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Can Astronomy Explain the Biblical Star of Bethlehem?

Can Astronomy Explain the Biblical Star of Bethlehem?

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To understand the Star of Bethlehem, we need to think like the three wise men. Motivated by this “star in the east,” they first traveled to Jerusalem and told King Herod the prophecy that a new ruler of the people of Israel would be born. We also need to think like King Herod, who asked the wise men when the star had appeared, because he and his court, apparently, were unaware of any such star in the sky.

Puzzles for astronomy

These events present us with our first astronomy puzzle of the first Christmas: How could King Herod’s own advisors have been unaware of a star so bright and obvious that it could have led the wise men to Jerusalem?

Next, in order to reach Bethlehem, the wise men had to travel directly south from Jerusalem; somehow that “star in the east” “went before them, ‘til it came and stood over where the young child was.” Now we have our second first-Christmas astronomy puzzle: how can a star “in the east” guide our wise men to the south? The north star guides lost hikers to the north, so shouldn’t a star in the east have led the wise men to the east?

And we have yet a third first-Christmas astronomy puzzle: how does Matthew’s star move “before them,” like the taillights on the snowplow you might follow during a blizzard, and then stop and stand over the manger in Bethlehem, inside of which supposedly lies the infant Jesus?

The adoration of the Magi, after they followed that ‘star in the east’ to Jesus.

The adoration of the Magi, after they followed that ‘star in the east’ to Jesus.  Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. CC BY-NC-ND

What could the 'star in the east’ be?

The astronomer in me knows that no star can do these things, nor can a comet, or Jupiter, or a supernova, or a conjunction of planets or any other actual bright object in the nighttime sky. One can claim that Matthew’s words describe a miracle, something beyond the laws of physics. But Matthew chose his words carefully and wrote “star in the east” twice, which suggests that these words hold a specific importance for his readers.

Can we find any other explanation, consistent with Matthew’s words, that doesn’t require that the laws of physics be violated and that has something to do with astronomy? The answer, amazingly, is yes.

Astrological answers to astronomical puzzles

Astronomer Michael Molnar  points out  that “in the east” is a literal translation of the Greek phrase  en te anatole , which was a technical term used in Greek mathematical astrology 2,000 years ago. It described, very specifically, a planet that would rise above the eastern horizon just before the sun would appear. Then, just moments after the planet rises, it disappears in the bright glare of the sun in the morning sky. Except for a brief moment, no one can see this “star in the east.”

We need a little bit of astronomy background here. In a human lifetime, virtually all the stars remain fixed in their places; the stars rise and set every night, but they do not move relative to each other. The stars in the Big Dipper appear year after year always in the same place. But the planets, the sun and the moon wander through the fixed stars; in fact, the word “planet” comes from the Greek word for wandering star. Though the planets, sun and moon move along approximately the same path through the background stars, they travel at different speeds, so they often lap each other. When the sun catches up with a planet, we can’t see the planet, but when the sun passes far enough beyond it, the planet reappears.

And now we need a little bit of astrology background. When the planet reappears again for the first time and rises in the morning sky just moments before the sun, for the first time in many months after having been hidden in the sun’s glare for those many months, that moment is known to astrologers as a heliacal rising. A heliacal rising, that special first reappearance of a planet, is what  en te anatole  referred to in ancient Greek astrology. In particular, the reappearance of a planet like Jupiter was thought by Greek astrologers to be symbolically significant for anyone born on that day.

Thus, the “star in the east” refers to an astronomical event with supposed astrological significance in the context of ancient Greek astrology.

Was the star visible just briefly before dawn?

Was the star visible just briefly before dawn?  James Callan CC BY-NC-SA

What about the star parked directly above the first crèche? The word usually translated as “stood over” comes from the Greek word  epano, which also had an important meaning in ancient astrology. It refers to a particular moment when a planet stops moving and changes apparent direction from westward to eastward motion. This occurs when the Earth, which orbits the sun more quickly than Mars or Jupiter or Saturn, catches up with, or laps, the other planet.

Together, a rare combination of astrological events (the right planet rising before the sun; the sun being in the right constellation of the zodiac; plus a number of other combinations of planetary positions considered important by astrologers) would have suggested to ancient Greek astrologers a regal horoscope and a royal birth.

Wise men looking to the skies

Molnar believes that the wise men were, in fact, very wise and mathematically adept astrologers. They also knew about the Old Testament prophecy that a new king would be born of the family of David. Most likely, they had been watching the heavens for years, waiting for alignments that would foretell the birth of this king. When they identified a powerful set of astrological portents, they decided the time was right to set out to find the prophesied leader.

Giotto Scrovegni’s Adoration of the Magi depicted the Star of Bethlehem as a comet.

Giotto Scrovegni’s Adoration of the Magi depicted the Star of Bethlehem as a comet.

If Matthew’s wise men actually undertook a journey to search for a newborn king, the bright star didn’t guide them; it only told them when to set out. And they wouldn’t have found an infant swaddled in a manger. After all, the baby was already eight months old by the time they decoded the astrological message they believed predicted the birth of a future king. The portent began on April 17 of 6 BC (with the heliacal rising of Jupiter that morning, followed, at noon, by its lunar occultation in the constellation Aries) and lasted until December 19 of 6 BC (when Jupiter stopped moving to the west, stood still briefly, and began moving to the east, as compared with the fixed background stars). By the earliest time the men could have arrived in Bethlehem, the baby Jesus would likely have been at least a toddler.

Matthew wrote to convince his readers that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah. Given the astrological clues embedded in his gospel, he must have believed the story of the Star of Bethlehem would be convincing evidence for many in his audience.

Top image: The Three Kings following the Start of Bethlehem ( public domain )

The article ‘ Can Astronomy Explain the Biblical Star of Bethlehem? ’ by David A Weintraub was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.

Comments

Close parallels between ancient mythologies are always suspect and controversial. For instance, different legends relate that Christ visited Ethiopia, Britain, India, Tibet, Japan, etc., and in some places that he died and was buried there. How Buddhist proselytizers traveled to the west, passing through Persia and Zoroastrianism to reach the Middle East, while simultaneously journeying to Tibet and China on successful missions, would be good material for an internet documentary.

The “star of Bethlehem” can be explained with mythology, not astronomy. There have been all kinds of extraterrestrial explanations  (an unusual conjunction of planets, a comet, even UFO) for it’s appearance and none of them have panned out. The thing to consider is a simple fact that according to the tradition the writers of the Gospels were “witnesses” to all of the accounts that they wrote about. But none of them were alive or were very young when these events suposedly occurred. Consequently, the events are suspect for authenticity. According to ancient Hebrew mythology a star is the precurser of the birth of a prophet. In many mythologies around the world a star appeared in the east with the birth of the sun-god. That star is the sun. According to the mythology of the birth of the Buddha a star appeared in the east and local kings came to worship him and another of the local kings became jealous and ordered the killing of all male children under the age of 12. The fact is, Buddhist proselytizers were in the Middle East around this time so the story was carried with them. Why mythology is so easily dismissed is because people like the story and they want to believe that something like that actually happened. The choice of December 21 is known to have been selected as the birth of Jesus because it coencides with the Pagan Winter holidays. On December 21 the sun begins its month’s long climb back up to its high point in mid-Summer. This follows the flow of the seasons and the mythology of the sun-gods and their lives, their deaths and resurrections in the Spring. Check out, “The Gospel Truth: The Heresy of History” for more information.

The star of Bethlehem was no more than a vision of the several Magi. No physical object in the sky was seen. No record of this extraordinary star exists across the globe,. The Magi were star-gazers, not astrologers, who would gaze at the stars for signs and visions. Stars in ancinet times were regarded as angels or the home of angels. Even the bible adheres to this belief (Rev 1:20). The fact that the Magi knew what the star referred to indicates they received some revelation about its significance in addition to seeing the star itself. Also, the star’s movements suggest it wasn’t a physical star in the astronomical sense.

Hi All,

Wasn't Matthew Christ own Apostle Levi Matthew the Tax Collector?

Matthew was instructed and taught many things at the feet of Jesus for 3 in a half year's.

An important part that this article touched on is that The Magi arrived when The Messiah was a toddler then that explains King Herod the Great orders To Kill every Baby Boy 2 years old or younger.

By some strange chance did anyone notice The Gospel of Luke and what happened with The Shepherds; I was just wondering? Whereas The Bible is concerned it's a Sacred Book that teaches The Impossible.

I realize others might not agree with that assessment.

Goodbye!

Let’s look at the Matthean pericope Mt 2:1-11 with a fresh eye. The canonical text (further simply “the text”) reports about ONLY two observations of an unusual “star” by the magi: the first time the magi “saw his star when it rose” Mt 2:2 (here and further “New International Version”) and the second time AFTER the “star” had “stopped over the place where the child was” (cf. Mt 2:9 and Mt 2:10).It may be assumed that the first time the magi saw the rising “star” near Jerusalem. The magi thought that “a king of the Jews” was born in the capital and hurried there to worship him. They came to Jerusalem in the late morning or afternoon, so the “star” was not visible in daylight and no one could see it. Herod was quickly informed about the excited magi and their report. But there was not a suitable baby in the families of Herod’s numerous descendants. Then the king could simply ignore the magi with their fantasies.But someone from Herod’s environment “added fuel to the dying fire” making a clarification: according to the prophecy Numbers 24.17 the rising of an unusual “star” could mean much more than the birth of another future “king of the Jews”, namely the birth of Christ - the Messiah - Mashiach. At the meeting Herod asked “chief priests and teachers of the law… where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea” they replied… Then Herod called the Magi secretly" Mt 2.4,5,7. The king did not leave the meeting immediately so the magi had to wait. Herod met the magi in the evening and he wanted them to show him their “star”. However, their “star” had not yet risen and the king only “found out from them the exact time the star had appeared” Mt 2.7. Herod wasn’t impressed at all by the humble magi and their report. He was sure they would not find in Bethlehem a newborn "king of the Jews” and even less Messiah. That’s why he did not give them any escort.The magi spent the night in Jerusalem, and the next day at dawn they went to Bethlehem. That morning the magi did not observe the rise of their “star”, probably due to cloudy weather. Though “the text” says that “the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them” Mt 2.9 the magi did not observe it when they were following the winding road through hills to Bethlehem (cloudy weather). They saw the “star” for the second time only after it had "stopped over the place where the child was” (cf. Mt 2.9 and Mt 2.10). Thus when the magi had seen the “star” for the first time they left it behind them and entered Jerusalem from the east, and now they suddenly saw the “star” standing over the house in front of them. That’s why it was reported in oral traditions and later written in the Gospel “went ahead of them” Mt 2.9. Note that according to my hypothesis two observations of the “star” by the magi are separated by a little more than one day.It is obvious that Matthew did not invent these fine details, but carefully wrote down what came to him in the oral tradition several decades after the events. It may be easily shown that such a simple realistic interpretation is in a better agreement with the letter and spirit of the canonical text than traditional ones! And with this interpretation one easily solves the “astronomy puzzles”, enumerated in Prof. David A. Weintraub’s article “Can astronomy explain the biblical Star of Bethlehem?”For Puzzle 1. The text doesn’t say that the “star” was bright or the “star” led the magi to Jerusalem. They left it rising behind them.For Puzzle 2. The text doesn’t say that the “star” led the magi from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. They followed the winding road through hills, not the “star”.For Puzzle 3. According to the text first the “star” had stopped over the house and only after the magi saw it in front of them.But what could the ‘rising star’ be in reality? Dr. E.C. Krupp, Director of Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, California kindly sent me a quotation from his book: “In astrological terms, there is always something going on overhead. If you give me a date for the birth of Christ, I’ll give you a Christmas Star.” (“Beyond the Blue Horizon: Myths and Legends of the Sun, Moon, Stars, and Planets”. New York: HarperCollins, 1991), page 311). In other words, it is not difficult to propose a candidate for the role of the Christmas star. But it is much more important to verify on the basis of independent sources the events which are described in the canonical “Nativity story” and possibly correct it. That’s what I try to do in my hypothesis.In an ancient manuscript one may read: “Anno sequenti Herodes rediens a Roma cum videret qui illusus esset a magis…”, i.e. “The following year on his return from Rome, when Herod saw that he was mocked of the wise men…” (Manuscrit D, Paris, BNP Nr. 1652). According to modern scholars the last voyage of Herod to Rome took place in the late summer of 12 BCE. In the Chinese dynastic history “Ch' en-han-shu. Treatise on the Five Elements "one may read: “On August 26 [in the year 12 BCE] a star emerged at Tung-Ching …In the morning it appeared at the East direction…”. Modern calculations have shown that it was Halley’s comet. For further details, see a short summary of my hypothesis on the site http:// www.nativity.reznikova.ru/eng/.

Alexander Reznikov. Moscow.

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