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  • Brian Chilcote

The Sign of Jonah: Astrology and Early Christianity

"And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years…" Genesis 1:14

And when you look up to the heavens and see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, do not be led astray and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples everywhere under heaven. Deut. 4: 19

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. Matthew 12:38 ff

"When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, 'This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah…'" Luke 11:29

American idioms can be as opaque as a black cat to visitors from other cultures. Most of us require no mental effort at all to understand phrases like, "I plead the fifth," or "He threw me under the bus," or "I call shotgun!"

Every culture in the history of humankind has used these odd little sentences as a kind of code that packs figurative meanings into packages of words that may otherwise have nothing to do with the speaker's intent. There is no actual shotgun involved in requesting to ride in the front passenger seat. No bus was in the room when one person blames another resulting in their own social advancement. Americans are unique among western cultures in their casual reference to the fifth amendment of the U.S. Constitution when they don't want to talk about something.

Conversational American English is normally "low context," or speech that features idiomatic content that is mutually understood by members of the same general cultural milieu, but unintelligible to an outsider. There's no need to explain what is meant because everyone "just knows." High context speech takes into consideration the potential cryptic nature of a subject to outsiders. Examples would be academic or scientific speech, precise or factual written work- anything that includes an awareness that the receiver of your content may not understand without some explanation.

The written record we have in our Bibles is low context. There was no thought given to how enigmatic it would be to 21st century Americans. The Bible is full of references, idioms, allusions, and assumptions that are not explained in the text because the authors' audiences already know the code. What was insightful, shocking, hilarious or tragic to them elicits a "meh" from us.

In John's gospel, there are a number of parentheticals where the author thinks that a word of explanation is needed. One primary example is chapter 1:35-42, in which the author makes sure to translate "Rabbi," "Messiah" and "Cephas" for a non-Jewish audience. Does that make it clearer for us? Not really. We'll probably never know what emerged in a first or second century listener's mind when they heard the words like Messiah or Rabbi.

One cultural given from antiquity that we do know something about is a firm belief in the idea that the heavens affect life down here on earth in real and knowable ways. Stars were known to be exalted humans, gods and other deities, and represent the unseen powers that govern the affairs and events of humans, as well as marking seasons and auspicious periods of time. These beings consisted of some kind of fiery material and move across the firmament every night, generation after generation. We might call it Astrology, and consider its principles fit for entertainment purposes only, for but for many ancient cultures the movements and alignments of lights in the night sky was deadly serious.

Zodiacs are found everywhere in the ancient near east, including the mosaic floors of synagogues and surfaces of interior furnishings of the same. To us, the Zodiac is generally seen as a weird novelty important only to the gullible and those who profit from their credulity.

Remarkably, zodiac symbology is common in ancient Jewish synagogue decorations, on bone boxes (sarcophagi), carved into altar pieces and more. Like the rest of the ancient world, the Judeans thought it only natural to mesh their own story with the stories mapped onto the starry patterns in the sky. Capricorn was associated with the flood and Noah, Aquarius was connected with Moses bringing forth water from the rock, Pisces and Ares stood for the Jonah story, Taurus represented the golden calf and the giving of the law.

In more than one first century Jerusalem tomb were found sarcophagi with some inscribed letters, stars, and even stick figures depicting the Jonah story, apparently affirming the hope of resurrection.

For these cultures, the movements of planets, the sun, the moon and the constellations were central to their explanations of the world around them. It was a kind of cutting edge science that provided predictability, stability, and a means to interpret the causes and effects of events large and small. The movement of an equinox or a solstice from one constellation to another marked the transition of one age to another, giving us phrases like "the Age of Aquarius."

Coins minted by the Greeks, Romans and others often featured astronomical elements that link important governing figures with signs in the sky. It was a way of showing that the gods validated their claim to power and obedience to their rule was part of the natural order of things. Depicted at right is a star on the back of Aries the Ram. In April of 6 CE, Jupiter- a signifier of Rome- was observed to be in the constellation Aries. This coincided with the beginning of direct Roman military occupation of Palestine. The nearest Roman Governor Quirinius (in Syria) commemorated this move with a coin showing a star above a ram. The same alignment could be seen on the same date in April of 6 BCE, leading to the possible confusion between Matthew and Luke's account.

Ancient records often emphasize links between political or military events and phenomena in the sky. Pliny the Elder, writing in the middle of the first century CE, reports that Greek astronomer Hipparchus of Nicaea observed a "new star" in the sky in 134 BCE, an event which very well may be the source of the unusual depiction of a star on coins minted during the reign of Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus. See this article on the nova of Hipparchus for more

Historians of astronomy surmise that this was a nova- an exploding star- that was suddenly visible in the night sky for a period of time. If that weren't enough, the vernal equinox was just about to leave the constellation Aries and move into Pisces. It was believed that when the equinox moved from Taurus to Aries, a worldwide flood destroyed much of the world. What would happen this time?

According to ancient "scientists," the firmament was populated with fiery beings, some created to be there, some who had ascended to their position at the gods' pleasure. Their fixed journeys across the sky, never deviating, was a reflection of their perfection: always doing their duty to the will of the gods without fail. Studying the patterns and courses of the stars made it possible to discern the will of the gods for life here on earth, so to suddenly witness a new bright star in the night sky sent astrologers scrambling for possible messages or meanings.

In the Levant, the Greek Seleucids and the newly independent Hasmoneans of Judah made hay of these astronomical portents. Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus I in 134 CE minted coins with a five-pointed star to send a clear message that his kingship was in fact legitimized by God. The Seleucid rulers nearby did the same with a single star clearly visible on their money. Coins in those days served as propaganda as well as currency, reminding users who was in charge and why.

Signs in the sky revealed the coming of new ages, governmental changes, and cataclysms, the ancients also associated astronomical configurations with divine births or deaths. On April 17, 6 BCE at sunrise, the moon was in its last day of visibility before disappearing into a new moon phase. On its way to being obscured for three days, it crossed Jupiter into the constellation Cetus. If the observer were to face due south at high noon, and turn off the sun, he or she would see the moon standing in the middle of all six ascending constellations from Capricorn to Cancer ("ascending" means moving from the winter solstice to the summer solstice- the days are getting longer as the sun climbs higher into the sky, thus ascending).

Cetus? The name derives from a Greek word "Ketos" which denotes any species of giant sea monster. Our taxonomic label for whales is Cetacean. Cetus as a constellation represents a huge sea creature associated with chaos and death.

Heracles and Perseus both do battle with a Cetus. Heracles is said to have leaped into the gullet of the Cetus where he spent three days hacking and chopping his way out, to be "reborn" victorious. Jason of Argonauts fame is also said to have done something similar.

The connection between the positions of these constellations and the story of Jonah was assumed by first century Jews, needing no explanation. Just as Jonah disappeared "into the heart of the earth" and reappeared after three days, Matthew and Luke portray Jesus alluding to the "sign of Jonah" as the only sign he would give to those who were demanding some kind of augury from him. What was this sign of Jonah? Luke and Matthew's authors do some explaining: the sign of Jonah had to do with Jesus' death and resurrection becoming a call to repentance.

Because modern readers don't usually credit the movements of the stars with auspicious events here on earth, we miss the fact that these authors might also be referring to a specific sidereal alignment that portended Jesus' divine birth. "It's all right there in the sky for everyone to see," they might say, "It's no coincidence that Jesus was born under the sign of Jonah!"

The sun, moon and stars were perfectly placed on April 17th, 6 CE to enact the sign of Jonah. Did the gospel writers know this?

Having Jesus clearly remind people of the sign of Jonah was another way for the gospel authors to reinforce the claim of Jesus' divine origins as he defends his honor against the unbelieving crowds, or the "scribes and Pharisees" in Matthew. Both gospel authors connect the sign of Jonah with judgement against unbelief, something that befits a proclamation by a divine figure.

Keep in mind that these accounts were created well after the events they reenact. Supporting their literary ends by including rich layers of low-context symbolism is a brilliant move by both Matthew and Luke; the sign of Jonah involves an astronomical phenomenon signifying a divine birth and a prediction of the upcoming death and resurrection of that same divine being. The message from both is clear- there's ample, credible evidence that support the claims of this new sect.

This isn't the only example of gospel authors including references to astrology to support the points they make. The nativity stories of both gospels stress the importance of signs in the night sky to back up their claim of Jesus' divine birth. In Luke 21, Jesus himself stresses that the onset of the Last Days will be obvious because of observable events in the sky that produce "fear and foreboding" down here on earth:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken."

An argument can be made in favor of some rather more obscure double symbolism involving the movement of the spring equinox from Aries to Pisces. The mention of fish and fishermen, the depiction of Jesus as the Lamb of God may reveal an effort to comport the gospel narratives with popular assumptions concerning influential contemporary zodiacal observations.

In a future post, we'll look at the discrepancies between Luke's and Matthew's nativity narratives in a bid to explain what's behind them. to That story involves some confusion about the timing of a Roman census and the depiction on coinage of Jupiter in the constellation Aries.

What we read in the gospels and other biblical texts emerge from the everyday assumptions and beliefs held by those who compiled the stories they tell. One of those deeply held assumptions was that the movements of the stars and planets had a lot to do with events here on earth, and of course that's going to show up in the texts handed down to us. The Sign of Jonah is evidence of that, and functioned as compelling support for the persuasive efforts of these ancient storytellers.


How does it impact your reading of the gospels knowing that there's a lot of material that we don't fully understand because of unexplained context? Is it better to dig for more information, or ignore this fact?

What astronomical observations would cause fear and foreboding for us?

What's your opinion about the use of star charts, horoscopes, the zodiac, and the like? Has modern science disproven the idea that the stars can influence things here on earth?


Ancient Cosmology image:

More detail on ancient cosmology including celestial spheres, etc.

Possibilities for astronomical events coinciding with the birth of Jesus:

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