I have always believed that the sign in Revelation 12 depicts the birth of Jesus and not a 'sign' of His return. Earnest Martin has done a wonderful study on this:
Originally Posted by Spoze
“And there was a great wonder [sign] in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: and she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. And there appeared another wonder [sign] in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his head. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron.”
The scene just described is symbolic. Certainly, this could hardly be a description of the virgin Mary. This “woman” had the heavens associated with her — the Sun, Moon and the Twelve Stars. John said that the display was a wonder (a sign) and that it was “in heaven.” What did he mean by the phrase “in heaven”?
The Bible speaks of three “heavens.” The first is the heaven in which the birds fly and all weather phenomena occur (Jeremiah 4:25; 1 Kings 18:45). The second is that of the Sun, Moon, planets and stars (Genesis 1:17). The third heaven is that where God lives (2 Corinthians 12:2). Which of these heavens is meant?
People of the 1st century would have had no difficulty in interpreting the proper “heaven” that was intended by the apostle John. The Sun, Moon, and stars are not located in our atmosphere where the birds and the clouds exist. They are also not found in the heaven where God has His abode because John himself tells us that the Sun or Moon are not needed in that region (Revelation 21:23). The only “heaven” that is reasonable is that where the Sun, Moon and the Twelve Stars are located. The Book of Genesis revealed that the celestial bodies were made by God to give signs (Genesis 1:14). Jewish opinion included among these “signs” the astronomical associations between the Sun, Moon, planets, stars and constellations. 15 There can hardly be a doubt that such astronomical “signs” as these are referred to in the Book of Revelation. 16 With these points in mind, we may have some interesting clues that will provide us with the exact time of Jesus’ birth.
Astronomy and the Birth of Jesus
The essential factor in interpreting the symbol of Revelation 12:1–5 is the identification of the woman. What is John signifying by mentioning her? This much is certain: the woman in the first three verses is featured as being in heaven and both the Sun and the Moon are in association with her. After the dragon casts down a third of the stars of heaven (Revelation 12:4), the woman is then found on earth (verses 6 and 14). But the important factor is the birth of the man-child and the Woman’s relationship with the heavenly signs while she is symbolically in heaven. (The first three verses of Revelation 12 shows the Sun clothing her, the Moon under her feet and the Twelve Stars on her head).
The “birth” of the Messiah is associated with this heavenly spectacle. Since some noted heavenly bodies are a part of the picture, it could well be that John intended the woman to represent a constellation that the two primary luminaries transverse, and that she was a part of the zodiacal system which gives headship to the signs (the Twelve Stars were a “crown” upon her head). Recall that interpreting astronomical signs dominated the thinking of most people in the 1st century, whether the people were Jews or Gentiles. Indeed, the word “sign” used by the author of the Book of Revelation to describe this celestial display was the same one used by the ancients to denote the zodiacal constellations. 17
This is made clearer when one looks closely at the text. Since the Sun and Moon are amidst or in line with the body of this woman, she could be, in a symbolic way, a constellation located within the normal paths of the Sun and Moon. The only sign of a woman which exists along the ecliptic (the track of the Sun in its journey through the stars) is that of Virgo the Virgin. She occupies, in body form, a space of about 50 degrees along the ecliptic. The head of the woman actually bridges some 10 degrees into the previous sign of Leo and her feet overlap about 10 degrees into the following sign of Libra, the Scales. In the period of Jesus’ birth, the Sun entered in its annual course through the heavens into the head position of the woman about August 13, and exited from her feet about October 2. But the apostle John saw the scene when the Sun was “clothing” or “adorning” the woman. This surely indicates that the position of the Sun in the vision was located somewhere mid-bodied to the woman, between the neck and the knees. The Sun could hardly be said to clothe her if it were situated in her face or near her feet.
The Sun Clothed the Woman
The only time in the year that the Sun could be in a position to “clothe” the celestial woman called Virgo (that is, to be mid-bodied to her, in the region where a pregnant woman carries a child) is when the Sun is located between about 150 and 170 degrees along the ecliptic. This “clothing” of the woman by the Sun occurs for a 20-day period each year. This 20 degree spread could indicate the general time when Jesus was born. In 3 B.C.E., the Sun would have entered this celestial region about August 27 and exited from it about September 15. If John in the Book of Revelation is associating the birth of Jesus with the period when the Sun was mid-bodied to this woman called Virgo (and this is no doubt what he means), then Jesus would have to be born within that 20-day period. From the point of view of the Magi who were astrologers, this would have been the only logical sign under which the Jewish Messiah might be born, especially if He was to be born of a virgin. Even today, astrologers recognize that the sign of Virgo is the one which has reference to a messianic world ruler to be born from a virgin. 18
This heavenly woman called Virgo is normally depicted as a virgin holding in her right hand a green branch and in her left hand a sprig of grain. In the Hebrew Zodiac, she at first (in the time of David) denoted Ruth who was gleaning in the fields of Boaz. She then later became the Virgin when the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 was given in the time of King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah. This Virgin held in her left hand a sprig of grain. This was precisely where the bright star called Spica is found. Indeed, the chief star of the constellation Virgo is Spica.
Bullinger, in his book The Witness of the Stars (pp. 29–34), said that the word “Spica” has, through the Arabic, the meaning “the branch” and that it symbolically refers to Jesus who was prophetically called “the Branch” in Zechariah 3:8 and 6:12. And Bullinger (and Seiss in his book The Gospel in the Stars) maintains that this sign of Virgo designates the heavenly witness for the birth of the Messiah (Jesus). They say that Virgo should actually begin the zodiacal signs which give the story of the Messiah. This may be. The apostle John may have given the same indication as far as the first full sign of the zodiac is concerned. He depicted the woman of Revelation as having a crown of Twelve Stars on her head.
This could well show that the woman (Virgo) is the constellation of headship for all the twelve signs. The “head” position of Virgo is located within the last ten degrees of Leo. It was in this very region where the story of the career of the Messiah would begin that Bullinger and Seiss referred to. Thus, the story of Jesus and his mission on earth, as related by these heavenly symbols, should logically begin with his birth from a virgin and conclude with him being crowned king in the final sign of Leo the Lion (with its chief star being Regulus ― the King star). This is no doubt what the apostle John was trying to show through the symbols found in Revelation 12.
The birth of this child in Revelation 12 (whom John identified with Jesus) should have occurred while the Sun was “clothing” the woman, when the Sun was mid-bodied to Virgo. This period of time in 3 B.C.E. covered 20 days (August 27 to September 15). If Jesus were born within that 20-day period, it would fit most remarkably with the testimony of Luke (relative to the birth of John the Baptist and the eighth course of Abijah). Indeed, the chronological indications associated with the priestly course of Abijah place Jesus’ birth exactly within this period. But there is a way to arrive at a much closer time for Jesus’ birth than a simple 20-day period. The position of the Moon in John’s vision actually pinpoints the nativity to within a day ― even to within a period of an hour and a half (within 90 minutes) on that day. This may appear an absurd assessment on the surface, but it is quite possible.
The key is the Moon. The apostle said it was located “under her feet.” What does the word “under” signify in this case? Does it mean the woman of the vision was standing on the Moon when John observed it or does it mean her feet were positioned slightly above the Moon? John does not tell us. This, however, is not of major consequence in using the location of the Moon to answer our question because it would only involve the difference of a degree or two. The Moon travels about 12 degrees a day in its course through the heavens. This motion of one or two degrees by the Moon represents on earth a period of only two to four hours. This difference is no problem in determining the time of Jesus’ birth. What is vital, however, is that this shows the Moon as a New Moon.
The Precise Position of the Moon is Important
Now note this point. Since the feet of Virgo the Virgin represent the last 7 degrees of the constellation (in the time of Jesus this would have been between about 180 and 187 degrees along the ecliptic), the Moon has to be positioned somewhere under that 7 degree arc to satisfy the description of Revelation 12. But the Moon also has to be in that exact location when the Sun is mid-bodied to Virgo. In the year 3 B.C.E., these two factors came to precise agreement for about an hour and a half, as observed from Palestine or Patmos, in the twilight period of September 11th The relationship began about 6:15 p.m. (sunset), and lasted until around 7:45 p.m. (moonset). This is the only day in the whole year that the astronomical phenomenon described in the twelfth chapter of Revelation could take place.
This also shows one other important point. The Moon was in crescent phase. It was a New Moon day, the start of a new lunar month. (See plates one and two below which show early depictions of the celestial scene of Revelation 12:1–3 and how the Moon is shown to be in its crescent phase.)
Modern Man and Astronomical Motions
While ordinary people in modern times who are not professional astronomers have little knowledge of the solar, lunar, planetary and stellar motions, the people from the 1st century up to the Industrial Revolution were well accustomed to them. Even people of little education were generally knowledgeable of the main motions of the astronomical bodies — even more than most college-educated people today. When anyone of early times read Revelation 12:1–3, an astronomical relationship was realized at once. There was no doubt that a New Moon display was being shown to them. And when the woman of the sign was interpreted as Virgo the Virgin, and with the Sun mid-bodied to the Virgin, they clearly saw a New Moon day occurring sometime in late summer.
The apostle John said this heavenly relationship occurred at the time of Jesus’ birth. And in 3 B.C.E. this exact combination of celestial factors happened just after sunset only on one day of the year. It was on September 11th. It could not have occurred at any other time of the year. Indeed, even one day before ― on September 10 ― the Moon would have been located above the Virgin’s feet with the crescent not visible, while one day farther ― on September 12 ― the Moon had moved too far beyond the feet of the Virgin, at least 25 diameters of the Moon east of her feet. Thus, only one day applies. That day was just after sunset on September 11th, 3 B.C.E.
The Exact Day of Jesus’ Birth
The apostle John is presenting to his readers something of profound significance in a symbolic way. Revelation 12:1–3 shows a New Moon day that could only be observed from earth just after sunset, and the day was September 11th. This fits well with Luke’s description of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Recall that,
“there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over the flock by night ... and the angel said ... unto you is born this day Jesus was born in early evening, and Revelation 12 shows it was a New Moon day.
[which began at sundown] in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
What New Moon could this have been? The answer is most amazing. It is almost too amazing! September 11, 3 B.C.E. was Tishri One on the Jewish calendar. To Jewish people this would have been a very profound occasion indeed. Tishri One is none other than the Jewish New Year’s day (Rosh ha-Shanah, or as the Bible calls it, The Day of Trumpets ― Leviticus 23:23–26). It was an important annual holy day of the Jews (but not one of the three annual festivals that required all Palestinian Jews to be in Jerusalem).
What a significant day for the appearance of the Messiah to arrive on earth from the Jewish point of view! And remarkably, no other day of the year could astronomically fit Revelation 12:1–3. The apostle John is certainly showing forth an astronomical sign which answers precisely with the Jewish New Year Day. John would have realized the significance of this astronomical scene that he was describing.
In the next chapter I will show the symbolic and religious meaning of this New Year’s day as interpreted by the Jews (and consequently by the apostles and early Christians) as it relates to the Messiah and his kingship. The information may provide a better understanding why the early apostles of the 1st century, and many Jews and Gentiles, so quickly came to accept Jesus as the Messiah.
Whatever the case, the historical evidence supports the nativity of Jesus in 3 B.C.E., at the beginning of a Roman census, and (if we use the astronomical indications of the Book of Revelation) his birth would have occurred just after sundown on September 11th, on Rosh ha-Shanah, the Day of Trumpets — the Jewish New Year Day for governmental affairs. There could hardly have been a better day in the ecclesiastical calendar of the Jews to introduce the Messiah to the world from a Jewish point of view; and no doubt this is what the apostle John clearly intended to show by the sign he recorded in Revelation 12.
Click on Chapter 5 for the full explanation.
Chapter 1: The Star of Bethlehem in History
Chapter 2: Who Were the Wise Men?
Chapter 3: Was the Star a Real Star?
Chapter 4: The Real Star of Bethlehem
Chapter 5: The Time of Jesus' Birth
Chapter 6: The Birth of Jesus and the Day of Trumpets
Chapter 7: The Dark Decade in History
Chapter 8: Astronomy and the Death of King Herod
Chapter 9: The Lunar Eclipse of Josephus
Chapter 10: The War That No One Can Find
Chapter 11: The Two Governorships of Quintilius Varus
Chapter 12: The Census of Quintilius Varus
Chapter 13: The Chronology of Josephus
Appendix 1: Quintilius Varus and the Lapis Tiburtinus
Appendix 2: The Question of Gaius Caesar
Appendix 3: The Banishment of Julia
Appendix 4: The Sabbatical Years and Chronology