Imagine the Universe!
Imagine Home  |   Ask an Astrophysicist  |  
Ask an Astrophysicist

The Question

(Submitted December 17, 1996)

A prophetic astronomical picture has recently intrigued me. Revelation 12:1,2,3 says a great sign will appear in the heavens and then projects the following alignment of the stars, Sun and moon in the heavens followed by what sounds like a massive comet. Is there any way of determining what the possible dates associated with the following description might occur? It could have taken place around the time of the birth of Christ or could be in the near future (next several decades).

A woman (aren't there several star configurations or galaxies which would fit this description?) clothed with the Sun (I assume that means that the Sun will be in the midst of this "woman" star configuration) and the moon under her feet (I assume the moon will be at the bottom of the star configuration and on her head a crown of 12 stars (Are there any 12 star groupings?).

Is there anyone in your organization who might know about this or be willing to research it? Any assistance which you can give would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you

The Answer

No, this is not an area of expertise or professional interest of people working in our lab. Rather, the HEASARC is an organization within NASA of professional high-energy astronomers who utilize satellite data to examine a wide range of phenomena exhibited by objects in the Universe such as pulsars, supernovae, and active galaxies. While it is not NASA's role to help interpret Biblical passages, we can help you with the astronomy and a historical perspective. For assistance, we asked Dr. Brad Schaefer who used to work in our lab (but is now at Yale), and has done work in historical astronomy. He contributed what follows.

The primary trouble with trying to identify any particular event (past, present, or future) described in a text is to understand what the text is describing. This is the primary problem with scholarly research into medieval and ancient annals in search of old astronomical records of utility for modern science. Historically, this has also proven the biggest uncertainty for identifications of the Star of Bethlehem. Modern scholars have tried to identify it as a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, a nova, a comet, a massing of three planets in Pisces, an occultation of Jupiter by Venus, a supernova, and the stationary point of Jupiter. With such a wide array of attested astronomical phenomena from the time 10BC to 1AD, we see that the texts cannot be of reasonable utility to uniquely identify the event. Many events written about by ancient and medieval chroniclers cannot now be identified for the same reason. The trouble is that many events can be fitted into the sketchy information provided, so that no certainty or even likelihood is possible.

With regard to great sign in the heavens you referred to, here the problem is that the sky is always showing some magnificent and beautiful display. Statistical studies show that the skies give a spectacular spectacle of order once a year. In recent years, we have had beautiful solar eclipse across America, Comet Hyakutake's awesome tail, a fantastically colored lunar eclipse, and some brilliant sky-filling aurorae. In the next few years, astronomers have predicted (for decades in most cases) a Christmas Day solar eclipse across North America (2000), fantastic Leonid meteor storms in 1998 and 1999, a rare transit of Venus across the face of our Sun, a bright comet this year, and a massing of five planets in early 2000. But these series of spectacles is the ordinary condition of the sky. So with a description only promising a great sign in the sky, there is no way to identify any event.

You specifically asked about a woman in the sky and 12 star groupings associated with the Sun. A major problem here is that figures in the sky and groupings of stars change rapidly in time and are widely different from culture-to-culture. Studies of even medieval sky maps shows no uniformity in either constellation identification or star counts - despite being a somewhat uniform cultural environment. This by itself would render any interpretation dubious.

Historically, the questions you have raised have been raised many times over the centuries. Millenialistic fervor has been widespread in the years ~320, 1000, 1254, 1543, and 1843. The motivation in each case has been the same text, but the application to the sky has always been greatly different. Thus, history teaches us that the same text yields many disparate interpretations that gain adherents, and all of which have not resulted in consummation of the predictions.

We hope you find this information useful.

James Lochner
for Imagine the Universe!
(and with thanks to Brad Schaefer)

Previous question
Main topic

Imagine the Universe is a service of the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC), Dr. Alan Smale (Director), within the Astrophysics Science Division (ASD) at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

The Imagine Team
Acting Project Leader: Dr. Barbara Mattson
All material on this site has been created and updated between 1997-2012.

DVD Table of Contents
Educator's Index