The Star of Wonder ... The Christmas Star
Written by Patrick Prokop
Note: I initially researched and wrote this article in 1994. I have updated it several times since then to keep it up to date. You can contact me at email@example.com
What was the Christmas Star?
In the month of December among all the Christmas decorations, the lights, ribbons, bows, manger scenes, a celestial object is displayed; a star. The star reminds us of the devine connection to the Christmas event. We tend to look to the sky during this time seeking evidence of a celestial message, a message that was given 2,000 years ago. What was this message the Wise men of the Gospel of Matthew and Luke saw? This year, 2020, there is a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the SW evening sky around Christmas time with the mention of it being the 'Christmas Star'. Could it be?
Did you ever wonder what the wise men, or Magi saw some 2,000 years ago that led them to search and find a baby named Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes within a manger. Why were they so intrigued that they left their homelands to bring him the reported gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh?
It is obvious that they saw something, something that caused them to diligently search for something very special. In the book of Matthew in the New Testament of the Bible, the accounts in Chapter 2 make reference to the Magi, or wise men, seeing a special star. "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign 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 in the east and have come to worship him.'" (Matt 2:1-2, NIV). What was this star that the Magi saw? Was it a bright star, a Nova (an exploding star which shines very brightly), a comet, planetary alignment, or something else? To answer that question, we must first ask who were the Magi? It is important to know their customs in order to arrive at a suitable answer as to what they were describing as a "star."
Who were the Magi?
Before the birth of Jesus, the study of the heavens had developed into the science called astronomy. In Babylonia, an empire to the northwest of Persia , wise men were able to calculate the changing positions of the wandering stars known as "planetos," which is the Greek word for planets. It was also believed that these wandering stars were gods and they had an effect on the destiny of men as they passed through different stellar constellations of the zodiac known as houses. Many a horoscope was cast for many kings by the day' s sorcerers. This astrology (not to be confused with the science of astronomy) of that age was very detailed and resulted in wise men being able to produce what was believed to be information concerning a person's or nation's future. So it goes without saying that a special event within the heavens indicated something special, either good or bad, was about to happen. Some of the planets, or gods, represented agony and hardship while others stood for jubilation and peace. The order of celestial majesty of Babylonian astrology was: Moon, Sun, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Mercury, and Mars.
The Magi were most likely wise men from Persia, which is east of Palestine and adjacent to Babylonia which is today's Iran and Iraq. They would have been well skilled in astronomy, astrology and in philosophy and would have been well respected by their community. There is no mention as to how many wise men there were but by legend, three of them were named Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. According to the Bible, they brought the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus, (Matt 2:11) and perhaps that is why we assume there were only three.
When was Jesus Born?
The next question that needs to be addressed is when did this event occur? The answer would seem simple; on December 25 in the year 1. But was it? The dating of Jesus' birth is also questionable. The celebration of Christmas on December 25 didn't begin until the fourth century A.D. Since 274 A.D., under the emperor Aurelian, Rome had celebrated the feast of the "Invincible Sun" or "Sol Invictus" on December 25, a day associated with the winter solstice, the day the sun stood still in its most southern position. After the conversion of Constantine in 324, early Christians merged the celebration of the birth of Jesus to this festival.
Herod the Great's Eclipse
It is known that Herod the Great was king of Judea at the birth of Jesus and Herod died most likely in 4 B.C. (This is not the Herod at the trial of Jesus some 33 years later. That was Herod the Great's son, Herod Antipas.) It was reported by the historian Flavius Josephus that soon before the death of Herod the Great, an eclipse of the moon was observed just before Passover (Antiq. 17.6.4). Astronomical calculations indicate that a partial lunar eclipse did occurred on March 12-13, 4 B.C., which would have been right before Passover. No other lunar eclipse occurred except for a total one on January 9-10, 1 B.C. which is too far from Passover to be "Herod's eclipse." Hence, Jesus was probably born before 4 B.C. but not much more, perhaps by less than 3 years. Joseph, the husband of Mary the mother of Jesus, according to the scripture, took his new family and fled to Egypt to escape the fury of Herod who had wanted to kill the newborn babe. After the Death of Herod, Joseph, Mary and the little child traveled home to Nazareth. (See Matt 2:19-23).
The season of year is also in debate. There is no indication of snow or winter weather. In contrast, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, "In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night." (Luke 2:8, NRSV). This, according to many biblical scholars , indicated that this was the "lambing" season as the shepherds stayed within their flocks to protect the newborn lambs. This would have been during the spring months.
So, now we have a possible time of the birth of Jesus, that is late winter to early spring between 7 B.C. to 4 B.C.
What did they see?
Map of the Conjuction of Jupiter and Saturn, December 23, 7 BC ...
It is easy with today's computer to calculate what natural appearances occurred in the sky at any time in the past and for any time into the future, for that matter. It wasn't quite so easy 400 years ago, but Johann Kepler was able to arrive at a possible solution. Kepler, who discovered the basic laws of planetary motion in the 1500's, had a firm faith in God and in Jesus Christ as the Messiah. He used his strong knowledge of mathematics along with detailed measurements of the positions of the planets to calculate the appearance of the night sky during the time of Jesus's birth. He noticed that a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn took place on December 23, 7 B.C.. This would have been very bright and very notable and could be an explanation as to what the Magi saw. But would that be "bold" enough to set them on a journey to Bethlehem?
Another possible celestial event occurred June 17, 2 B.C. This was the conjunction of Venus with Jupiter. Even though this would represent a person being born with success, dominion, power, peace and harmony by the combination of the two planets, it was after the death of Herod the Great, and we know Jesus was born before that.
The possibility that the Magi saw a comet should be rejected due to the astrological fact that comets are the harbingers of ill omens. A nova, or an exploding star gives off great light which sometimes can even be seen during the day. In his book, "The Star of Bethlehem: an Astronomer's View" by Mark Kidger (Princeton University Press) he indicates that there was a nova with remnants known today as "DO Aquilae" that appeared in the eastern sky for 70 days in 5 B.C. and described by ancient Chinese astronomers (U.S. News & World Report, December 20, 1999). However, new information sugguest that it was not bright enough to see. There are still two celestial objects missing that would raise the flag of attention to the astrologers of Persia. First, the event must be GREAT. I mean, really really GREAT! Second, it must indicate that it was meant for a certain nation.
It had to be really really GREAT!
In the order of astrological importance, the moon is number one and the sun is number two, followed by the planet Jupiter. If an event were to occur involving these three objects, then that would be very GREAT. To happen twice within a month would be very very very GREAT! To the astrologers of those days, Jupiter represented success, dominion, and power. The passing of the moon in front of a planet was considered very important and greatly magnified the importance of the prediction. Furthermore, the constellation of Aries and the planet Mars were associated with the nation of Judea.
So if something really really GREAT was to occur, an event involving the Moon, Sun, Jupiter and Mars had to happen within the constellation of Aries and during the late winter or early spring between 7 B.C. and 4 B.C.
According to a paper written by Michael R. Molnar of Rutgers University and printed in the January 1992 issue of "Sky and Telescope" magazine and now in his book "The Star of Bethlehem; The Legacy of the Magi" ( Rutgers University Press) , such an event did occur!
Astrological display 6 B.C. ... Perhaps what the Magi Knew ... The moon occulting Jupiter in Aries
Click on the image to enlarge
In the morning twilight of March 20, 6 B.C., a waning crescent moon occulted (passed over and covered) the planet Jupiter while in the constellation Aries along with Mars. (See chart for Mar 20, 6 BC Mar 20, 6 BC) Now an astrologer in Persia, seeing this event low on his eastern horizon, would have been thoroughly convinced that the birth of a new king had occurred in Judea. As the morning twilight was obscuring the sky, the planet Jupiter reappeared above moon before the two objects low in the eastern sky. ...For we observed his star at its rising,..."(Matt 2:2, NRSV). This event would not have been seen by Herod since it would have still been below the eastern horizon and not visible in Judea but still visible to the astrologers, or Magi in the east. The astrological event would have been observed low in the eastern sky. The Magi in the east seeing the astrological event would have known it was a sign meant for Judea. In some other versions of the Bible, the verse says; "We have seen the star in the east... ." Could it had been the astrological configuration of the planets? That could have been what motivated them to seek the message of the sky and followed it toward Judea, to their west seeking the astrological value for Israel.
When they spoke to Herod, they mentioned how they saw the event in the eastern sky while they were in the east. "When Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, 'In Bethlehem of Judea; for it has been written by the prophet...'"(See Micah 5:2-5)."Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared." (Matt 2:3-5,7 NRSV).
From "The Protevangelium of James (Gospel of James) in the New Testament Apocrypha, chapter 22:1-4 And he (Herod) questioned the wise men and said to them:"What sign did you see concerning the new-born king?" And the wise men said: "We saw how an indescribably greater star shone among these stars and dimmed them, so that they no longer shone; and so we knew that a king was born for Israel. And we have come to worship him." ... "And the wise men went forth. And behold, they saw stars in the east, and they went before them until they came to the cave." This passage supports that they may have seen an occultation of the moon over the bright planets low in the eastern sky. Also, since they mentioned "The new-born king" indicates they might have been well versed in the astrology of that time foreseeing such an event and perceiving it was for Judea.
The accounts in the Bible also indicate that the Magi saw the star a second time: "When they had heard the king (Herod), they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy."(Matt 2:9:10, NRSV). A second occultation of Jupiter occurred a short time later on April 17, 6 B.C. (See the Chart for Apr 17). Even though this one occurred during the daylight hours, these gifted astrologers could have easily calculated that it indeed had just occurred from observation of the night before and of that night. One occultation would be extremely significant but to have two could only mean that an event of the highest proportion has occurred, the expected messiah had arrived!
Their gifts of gold is the gift for a king, frankincense, the gift for a priest and myrrh, the gift for one who is to die. According to a "Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew" by William Barclay, they foretold that Jesus was to be the true King, the perfect High Priest, and in the end the supreme Savior of men.
So, what did the Magi see? Was it a star, a planetary conjunction, an occultation of Jupiter in Aries, or something divine and purely miraculous? In the eyes of the writer of the Gospel according to Matthew, it was worthy enough to mention. The evangelist Luke tells us of an angel appearing to shepherds, radiating the glory of God around them. (Luke 2:9). Perhaps this was Luke's explanation of the star that caught the attention of the Magi. However, it really doesn't matter whatever it was, for it led them to the newborn babe, Jesus the Christ.
During this Christmas season, take some time out of your busy schedules and look to the heavens. Enjoy the beauty of the sky, reflect on the true meaning of Christmas and follow the star and accept the gift. We should all agree on the message the Christmas star: "… on earth peace, good will toward men." (Luke 2:14).
For further information see:
Newsweek, December 30, 1991, pp 54-55.
Discover, January, 1990, pp 78-79.
U.S. News & World Rport, December 20, 1999 pp 54-55
Sky and Telescope, January, 1992 "The Coins of Antioch" by Michael R. Molnar, pp 37-39.
"The Star of Bethlehem" by Dave W. Hughes, 1979.
"The Star of Bethlehem: an Astronomer's Veiw" by Mark Kidger (Princeton University Press).
"The Star of Bethlehem; The Legacy of the Magi" (Michael R. Molnar, Rutgers University Press).
The Gospel of Luke, commentary by William Barclay,pp 20-27.
The Gospel of Matthew, commentary, volume 1 by William Barclay, pp 23-43.
The Protevangelium of James (Gospel of James in the New Testament Apocrypha), chapter 22 :1-4.
This article written by Patrick Prokop, retired broadcast meteorologist and amature astronomer
An additional artical publish by "Earth and Sky" ...
WAS THE CHRISTMAS STAR REAL?
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