The Star of Bethlehem

I know that is still discussed if Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem or Nazareth and I will get back that discussion in my next article. In this article I will just look into the story about the star that alledgedly led some "wise men" to the place where he was born, be that in Bethlehem, Nazareth or elsewhere. Today this star is known as The Star of Bethlehem or The Christmas Star. I actually wrote this article many years after my first articles had been published on my website, but in the English translations, I have moved up to where it actually belongs - at least in my opinion. Let me start by goingd through the words of the gospels,- or rather gospel, as only one gospel mentions a star.

The word of the gospel

The Star of Bethlehem, picture from Flickr

As mentioned in the first article "When was Jesus' lifetime?", only two of the gospels mention the birth of Jesus, and of these two, only Matthew mentions a star - and wise men (or magi). In The Gospel of Luke, Jesus is worshipped by shepherds who have been told of his birth by an angel, "and the glory of the Lord shone around them" (Luke 2.9) but it is the closest Luke comes to a star. Matthew on the other hand has:

"After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route."
(Matt. 2.1-12)

Matthew has a lot of references to prophesies from The Old Testament, many of which we are actually not able to refind today, and maybe they were just inventions of the authpor of the gospel. But in this case we know which prophet Matthew is referring to, namley Micah.

The Book of Micah chapter 5 verse 1 has:

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.

Even if the two quotes are similar, Matthew either used a version of Micah that was different from the one we use, or he had to bent the content a bit to make it fit his purpose. Maybe he counted on nobody actually knowing The Book of Micah that well.

Micah does not speak of the village of Bethlehem but of the lineage Bethlehem (which originated in the town) to which David belonged, and from which also the new ruler should arise. This lineage is called small by Micah, but great (or at least not the smallest) by Matthew. Matthew mentions the rulers of Judah, while Micah only mentions the clans. Matthew also mentions Bethlehem in the land of Judah while Micah only mentions Bethlehem Ephrathah, which could be translated into "from Bethlehem toward Ephrath". Ephrathah was another settlement in Judaea not far from Bethlehem.

The Book of Micah was written about 725 BC when The Kingdom of Israel was opressed by the Neo-Assyrian Empire and it's most likely that that the ruler Micah is foreseeing has nothing to do with Jesus, but was someone who would free Israel from this ongoing opression, and it is even suggested that the book was not completed until after 515 BC when the Temple had been rebuilt and may have referred to the opression by the Babylonian Empire instead. Anyway it fit well into Matthew's storyline.

The Magi

Three Magi in a 6th-century mosaic from Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy

Most who have dealt with the case agree that the magi or "the wise men from the East" was astrologers or astronomers (basically the same thing at the time) from somewhere east of Judea, most likely Babylon or Persia, that is, current Iraq or Iran. They may have been Zarathustrian priests or other scholars, who studied the stars in the sky and some even believe that they may have been Jewish scholars from Yemen, which at that time had a Jewish king and a rather large Jewish Population. Later stories have turned the magi into holy men or kings, and have fixed their number to three, but the gospel mentions neither their number nor any titles except from magi. The number may have been adopted into the legend because they gave three gifts, namely gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Later legends even name the three, namely Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, and they also received nationalities. Caspar was Indian, Melchior was Persian and Balthasar was Arab. Some sources make Balthasar an Egypt and Melchior a Greek, which would make it difficult for them to come from the east. In the Syrian church, they are called Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas, names that sound far more Persian. Other traditions know them by different names, but as mentioned above the gospel doesn't say anything about names, nationalities or number. Medieval sources claimed that they traveled by different routes, but more likely they came from the same place and travelled together.

And now let me look into some theories about the star itself.

Was the star a supernatural phenomenon?

But what was it about the star that showed the magi the way to the newborn Jesus? The gospel suggests (and many if not all Christians believe) that it wasn't a natural phenomenon, but a "supernatural sign" that God had set in the sky to show them the way. This would also explain why it was apparently only the magi who noticed the star. Also the astrophysicist Jason Lisle, who belongs to the creationists, believes that the star was a sign from God. He states that the Star of Bethlehem, who went before the magi and eventually stood still over Bethlehem, would be in conflict with the laws of nature, but he states that God can disregard the laws of nature, if he needs to. Of course, Lisler is not alone in this view, but probably one of the few astrophysicists or astronomers who supports it.

The star as an allegory

Another possibility is that the "star" had to be understood allegorically, as a symbol of God's grace by allowing his son, Jesus, to be born as a human. He may have let this knowledge flow in some way to the magi, for example, in their dreams. There are many other examples of allegories in both The Old and The New Testament, so it is not impossible that this is also an allegory. Allegorically, for example, is the star mentioned in Numbers 24.17, which states:

“I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near.
A star will come out of Jacob;
a scepter will rise out of Israel.
He will crush the foreheads of Moab,
the skulls of all the people of Sheth"

In this verse, the star clearly has to be perceived allegorically. Here, the star symbolizes a man, a scepter (or ruler) of Jacob's lineage, who will destroy Israel's enemies, so perhaps the star is simply an allegoric expression for Jesus himself. He was thus the leader who led the magi to Bethlehem. By some Christians, the verse in Numbers is considered a prophecy of Jesus the Messiah, although it initially tried to predict a much nearer future, not least because the land of Moab had long been gone at the time of Jesus. But this too may have to be read allegorically and understood as enemies of the Jews in general. Who the people of Sheht or Seth (sons of Seth in the Danish translation) is representing is more unclear as Sheth (or Seth), the third son of Adam and Eve, in Judaism, is considered the ancestor of all humankind, which is strange to me as also Cain had children. Another interesting thing here is who was the mothers of Sheth's and Cain's children as Adam, Eve and their children were the first people in the world, but that is a discussion for another time.

The star as a pure astrological phenomenon

In this case an astrological phenomenon is defined as an event predicted by astrologers by laying out the movement of the planets and stars without other people being able to immediately observe the same. The theory is that astrologers have predicted the birth of a new king of the Jews, and then traveled to Jerusalem, where the king resided, only to be told that the new ruler was to be born in Bethlehem, where they then traveled. Of course, this theory assumes that one believes in astrology, but so does the astronomical explanations, see below. If birth could only be seen from the astrologers' interpretations, it can explain why only the magi saw the star, which then did not appear in the sky at all.

The star as an astromical phenomenon

Comet Lovejoy seen from satellite in orbit in 2011.

The comet that first comes to mind is Halley's Comet, which was visible in the sky in year 12 BC, that is, 12 years before the year in which Jesus was born, according to the calculations of 525. Of course, we know today that he was not born this year, but some years before that, but 12 BC is probably too early after all. Of course, there may have been another comet, but if so it would probably have been mentioned by some astronomers of the time, Chinese astronomers in particular, as they recorded every single celestial phenomena they observed. And there are no records of comets between the 12 BC and year 4 BC, where Herod is believed to have died. Some scientists believe that Herod may have died as late as in 1 BC, but even in the three years that may be added, no comets were observed. Furthermore, this later dating of Herod the Great's death is rejected by other scientists, typically on the basis that Herod's successors, his sons Arkelaos, Philip, and Antipas all claimed that their reign began in 4 BC.

A nova or a supernova
Another possiblity is that the star may have been a Nova or a Supernova (from "stella nova" = "new star"). A scientific explanation for this phenomenon can be found at eg
Wikipedia. The Chinese astronomers I mentioned above actually recorded in the year 5 BC a new star in the constellation Capricorn, which may have been a nova. This star was visible for approximately 70 days and it would also have been visible from the Middle East. The star would have been visible in the hours before dawn, which is exactly what the Greek version of Matthew suggests that The star of Bethlem was. However, a nova/supernova would not have moved so much that it could first be seen in the west when the magi travelled from a place east of Jerusalem, and later in the south (when the magi were going from Jerusalem to Bethlehem). In disfavor of both the nova and comet theories, it is also argued that both comets and novas were typically interpreted as signs of future disasters, accidents or death, not as signs of joyous events like the birth of a king. Therefore, neither of the two possibilities are very likely.

On certain occasions, it seems as if planets are stationary in the sky or are even moving in the wrong direction relative to the fixed stars. This phenomenon occurs when the movement of the outer planets is "overtaken" by the earth's movement around the sun. This can be observed with the naked eye, but only if you observe the sky nightly for an extended period of time. Of course, this is most likely exactly what the magi did, but hardly the general public, and that may explain why only the former saw the "star". From daily observations, it will look as if the planet is going in a loop and at each end of the loop it appears to be stationary for about a week. In 5 BC the planet Jupiter showed such a so-called retrograde movement, according to author and astronomer Michael Molnar. Also the now-deceased English journalist and MP, Ivor Bulmer-Thomas, aired the same theory in an article in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, combining it with the idea of ​​a (or rather two) conjunctions between multiple planets, see next section.

Planetary conjunction
The theory most scientists believe in (if any) is that "the star" was a conjunction between two or more celestial bodies. During the relevant period of time, there were several such conjunctions. A conjunction occurs when two or more celestial bodies "meet" in the sky.

In 7 BC, there was for example a conjunction between the planet Jupiter and the star Regulus in the constellation Leo, and in 2 BC another conjunction took place between Jupiter and Venus. However, the conjunction that most scholars believe could have been "the star" is a conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC. This conjunction was visible in the constellation Pisces. Over a period of several months, the two planets came very close to each other three times. The first "meeting" was in May, the second in September and the third in December. If this is correct, it is assumed that Jesus was born in late April or early May 7 BC The magi departed as soon as they observed the first conjunction and reached Herod's court at the time of the second. This harmonizes nicely with the time such a trip on foot from Babylon to Jerusalem would typically would have lasted. The magi must have stayed in Jerusalem for quite some time, however, as the theory assumes that the last conjunction in December showed them their way to Bethlehem, a trip of no more than 2 hours, and only that much if you don't walk too fast. Conjunctions between Jupiter and Saturn are very rare and occur only at an interval of about 800 years, so for astronomers/astrologers it has been an event of great significance.

Jupiter had several conjunctions with Regulus again in the years 3 and 2 BC. In the same years, several other conjunctions took place, among these between Saturn and Mercury (May 19th, 3 BC), Saturn and Venus (June 12th, 3 BC), and twice between Jupiter and Venus (August 12th, 3 BC and June 10th, 2 BCE), but these conjunctions can only be the explanation if Herod did not die in the year 4 BC but some years later. Another possibility is a conjunction between Jupiter and the moon in the constellation Aries in 6 BC.

Other conjunctions have also been proposed, including a possible conjunction between Uranus and Saturn in the year 9 BC, or a conjunction between Uranus and Venus in 6 BC. However, the latter two conjunctions are unlikely, although Babylonian astronomers might have known Uranus more than 1,500 years before modern science discovered it. Not least unlikely because Uranus is hardly visible to the naked eye.

A combination of several signs
Bulmer-Thomas believed that the magi observed the first conjunctions in 7 BC and that this increased their awareness of future "signs". In the year 6 BC another sign appeared in the shape of a "near-conjunction" between Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. In May 5 BC the retrograde movement of Jupiter could be observed, which finally caused them to leave for Jerusalem. The retrograde movement lasted for about four months, roughly the time their journey would have taken, and when they reached Jerusalem, Jupiter stood motionless in the sky in the south. According to Bulmer-Thomas, Jesus was thus born in 7 BC and the magi reached Jerusalem in 5 BC when he was almost 2 years old, which fits nicely with the story of the Massacre of the Innocents. Also Greek word Matthew uses when referring Jesus, actually refers to a toddler, and not to a newborn child, as most versions of the story claim, and how it is also translated in the Danish edition of Matthew. The English edition that I have used just refers to Jesus as a child though. Matthew uses the exact same word about Jesus when the family returns from Egypt, and at that time at least he can't have been newborn. But if two years had passed since the birth, why was the family still lingering i Betlehem in stead of returning to Nazaret? I will look into that in my next article, in which I will also take a closer look at the Massacre of the Inno/cents.

Saturn, Star of the Jews

Astronomy and astrology
The explanation that most people (who believe in the story at all) tend to believe, is the conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC. This is due to the combination of the astronomical conjunction that took place and the interpretation that astrologers of the time would have arrived at from these "facts". Jupiter was considered the star of "The Ruler of the World". Saturn was the star of the Jews, the symbol of righteousness and the star of the Messiah. Pisces was the zodiac sign of the Jews and was at the same time a symbol of the end of time. The conjunction was thus a sign that the ruler who was to herald the end of time, should be born among the Jews. This was also what the magi expressed when they asked Herod, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matt. 2.2) Herod, who was neither an astrologer nor a scholar, had to summon the chief priests and the tearchers of the law to be told. Once again in the Danish translation the word "newborn" is used for Jesus while he English translation doesn't mention anything about age. The birth, according to astrologers, took place at the time when Saturn first became visible over the eastern horizon after being passed by the sun, the so-called heliic rise. This time of day heralded in births, and this is also the exact time that Herod would like to know from the magi. It also fit very well with the "fact", that the magi had seen the star "rise", and had seen it again when they travelled to Bethlehem. Thus, they have not necessarily been able to observe a single phenomenon on the entire trip to Jerusalem.

I actually believe mostly in the latter explanation of the "star" being a combination of several astronomical phenomena that were interpreted as forewarning of Jesus' birth, if there was a star at all. Jesus was thus probably born sometime in mid 7 BC and the magi reached Bethlehem at the end of year 6 or the beginning of year 5, when Jesus was almost two years old - if there were magi at all, and it was not just an invention made by Matthew or his sources, to make the birth of Jesus even more miraculous.

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