female captives. Thus, the image of the woman clothed with the sun, conveys the situation of a group by personification as a single figure.
The Christian Church The woman has a crown of 12 stars, which could signify the 12 apostles, and her children keep the testimony of Jesus [later in v. 17], so she could represent the church. The problem with this approach is how the church can be pictured giving birth to the messiah. Ancient scholars took the child’s birth as a symbol of Jesus being born in the hearts of believers through faith [Galatians 4:19]. A more recent proposal notes that the child is to rule the nations with an iron rod [v. 5], an image used for Jesus and his followers, who share in his reign [recall Revelation 2:27–28]. Other scholars suggest that the agony of giving birth simply describes the affliction of the Christian community [John 16:19–23]. These suggestions are unlikely because the many layers of biblical images noted above relate the woman’s identity to the broader story of Israel, not only the church.
Mary If the messianic child is Jesus, one might assume that the woman is Mary [v. 5]. The Marian interpretation emerged during the patristic period and was later popularized by linking this vision to the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Those who relate the vision to Mary suggest that the dragon is Herod the Great, who sought to kill the infant Jesus, and that the woman’s escape into the wilderness is the family’s journey into Egypt [Matthew 2:13–18]. A variation is that the woman Mary represents the whole church. A more cautious assessment is that on a primary level the woman personifies the people of God collectively and that on a secondary level there may be allusions to Mary, since she gave birth to the messiah. From a literary perspective, the reminiscences of the mother of Jesus as an individual may contribute to the portrait of God’s people as a whole. The pattern is similar to including the traits of Moses, Elijah, and other individual figures in the portrait of John’s two witnesses, who also signify God’s people [recall Revelation 11:3–6], and weaving traits of Nero into the portrait of the beast, which signifies the imperial system.
The Jewish Community Some scholars suggest that the woman is Israel, where the sun, moon, and stars recall the dream of Joseph [Genesis 37:9–11], and Israel is seen as a woman in labor [Isaiah 26:17–18]. Thus, the escape of the woman recalls how the Jewish community escaped destruction when the Romans conquered Jerusalem in 70 a.d., and later had a protected status within the empire. At the same time, the Christians, who were offspring of Judaism, suffered persecution, like the woman’s other children, who are threatened by the Roman dragon.
Thus, since the woman gives birth to the messianic figure [Jesus] and then is persecuted and has to flee into the desert, scholars agree that this woman is a picture of the faithful community [Israel], which existed both before and after the coming of Jesus. Israel is described as the virgin of Zion in the Old Testament and produces the messiah in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy [2 Kings 19:21; Isaiah 37:21; Jeremiah 14:17; 18:13; 31:4, 21; Amos 5:2; Lamentations 1:15; 2:13]. Since Mary is a Jewish girl who gives birth to Jesus, Israel as a “virgin” best fits the description of this woman in heaven. Why? Because the connection to Israel as a “virgin” is important given that the signage would have to be decipherable to Jews at the time of the birth of Jesus. At that time, Mary’s circumstances would have been entirely unknown. The meaning of the “virgin” and the 12 stars around her head is evident in 2nd Temple literature, as well as later rabbinic thought. The woman is featured as being “in” heaven and both the “sun” and the “moon” are associated with her, where she is “dressed” with the sun, along with 12 stars around her head, and the moon is “under her feet.” Thus, she is an astronomical sign. Interpreting astronomical signs dominated the thinking of most people in the 1st century, whether the people were Jews or Gentiles [like the Magi]. Indeed, the Greek word sēmeion for “spectacular sign” used by John to describe this celestial display means “constellation”! In this context, the “spectacular sign” is an empirical phenomenon disclosing theological truths while also concerning the details of a stellar constellation. Thus, the idea that the woman is a constellation is made plausible when one looks more closely at the text. The description that the woman was “dressed” with the sun is stock astronomical language for the sun being in the midst of a constellation. While the sun is in the woman, the moon is at her feet. For this situation to occur, the constellation of the woman must be [in astronomical language] on the ecliptic, the imaginary line in the sky that the sun and moon follow in their journey through the zodiac constellations. Notice that this is consistent with Paul’s use of Psalm 19:4, that the stars communicating via a “line” that goes out in the heavens, is the ecliptic. What John saw indicates that the position of the sun was located somewhere mid–bodied to the woman, between the neck and the knees. Thus, the constellation Virgo is the only female figure in the zodiac and is the 3rd largest of all the constellations after Argo Navis and Hydra.
The constellation consists mostly of rather faint stars spread over a wide area. The brightest star is Spica, a stunning 1st magnitude star halfway down the constellation, close to the ecliptic. The next brightest stars in the constellation are the 3rd magnitude Gamma [γ] Virginis, Epsilon [ε] Virginis, and Delta [δ] Virginis, and the 4th magnitude Beta [β] Virginis. The constellation was called AB.SIN [meaning “seed furrow”] by the Mesopotamians [a direct reference to its association with agriculture and fertility], Parthenos by the Greeks, Virgo by the Romans, and Bethulah by the Jews.
The Mesopotamians and Greeks depicted the constellation as a young maiden who carried an ear of grain in her left hand. The ear of grain was particularly closely associated with Spica and reflects the fact that historically the constellation [and Spica in particular], was linked to the start of the grain harvest. Often Virgo was believed to hold a palm branch in her right hand. Greeks and many in the ancient Near East imagined her to have wings. The constellation was associated with Ishtar/Asherah, Athena, Demeter, Atargatis, Tyche, Dike, Justa, Astraea, Juno, and Isis. Thus, how did the ancient astronomers picture Virgo relative to the stars of her constellation? The answer is that we have four depictions of Virgo. Here are the first three from the 2nd century b.c. to the 2nd century a.d.
The 1st version of Virgo was described by Hipparchus [2nd century b.c. Greek astronomer]. Beginning at the bottom of the constellation, he regarded her feet as corresponding to the stars Mu [μ] Virginis and Lambda [λ] Virginis, the lower part of the shoulders as Gamma [γ] Virginis and Delta [δ] Virginis, and the top star in her head as Xi [ξ] Virginis. This conceptualization of Virgo is unquestionably the most bizarre, since it requires Virgo to have either an extraordinarily long neck, or a massive head. In fact, in his analysis, the distance from the top star in her head to the star in her right shoulder is the same as the distance from her left elbow to her left foot!
Ptolemy [2nd century Greek astronomer] revised this 1st version of Virgo, and his depiction became the 2nd version: “We do not employ the same figures of the constellations that our predecessors did, just as they did not employ the same figures as their predecessors. But in many cases we make use of different figures that more appropriately represent the forms for which they are drawn. For instance, those stars which Hipparchus places ‘on the Virgin’s shoulder’ we place ‘on her side’ [in other words, while Ptolemy does describe Delta [δ] Virginis as on Virgo’s right side, under the girdle, he portrays Gamma [γ] Virginis as in the left wing, but he probably meant that the star was both on Virgo’s wing and on her side] because their distance from the stars in her head seems too great for the distance from the head to the shoulder in his constellation of Virgo. And so, by making those stars to be on her sides, the figure will be agreeable and appropriate, which it would not be if those stars were drawn ‘on her shoulders.’”
However, in decreasing the size of Virgo’s neck and head, Ptolemy introduced a new problem: Virgo’s torso and arms became disproportionately long! In other words, the distance from the star on her left side, Gamma [γ] Virginis, to her left hand, Alpha [α] Virginis, is greater than the distance from her left hand, Alpha [α] Virginis, to her left foot, Gamma [γ] Virginis. Quite simply, maintaining Hipparchus’s placement of Virgo’s head could not produce a properly proportioned constellation figure. Thus, measuring from just above Virgo’s right buttock [which in a normal human body would be roughly halfway between the top of the head and the bottom of the feet], in Ptolemy’s Virgo it is 29° to the top of her head, and yet only 18° to her right foot and 17° degrees to her left foot. Thus, the 3rd version of Virgo did not entail her having an extraordinarily long neck or elongated upper body [from the waist upwards]. Eratosthenes [3rd century b.c. Greek polymath] and Gaius Julius Hyginus [1st century b.c. Latin author] portrayed Virgo in rather more vague terms than Hipparchus or Ptolemy, but nevertheless in readily identifiable terms, and in a similar manner. According to Hyginus, she had 19 stars. According to Eratosthenes, she had 20 stars. The faint star that they associate with the Virgin’s head is 16 Virginis. Thus, Eratosthenes stated that Virgo was regarded as headless. The headless version of Virgo is actually easy to explain astronomically, because there is only one faint star in the region of sky where Virgo’s head was perceived to be. The shoulders are Gamma [γ] Virginis and Delta [δ] Virginis. The elbows are Sigma [σ] Virginis and Psi [ψ] Virginis. The hands are Alpha [α] Virginis and Zeta [ζ] Virginis. Her feet are Mu [μ] Virginis and Lambda [λ] Virginis. With respect to the wings, Epsilon [ε] Virginis and Rho [ρ] Virginis are on the right wing, and Beta [β] Virginis and Eta [η] Virginis on the left wing. The six faint stars that make up the hem of her dress are Upsilon [υ] Virginis, Phi [φ] Virginis, Iota [ι] Virginis, 106 Virginis, 95 Virginis, and Kappa [κ] Virginis, all of which are 4th and 5th magnitude stars [in other words, within the range of naked–eye observation in good atmospheric conditions]. This solution incorporates most of the major stars in the relevant part of Virgo in a natural way and is probably correct. Thus, Hyginus and Eratosthenes represent a view of Virgo that is very similar to that of Hipparchus from the feet with Mu [μ] Virginis and Lambda [λ] Virginis, to the shoulders with Gamma [γ] Virginis and Delta [δ] Virginis, but has the head much lower down and a body with more reasonable proportions. According to their assessment, the stars Xi [ξ] Virginis, Nu [ν] Virginis, Omicron [ο] Virginis, and Pi [π] Virginis were not a part of Virgo’s body, but were above her head.
Teucer [1st century Egyptian astrologer] depicted the 4th version of Virgo, and portrayed her as: “a certain goddess seated on a throne and nursing a child. Some say that she is the goddess Isis in the Atrium nursing Horus.”
Abu Maʿshar [9th century Persian astrologer] also writes that she was: “a virgin that Teucer called Isis; she is a pretty, pure virgin with long hair, with a beautiful face; she has two ears of corn in her hand and is seated on a throne on which lie cushions. She is looking after a little boy and gives him bread to eat, in a place called the Atrium; this boy is called by some peoples Isa [Jesus].”
Although restricting a large constellation figure like Virgo to a 30° zone [to get it to work as a zodiacal sign] naturally results in distortion, and so cannot accurately capture the underlying constellation figure, Teucer nevertheless gives us a good sense of how she was envisioned and a general idea of her proportions. In his description of the sign of Virgo, Teucer locates Alpha [α] Virginis two–thirds of the way down. In other words, he locates the beginning of the emergence of the head at 1° to 3°, the nose at 4° to 6°, the neck at 7° 10°, the arms at 11° to 13°, the fingers at 14° to 18°, Alpha [α] Virginis at 19° to 21°, and the upper section of the lower half of the leg at 22° to 23°. Thus, his Virgo [and that of the Egyptians] is oriented parallel to the ecliptic. This is because in earlier centuries, the Babylonians regarded Virgo as two distinct constellations consisting of the Furrow [who carried an ear of grain], who rose first, and the Frond [who carried a palm branch].
While the Greco–Roman Virgo and the later Babylonian Virgo were parallel to the ecliptic, these constellations were oriented close to 90° angles to the ecliptic. It seems that at some stage around the middle of the 1st millennium b.c.