The star of Bethelehem and divine sovereignty

My pastor’s degree dissertation on Satan in Revelation 12 & 13 (so that’s why you’re preaching through Revelation Mike!) mentioned in passing astronomical/astrological interpretations of the “woman and dragon” vision of Revelation 12. That put me back on the trail of Mike Heiser’s interesting YouTube clips on the star of Bethlehem, which are in turn highly dependent on Ernest L. Martin’s book on the subject, available for free download here.

Heiser mentions that Martin is one of the few writers to take the Revelation material into account in identifying the star of Bethlehem phenomenon. And when he does, an astonishing vista of astronomical wonders unfolds, interlocking with both the biblical prophetic literature and the chronology of Jesus’s birth. When I taught Revelation, I developed the mnemonic “SHARP” for interpreting it through five lenses – the Scriptural, the Historic, the Apocalyptic, the Ritual and the Prophetic. I see now I should have added an extra “A” for “Astronomical” to make it even sharpa.

You need to read Martin’s book, or at least watch Heiser’s videos, for the full account of the series of genuine astronomical wonders of 3-2BCE, which history records were interpreted wondrously astrologically across the entire Roman world of the time. But the core event corresponding to the likely birth of Jesus was an unusually close encounter between the “king planet” Jupiter and the “king star” Regulus (hence the name) between the front paws of Leo. Leo was the astronomical sign of the tribe of the tribe of Judah, “the lion,” and this even seems to be referenced in one of the major Messianic prophecies in Genesis 49:

You are a lion’s cub, Judah;
you return from the prey, my son.
Like a lion he crouches and lies down,
like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?

The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he to whom it belongs shall come
and the obedience of the nations shall be his.

And so it is not too surprising, either remembering the teaching of their ancient predecessor Daniel, or simply following a line of thought that was common at that time, the Magi interpreted this conjunction as the birth of a Jewish king, not least because a few months before Jupiter had been in conjunction with Venus, the fertility-planet.

What is more remarkable still is the plethora of other astronomical events at the very same time, and it is these to which John refers in Revelation 12. As every Daily Mirror reader knows, one’s birth sign is the constellation through which the sun is travelling at your birth. So according to Revelation the sun was “clothing” the woman bearing Jesus, that is he was born under the archetypal female constellation, ie Virgo. Martin points out sources that state the “crown” of this constellation consists of 12 visible stars, though perhaps this is too subjective a judgement to explain John’s imagery. Not everything in the vision has to have an astronomical equivalent, though it would be remarkable if the reference to the twelve tribes of her crown also corresponds to known astronomy.

You’ll note the odd fact that this mother in Revelation is therefore a virgin, and all three common interpretations of John’s vision fit this: Mary, the virgin mother; faithful Israel, the “virgin betrothed to Yahweh”; or Israel’s New Testament equivalent, the Church. John’s imagery catches the sense of the Spirit of the Lord “overshadowing” Mary as Jesus was formed in her womb.

Jesus would therefore have been born around September, rather than on December 25th. But this is not a novel idea in theology. I once had access to a 1642 tract, “Christ’s Birth Misse-tymed,” which argued for that month from the priestly calendar under which Zechariah’s vision in the temple can be timed, and hence the approximate conception-date of John, and hence that of Jesus. The tract also argued from the appropriateness of Jesus’s fulfilling the September feast of Tabernacles as he did the Passover and Pentecost (cf the language of John 1:14). Ernest Martin also points out that the Trumpets feast at that time marked the end of the 7-month festal season and the religious New Year from which Hebrew kings commenced their regnal dates. Interesting that the vision is described following the last of the seven trumpets in chapter 11!

Revelation 12,though, also describes the moon as under the woman’s feet, and this is a much less common event with the sun also in Virgo. Combine it with a close conjunction of Jupiter to Regulus, and it is a rarity indeed. But it is a rarity that actually did occur at the very time the gospels describe as the time of Jesus’s birth, not long before the death of Herod the Great in 1BCE (a date for Martin gives sound reasons). That astronomical situation occurred for just an hour or so on September 11, 3BCE, and not for centuries on either side. That is the brief window that John describes astronomically, and it scarcely seems coincidental. I had the great satisfaction of setting that place, date and time in the astronomy program on my computer and finding it to look exactly as advertised in Revelation! Here is a screenshot, in which I’ve deliberately used the pictorial versions of the constellations to show the imagery clearly:

What is not immediately clear from this is that nobody on earth would have seen this directly, because the sun would have burned out everything else. That’s why the Magi are important – what they would have seen was, before dawn, an unusual bright morning double star in Leo, and hence Matthew’s “We have seen his star at its rising.” The rest they would, as trained astrologers, have known by calculation, literally in the light of day. Clearly St John the Divine had access to such experts too!

There are discussions about any astronomical equivalent to the dragon of Revelation. The most likely contender is the constellation Scorpio (which at that time often envisioned the scales of Libra as its head), forever snapping at the feet of the next constellation Virgo. It’s not inconceivable (though not as far as I know recorded) that a particularly strong meteor shower from that constellation might have formed the material for John’s dragon sweeping stars from heaven, but once more, we need not expect everything in the vision to arise from the physical skies.

Almost as an aside, let me add that the odd phenomenon in Matthew where the Magi see the star again from Jerusalem, and it stops over the place where Jesus lay, can be explained in astronomers’ terms by the nightly progression of Jupiter across the star field changing to apparent retrograde motion (one of Ptolemy’s famous epicycles). Such an event occurred some 15 months after they would have seen the star of Jesus’s birth: on December 25th, 2BCE. That’s when they presented their gifts, and that’s the explanation for our traditional Christmas dating. Isn’t that neat and tidy?

One more point before some general musings. The astrological significance of these times is no arbitrary modern invention, nor even just an extrapolation from Scripture. These times were, in Rome, the time when Augustus was declared the first Emperor (cue references to the registration of Quirinius, which may well have been the taking of an oath of loyalty to confirm Caesar’s new role). Augustus declared the beginning of a new golden age of peace and prosperity as a new kingdom came into being. And even heaven seemed to confirm this by a remarkable series of astrological signs (to some of which I have referred). Augustus was, of course, entirely right about the kingdom and the signs, but unfortunately he got the wrong end of the stick about who was the real king being announced! The Magi, for reasons we can only conjecture, knew better and set their camels to pay homage in Jerusalem rather than Rome! How appropriate is that clash of empires to the theme of the Book of Revelation!***

All this is very interesting, and to me persuasive. It is just too coincidental to me for John to have not based his vision on events that actually did occur in the skies at just the right time – events which any astronomy application can confirm with mathematical precision 2024 years on. As for Matthew, his astronomical claims are overt: professional astrologers get it right and visit Jesus as a result. Herod plays the part of the dragon.

The real wonder is what this tells us about the sovereignty of God. We need to be clear that the Jews, or many of them, believed that God put signs of earthly events in the heavenly realms. They had a sound Scriptural basis for that in Genesis 1:14 – the stars were made for signs as well as for marking seasons. They did not, however, share the pagan belief that the stars governed events on the earth. Rather they noted correspondence, sympathy, or maybe resonance between earthly and heavenly realms, a correspondence echoed in Revelation itself, not least in Revelation 12:7-11, where the war fought by angels in heaven is simultaneously the war fought by the saints’ perseverance and testimony on earth.

Yet if my computer program can look back on the heavenly representation of the birth of King Jesus from 2022, a particularly gifted Babylonian astrologer in Moses’s time could have looked forward using his tabulated data and foreseen the very day too. Does that bespeak a deterministic Universe with no free choice? Some of the Jews concluded that, and perhaps not surprisingly these included the Sadducees, the only class rich and powerful enough to have access to professional astrologers. But others, like the Pharisees, were, like those properly taught the doctrines of predestination and grace nowadays, able to hold together the concepts of human choice and accountability with those of God’s utter sovereignty and infallible foreknowledge.

It is no more remarkable that God built information about the birth of his Son into the fabric of the universe than that he predicted it verbally through prophets, centuries in advance. Humans still can’t predict the future, because few things were written so clearly in the stars as this central event – or if they were, we are not clever enough to read them, which maybe why no two astrologers ever agree any more than any two doctors did before they all became WHO clones.

So the theological question of divine sovereignty and human freedom remain to be argued about – but necessarily taking into account the rather sobering consideration that at least some key events on earth were pre-recorded in the clockwork of the cosmos!

But lest that push us towards a distant, deistic God, just remember that “personal providence” that “overjoyed” the Magi, when the star they had followed stopped over Bethlehem just for their benefit (which is the implication of the text). It seems that even special providence is built into God’s eternal purposes, governed (in this case) by Newton’s laws of motion.

If one has eyes willing to see it, that is.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Creation, History, Science, Theology, Theology of nature. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The star of Bethelehem and divine sovereignty

  1. Peter Hickman says:

    Fascinating stuff.

    Jupiter has been the brightest ‘star’ in the Scottish night sky for several weeks, and I get to see it (and Mars) when I take my dogs for their late evening walk.

    Commentators agree that Jupiter is most likely the ‘star’ that the wise men followed. We read that, having arrived in Jerusalem, they were told by Herod, on the advice of the Jewish priests and scribes, to go to Bethlehem. This they did. But, naturally speaking, how did the wise men know that the ‘star’ had stopped directly over Bethlehem and ‘stood over where the child was’ (Matthew 2:9)? This is a conundrum.

    Technically, I suppose, it is possible to claim that Jupiter (mean diameter 86,881 miles) is ‘above’ a particular point on Earth (diameter 7,918 miles) all of the time. So, on that particular night it could have been directly above a particular house. However, human observers would not have been able to perceive this. At its closest, Jupiter is 365 million miles from Earth. If folk living in Bethlehem thought it was overhead, folk living 69 miles away in Nazareth would have thought that it was overhead too.

    How did the wise men confirm that the information they had been given in Jerusalem was correct, and that they had found their desired destination? It has been suggested that, on arriving at Bethlehem, they had stopped for water at the well at the gate. There they may have observed the reflection of Jupiter in the water at the bottom of the well and reasonably concluded that, since it must therefore be directly overhead, they were close. Perhaps they then made enquiries in the village (population 300-400) which led them to where Jesus was.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      I tried to explain that problem in the OP Peter – follow the astronomy, rather than the itinerary! Jupiter, following its orbit, has been moving across the celestial sphere in the same direction they were going (west). Hanging about in Jerusalem, they are told that Bethlehem is the scriptural place to look (and I guess they trusted the professional Jewish theologians as much as Herod obviously believed the professional astronomers. But they also notice that Jupiter has now stopped its westward transition, as it begins to change apparent direction to its retrograde motion phase.

      For six crucial days it is effectively stationary against the stars, and at the time of their usual observations (pre-dawn?) it is to be seen on the same bearing as their destination, Bethlehem. It’s a (confirmatory, not diagnostic) sign just for them!

      Of course, they still had to find Jesus, but it doesn’t take long to ask around a village for a kid with a birthdate of 13th Nov 3BCE, whose Dad only moved there because he knew he was a descendant of David. Remember also that both parents had a significant experience of angelic visitations and prophetic words. They may have been surprised at such visitors, but their response would be more like, “Yes, this is the boy you’ve come to see,” rather than, “Well, I guess if you say so, but he seems ordinary to us.”

      Herod’s timing, presumably, seeks to catch both anyone born around that time, or anyone conceived then, astrologers being tricksy about details like that.

  2. Levi says:

    This is amazing, fascinating stuff, Jon. Modern technology has some truly wondrous uses, but I’d bet the antikythera mechanism was more wondrous, in its day.

    Just a thought to add: looking at your illustration of the astronomical sky on the day of the birth, one is compelled to ask whether the “Dragon”, the ancient serpent of Revelation isn’t here also a reference to Hydra which, notably, is under Virgo’s feet.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      There wasn’t space to go into the dragon much: it seems to be the most uncertain of the astronomical references in Revelation 12. Scorpio/Libra is positionally the obvious constellation, but Hydra has been suggested, as also has Draco, wandering around the night sky somewhere nearby.

      Knowing the norms of ancient astrolology might help – or, as I hinted, some no-longer-recorded major meteor shower at the time might have pinned down the villain for John.

      I did a piece on the Antikythera mechanism back in 2013. Somehow I doubt that John had access to one over on Patmos!

  3. shopwindows says:

    Divining truth. Since March 2020 in particular I notice so many who started by staying in their lane as epidemiologists, statisticians, etc pointed out “facts” at variance to what we eventually called the narrative. They then considered whether this could be incompetence before coming to the conclusion it is pysychopatic corporate capitalism, malevolence or Malthusianism. Many skidded out of their lane to consider whether it’s Satan. So satire, parody and sadly cynicism have infected so many who discerned the truth better than others. How do we pare back to solid foundations individually and societally? How does a significantly secular west go from belief they knew facts to faith? Is that even the right question?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi shopwindows, and welcome to The Hump. It’s a good question – a key one in fact – and I totally agree on your observation of the journey of many honest professionals from taking the narrative for granted to rejecting it completely – the Matrix blue pill/red pill analogy couldn’t really be more accurate.

      I’m not sure I totally agree with you about the extent of satire/parody/cynicism, in that to me it seems these have often been used appropriately: dark humour, for example, not only exposes the darkness for what it is, but keeps individuals knowing that their intuitions are correct. Sometimes it’s a kind of secret language of truth, rather like Jewish apocalyptic, particularly in the Book of Revelation: it’s critiquing Rome, but the Empire thinks it’s just religious raving.

      Personally I’ve been looking for how those with real faith can be “salt and light” since I first woke up to the seriousness of all this in early 2019. My overall conclusion is that whilst these times will inevitably divide people into the compliant and the dissenting, many will begin to see – if it is presented to them honestly – that truth is rare, precious and can ultimately only be found in God.

      That too is one of the trends I’ve noticed: a surprising number of secular “red pills,” seeing true evil unmasked for the first time in their lives, have become a lot more open to the claims of religion (as you say – people are thinking about Satan, and if so they cannot ignore Jesus).

      So to me the end point is to be white pilled – ie to go through the “black pill” despair one experiences once one sees fully what is going on, and realise that it is consistent with both the true message, and the real hope, of Christ. For Christians (I’m speaking to you as one, which I hope is not too presumptuous), it means becoming aware as church communities of the real situation, and proclaiming our core strength – that we have been telling the same saving truth for the last 2000 years – whilst dispensing with the old fears of being “irrelevant.” It will expose us to irrational hatred, but it will also connect massively to those disillusioned with things.

      Will that transform society? Well, it’s the way of Christ, and it has transformed the world before. When God judges a civilisation, he uses that judgement to redeem.

  4. shopwindows says:

    Dear Jon.
    Shopwindows is a handle I used from the outset of cradle based low baud communications in about 1983 to indicate how I thought it would develop. Just short of forty years, half a saeculum ago. Thank you for welcoming me but for nearly three years I have waited much more eagerly for your latest analysis than anything I might have discerned in the MSM. (Peter Hickman pointed me to your writing)
    I apologise for my literary deficiency, I enjoy satire and parody but am concerned that cynicism which is almost their synonym is a negative mental attitude, but very easy to slide into when so much of the fabric of our lives has been disturbed.
    Redrafting, perhaps I could have pointed out that staying in your lane is the technocratic model of secular society. Whereby our only allowed contribution is in a narrowly defined specialisation. Whereas I have always contended that there is no such profession as “politician”, because it should require an holistic understanding of civitas not just a PPE and gift of the gab, I now realise that I had shortsightedly ingested the chorus of disapproval of theocratic rule, thinking our mother of all parliaments was superior. But it has left us with a vacuum of moral leadership which must somehow be repaired.
    You ask about my Christianity. I am not overtly religious but I think luckily was forced to endure assembly and RI classes at a mortarboard Grammar School as an intuitively atheist intense student keen to get back to maths lessons. Very luckily, because those parables, that instruction in how people relate to each other maybe made an indelible impression. I mustn’t be pompous, I’m just a trier, making mistakes every day, perhaps hourly, but sufficiently accomplished in life to abhor those who act as if omniscient, so unaware of their limitations, so arrogant.
    Even now. whilst I relate to your penultimate and final paragraph, equating the black pill to cynicism, a thoroughly despondent negative view of the world, I veer back towards secular rationality. I recognise the Insignificant nature of our accomplishments in comparison to the infinite majesty of nature. Whilst being wily enough to never overassess my knowledge, to try not to damage as you might say gods perfect creations, for instance our own bodies, hence my revulsion for consumerist aesthetic tattoos but particularly ingesting minimally tested drugs, I can’t quite surrender myself to faith. I have to take decisions, I make my own bed and lie on it.
    Shorn of my worldly possessions I would not have strength. I’d be a gibbering wreck. So perhaps I have intuitive morality and humility most of the time and an intense curiosity as to how to help society back toward a more harmonious state but fall at the last hurdle? But according to the saeculum view of the rotating, evolving generational focus of priorities perhaps the current awakening will at least clean out selfish immoral behaviour through a renewal of proletarian subscription to devotional practices??
    Richard Jones

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Thanks for your full and honest self-appraisal! It’s always humbling to hear that someone has been appreciating this little corner of the blogosphere. Perhaps its littleness is what’s kept it from being cancelled by some of our elders and betters.

      Without dwelling too much on the question of faith, you may be aware that The Hump started out in 2011 exploring that poster-child of rational secularism, Darwinian evolution, in relation to orthodox Christianity. That was the direct result of my having had a near-lifelong foot in both camps as a keen biologist and subsequently a Christian.

      The main lesson for me, overall, was that much of the issue lies in examining, and questioning, the metaphysics of atheistic materialism: does it really have much explanatory power (for example, in preventing insanity with the loss of material possessions!).

      Many scientific types have been blinded to their own involvement in a distinct metaphysical system – for example, in a video I saw yesterday, the excellent Bret Weinstein, replying very positively to a religious type, prefaced his remarks by a disclaimer that as an evolutionary biologist and near-atheist he doesn’t see any metaphysics behind the world. Apparently not hasn’t noticed that “chance” and “necessity” are unexplained metaphysical alternatives to divine “choice” and “fidelity.” I wrote a book (unpublished) on that difference.

      I guess to me the main practical difference is that the Christian can retain the sense of “How little I am in it all…” and yet know that injustices and untruths – and rationality – matter, and that he himself has significance (since God doesn’t do “scale,” being immense, ie unmeasurable). Preach over…

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