Written in the Stars: The Christological Function of Astral Imagery in the Book of Revelation

Written in the Stars: The Christological Function of Astral Imagery in the Book of Revelation

Written in the Stars: The Christological Function of Astral Imagery in the Book of Revelation 1024 683 Andrew Hicks

This is the research paper I recently wrote for my seminar class on the book of Revelation

Revelation is fundamentally an astral prophecy. Everything that happens in the heart of the book takes place in the sky (4:1). The climactic conclusion of the apocalypse is the new Jerusaelm coming from the sky (21:9). The first visionary experience is of the heavenly Son of Man who holds seven stars in his right hand and whose face shines like the sun in full force (1:16). The final words of the apocalypse have Christ speaking in first person and calling himself “the bright morning star” (22:16).  Further, the heavenly luminaries are prominent and dominant in the book appearing again and again throughout as reference points for interpreting the vision. Close attention to these astral phenomena will surely yield great fruit. This paper will specifically focus on one aspect of that astral aspect of the prophecy: stars (Gk – ἀστήρ). The Revelation of John sought to persuade and call to repentance the churches of asia minor to whom it was written. The backgrounds that made this call persuasive and meaningful are the first object of discussion before moving onto the discussion of the actual texts about stars in the vision of Revelation. 

Greek Backgrounds to Astrology. Theophrastus is instructive of an important difference in thinking about the ancient conception of the stars in the heavens. He called his study “astronomics” and by this meant no distinction between what we would now distinguish between astronomy and astrology. It was not until “well into late antiquity” that the words gained much functional distinction from one another. The earliest complete examples of a horoscope are from Mesopotamia, but Astronomy really became fully developed under Hellenistic influence. And that development had a lasting impact. The works of Aratus were especially impactful having been preserved, commented on, and translated into Latin. His most important work for our discussion was his Phaenomena which carried on in poetic form what Eudoxus had begun in more scientific language in his work by the same name. Though no copies of the work exist currently, Hesiod with his work Astronomy, was still known into the early days of the common era. The Neopythegreans, Platonists, and Stoics formed the foundational and primary influences for Hellenistic Astrology. Alexander and his successors received prophecies made by astrologers.Astrology was extremely popular among average everyday people and Philosophers and every one in between. Numismatics show that popular interest in astrology was widespread. Coins from Uranopolis (Macedonia) depict a star with eight rays, a sun as a globe,  or sun as globe surrounded by five stars and a crescent moon on the obverse and Aphrodite Urania seated on a globe with a star on a cone in the bottom left corner on the reverse. The zodiac in full or in part is also represented in Greek numismatics. The rise of Hellenistic astrology was part and parcel of the rise of all of Hellenism in general. As Marilynn Lawrence sums it up, 

Given the dynamic tension resulting from Greek philosophy meeting Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian and Jewish religions and ideologies, and the “syncretism” of cross-cultural influences, the Hellenistic era provided fruitful soil for the cultivation of what began primarily as a Mesopotamian system of celestial omens. 

The stars were thought to predict whether in part or in whole the future. Fatalistic Astrology believed that constellations revealed a completely determined fixed future. For example, on a cosmic scale Thales correctly predicted an eclipse of the sun on May 28 585 BCE, functionally discovered the seasons and thus 365 days consist in the year, and determined the diameter of the sun and moon. Though he is also the famous poet who is remembered as having fallen down a well for concerning himself so much with the stars that he was not paying attention to where he was walking. Catarchic Astrology believed that constellations did not reveal a fixed determination of the future, but rather revealed favorable or unfavorable ventures. For example, Hesiod describes in his Works and Days the proper times for planting and harvesting and suggestions about when certain activities should take place such as picking fruit, having children, or shearing sheep.

Roman Backgrounds to Astrology. Though the foundation of Astrology in the ancient world really solidified under the Greeks, the “heyday of ancient astrology [came] in the 2nd cent. AD.” Which for our purposes in this paper are noteworthy given the close correspondence of that rise of ancient astrology and the date Revelation was written. Rome had as much general and popular interest in astrological phenomena as any other ancient society, but astrology did not really “catch on” until after a slow conversion in the Latin world begun in the 3rd century BCE. The real interest in astrology for the Romans was not philosophical, but it was primarily political. More specifically to “manipulate public opinion in order to reinforce imperial power.” Octavian made much of the comet which shone in the heavens near Julias Caesar’s death as proof that his soul was ascending to heaven for divination. The comet appeared for seven days during the games Octavian was holding in honor of Julius Caesar trying to win public favor. Making much of the comet surely helped “raise his poll numbers.” Traditionally, comets like this would have been seen as a bad omen of misfortune, but he reinterpreted it in this important moment. Thus astrological symbolism was used to convey divinity. For example, some coins depicted Nero as Apollo, a Greek god known for many things, but of interest for the present study he is known for the sun and light. Or the simpler coin of Domitian is also instructive in this regard. It has a single star above the depiction of his head. 

Jewish Backgrounds to Astrology. Scripture teaches that the stars, sun, and moon were all created by Yahweh (Gen 1:14-19) and are constantly under his command (Ezek 32:7). Specifically, these heavenly luminaries are given for the purpose of separating “the day from the night; and let them be fore sing and seasons and for days and years” (Gen 1:14 NRSV). The heavens declare God’s glory (Ps. 19:1). Because these heavenly luminaries are only the creation of Yahweh and not themselves any kind of gods the Israelites were prohibited from worshiping them (Deut 4:19; See also Jer 8:2). This is surely for the purpose of setting Israel in contrast to their Canaan neighbors who worshiped weather deities like Ba’al and Asherah. Though technically the religious neighbors of the Israelites did not worship the celestial luminaries, but regarded them as visible apparitions of a deity. The way the heavenly lights are described and especially how the sun and moon are not specifically named beyond being called the “greater” and “lesser” lights surely points to polemic against their worship. The intertestamental literature more explicitly condemns astrology and horoscopes (1 Enoch 8:3; Jubilees 8:3; 12:6-20). 

Israel was certainly aware of the Zodiac and Yahweh Himself is depicted as talking about it (Job 38.32; 2 Kgs 23:5). Constellations are mentioned: the Pleiades, Great Bear, and Orien (Job 9:9; 38:31; Amos 5:8). The Old Testament critiques astrology through the prophecies of Isaiah (Isa 47:13). In the context of this critique of Isaiah the people are notably in exile in Babylon which, as already noted, was the seedbed for the flourishing of astrology in Greece. Further, Isaiah mocks the presumption of the king of Assyria of being a god by calling him by the son of a known Cannanite myth from Ugarit: “son of Dawn.” Despite the Biblical criticism there was strong interest in astrological phenomena (including horoscopes) in Judaism for a long time after the Old Testament period also.

Perhaps the most important Old Testament connection to astrology is in the fourth prophecy of Balaam (Num 24:15-24). In verse 17 Balaam says, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near – a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the borderlands of Moab and the territory of all the Shethites.” Probably, in context, these verses originally referred to the victories of David over Moab and Edom (2 Sam. 8:2, 11-14), depending on one’s dating of these oracles and opinion about the provenance of the Pentateuch. The ambiguity of this prophecy, of course, left room for later Jewish (Philo, Mos. 1.267-268, 295; m. Avot 5:19; m. Sanh. 10:1; Gen. Rab. 52:5; Lev. Rab. 1.13; Num Rab. 20.7, 10) and Christian re-interpretation (2 Pet 1:19; Jude 11; Rev 2:14, 28; 22:16). 

Qumran’s Dead Sea Scrolls revealed several astrological texts (4Q186, 4Q318, 4Q534, 4Q561). One is indisputably a zodiacal text (4Q186) while the others are debatable. The significance of such texts at Qumran is debated, especially 4Q186. It could be that the text is intended to be read in conjunction with The Rule of the Community from elsewhere at Qumran (1QRule of the Community) to let readers in on who is made up more of darkness or of light based on their zodiac. Another theory is that the text is not meant to be read in conjunction with the Community Rule and instead is just a common astrological text without any deeper theological significance. Given the fragmentary nature of the text it is uncertain either way. 

The intertestamental literature also shows interest in astrology and horoscopes as well. As elsewhere in the Old Testament and at Qumran attitudes vary from disapproval and warning (1 En 8:3; Jub 8:3; 12:16-20) and acceptance and recommendation of Astrology and/or horoscopes (Treatise of Shem). 1 Enoch speaks of the Watchers who were thought to be the strange figures mentioned in Genesis 6:1-4 who revealed astrological secrets to mankind and led them astray (1 En 8:3). These teachings of the Watchers are described in Jubilees as causing others to act wickedly for observing omens of the heavenly bodies (Jub 8:3) It also describes astrological observance as a key thing that Abram rejected and left behind in Ur when he followed Yahweh (Jub 12:16-24). The Treatise of Shem, on the other hand, assumes and works with Astrological knowledge. This work actually flies in the face of the convictions of the anti-astrological polemic elsewhere in Jewish theology mentioned already. The text is a horoscope which begins each chapter with “and if the year begins in …” filling in each chapter with the various signs of the Zodiac. With some appreciation from the relevant backgrounds, we are now ready to look at Revelation’s use of astral imagery. Again, this is restricted particularly to stars in Revelation. 

“The one who holds the seven stars” 1:16, 20; 2:1; 3:1. The opening scene of Christ holding seven stars and shining like the sun in full force from his face with John’s response of falling before him and Christ’s reassurance by touching all should remind the astute reader of the New Testament of the Synoptic accounts of the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-10, et al.). The seven stars are described as a “mystery” and then explained as being the “angels of the seven churches” (Rev 1:20). This explicit identification does not explain all about the seven stars though because the image of one holding seven stars has strong numismatic attestation from the DIVVS CAESAR coins minted around 82-83 CE. The significance of the image of Christ as holding the seven stars, regardless of how one understands the various backgrounds and interpretations of those stars, is that Christ is in control of all sectors of life: church, state, personal, corporate, global. The image of Christ holding the seven stars is surely intended to, on the one hand, fly in the face of the DIVVS CAESAR and represent a Jesus who is “wearing the emperor’s clothes.” On the other hand, this image should comfort the Churches and empower their choice to obey him and resist assimilation. The idea is a Christian appropriation of the fictive globalism that Rome employed through its propaganda to imply that the fate of the globe is dependent on these seven churches and whether or not they will remain faithful witnesses to Christ in the face of the threat of assimilation. This Christian appropriation of fictive globalism might be termed “fictive localism,” for it does not show the emperor in charge of Rome and thus in charge of all, but it shows Christ in charge of all and thus in charge of the seven local churches. Both the Roman fictive globalism and the Christian “fictive localism” are intended to result in obedience and submission to the one who is claimed to be truly in charge of the universe. 

2:28; 22:16: “The [bright] morning star.” The first mention of “the morning star” is given in the letter to Thyatira (Rev 2:18-29) and promised to those who conquer (2:28). At the end of the book, the “morning star” is revealed to be Christ himself (22:18). The image of the “morning star” is best understood as coming from the image of the rising star that Balaam prophesied that has already been discussed (Num 24:15-24). Thus, the star is a reference to the Messiah,  but also represents Venus, a star of tremendous power (Sir. 50:6). Thus the promise of receiving the “morning star” given to the Churches is a metonymy of Messianic rule and power which the church members who conquer will be privileged to share in. They need not fear the overbearing power and authority of Rome when they are receiving coregency with a power higher than Rome. 

Other astral imagery in the Revelation (6:13; 8:10-11, 12; 9:1; 12:1, 4). Stars are continually portrayed as falling from the sky or being swept down from the sky throughout the rest of the Revelation. These are surely part of depicting divine judgment and surely would have been thought to be in some sense a “bad omen” by those hearing it originally. Beyond this though, the Christ who holds the seven stars and has complete control over the universe is the ultimate cause or reason behind all of these other usages of the stars. That Christ is portrayed in this way with such power over the stars was surely persuasive to early audiences to join the Christian movement.

That the Churches still have a choice to make to obey Christ and not to assimilate to the broader culture leads me to conclude that the astrological assumptions of the Revelation are more akin to Catarchic Astrology than to Fatalistic Astrology. Although the certainty of the final judgment and the coming new heavens and new earth are determined and thus may be considered fatalistic astrologically. The rule of Christ is certainly “written in the stars” and yet the churches have the choice to obey that rule and thus join in on that rule or to reject it and thus be ultimately judged for it and withheld from the new heavens and new earth and stricken from the book of life. 

The stars in Revelation are representative of power, control, and sovereignty. With a confluence of Jewish, Greek, and Roman backgrounds John makes a persuasive case for why the seven churches of Asia minor should submit themselves to this cosmic Christ and experience the benefits of that submission. If Christ is the true ruler of the cosmos that meant by implication that Caesar was not the true ruler of the cosmos. Thus the decision for the believers in these early decades of the Church were forced with a decision of ultimate and cosmic importance which would result in deadly consequences for many of them. But just as Christ ascended to the right hand of God and was granted all authority in heaven and earth (Matt 28:18) so also on offer for these Christians is a martyrdom that leads not to lives lived and sacrificed in vain, but as pathways to ruling with Christ from the right hand of God the Father. It is written in the stars and yet a decision still had to be made so that they might be granted the “bright morning star” (Rev 2:28; 22:16).

See here a PDF of my paper that has a full Bibliography and footnotes.

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