The Constellations Testify of Christ

by John P. Pratt

Reprinted from Meridian Magazine (Oct. 9, 2001)
©2001 by John P. Pratt. All rights Reserved.

Index, Home

Contents
1. Inspired Constellations
1.1 Bible
1.2 Book of Mormon
1.3 Doctrine & Covenants
1.4 Book of Moses
1.5 Book of Abraham
1.6 Greek Poets
1.7 Josephus
1.8 Book of Enoch
1.9 Salt Lake Temple
2. Nature of Evidence
3. Constellation Sources
Notes
The Book of Enoch declares that an angel revealed to Enoch how to draw the constellations and scientific research confirms that the figures are old enough for that to be true. The purpose of this article is to testify that the constellations bear record of the gospel and mission of Jesus Christ (Moses 6:63) and, in fact, that "the heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handywork" (Psa. 19:1).

1. Inspired Constellations

Nearly all ancient nations, including the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, attributed the constellations to a divine source. The Hebrews, Persians and Arabs attributed them to the antediluvian patriarchs such as Adam, Seth and Enoch. Modern astronomy confirms that the figures most likely originated about 2900 BC, which is approximately when Enoch lived.[1] Abraham, who was born nearly a thousand years later, tells us that he had records of the patriarchs with knowledge of the stars, and that he had much astronomy revealed to him personally. He adds that he was commanded to teach astronomy to the Egyptians (Abr. 1:31; 3:1-15), who reportedly passed the knowledge of the constellations on to the Greeks, who recorded it for us.

The Lord told Moses that the stars are "signs" (Gen. 1:14). The word "sign" in English has the same multiple meanings as the Hebrew and Greek words from which it is translated in the Bible, such as token, miracle, or warning. All of the meanings seem to stem from the idea of a token: something that represents or reminds one of something else. It is important to note that the constellations are also called "signs," and often it is not obvious to a translator that a constellation is sometimes indicated by sacred writings. For example, the Prophet Joseph Smith corrected "wonder" in Rev. 12:1,3 to be "sign," which is a much better translation of the Greek word.

The Lord told Moses that the stars are signs, but what do they signify? This article begins to explore the evidence that the constellations were indeed revealed to Enoch and that they tell the story of Jesus Christ with imagery nearly identical to that used by the later prophets of God in the scriptures.

The Prophet Joseph Smith provided the keys to understanding the gospel story as told in the stars. First, he explained what the gospel story really is, clarifying many points of confusion. Second, he provided us with the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, and the inspired translation of the Bible, which all help to explain the imagery found in the stars. Others have noticed that the stars preach the gospel,[2] but the meanings of many constellations eluded them because they did not have the keys of the restored gospel. Now let us review some references to the constellations in a variety of sacred writings.

1.1 The Bible. Consider the following scripture and ask yourself just what it means.

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.
Without speech nor language their voice is heard.[3]
Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
— Psalms 19:1-4

If all we had were the first line, we might conclude that it simply means that a dark star-filled sky can be an awe-inspiring sight that reminds us of the vastness of God's work. But the other lines seem to be saying much more than that. The words "declare," "show," "uttereth speech," "voice," and "words," apparently mean that the heavens literally declare the glory of God, and in a way that has gone out to all the world. But how?

This article suggests that the scripture be taken literally: The heavens show the constellations, which declare God's glory by telling the story of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Without speech or language their message has gone out through all the earth. The story has been misunderstood and sometimes the stars themselves have even been worshipped, but nearly every ancient nation believed that the constellations were inspired.

The Bible contains both direct and indirect references to the constellations.[4] For example, the Lord dignifies the constellations by referring to several of them by name:

"Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?
Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season?
or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons?"
— Job 38:31-32

The Pleiades, Orion, Mazzaroth, and Arcturus all refer to constellations, which the Lord includes among his creations. As such, he could simply be saying that he created the stars, as in Job 9:9 and Amos 5:8, even though they also mention specific constellations. But other scriptures suggest that he had a hand in the formation of the figures themselves. For example, Job says,

By his spirit he hath garnished the heavens; his hand hath formed the crooked serpent. — Job 26:13

A comparison of this verse to the rest of this chapter shows that Job is using the familiar Hebrew writing form of parallelism, in which the second half of the sentence repeats what the first half said using different words. The first part says that the Lord's spirit has "garnished," or beautified, the heavens. Then he names a constellation, "the crooked serpent"[5] in the second half, apparently as an example of the Lord's work. If so, it implies that it was the Lord's Spirit which inspired the constellations.

1.2 The Book of Mormon. There is some symbolism from the constellations in the Book of Mormon, but it is usually only an indirect reference to the similar prophetic imagery. Even so, that imagery is often much more clear in the Book of Mormon than in the Bible and often matches the constellation imagery perfectly. For example, the Book of Mormon repeatedly and consistently uses the symbolism of the "bands of death" for the physical death and the "chains of hell" for spiritual death (Mosiah 15:8-23, Alma 5:7-10, 7:12, 11:41-42, 12:11, 13:30, compare D&C 138:16, 23). These two concepts are very graphically represented in the constellations by the bands which bind the Fishes (Pisces) to the Sea Monster (Cetus), and also the chains which shackle the Chained Woman (Andromeda) to be devoured by the same Sea Monster. One indication that the bands which bind the fishes are the "bands" of death is that the constellation of the Ram (Aries), a symbol of the Savior from the law of Moses (Ex. 29:16), is apparently breaking the bands with his foot. Another is that the Book of Mormon uses the symbol of a monster to represent both death and hell (2 Nephi 9:10,19,26), and that Satan uses flaxen cords (2 Nephi 26:22) which is how the Greeks described the cords of Pisces.

1.3 Doctrine and Covenants. The same symbolism of the constellations is also found in the Doctrine and Covenants, sometimes in a striking manner. For example, the constellation of the Water Bearer (Aquarius) shows a man pouring out a river of water out of a jar onto the head of the Southern Fish (Piscis Australis). What is the meaning of such strange symbolism? It apparently refers to Christ, who identified himself as the man who brings the living water (John 4:10). One meaning of the living water is illustrated in the symbolism of the Doctrine and Covenants:

As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it upstream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day saints. — D&C 121:33

Water Bearer (Christ) pours living water (blessings) onto head of Fish (Church, D&C 110:10, 121:33)
Here, the man pouring the water is the Almighty, it is knowledge being poured as a huge river, and it is going "upon the heads" of the saints, even as the river is poured onto the head of the fish in the constellations. Pouring an entire river onto someone's head is such unusual symbolism as to make this identification with the constellation of the Water Bearer very likely to be correct.

There is another witness in the Doctrine and Covenants that the Lord uses the symbolism of pouring out living water on the heads of the saints to represents the true teachings of the Savior. When priesthood keys were restored in the Kirtland temple, the Lord said it would be the beginning of "the blessing which shall be poured out upon the heads of my people" (D&C 110:10, compare 3 Nephi 10:18). Here we have the same symbolism of pouring on the head, but what does it mean? There were three sets of keys restored at that time: of the gathering of Israel, of the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham, and of temple work. All three of these could be part of the blessing to be "poured out," because the living water could refer both to knowledge of the Gospel and also to temple blessings.[6]

1.4 The Book of Moses. We learn much about Enoch, the traditional originator of the constellations, from the Book of Moses. We learn that he had a vision of the heavens (Moses 6:42), which might refer to the records of the knowledge of the stars to which Abraham referred (Abr. 1:31). Enoch declares that all things in heaven "bear record" of Christ (Moses 6:63). That is exactly the point of this article — that the constellations in the heavens literally testify of Christ.

1.5 The Book of Abraham. The Book of Abraham includes a detailed revelation on astronomy and states that Abraham was commanded to teach the Egyptians what he had learned (Abr. 3:15). That is very important in this study, because, the Greeks are said to have received their precise knowledge of the constellations from the Egyptians when Eudoxus brought a spherical globe with a map of the heavens on it from Egypt and published their description about 336 BC.[7] Although his original work has been lost, the Greeks preserved most of that knowledge, which forms the basis of our modern constellations.

1.6 Greek Poets. The writings accepted as inspired by the ancient Greeks took the form of poetry rather than of canonized scripture. The oldest surviving accurate source which precisely describes the constellations that Eudoxus received is The Phaenomena, by the poet Aratus. He summarizes Eudoxus' description of what the globe looked like, including which figures were looking at others, and even what colors some of them were. It is the very work which Paul quoted on Mars Hill (Acts 17:28):

...We all have need of God. For we are also his offspring;
... For himself it was who set the signs in heaven, and marked out the constellations...
— opening paragraph of Phaenomena, by Aratus[8]

We also have some knowledge of the constellations from other ancient people such as the Babylonians, Arabs, and Persians, but the Greeks apparently have the best preserved knowledge of just how to draw the figures. The extreme antiquity of the constellations means that the constellations predate Aratus by over 2000 years, about the same amount of time that the ancient Greece predates ours.

1.7 Josephus. The Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote in the first century AD, had many records available to him which are no longer extant. He states that Seth and his descendants

"were the inventors of that peculiar sort of wisdom which is concerned with the heavenly bodies, and their order. And that their inventions might not be lost before they were sufficiently known, upon Adam's prediction that the world would be destroyed at one time by the force of fire, and at another time by the violence and quantity of water, they made two pillars; the one of brick, the other of stone: they inscribed their discoveries on them both..."[9]

Here we learn that not only had Seth and the other patriarchs invented the science of astronomy, but also that they wanted to preserve it through world destructions that Adam had predicted. The fact that they were willing to expend such an effort suggests that there was something much more than just usual astronomical discoveries, such as the length of the year, that they were trying to preserve.

1.8 The Book of Enoch. The Lord has stated that the vision of Adam of the entire history of the world was written in the Book of Enoch and prophesied that it is "to be testified of in due time" (D&C 107:57). Are we still awaiting that testimony about a book yet to be restored?

A book called The Book of Enoch, which had formerly been in some versions of the Bible, was discovered, translated from Ethiopic, and first published in 1821 in England.[10] It was apparently unknown to the latter-day saints until the apostle Parley P. Pratt declared to them that "this book carries with it indisputable evidence of being an ancient production....It seems plainly to predict the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and the mission of the Elders ... and the complete triumph of the saints."[11] In spite of this glowing endorsement, the book remained almost unknown among the latter-day saints until a second witness appeared on the scene a century later.

Hugh Nibley has testified brilliantly that we now have the book of Enoch and hence need not await a future restoration: "...we do have at last, in newly discovered documents, a book which is the book of Enoch if there ever was one."[12] Even stronger than his witness is that of the Savior and his followers, who accepted the book now called 1 Enoch as scripture and quoted it as authentic. The fact that the Savior and his apostles accepted it as genuine and actually written by Enoch, should be a regarded as a strong testimony in its favor. The entire Book of Enoch is easily found on the internet.[13]

Does the Book of Enoch contain a prophecy of the history of the world, as mentioned in the Doctrine and Covenants? It does. One reason the world rejects the book as not a genuine production of the prophet Enoch is that the prophecy about the end of the world has not yet been fulfilled. Latter-day saints, however, with the help of the constellation imagery, will immediately recognize, along with Elder Pratt, that the final prophecy is another witness with our other scriptures of what will happen in the last days. That prophecy is discussed in next month's article.

One test of the Book of Enoch and for the thesis of this article is that the book claims that the constellations, or "signs," were shown to Enoch and this article proposes that they tell the story of the gospel throughout history. Surely then, we should find some reference to the constellations in that volume. Here we hit the jackpot because many of its chapters refer to the stars either directly or indirectly. While all of the scriptures use the same imagery as the constellations, the Book of Enoch is our "star witness" because its author uses the symbolism explicitly, even giving the names of the stars. We shall see in these articles that not only does Enoch testify of the constellations, but the constellations become yet another witness of the Book of Enoch. Even though the Book of Enoch is not canonized scripture for latter-day saints, it will be quoted in these articles without apology, just as it is quoted in the Bible, as if it really had been originally written by Enoch.

On key point is that the Book of Enoch states that an angel of God showed Enoch where to draw the constellation figures:

For the signs, the seasons, the years, and the days, Uriel showed me; the angel whom the Lord of glory appointed over all the luminaries. Enoch 74:4-7

Thus, this scripture states that the constellations (the "signs") were not just the work of great men, even like Enoch, but rather an angel revealed them to Enoch. When Enoch saw the constellations signs in the heavens revealed to him, he exclaimed:

"I blessed the Lord of glory, who had made those great and splendid signs, that they might display the magnificence of his works to angels and to the souls of men; and that these might glorify all his works and operations; might see the effect of his power; might glorify the great labor of his hands; and bless him forever."Enoch 35:3 [14]

We can see how closely this verse parallels Psalms which said the heavens declare the glory of God. When Enoch understood the true meaning of the constellations he blessed the Lord of glory for having made those splendid signs.

1.9 Salt Lake Temple. The Big Dipper is shown on the west side of the Salt Lake temple in such a way as to always point to the north star, just as the constellation of the Big Dipper does in the sky. President Harold B. Lee explained its symbolism:

On the west wall of the great Salt Lake Temple, underneath the center spires, is a symbolic representation of the constellation of stars known as "The Dipper" with the pointers pointing to the north star, which was said by the architect of the temple to represent the great truth that through the priesthood of God the lost may find their way.[15]

This symbolism is precisely the same as that suggested by the scriptures. John was told that the seven stars in the hand of Christ represented the seven angels or servants of the seven churches, which referred to their priesthood leaders (Rev. 1:20).[16] Thus, we see that a wide variety of sacred writings refer to the constellations as having been inspired and having deep meaning.

2. The Nature of the Evidence

The nature of the evidence supporting the hypothesis that the constellations are more than the whimsical fancies of shepherds is based on several lines of reasoning. First, and most important, is the evidence from the figures themselves: the individual figures and their interaction can bring to mind striking parallels from the gospel. For example, the foot of the Serpent Bearer (Ophiuchus) is on the head of the Scorpion (Scorpius), and the Scorpion's sting is near the other foot. Similarly, one foot of Hercules is on the head of the Dragon (Draco), and Hercules is on one knee as if he has been wounded. Both of these are apparently clear images of the great promise given in the Garden of Eden, that Eve's descendent would have power to crush the serpent's head, even though it would have the power to bruise his heel (Gen. 3:15).

Secondly, the star names play a role. Most of the star names we use today are Arabic and refer to the location of the star in the figure. Those positions had been carefully preserved by the Greeks, which we still have in Ptolemy's star catalogue. Star names which merely reflect an Arabic translation of Ptolemy's catalog offer no new information and won't be used as independent evidence. Many of our star names, however, date back to "ancient Arab" times that predate the influence of Ptolemy. In that case, they sometimes add new light on the subject.

Sometimes the star names directly link to the interaction between constellations. In the above example, a star in the heel of the Serpent Bearer's foot has been called Markhashik, "The Serpent-bitten,"[17] which makes it clear that whoever named that star understood that the scorpion (considered to be a serpent) has stung (or bitten) the man.

Third is the evidence from the myths that accompany these figures. For example, the myth of Perseus tells a story relating eight constellations, which really helps clarify interrelationships. The problem is that it is difficult to determine whether any given myth was invented after the star pictures were known to help explain them, or whether the myth was originated by the patriarchs to whom were revealed the constellation figures. Because the myths fall into the category of secondary evidence, they are beyond the scope of this article.[18]

Fourth, if two constellations share a star, that is taken to indicate a connection between those constellations.

Finally, the interaction of two constellations can be noted by someone who has seen the ancient spheres simply telling us of the interaction. For example, Aratus states that the serpent is looking at the crown, and that Hercules has his foot on the head of the crooked dragon. Aratus is the only extant source of such information of which this author is aware.

3. Sources for the Original Constellations

Twelve of the constellations compose the "zodiac," which all lay on the path through which the sun appears to move during the year as the earth revolves around the sun. The total list of all ancient constellations is generally given as 48, but there is a slight variation between various lists as to just which constellations are included. We received our list and the precise descriptions of the location of over 1,000 stars in the figures from the Greeks. The tradition is that the Greek astronomer Eudoxus brought a celestial sphere with the figures thereon from the Egyptian priests who trained him about 350 BC. His works have been lost, but the poet Aratus wrote and poetic summary of his work and preserved the description of most of the constellations. His poem, The Phaenomena, was written about 275 BC and is available today. It is very convincing that Eudoxus did indeed have an actual set of the figures in his hands. For example, he mentions the colors on the map of some of the constellations: the Sea Monster (Cetus) is dark blue, and the Sea Goat (Capricornus) is azure. Combining that with observations that one figure is looking toward another or holding his hand out toward another is strong evidence that he really is describing an actual map of the heavens.

The Greek astronomer Ptolemy preserved a fine star catalog, which we still have, telling exactly what star was a what location in each of his 48 constellations about AD 150. He admitted to changing some of the star locations to make a more proportionate picture, but overall, they seem very well preserved. The figures in this article are based on Ptolemy's accurate descriptions of exactly where the stars are found in the pictures.

Besides the Greek tradition, we also have Arab traditions. Most of the Arab astronomy of the period AD 800 - 1200 was based on their translation of Ptolemy's great work, The Almagest, but they also had some of their own very ancient traditions and access to Persian sources.

Another source is the Planisphere of Denderah, a map of the constellations on the wall of the Egyptian temple at Denderah, showing them as they appeared about 700 BC, even though the temple was apparent built in the first century BC. It's worth is principally in the few constellations which it shows differently from the usual set.

Modern astronomers have added another 40 constellations to fill in the gaps, but these are of no interest for the purposes of this article. They do, however, illustrated the striking contrast between the original forty-eight inspired constellations and the unimaginative modern supplements such as the air pump, the chisel and the microscope.

Next month's article will focus on the four most important constellations: The Lion (Leo), the Bull (Taurus), the Water Bearer (Aquarius) and the Scorpion (Scorpius). They are the four cornerstones of the twelve in the zodiac. Each testifies of a different aspect of the Savior and his mission. The witnesses of other constellations will be presented in future articles. As we shall see, when the entire set of constellations is taken as a whole, they provide a strong witness that the ancients understood the entire story of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Notes

  1. Three independent lines of reasoning all lead to the date of 2900 BC for the origin of the constellations: 1) that was the time when the part of the sky they occupy was all visible, 2) that was when their boundaries would have been parallel or perpendicular to the celestial equator, and 3) that was when their times of rising and setting corresponded to tradition. See Pratt, J.P. "Dating the Constellations."
  2. Frances Rolleston, Mazzaroth; or The Constellations (London: Rivingtons, 1862) laid a vast foundation. Her work was popularized by Joseph A. Seiss, The Gospel in the Stars (Philadelphia: Claxton, 1882) and Ethelbert W. Bullinger The Witness of the Stars (London: 1893). She had the insight to recognize the gospel story, and did excellent research into ancient sources, but her star name translations are not to be trusted at all. Unless otherwise noted, all translations used in this article are from Paul Kunitzsch and Tim Smart, Short Guide to Modern Star Names and Their Derivations (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1986).
  3. This line is taken from the literal translation found in the margin of the King James Bible.
  4. An excellent book by a top-notch astronomer is The Astronomy of the Bible, by E.W. Maunder (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1909).
  5. This verse would have been better translated "fleeing serpent," which would most likely indicate the constellation of the Water Serpent (Hydra) which is fleeing from being trampled by the forefeet of Leo, the Lion. Isaiah also mention the fleeing serpent (translated "piercing serpent") in Isa. 27:1, and there identifies him with the crooked serpent, probably referring to the constellation of the Dragon (Draco, see also footnote 8).
  6. For the importance of that day in history, see "The Restoration of Priesthood Keys on 3 April 1836" by J.P.Pratt, Ensign, June/July 1985.
  7. Allen, Richard H., Star Names, Their Lore and Meaning (New York: Dover, 1963) p. 18, reprinted from 1899 edition published by G.E.Stechert.
  8. Aratus, The Phenomena, trans. G.R.Mair, (Cambridge: Harvard U. Press, 1960), p. 207. Aratus refers to Draco the Dragon as the "crooked serpent" (p. 213).
  9. Antiquities of the Jews I.ii.3.
  10. See Pratt, J.P., "Enoch Calendar Testifies of Christ," Meridian Magazine, (Sep. 11, 2001) for a summary of the history of the Book of Enoch.
  11. Parley P. Pratt, "The Apocryphal Book of Enoch," Millennial Star 1 (July 1840):61, quoted in Hugh Nibley, Enoch The Prophet, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1986), p.111.
  12. Nibley, Hugh. "A Strange Thing in the Land: The Return of the Book of Enoch," Ensign, reprinted in Hugh Nibley, Enoch the Prophet, (Deseret Book: Salt Lake City, 1986), p. 94.
  13. The entire Book of Enoch can be found on my website.
  14. Laurence translation. Charlesworth did not understand that "sign" referred to constellations and lost the entire meaning. He numbers the verse 36:4.
  15. Harold B. Lee, Stand Ye In Holy Places, p. 251
  16. That priesthood leaders are implied is clarified by the next chapter where John is told to write a special message to the angel of each church. See also JST which changes "angels" to "servants."
  17. R.H. Allen, Star Names, Their Lore and Meaning, p. 303.
  18. An excellent source on Greek star myths is Ian Ridpath, Star Tales (New York: Universe Books, 1988).