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The Star of Bethlehem

December 23, 2013

The story of the Star of Bethlehem has been a mystery for a long time. With the advances we have made since the advent of computers, Astronomers have identified several astrological events that may describe what the Magi saw that led them to search for a king who was born in Judea. Before considering these events some Biblical and historical context should be understood.

Wise Men (Magi) from the East

Matthew 2:1-6 says ”Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Wise-men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we saw his star in the east, and are come to worship him’. And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judea: for thus it is written through the prophet, ‘And thou Bethlehem, land of Judah, art in no wise least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come forth a governor, who shall be shepherd of my people Israel’.” (ASV)

Matthew 2:8-9 adds “And they, having heard the king, went their way; and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.” (ASV)

Herod must not have noticed the events in the sky that the Magi did because he had to ask when the star appeared. This seems to rule out events like comets, shooting stars or novae (unless the novae are very far away and appeared as a new star in the normal range of brightness). So the events that led the Magi (likely astrologers from what was once Persia) were more probably “signs” in the sky that appear on some regular interval due to the orbit of the planets and the earth.

Computers and Kepler

In the age of computers we are now able to see what the night sky looked like at any point in history with relative ease using the planetary formulas discovered by Johannes Kepler (a contemporary of Galileo). We also know from the oldest and most reliable manuscripts of “Antiquities of the Jews” written by Jewish historian Flavius Josephus that King Herod (the Great) died in 1 BC. This is important because Jesus was born shortly before the death of Herod. When looking for answers to what astrological events might answer the mystery of the Star of Bethlehem, Astronomers began to search the nighttime skies between 7 and 2 BC. Using computers and Kepler’s formulas, some unusual formations of planets and stars were indeed discovered around the time of Jesus’ birth.

What Did the Astrologers from the East Believe?

Before we look at what Astronomers have discovered in the night skies, lets try to understand what wise men from the east (Magi) might have believed about the stars and planets. Astrologers knew about constellations in the night sky. We even see constellations mentioned in the Bible in passages like:

  • “…who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea; who made the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the chambers of the south…” (Job 9:8-9)
  • “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion?” (Job 38:31)

All that we see in the night sky must not be worshipped (as the astrologers from the east may have done). We see this clearly prohibited in the Bible in passages like Deuteronomy 4:19:

  • “And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, ball the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.”

Yet we are told in the Bible that there will be “signs” in the heavens as stated in Luke 21:25 and following that “…there will be signs in sun and moon and stars…”

All that we see in the sky should point us to the worship of God as is clearly seen from passages like:

  • “Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing.” (Isaiah 40:26)
  • “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” (Psalm 19:1-4)

So, we may look for signs in the sky, but they are to point us to the majesty and splendor of God. It is he alone who must be worshiped. The Magi from the east likely worshiped idols like the Persian or Roman gods or perhaps the stars themselves. These Magi may have associated the planet Jupiter with the greatest god of Roman mythology or perhaps with royalty. They may have understood Saturn as the Roman god of abundance and peace, the father of Jupiter or perhaps the Mesopotamian deity that protected Israel. They could have thought of Mars as the macho god of virility. They also may have associated the planet Venus with fertility, the constellation Virgo with virgins, and the constellation Pisces with Israel. These associations may have played a role in their decision to travel to Jerusalem to look for a king who had just been born.

One other important point is that in the time of Daniel’s captivity in Babylon, which was later conquered by Persia, one of the titles given to Daniel was Rab-mag, the Chief of the Magi. Perhaps Daniel passed on his knowledge of Bible prophecy to ancestors of the Magi. This may have been why they were searching the skies for signs of the birth of the Jewish Messiah or king.

Three Theories

Sep29-7_BC-SaturnJupiter There are three night sky theories that seem do the best job of explaining why the Magi came from the east to search for a king. The earliest of these stellar events occurred when Jupiter and Saturn approached each other three times in the constellation Pisces in planetary conjunctions in the span of one year in 7-6 BC. Triple conjunctions in a period of one year are possible because of the occasional retrograde motions of planets. When a planet undergoes retrograde motion, it makes a loop against the background of stars. The planet first passes another planet or star, enters retrograde (moving from west to east – stars move from east to west) passes that planet or star again then continues its normal path and passes the planet or star a third time. In addition, the planet appears to the naked eye to be stationary at each end of the loop for about one week (which could explain the star stopping over Bethlehem). Could the Magi have seen this triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn as a sign of the birth of new royaltyFeb-6_BC-JupiterMarsSaturn in the nation of Israel or perhaps the Messiah?

The second theory involves a very close conjunction of Jupiter, Mars and Saturn in the constellation Pisces. This triple conjunction happens in Pisces only once in about every 900 years. Could the Magi have understood this triple conjunction as the manly (Mars) Saturn coming to Israel with his son Jupiter.

The last theory involves Jupiter coming into three conjunctions with the brightest sJun17-2_BC-JupiterVenusRegulustar in the constellation Leo, Regulus (whose name means regal), in 3-2 BC. In this triple conjunction Jupiter circled around Regulus. Interestingly, this triple conjunction was followed in June of 2 BC by a very close conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in the constellation Virgo in the western sky. The moon was also underneath Jupiter and Venus when they were in conjunction. Could the Magi have understood the moon as the new king being born to Jupiter (the king) and Venus (the virgin)?

All of these events are just educated explanations for what the Magi saw; however, there is no way to know for sure without having actual evidence. If God wanted to perform a miracle in the skies to announce the birth of his son, he certainly could have done so. After all, he created a universe out of nothing, sent plagues to Egypt, revealed himself in Smoke and Fire in the wilderness wanderings, turned water into wine, fed thousands on a meager meal, walked on water, and raised Jesus from the dead. And that is just a partial list of what an infinite, timeless, space-less, omnipotent, omniscient and personal God has done.

The Birth of the King of Kings

Whether any of these three night sky explanations would have been seen by the Magi and interpreted as announcing the birth of king is not known for sure. But we do know that the savior of the world, Jesus of Nazareth, the Lion of Judah, the King of kings and Lord of lords, was born in the town of Bethlehem to a virgin not long before king Herod died in 1 BC. Jesus is the only hope for mankind since he alone is perfect and came to earth to take the punishment we deserved on a cruel Roman cross. At this time of year when all of us remember his birth, let’s also remember that he came to earth to suffer among us and ultimately die for us. What a magnificent King we serve!

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