Epiphany: On Earth as in the Heavens

“The As Above became so below”

In the Western Church calendar, 6th January is called ‘Epiphany’, when the “Wise Men” or “magi” arrived at the place where the infant Jesus and his family were. The event is recorded here in the Biblical book of Matthew 2:1-12. Traditionally the Nativity stories in churches and other places across the world have three magi, because of the three gifts, of gold, frankincense and myrrh they brought to Jesus, but nowhere in the Biblical narrative is there mention of there being three of them, and nowhere is there mention that they arrived on day of his birth with the shepherds.

An ‘epiphany’ is also defined as that moment when you have a great revelation about something which you’ve been pondering over. Something ‘clicks’ and unlocks understanding to a deeper meaning. My own epiphany came about from learning about the missio Dei [1], and how God speaks to everyone in the world in their own culture and language (whether tribal or geographical). I then understood how God could use a key moment in the life of exiled seer, Daniel, to reveal the deeper wisdom to those searching for it in the heavens. The event is recorded here, and his defence of the astrologers and diviners that the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, stopping them being killed and taking them under his wing stands in start contrast to Elijah’s “prophets of Baal” moment, should make Christians stop and reflect for a moment.

“No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or diviners can show to the king the mystery that the king is asking, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has disclosed to King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen at the end of days.”

Daniel 2:27-28

The Multicultural Magi

So what has this to do with the magi? Well, no-one quite knows their ethnicity, they may have been a mixture of Zoroastrians, Parthians, Persians, Medes, Armenians, Greeks and Babylonians (Chaldeans), Jews and other groups [2] who were then resident in the area of Babylon. Certainly they were using astronomy to observe the motions of the heavenly bodies. But they were more than that, for if they had been purely astronomers, they would not have attached any earthly significance to the motions in the heavens, and they’d never have journeyed 500-900 miles to the enemy (Roman) occupied Jerusalem. We do know that the Medes and Persians overthrew the Babylonian empire in 539BCE when Cyrus and his forces rolled into town, and we do read in Matthew that the magi had linked what they’d seen in the heavens, a ‘star’ rising in the East and the birth of a new king in Jerusalem. These were not just astronomers, but astrologers too – making predictions and observing events using the heavenly bodies

It is entirely possible that the “wise men, enchanters, magicians and diviners” under Daniel’s authority could have learned from him about the long prophesied “star of Jacob”, as spoken about by Balaam, the prophet of Shamesh (the Babylonian and Sumerian sun god), hundreds of years earlier:

“The oracle of Balaam son of Beor,
    the oracle of the man whose eye is clear,
the oracle of one who hears the words of God,
    and knows the knowledge of the Most High,
who sees the vision of the Almighty,
    who falls down, but with his eyes uncovered:
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”

Numbers 24:15-17

Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-18-_-_Adoration_of_the_Magi.jpgThe ‘Star of Jacob’

Some think this long prophesied “star” may have been Halley’s Comet, as observed by Giotto in 1301 and painted by him in this painting. The problem with this is that comets are quite short lived, not lasting enough time for an armed escort of dignitaries to saddle up and head off on a very long journey. Also, in those days, comets were generally perceived as omens of doom, rather than signs of new life.

The Crab Nebula – Supernova first visible on Earth in 1054AD

Some think that the star may have been an exploding supernova, a kind of star which has enough mass that when it starts to run out of fuel, the force of gravity collapses it in on itself, causing a massive “rebound” shockwave in the star that releases enough energy to make it outshine any other star in its galaxy. Unfortunately, these are very short lived (peak brightness in 21 days for Type II supernovae), so would have been spectacular, but could not have stayed visible long enough to allow the magi to prepare for the journey, travel, meet Herod and then travel to where Jesus was, under its guidance.

Others attribute it to a supernatural occurrence, thinking it may have been some kind of Shekinah (a glowing manifestation of the Divine presence), or an angel. It may have been, but one should always exhaust all lines of enquiry in the physical realm before attributing something to the supernatural realm.

So let’s check out another heavenly phenomenon the planetary conjunction, where stars and planets come into close proximity in the skies.

One commonly accepted conjunction is between Saturn and Jupiter in 7BC, based on one line of the ancient Jewish historian, Josephus who discusses a lunar eclipse in the life of king Herod’s life (Herod was the puppet king in charge of Jerusalem). This has been the generally accepted historical position of many Christians throughout the ages as a lunar eclipse occurs in 4BC, and Herod is generally thought to have died shortly after. However, a thorough analysis of this has been done here and shown that it cannot necessarily be as cut and dried as we have first thought [3].

However, newer coin analysis research by academics Edwards [4] and Steinmann [5] show the death of Herod the Great was actually 1 BC. This neatly gives us the reason why why Herod killed the baby boys two years and under, if Jesus was born in September 3BC, and permits a relatively short refuge in Egypt for him and his immediate family.

With modern technology such as Starry Night Pro, or the free software Stellarium, we are able to observe the heavens from any point on the planet and at any time! God has set the universe in motion following mathematically derived physical laws of motion, and it’s possible to do this!

conjunctionIf we put in the latitude and longitude of ancient Babylon, and observe the heavens around 3BCE to 2BCE, we see some incredible conjunctions of Venus (the ‘mother’ planet), Jupiter (the ‘king’ planet) and the star Regulus (the ‘king’ star, located in one of the feet of the constellation Leo, the constellation assigned to the tribe of Judah). Look up the conjunctions of Jupiter, Venus and Regulus on August 12th 3BCE, Jupiter’s triple conjunction with Regulus (“crowning” it by looping around it, three times) between September 14th 3BCE and May 8th 2BCE. And then move forward to 17th June 2BCE, where Jupiter and Venus would have ‘kissed’ in the sky, creating the most brilliant single point of light which would have stood out as something spectacular and noteworthy for those of any astronomical and astrological persuasion. As a modern astrologer friend of mine pointed out, “Something special happened around then”.

To the trained astrologer, these signs, a mother and king planet ‘kissing’, and a king star encircled by the king planet three times, would have meant something incredibly special had happened, and over a period of months of observations, clarity would have emerged as conjunction upon conjunction occurred, confirming their predictions and the ancient scriptures – a new king had been born in Israel.

The Journey of the Magi – Tissot, 1894

And where did they go? Straight to Jerusalem, through enemy occupied territory, probably in an armed entourage, carrying significant quantities of myrrh, frankincense and gold  – gifts for a king whose birth had been announced in the heavens.

Incidently, these celestial events had not gone unnoticed in the rest of the world, for Emperor Augustus at the time thought the conjunction was a heavenly confirmation of his authority. However, the magi saw something else in the heavens, coupled with the ancient prophecies and scriptures they’d received through people like Daniel hundreds of years earlier.

Imagine the uproar when an armed unit comes into Jerusalem to worship a king, and it’s not Herod!

“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

Matthew 2:2

 No wonder Herod was wanting to kill this potential threat to his leadership. However, he contains his anger, and cunningly enquires of the magi when they’d seen the ‘star’ and when the Jewish teachers revealed the last bit of the clue, the magi were dispatched on a mission to find the new king and bring word to Herod that he might ‘worship’ him.

The words of the ancient prophet, Micah, were the the missing link for the Magi:

“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
    from ancient days.”

Micah 5:2

The ‘star’ went ahead of them, stopping over the place where Jesus was now living (not the manger, as we’re talking up to nearly two years since the ‘star’ first appeared). The ‘stopping’ being the end of the retrograde motion of Jupiter before it continued on its way through the sky for the rest of time.

mantegna adoration of the magi.jpg
The Adoration of the Magi – Mantegna

When they entered the place where Jesus and his family were, they worshipped him and gave him their gifts. They must have stayed at least one night in the area, before being warned in a dream about Herod’s ulterior motives to kill the new king, Jesus, and so they returned home another way, buying time for Jesus and his family to move out of the area afterwards when his father, Joseph, too was warned in a dream they should flee to Egypt for a time.

Ancient Wisdom, Heavenly Bodies and the Eternal One

Guided by ancient prophecies and heavenly signs, the wise ones followed their leading, ending up fulfilling the longing of their journey at the feet of Jesus.

cosmic christ.jpg
The Divine Creator

The Divine Creator, Jesus (pre-incarnated) had set the heavenly motions in place from the beginning of time, and passed oracles of wisdom and prophesy to those not always in the Israelite nation leading up to it. As such, Jesus calls all, whatever our spiritual background or understanding to follow the signs left for us in both the natural world and the Sacred Texts (the Holy Bible). Our journey through life will be signposted at many places towards the Divine One, sometimes where others may think are in the most unusual places, yet to us are perfectly natural. We just have to be spiritually alert and engage with those signposts as and when they appear, to find our ultimate fulfilment of life.

For those watching the heavens for signs on the earth, their fulfilment occurred when the ancient prophecies of the One who was to come was revealed in the heavenly motions to those who were able to understand them. The full revelation of their message was found in the incarnated Creator of those very stars themselves, which were set in motion aeons ago, all ready for when the time was right for them to show the way to those who sought the truth.

Brightest Blessings to you on the journey.

[1] Missio Dei is Latin for ‘God’s mission’ and describes how God works outside of the Christian Church in order to speak to everyone, regardless of their particular faith path, and how the Church joins in with God’s mission, not merely doing mission on its own for God to join in with. A more in-depth academic discussion of the missio Dei can be found here.

[2] Hutchinson, The Lion Led the Way p52. This is an excellent book on the subject and includes lots of detail about how various astrology groups thought back then, as well as an analysis of the key points for the conjunctions.

[3] I personally don’t hold to everything Martin teaches, but he has done some very thorough groundwork on the whole Star of Bethlehem issue and the majority of modern literature on the Star is based upon his material (even if it may not acknowledge it explicitly).

[4] Edwards, O. (2013), ‘Herodian Chronology’, Palestinian Exploration Quarterly, Vol. 114, No. 1, pp.29-42.

[5] Steinmann, A. E. (2009), ‘When Did Herod the Great Reign?’, Novum Testamentum, Brill: Leiden, NL.

A good video on this subject is the Star of Bethlehem by Rick Larson. Sadly he doesn’t seem to credit on the video the person whose previous work he built his own work upon (Earnest L Martin), which is incredibly extensive. Whilst I have a few reservations about some of the things Larson comes up with, he still presents a good case for the Venus, Jupiter, Regulus conjunctions being the key pointers for the magi’s work.

The BBC Nativity has a very good attempt at telling the story, but uses the traditionally accepted conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, around 7BC, and has them turning up at the same time as the Shepherds. It’s good TV watching, and does sow some good seeds to show how the magi may have been thinking. I especially like the “star pool” the magi use to observe the sky, rather than cricking their necks looking upwards.


5 thoughts on “Epiphany: On Earth as in the Heavens

    1. Thanks Barry. There’s so much more I could have put here, but it would run to a book or two :). I’m an engineer / scientist in previous careers, so love exploring the night sky. And with ancient prophecies lining up with verifiable data from astronomy and history, I find this whole area fascinating.


      1. I too am a former engineer, scientist, strategist et al. and understand why your fascination thrives in such enquiry !


  1. Thanks – helped clarify my thinking for my teenage group tomorrow. But I’ve always loved the magi for that point – they were true to their craft, had open ears/eyes and were not afraid to act. They found God.


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