Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Star of Bethlehem

Speculation about the identity of the star of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1-12) is a perennial Christmas pastime. I was recently urged to examine a current Star of Bethlehem site. This site argues for a natural explanation, in the form of a triple conjunction, in 2-3 BC, between the planet Jupiter and the star Regulus in the constellation Leo. It refers to earlier works by Ernest L Martin (see The Birth of Christ Recalculated, 1980 Pasadena: Foundation for Biblical Research and The Star That Astonished the World, 1996, Second Edition; Portland, Oregon: ASK Publications) .

Astronomical conjectures regarding the star of Bethlehem are hardly new.  The famous astronomer Johannes Kepler (ca 1600) suggested it was a triple conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn (in 7 BC). Others have considered the star to be a nova (a star that suddenly increases in brightness) or a comet.

One difficulty with such explanations is that the exact time of Jesus' birth is not known, not even the year. Estimates range from -7 BC to +1 AD. Such a large range encompasses a variety of possible astronomical events.

Only the gospel of Matthew mentions the star. Matthew 2:1-12 relates that "wise men (greek: magoi) from the east came to Jerusalem, saying where is he who was born king of the Jews? For we saw his star (greek: astera) in the east (or, when it rose)." This troubled Herod, who asked them "what time the star had appeared." Herod sent them to Bethlehem. "After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen in the east (or, when it rose) went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child..."

Note the peculiar motion of the star during the short journey of the magi from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (5-6 miles). First, the exceeding great joy of the magi when they again saw the star implies its unusual behaviour, either by its sudden reappearance or by its altered motion. Next, it led them and, finally, it stopped over the right house. No normal comet, supernova, nor combination of planets & stars would exhibit such strange actions.

Those supporting a planetary conjunction claim that, once every 13 months or so, the retrograde motion of Jupiter would cause it to appear to stand still. See the diagram (the inner, blue, planet is the earth; the red one is Jupiter) showing the apparent position of Jupiter, as seen from the earth, against the background stars.
However, such retrograde motion would take place over a number of weeks; no change would be perceptable during the brief two hour trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Further, Jupiter would appear to stand still only with respect to the background stars, which are themselves continuously moving across the sky. Hence Jupiter's retrograde motion cannot account for the star coming to rest over Jesus' house. Moreover, to point out a particular house, the star could not at that instance have been very high in the sky.

Thus, it seems to me that the star must have been of a miraculous nature.

Nevertheless, its initial position among the constellations may have had high significance. When the magi come to Jerusalem they ask "Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star" (Matt.2:2). How did they know that the star signified the birth of the King of the Jews? There is no evidence that they had received any direct revelation of this. Rather, it seems that they deduced the birth of a new, important Jewish king purely from celestial signs. In this regard, if the magi came from Persia, as is generally supposed, they may well have been familiar with Jewish prophesies and wisdom, since Jews had lived in Persia since the time of Daniel, who was at one time chief of the "magicians" and astrologers (Daniel 5:11).

What signs would these be?

Ernest Martin (1980) identifies the star of Bethlehem with Jupiter (the king planet) entering on August 12 in 3 BC, the constellation Leo (the Lion), associated in the Bible with the tribe of Judah, from which Jesus came. At that time the sun (representing the supreme father) was positioned near Venus (the mother), and had just entered the constellation Virgo (the Virgin). His preference for Leo is based on Balaam's prophecy, "there shall come a star out of Jacob" (Num.24:17), combined with Jacob's blessing, "Judah is a lion's whelp" (Gen.49:9).

On the other hand, Kenneth Fleming, Kenneth (God's Voice in the Stars: Zodiac Signs and Bible Truth. Neptune, N.J.: Loizeau Brothers, 1981) thinks it may well have been a new star in the constellation Coma, near Virgo. He interprets Coma to mean "the desired son" of Virgo (the virgin). Astrologer Claudius Ptolemy (90-168 AD), in his work, Tetrabiblos, wrote that the constellation Aries (the Ram) controlled the people of Judea.

According to Colin Humphreys ("The Star of Bethlehem - a Comet in 5 BC - and the Date of the Birth of Christ". Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 32 (1991): 389-407), in Magian astrology the planet Saturn represented the divine father, Jupiter is his son, and the constellation Pisces was associated with Israel. Hence a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in Pisces (in 7 BC) would generate the astrological message that a Messiah-King would be born in Israel.

So which is it? Clearly, much of this is pure conjecture. One suspects that, with a little ingenuity, a case could be made for almost any astronomical event in any constellation.

In sum, it seems to me that Matthew's description of the star of Bethlehem entails a supernatural star. Yet, it may well have been accompanied by other, natural, celestial phenomena that would have alerted the magi to the significance of the new star that they had observed.

Two millennia later, thanks be to God and His Word, we know even better the great significance of Christ's birth. Let us then, like the magi, worship Him who saved us from our sins and claimed us as His children.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks Dr. Byl , for this very enlightening posting on something I have often wondered about.

    Another question that often arises at Christmas time is “Who were the wise men”? Some years ago I listened to an audio cassette of John MacArthur on this topic. (Fortunately, I found it here: http://www.biblebb.com/files/mac/sg2182.htm)

    What I found especially interesting at that time and now again on reading it, is the role that Daniel might have played, according to MacArthur.

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  2. Hi Henrietta

    Thanks for your helpful link. Even today Daniel seems to be held in high esteem in Persia (present day Iran): when I was in Iran a few years ago I visited the shrine for Daniel's tomb, near the ruins of the ancient palace in Susa.

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  3. Given the possible role of Daniel leaving behind information on the sign the magi were to expect heralding the birth of the Hebrew Messiah, it should also be held over and against predictable astronomical events. The magi had enough knowledge of astronomical events that they should have been able to predict a specific conjunction rather than be apparently surprised by it. Would they not say, "Well, the conjunction will happen on a certain date, so we better go to Jerusalem and be there by that date." That's not what happened. Rather, they saw what appeared to be an astronomical event they knew would happen, or at least understood the significance of, but could not predict.

    On the other hand, it could be that Daniel was not specific about all details in such a way that the magi wouldn't be able to understand the meaning of it until it happened. Then, perhaps Daniel left specific instructions on how to observe the conjunction once they reached Jerusalem. Of course, that would have to be very specific in order to identify one single house many months after Jesus' birth. With that, I think my first option is more likely.

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  4. Ah, but Herod (as Larsen points out) had to ask the wise mean about what they had been seeing. If this was a supernatural star then it must have been striking to only the wise men because Herod and the scribes hadn't noticed anything unusual. I like the idea of it being a natural event--indeed, in a way, all natural events are supernatural as God has power over them all and set them all in motion. My very existence is s supernatural event. Just a thought. God bless.

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