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Short description: Appearance of a deity to a human
Peter Paul Rubens' Death of Semele, caused by the theophany of Zeus without a mortal disguise

Theophany (from Ancient Greek (ἡ) θεοφάνεια theophaneia,[1] meaning "appearance of god") is the appearance of a deity to a human.[2][3][4]

This term has been used to refer to appearances of the gods in the ancient Greek and Near Eastern religions. While the Iliad is the earliest source for descriptions of theophanies in the classical tradition/era (and they occur throughout Greek mythology), probably the earliest description of a theophany is in the Epic of Gilgamesh.[5]

The term theophany has acquired a specific usage for Christians and Jews with respect to the Bible: it refers to the manifestation of the Abrahamic God to people; the sensible sign by which his presence is revealed. Only a small number of theophanies are found in the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Old Testament.

Ancient Greek religion

At Delphi the Theophania (Θεοφάνια) was an annual festival in spring celebrating the return of Apollo from his winter quarters in Hyperborea. The culmination of the festival was a display of an image of the gods, usually hidden in the sanctuary, to worshippers. Later Roman mystery religions often included similar brief displays of images to excited worshippers.[6]

The appearance of Zeus to Semele is more than a mortal can stand and she is burned to death by the flames of his power.[7] However, most Greek theophanies were less deadly. Unusual for Greek mythology is the story of Prometheus, not an Olympian but a Titan, who brought knowledge of fire to humanity. There are no descriptions of the humans involved in this theophany, but Prometheus was severely punished by Zeus. Divine or heroic epiphanies were sometimes experienced in historical times, either in dreams or as a waking vision, and frequently led to the foundation of a cult, or at least an act of worship and the dedication of a commemorative offering.[8]


The 4th-century bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, b. 263 AD, wrote a treatise "On Divine Manifestation" (Peri theophaneias), referring to the Incarnation of Jesus. Eusebius's reference to this topic includes the following comparative ironies. In the first manuscript of "the gospel according to Yanni" (i.e. John, the epistle-writer rather than "prophet" and Baptist), Yanni describes Yeshua (Hebrew) as having the "INRI, INBI, YHWH" inscription in three languages above his crown of thorns. One of these languages is Aramaic, in which was written by Pontius Pilate the words whose initials are YHWH, "Yeshua Hanozri Wemelech Hayedhudim"[9]. The very early manuscripts of the Jewish Bible eventually found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and others, reveal that their scribes had early on started to replace the word YHWH with other words to avoid the heresy of speaking God's "word" out loud, such as the hebrew words "elohim", "adonai" and "memrah" later translated as "Father", "Lord" and "the Word" of God. Ironically, YHWH is also Aramaic for "I am" in the divine declension, so that when speaking to Moses, from the burning bush, Yhwh self identified as, "Yhwh YHWH" (literally, I am [that] I am). However, it is likely that Pontius Pilate understood this, notwithstanding the Pharisees' objections. Arguably, the Incarnation of Jesus was also seen by an early persian King ("Neb'chadnezza") in the fiery furnace with Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.[10]

Traditional analysis of the Biblical passages led Christian scholars to understand theophany as an unambiguous manifestation of God to man, where "unambiguous" indicates that the seers or seer are of no doubt that it is God revealing himself to them.[11] Otherwise, the more general term hierophany is used.[12]

Catholic Christianity

In Revelation, God is described as "having the appearance like that of jasper and carnelian with a rainbow-like halo as brilliant as emerald" (Revelation 4:3).

The New Catholic Encyclopedia cites examples such as Gen 3:8a. The same source then quotes Gen 16:7–14. In this case, initially it is an angel which appears to Hagar, however it then says that God spoke directly to her, and that she saw God and lived (Gen 16:13). The next example the New Catholic Encyclopedia cites is Gen 22:11–15, which states explicitly that it was the angel of the Lord speaking to Abraham (Gen 22:11a). However, the angel addressing Abraham speaks the words of God in the first person (Gen 22:12b). In both of the last two examples, although it is an angel speaking, the voice is of God spoken through the angel, since it refers to "withhold from me". A similar case would be Moses and the burning bush. Initially Moses saw an angel in the bush, but then goes on to have a direct conversation with God himself (Ex 3).

In the case of Jesus Christ according to the gospels and tradition, the majority of Christians understand him to be God the Son, become man (John 1:14). The New Catholic Encyclopedia, however, makes few references to a theophany from the gospels. Mk 1:9-11, where only Jesus hears the voice from heaven, and Lk 9:28–36 the transfiguration where the Father speaks are cited.

Orthodox Christianity

Main page: Religion:Epiphany (holiday)

Eastern Orthodox Christian Churches celebrate the theophany of Jesus Christ on 6 January according to a liturgical calendar as one of the "Great Feasts". In Western Orthodox Christian Churches, 6 January is kept as the holy day Epiphany, while the feast of Theophany is celebrated separately, on the following Sunday.

In Orthodox Christian tradition, the feast commemorates the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist,[13] which is considered a theophany, partly because this event marks the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. Also, the account of this event in St Matthew's Gospel is the first occasion in all of the Bible where the Holy Trinity is revealed explicitly as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

Evangelical Christianity

Some modern Evangelical Christian Bible commentators, such as Ron Rhodes, interpret "the angel of the Lord", who appears in several places throughout the Old Testament, to be the pre-incarnate Christ, which is Jesus before his manifestation into human form, as described in the New Testament.[14] The term Christophany has also been coined to identify preincarnate appearances of Christ in the Old Testament. This also has been the traditional interpretation of the earliest church fathers as well as the apostle Paul himself, who identifies the rock that was with Moses in the desert as being Christ.


Nontrinitarians differ on the pre-existence of Christ.

  • Those groups which have Arian Christology such as Jehovah's Witnesses may identify some appearances of angels, particularly the archangel Michael, as Christophanies, but not theophanies.[15]
  • Those groups with early Unitarian or Socinian Christology such as Christadelphians and the Church of God General Conference identify the Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament much as Jews do, simply as angels. Early Christadelphians, notably John Thomas (1870)[16] and C. C. Walker (1929),[17] integrated angelic theophanies and God as revealed in his various divine names into a doctrine of God Manifestation which carries on into a Unitarian understanding of God's theophany in Christ and God being manifested in resurrected believers.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

Main page: Religion:First Vision

Joseph Smith, the prophet and founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, said that when he was 14 years old he was visited by God the Father and Jesus Christ in a grove of trees near his house, a theophany in answer to his spoken prayer. This "First Vision" is considered to be the founding event of the Latter Day Saint movement.[18] The Book of Mormon describes other hierophanies and theophanies that occurred in the New World.[19]

For example, Blake Ostler analysed the Throne-Theophany of Lehi in the First Book of Nephi and concluded that the theophanies in the Bible and the Book of Mormon have much in common.[20]

And being thus overcome with the Spirit, he was carried away in a vision, even that he saw the heavens open, and he thought he saw God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God. And it came to pass that he saw One descending out of the midst of heaven, and he beheld that his luster was above that of the sun at noon-day. And he also saw twelve others following him, and their brightness did exceed that of the stars in the firmament. And they came down and went forth upon the face of the earth; and the first came and stood before my father, and gave unto him a book, and bade him that he should read.[21]


Main page: DarśanaIn Hinduism, the manifestations of Vishnu on earth are referred to as Vishnu's avatars. The most popular avatar of Vishnu in Hinduism is Krishna. The most well-known theophany is contained within the Bhagavad-Gita, itself one chapter of the larger epic the Mahabharata. On the battlefield of Kurukshetra, Krishna gives the famed warrior Arjuna a series of teachings, and Arjuna begs for Krishna to reveal his "universal form." Krishna complies and gives Arjuna the spiritual vision which enables him to see Krishna in that form, a magnificent and awe-inspiring manifestation, containing everything in the universe. A description of this theophany forms the main part of Chapter XI.


In the Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew Bible states that God revealed himself to mankind.[22] God speaks with Adam and Eve in Eden (Gen 3:9–19); with Cain (Gen 4:9–15); with Noah (Gen 6:13, Gen 7:1, Gen 8:15) and his sons (Gen 9:1-8); and with Abraham and his wife Sarah (Gen 18). He also appears twice to Hagar, the slave-girl who has Abraham's first child, Ishmael (Gen 16).

The first revelation that Moses had of Yahweh at the burning bush was "a great sight"; "he was afraid to look" at Him (Ex. iii. 3, 6); also the first revelation Samuel had in a dream is called "the vision"; afterward God was frequently "seen" at Shiloh (I Sam. iii. 15, 21, Hebr.). Isaiah's first revelation was also a sight of God (Isa. vi. 1–5); Amos had visions (Amos vii. 1, 4; viii. 1; ix. 1); and so with Jeremiah (Jer. i. 11, 13), Ezekiel (Ezek. i. 1 et seq., viii. 1–3), and Zechariah (Zech. i., vi.), and, in fact, with all "seers," as they called themselves.

Balaam also boasted of being one who saw "the vision of the Almighty" (Num. xxiv. 4).

In Job, Eliphaz describes a vision: "In thoughts from the vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth on men, fear came upon me, and trembling . . . a spirit passed before my face; the hair of my flesh stood up. He stood still, but I could not discern his appearance; a figure was before mine eyes, a whispering voice I heard" (Job iv. 13–16, Hebr.).

The Torah lays stress on the fact that, while to other prophets God made himself known in a vision, speaking to them in a dream, he spoke with Moses "mouth to mouth", "as a man would speak with his neighbor", in clear sight and not in riddles (Num. xii. 6–8; comp. Ex. xxxiii. 11; Deut. xxxiv. 10).

The burning bush

In Midian, while Moses was keeping the flock of his father in law Jethro, the angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a bush that burned but was not consumed (Exodus 3:1-2). Yahweh called to Moses out of the midst of the bush, and told him that he had heard the affliction of his people in Egypt, and gave Moses orders to speak to Pharaoh and to lead the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 3:3-12).

The pillar of cloud and pillar of fire

The Children of Israel Crossing the Jordan, Exodus 13:21-22: By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire.

God reveals his divine presence and protection to the Israelites by leading them out of Egypt and through the Sinai desert by appearing as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.[23]

Mount Sinai

The theophany at biblical Mount Sinai is related in Exodus 19:16–25. YHWH's manifestation is accompanied by thunder and lightning; there is a fiery flame, reaching to the sky; the loud notes of a trumpet are heard; and the whole mountain smokes and quakes. Out of the midst of the flame and the cloud a voice reveals the Ten Commandments. The account in Deut. 4:11-12, Deut. 4:33-36 and Deut. 5:4-19 is practically the same; and in its guarded language it strongly emphasizes the incorporeal nature of God. Moses in his blessing (Deut. 33:2) points to this revelation as to the source of the election of Israel, but with this difference: with him the point of departure for the theophany is Mount Sinai and not heaven. God appears on Sinai like a shining sun and comes "accompanied by holy myriads" (comp. Sifre, Deut. 243).

Likewise, in the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:2-31) the manifestation is described as a storm: the earth quakes, Sinai trembles, and the clouds drop water. It is poetically elaborated in the prayer of Habakkuk (Hab. iii.); here past and future are confused. As in Deut. xxxiii. 2 and Judges v. 4, God appears from Teman and Paran. His majesty is described as a glory of light and brightness; pestilence precedes Him. The mountains tremble violently; the earth quakes; the people are sore afraid. God rides in a chariot of war, with horses – a conception found also in Isa. xix. 1 where God appears on a cloud, and in Ps. xviii. 10 where He appears on a cherub.

In Isaiah and Ezekiel

Ezekiel's Vision by Raphael, c. 1518

The biblical prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel receive their commissions as prophets amid glorious manifestations of God. Isaiah sees God on a high and lofty throne. More precisely, however, he sees not him but only his glorious robe, the hem and train of which fill the whole temple of heaven. Before the throne stand the seraphim, the six-winged angels. With two wings they cover their faces so as not to gaze on God; with two they cover their feet, through modesty; and with the remaining two they fly. Their occupation is the everlasting praise of God, which at the time of the revelation took the form of the thrice-repeated cry "Holy!" (Isa. vi.).

Ezekiel in his description is not so reserved as Isaiah. The divine throne appears to him as a wonderful chariot. Storm, a great cloud, ceaseless fire, and on all sides a wonderful brightness accompany the manifestation. Out of the fire four creatures become visible. They have the faces of men; each one has four wings; and the shape of their feet enables them to go to all four-quarters of the earth with equal rapidity and without having to turn. These living creatures are recognized by the prophet as cherubim (Ezek. x 20 ). The heavenly fire, the coals of which burn like torches, moves between them. The movement of the creatures is harmonious: wherever the spirit of God leads them they go.

Beneath the living creatures are wheels (ofannim) full of eyes. On their heads rests a firmament upon which is the throne of God. When the divine chariot moves, their wings rustle with a noise like thunder. On the throne the prophet sees the divine being, having the likeness of a man. His body from the loins upward is shining (ḥashmal); downward it is fire (in Ezek. viii. 2 the reverse is stated). In the Sinaitic revelation God descends and appears upon earth. In the prophetic vision, on the other hand, he appears in heaven, which is in keeping with the nature of the case, because the Sinaitic revelation was meant for a whole people, on the part of which an ecstatic condition cannot be thought of.

In Psalms

The theophany described in Psalm 18:8–16 is very different. David is in great need and at his earnest solicitation God appears to save him. Before God the earth trembles and fire glows. God rides on a cherub on the wind. God is surrounded by clouds which are outshone by God's brightness. With thunder and lightning God destroys the enemies of the singer and rescues him.

Rabbinic literature

The Rabbinic view of the Hebrew Bible is discerned through Judaism's Oral Torah, which is recorded in various works of rabbinic literature such as the Mishnah and Talmud.

God's purpose in creating the world was so that he could reside among his creations. And, before Adam's sin, God did just that. However, when Adam sinned, he drove God to ascend to the lowest of the seven heavens. When Kayin (Cain) sinned, God ascended higher still, and so on due to the sins of the generation of Enosh, the generation of the flood, the generation of the Tower of Babel, the Sodomites, and the Egyptians. In all, God ascended to the seventh heaven.

Then there came seven generations that managed to bring the Shechina down gradually to this world again. These generations were: Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Levi, Kahat, Amram and Moshe.

"And Hashem descended onto Mount Sinai" means that the Shechina finally returned to this lowest of worlds.

The Mishkan (Tabernacle) was built so that God could again reside among men, as the Torah states (Shmoth - Exodus 25:8): "They will build Me a Mishkan so that I may reside amongst them." Thus, the day on which the Mishkan was dedicated was as joyous for Hashem (God) as the day on which Hashem created the world.

The rabbis say that until the erection of the Mishkan in the wilderness, all nations had prophetic revelations from God. However, from that time forward, Israel was usually the only recipient of the divine truth. Only exceptionally did non-Jewish prophets like Balaam attain prophetic powers, and at best they had only prophetic dreams (Midrash Leviticus Rabbah i. 12–13). According to Rabbi Eliezer, each person among the Israelites, including even the least intelligent bond-woman, saw God's glory at the Red Sea in clearer form than did, afterward, prophets of the stamp of Ezekiel; wherefore they burst forth into the song, "This is my God" (Mek., l.c., with reference to Ex. xv. 2).

When asked by a Samaritan to explain how the words of God "Do not I fill heaven and earth?" (Jeremiah xxiii. 24) could be reconciled with the words spoken to Moses, "I will meet with thee, and . . . commune with thee ... from between the two cherubims" (Exodus xxv. 22), Rabbi Meir made his interlocutor look into two mirrors of different shapes and sizes, saying, "Behold, your own figure appears differently because the mirrors reflect it differently; how much more must the glory of God be mirrored differently by different human minds?" (Midrash Genesis Rabbah iv. 3).


Teofanía ("Theophany") by Mexican artist Antonio García Vega

More recently, science fiction author Philip K. Dick reportedly had a theophany on 3 February 1974,[24] which was to become the later basis for his semi-biographic works VALIS (1981) and the posthumous Radio Free Albemuth (1985).[25][26]

In 1977, a man in France, Michel Potay, testified he witnessed five theophanies. He published the text he says he received from God in The Book, second part of The Revelation of Ares.

There are a large number of modern cases which have been rendered into print, film, and otherwise conveyed to broad publics. Some cases have become popular books and media, including:

  • A Course in Miracles which is attested as divinely channeled[27]
  • The Attentive Heart: Conversations with Trees in which the spirits contacted are resident in species not observed to speak in the ordinary biophysical sense of human speech[28]

These instances are distinguished from cases in which divine encounters are explicitly considered fictional by the author, a frequent motif in speculative fiction such as in Julian May's Galactic Milieu Series.[29]

Divine appearances to animals in religious lore

Human religious lore includes ancient literary recordings of deities appearing to animals, usually with the animals able to relate the experience to humans using human speech:

  • In numerous creation stories, a deity or deities speak with many kinds of animals, often prior to the formation of dry land on earth.[30]
  • In the Hindu Ramayana, the monkey leader Hanuman is informed by deities, and usually consciously addressed by them.[31]
  • In Chinese mythology, the Monkey King speaks with bodhisattvas, buddhas, and a host of heavenly characters.[32]

See also


  1. Not to be confused with the Ancient Greek (τὰ) Θεοφάνια (Theophania), the festivity at Delphi.
  2. "Theophany". Encyclopædia Britannica. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/590940/theophany. 
  3. Burtchaell, J. T. (2002). "Theophany". New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13: Seq-The (second ed.). Detroit, Michigan: The Catholic University of America by Thomson/Gale. p. 929. ISBN 978-0-7876-4017-0. 
  4. While divine revelations without the appearance of a deity are often called "epiphanies", they are "hierophanies" rather than "theophanies". See in general Latourelle, René (1966). Theology of Revelation (Théologie de la Révélation). Staten Island, New York: Alba House. OCLC 568980.  and specifically Sharma 2006, p. 109
  5. Bulkley, Kelly (1993). "The Evil Dreams of Gilgamesh: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Dreams in Mythological Texts". in Rupprecht, Carol Schreier. The Dream and the Text: Essays on Literature and Language. Albany, New York: SUNY Press. pp. 159–177; page 163. ISBN 978-0-7914-1361-6. 
  6. James Hall, A History of Ideas and Images in Italian Art, pp 70–71, 1983, John Murray, London, ISBN:0-7195-3971-4
  7. William Sherwood Fox (1916) (in English). Greek and Roman [mythology]. Harvard University. Marshall Jones Company. http://archive.org/details/greekandromanmy00foxgoog. 
  8. Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd edn revised, p 546
  9. GodIsOne (2017). "YHWH – Yeshua Hanozri Wemelech Hajedhudim – Name of God – Title of Jesus". p. [1]. 
  10. Bible gateway. "Daniel 3: 8-25 OJB - Wherefore at that time certain Kasdim - Bible Gateway". p. [2]. 
  11. Ivakhiv, Adrian J. (2001). Claiming Sacred Ground: Pilgrims and Politics at Glastonbury and Sedona. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. p. 253, note 2 and the authors there cited. ISBN 978-0-253-33899-0. 
  12. Sharma, Arvind (2006). "The Concept of Revelation and the Primal Religious Tradition". A Primal Perspective on the Philosophy of Religion. Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Springer Verlag. p. 109. ISBN 978-1-4020-5014-5. 
  13. "The Season of Epiphany". http://www.crivoice.org/cyepiph.html. 
  14. Ron Rhodes Angels Among Us: Separating Fact from Fiction – Page 117, (2008): "As we examine Scripture together, I think you too will come to see that this was no ordinary angel but was in fact the preincarnate Christ. Theologians call the appearances of Christ in the Old Testament theophanies."
  15. John Ankerberg, John Weldon, Dillon Burroughs The Facts on Jehovah's Witnesses 2008 Page 32
  16. Thomas J. Phanerosis
  17. Walker C. C. Theophany: The Bible doctrine of the manifestation of God upon earth in the angels, in the Lord Jesus Christ, and hereafter in "the manifestation of sons of God" Birmingham 1929
  18. The Restoration of the Gospel
  19. Wright, Mark Alan (2011). ""According to Their Language, unto Their Understanding": The Cultural Context of Hierophanies and Theophanies in Latter-day Saint Canon". Studies in the Bible and Antiquity (Maxwell Institute for Regilious Scholarship, Brigham Young University) 3: 51–65. Archived from the original on 25 January 2013. https://web.archive.org/web/20130125190902/http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/studies/?vol=3&id=72. 
  20. "The Throne-Theophany and Prophetic Commission in 1 Nephi: A Form-Critical Analysis | BYU Studies". https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/throne-theophany-and-prophetic-commission-1-nephi-form-critical-analysis. 
  21. The Throne-Theophany of Lehi in the First Book of Nephi in 1 Nephi 1:8–11
  22. The original Hebraic terms that were used for the display were mar'eh ("sight") and maḥazeh, ḥazon or ḥizzayon ("vision").
  23. "By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way". Exodus 13:21–22)
  24. Mckee, Gabriel (2004) Pink beams of light from the god in the gutter: the science-fictional religion of Philip K. Dick University Press of America, Lanham, Maryland, pages 1–2, and following, ISBN:0-7618-2673-4
  25. Mckee, Gabriel (2004) Pink beams of light from the god in the gutter: the science-fictional religion of Philip K. Dick University Press of America, Lanham, Maryland, page 10, ISBN:0-7618-2673-4
  26. Umland, Samuel J. (1995) Philip K. Dick: contemporary critical interpretations Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, page 82, ISBN:0-313-29295-7
  27. Shucman, Helen, A Course in Miracles
  28. Kaza, Stephanie, The Attentive Heart: Conversations with Trees
  29. May, Julian, Intervention: A Root Tale to the Galactic Milieu and a Vinculum between it and The Saga of Pliocene Exile (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).
  30. Leeming, David Adams, Creation myths of the world: an encyclopedia (2010)
  31. Valmiki, Ramayana
  32. Hsuan-tsang, Journey to the West

External links