Jesus holds seven stars. They are the angels of the seven churches (Revelation 1:20). For ancient readers and hearers, “seven stars” would evoke a number of associations – the seven planets, the seven stars of Ursa Major, and the seven stars that make up the Pleiades.
The last makes a great deal of sense. You can do what I did: Google to find an ancient depiction of the Pleiades; then Google to find a map of the seven churches; note the resemblance. In mythology, the Pleiades are the seven daughters of Atlas, sisters changed first into pigeons (peleiades) and then to stars to escape some pursuer or other, probably a god. John, we know, thinks of the churches as “sisters” (2 John 13; see my discussion in From Behind the Veil).
Might we push a bit further to suggest that the seven stars are also seven Spirit-eyes of the Lamb, and hence, like the Spirit, doves? When one looks for help from the commentators, one doesn’t find much. At least I didn’t. David Chilton of course notes that the seven stars are the Pleiades, but after summing up some of the astronomical biblical information about the constellation (used in Job 9:5-9; 38:31-33; Amos 5:8), he notes: “The sun with with Taurus in Spring (Easter), and the Pleiades are thus a fitting symbol in connection with the coming of Christ: He holds the stars that announce the rebirth and flowering of the world” (Days of Vengeance, 75). That’s not bad, but it’s not a lot.
Bruce Malina’s fascinating study of Revelation’s Star Visions and Sky Journeys is thinner. He acknowledges that the seven stars might allude to the Pleiades, but notes only that “It was a basic sky sign for planting, hence for fertility and human survival.” Malina’s analysis begins in earnest with the throne-scene of Revelation 4; he doesn’t recognize that the star journey has actually begin as soon as John sees Jesus holding stars in His hand. Malina’s social science commentary on Revelation has only two passing references to the constellation.
Fortunately, Jacques M. Chevalier pulls out all (OK, many of) the stops in his Postmodern Revelation: Signs of Astrology and the Apocalypse. He recognizes, for instance, the physical parallel between the seven stars and the seven churches: “Little imagination is needed to see in these symbolism the legacy of a seven-planetary system set in motion by the sun passing through the Pleiades at spring.”
Chevalier suggests that the order of the churches follows an astronomical pattern: “The connection between the church-stars and the wheels of lunisolar time is indirectly confirmed by the orderly, clockwise presentation of the seven churches of the New Israel, from the west coast (Ephesus) to northern lands (Smyrna, Pergamum), and then to the east (Thyatira) and the south (Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea) of Asia Minor. This circular trajectory is modelled after the circuitry of the sun moving from the west at dusk to the north at night, the east at dawn, and the south at noon” (180).
The circuit of seven churches thus forms a giant clock, following the sun through the sky. As the messages go round from church to church, they tick off the hours of the day of the Lord. I suppose we might speculate on the tone of the letters: Ephesus is a “dusk” letter of sorts, and both Sardis and Pergamum are going their their dark night; day dawns (perhaps?) with Thyatira, but the last churches are facing the heat of persecution, and may wilt. Jesus holds the Pleiades of the churches in His hand; that is, He holds the clock that will tell the hour of His coming.
The Pleiades themselves are associated with the annual calendar. “Ancient perceptions of motions in heaven resulting in the sevenfold calculations of the Hebrew calendar, with a ritual emphasis on the spring and autumn equinoxes, the Alpha and Omega of yearly time. . . . the seven star imagery and cognate motifs appearing in Revelation speak to Semitic religions based on the cult of the sun, the moon, and the seven planets marching through the zodiac, below and above the equator, under the leadership of the seven Pleiades rising to the east at spring and falling to the west at autumn” (191).
As the Pleiades in the spiritual heavens, the angels of the churches are the ones who lead the heavenly hosts in their procession. As the sun rises through the Pleiades in the spring (254), so the Sun-faced Jesus rises up in the midst of the angel-stars to bring in the year of the Lord. Chevalier draws out another connection later in his book: “Since these stars are directly connected with Aries and navigation, they can serve the same function as the rainbow, which is to remind humans that God protects them against another Flood, saving the world from trials that would bring the solar order and the Noachic pact to a tragic end” (253).
Here he is wiser than he knows. As stars of navigation, the Pleiades guide ships through the sea, guide the land-people Israel through the seas of the nations. Further, the postdiluvian world is precisely the one that is coming to an end in the catastrophe described in Revelation (cf. 2 Peter 3). He goes on: “Cognate representations of the Pleiades include a flock of birds, in most cases doves, emblems of peaceful existence and reconciliation with God (Gen. 8:8, 10). Another common figure is that of a hen with her chicks, an expression used by Matthew and Luke with reference to Christ; Aben Ragel and other Hebrew writers thus imagined the Pleiades. The Starry Seven rising in the company of the seven planets thus signalled the vernal resurrection of the sun-god and Christ the Hen” (253).
Jesus holds the stars to guide the churches to safe haven in the new creation. He suggests that there is a dark twin, a set of seven “half sisters” in the sky, the seven stars of Ursa Major: “The two heptadic formations are similar in so many respects that the Pleiades have been called the Chariot or Wagon, as in the late-antiquity writings of Hesychios. Given this resemblance, a hen with her chicks can easily turn into a child-killing she-bear, a beast as ferocious as Christ exercising wrath over his children at the End of Time” (253).
Would John have missed the rich associations of doves, clocks, marine navigation, churches, persecuted sisters with the seven stars? Perhaps; but would his readers? Not all of them.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House.