Starry Skies in the Ancient Near East

Studies in Revelation—Lesson 4

by Reta Halteman Finger

The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh
The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, Public Domain image through Wikipedia

 

I’m writing this during the week after Epiphany in January 2017. The sermon at my church centered on Matthew 2:1-12, where magi from the East follow a star looking for the new “King of the Jews.” That  mysterious star reminded me of John’s vision in Revelation 1:16 and 20, where Jesus holds seven stars in his right hand. (Stars are mentioned thirteen more times in Revelation.) One thing is obvious: stars in the worldview of the New Testament are very different from what astronomers tell us about stars today—massive balls of fire that burn many lightyears away from our little planet.

The closest we can get to this ancient viewpoint is to camp out on a mountaintop or flat plain on a cloudless, moonless night, far from human activity. On such a night, the black sky is aflame with many thousands of stars which seem close enough to reach out and pluck! Through the night, dozens will shoot across the sky and appear to fall to the earth (see Rev. 6:13). Using a star chart, we can watch the twelve constellations of the zodiac as they march across the dome over our heads, telling stories of men, women, and animals that were translated into star-creatures that even now, astrologers tell us, affect our lives on earth.

Ancient views of stars and planets

Few of us follow horoscopes today, but in the Greco-Roman world of our New Testament, astrology was the astronomy of the day. Developed by the Babylonians and continued by the Persians, Jews still living in that land (now Iraq) learned their astrology and adapted their own interpretations of the sky. Two horoscopes from that time period were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran in Israel. Philo, a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher living in Alexandria, Egypt, around that time described stars as “souls divine and without blemish,” each of them “mind in its purest form” (On the Giants II, 6-8, 263; LCL).

Besides the fixed stars, according to this view, there were seven planets that kept moving around the earth, which was seen as the stationary center of the universe. They were the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. How they related to the fixed constellations provided astrologers with interpretations of present happenings or things soon to come in their current cultural situation.

Take that special star that launched (Jewish?) magi/astrologers from the East on a search for a new “King of the Jews.” Our present calendar, developed in the 6th century CE, is six years off, placing Jesus’s birth in 6 BCE rather than 1 CE. Computerized telescopes today can take us back to April of that year, where the royal planet Jupiter moves into the zodiac constellation of Aries, the Ram. To Jews of that time, Aries represented the kingdom of Herod the Great, who ruled Judea and the lands around it. Jupiter in Aries was a sign of a new King of the Jews. During the same month, Saturn also moved into Aries. Then the moon eclipsed, which revealed Jupiter again. (See the DVD, Jesus: The Complete Story, bbcamerica.com. See also this article by an astronomer from Vanderbilt University.) No wonder the magi/astrologers came to Jerusalem, expecting the elderly King Herod to have appointed his successor!

Seeing and hearing the invisible

In their Social Science Commentary on Revelation, Bruce Malina and John Pilch stress how much the dome of the sky was an integral part of the Greco-Roman-Jewish worldview.*  Stars, planets, constellations, comets, and clouds were visible reminders of the spirit world of angels and demons that inhabited the air above them and sometimes visited them in dreams and visions. The prophet and seer John writes in Revelation 1:10 that he was “in the spirit on the Lord’s Day”; thus, his readers would know that John had seen a vision that opened his eyes and ears and mind to the invisible spiritual reality in the sky above them.

When the Apostle Paul writes of his visions of being caught up into the “third heaven,” into Paradise (2 Corinthians 12:1-4), he insists he “heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat” (verse 4). But John had no such reservations. He was what Malina and Pilch call an “astral prophet.” Like shamans in some cultures today, John had the gift of ASC—“altered states of consciousness.” While “in the spirit,” he could journey to the sky or perceive spiritual reality in the otherwise invisible air. These ecstatic experiences sometimes produced grammatical errors in his Greek, but they also provided readers with colorful word-pictures and glowing poetry that nevertheless needed to be interpreted within the context of first-century symbols and metaphors.

That will be our challenge in the twenty-first century as we try to make sense of these visions, so foreign to our ordinary, concrete reality governed by scientific, physical laws of cause and effect. But Malina and Pilch also note that ordinary first-century Christians would not have immediately understood these visions either. By calling himself “your brother” (Rev. 1:9), John was addressing brother and sister prophets in each of the churches who also had his ASC gifts. Actually, Jesus addresses each of these letters to the invisible “angel” of each church (e.g., 2:1), thus requiring other “astral prophets” like John to interpret them to the people.

Questions for reflection or discussion

1.  Other less-Westernized cultures today still rely on significant dreams and visions for direction. What attitude should Western Christians take toward this phenomenon?

2.  Have you had any meaningful experiences watching a starry sky at night?

3.  How seriously do you think Christians should take zodiac signs and horoscopes commonly printed in newspapers today?

 

* Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pllch. Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, 1-12.

 

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Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

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