Star of Bethlehem - Some Musings - Island of Sanity

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Issues Within Christianity

Star of Bethlehem - Some Musings


The Magi were led to the place of Jesus's birth by a star, the Star of Bethlehem. For centuries Christians have wondered just what this star was. Pretty much all we know about the Star of Bethlehem is a couple of paragraphs in Matthew 2:1-18, and what we can discern from astronomy and history.

For convenience in this article, I will refer to the Star of Bethlehem as "Star Beth" for short.

Let's quickly clear up one point of terminology. The word translated "star" in Matthew is the Greek word "aster". But unlike the English word "star", "aster" can refer to anything in space: stars, planets, comets, whatever. So the "star" of Bethlehem wasn't necessarily a star in the English sense of the word.1

Options

Let's consider all the possible explanations. Or at least, we can categorize all the possibilities.

Either the star was a natural phenomenon that God used for his purposes, or it was a miraculous event. Both are consistent with how God worked in other places in the Bible. Sometimes God works through special miracles, like making the sun stand still or the seas part. Other times he works though more ordinary events, like human rulers, rain and drought, health and sickness.

If the star was a natural phenomenon, then it may have been a predictable event, like something that occurs on a regular cycle, or it may have been unpredictable, perhaps even a one-time event.

That is, we can divide the possibilities into:

1. Supernatural phenomenon
2. Natural phenomenon
2a. Predictable
2b. Unpredictable

If it was a supernatural phenomenon, a miracle, then there's no need to try to reconcile the known facts with the theory. Presumably, if it's a miracle, God could have done anything he wanted, so we simply suppose that whatever he did fit all the facts. The star moved and then stopped? Okay, so we suppose that God made the star move and then stop. Etc. In a sense that makes this an easy explanation. But by explaining everything it explains nothing: It's impossible to give real arguments for or against.

For a star (in the Greek sense), there are many events that operate on predictable cycles: planets, comets, and the moon move in regular orbits that can be plotted into the future (or past) as far as we like. While the calculations can be tedious, with modern computers this is easy. Many have suggested that Star Beth was a conjunction, that is, when two heavenly bodies appear to touch (when viewed from Earth, of course). Several conjunctions with astrological significance have been proposed. Others have suggested that it was a comet.

A commonly suggested unpredictable event is that it was a nova, that is, an exploding star. Stars that were previously too dim to be visible can become visible for a short time when they nova. Other suggestions are a meteor or a fireball.

Others have discussed these suggested astronomical phenomena in detail. I see little point in repeating that material. Given the handy ability to link on the Internet, let me simply refer you to some sites that I think layed out the suggestions clearly:

  • Probe Ministries Basically argues that it was a supernatural phenomenon.
  • Astronomy Notes A non-Christian source. Lists most of the suggested astronomical events.
  • bethlehemstar.net Lists several possibilities, then basically argues for it being a triple conjunction of Jupiter and the star Regulus.

Some little-noticed points

While others have given detailed discussions of possible astronomical events, I'd like to bring up a few points that are frequently overlooked or skimmed over, that may help us to analyze the possibilities.

Do you see what I see?

Herod, and probably his advisors, could not see Star Beth. According to Matthew 2:7, Herod had to ask the Magi when it appeared, and he was not able to follow it himself but had to ask the Magi to tell him where it led. It is not a sufficient explanation of this to say that he might have seen Star Beth in the sky but did not understand its significance, that perhaps he thought it was just a curious bright light in the sky. Maybe in that case he would still have asked when it first appeared -- perhaps he just didn't notice. But once he was convinced it was important, he wouldn't have been frustrated that the Magi didn't come back to tell him where it led: he could simply have followed it himself.

We don't need to suppose that there was something magical about Star Beth that only certain people could see it. More likely is that it was not bright enough to be obvious to someone who did not spend his life studying the sky. If a new star appeared in the sky tonight that had never been there before but was not brighter or otherwise obviously different from any other star, would you notice? Unless you're a devoted star gazer, the answer is probably "no". Even if someone pointed it out to you, you probably still couldn't tell that it hadn't been there before.

Do you know what I know?

So the Magi saw Star Beth in the sky. How did they get from a star in the sky -- however special or unusual -- to a king being born in Israel?

One possible answer is to go back to asking just who the Magi were. They are frequently called the "Three Kings", like in the famous Christmas carol, "We three kings of Orient are ...". But nothing in the Bible or history indicates they were royalty. The word "magi" is a transliteration of the Greek word used in the text (that is, an attempt to reproduce the Greek pronunciation in English letters, rather than to translate the word into an English equivalent). This was a class of court advisors and scholars. The term "Wise Men" is a good English translation if you understand it to be a job description, "professional advisor to an important person", rather than a compliment, "such a wise man!" They come from "the East", and at that time and place little distinction was made between science, philosophy, and superstition. Astrology and astronomy were considered the same subject. Thus, it is likely that these men were believers in, probably even experts in, astrology. Some Bible translations even call them "astrologers".

If the Magi were indeed astrologers, then if they saw any unusual astronomical event, they would naturally tend to think of it in astrological terms. Thus, the most popular suggestions for the identify of Star Beth today are that it was some astrological event that tied together the concepts of "king", "Israel", and maybe "birth". See the links above for some plausible suggestions.

One nagging question I have with the astrological suggestions: The key to them is to say that the planet Jupiter was associated with kings, and that some conjunction of Jupiter in either Pisces or Leo then connected it to Israel because these signs of the zodiac were associated with Israel. For other theories we are told that Saturn was associated with Israel. Now I don't know much about astrology, I'd appreciate it if someone knowledgeable on this subject would enlighten me. But ... There are only twelve signs in the zodiac, and the ancients only knew of five planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. That's not very many. Did astrologers all over the world associate two of the zodiac signs and one of the planets with Israel? I would think that if they were matching zodiac signs and planets to countries, they would have matched them to rich and powerful countries, like Rome and Persia, or to countries with a history of mystical lore, like Egypt and Babylon. With only "twelve plus five" to go around, they would have run out of them fast. Israel wasn't even a country any more; it had been conquered by the Romans. But they still got three of the seventeen available major astrological objects? The brief searches I've done on the Internet turn up such an identification only when the subject is Star Beth. I can't help but wonder if Babylonian astrologers really saw Pisces and immediately thought of Israel, or if this is something tacked on by modern people studying Star Beth as an ad hoc explanation.

A philosophical/theological objection to astrological explanations is that the Bible repeatedly condemns all forms of fortune telling. For example, Zechariah 10:2, "The idols speak deceit, diviners see visions that lie". It also condemns worshipping stars, like Deuteronomy 4:19, "And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the LORD your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven." The point, of course, is that fortune telling is worthless because these people don't really know the future and people should not plan their lives around a lie. Presumably an omnipotent God could bend any fortune-telling scheme to give the results he wanted, or he could have timed an event to coincide with the astrological prediction. But would God have condemned astrology in one place and then used it for his own purposes in another?

But that's not impossible. God routinely uses his enemies to carry out his own plans. To take the most obvious example, God repeatedly condemns killing innocent people, but he used the blatantly unjust execution of Jesus as part of his most important plan of all. Would he use astrology? We can only answer ... maybe.

One other catch to conjunction theories: While the Greek word "aster" was very general, it still referred to an object, not an event. A Greek-speaking person would call Regulus an "aster", he would call Jupiter an "aster", but he wouldn't call a conjunction an "aster". Or ... maybe he would, if he was not speaking technically.

We three kings of Orient are

The Bible only says that the Magi were from "the East". It gives no further detail, like exactly what country. This might mean that they came from several different countries, or God may have had a reason for not wanting to say. It is generally assumed that they came from Persia, which included the teritory of ancient Babylon. Persia was routinely thought of as "the East" to Jews, Greeks, and Romans, and magi there served as court advisors. If so, they may have known something about the prophecies of a Messiah. When Babylon invaded Judah about 600 years earlier, they took prisoners of war back to work for the government. One of these, Daniel, so impressed the king that he rose to a high position in the administration. He either became a Magi himself or worked with them regularly. After the Persions took over, another Jew, Nehemiah, also achieved a highly trusted position. Many others reached intermediate positions. Babylonians and Persians would have known something about Jewish religion and prophecies. As they were polytheists, they would have had no problem accepting a Jewish god along with their own and the idea of a Jewish messiah. (They wouldn't have accepted the Jews' claim that Jehovah was the only true God, but people have always been quite adept at picking and choosing what they want to believe.)

A star, a star, dancing in the night

An alternative to the astrological theory is that the Magi followed Star Beth physically. That is, they saw some unusual object in the sky, they saw that it was over Israel, and so they went to Israel to see what it was.

Matthew 2:9 says Star Beth "went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was". Note that at the beginning of the story, we are not told the Magi followed Star Beth to Israel, but simply that they saw it and came to Israel. The fact that they first went to Jerusalem rather than Bethlehem implies that they didn't have a specific location in Israel, just the country. Jerusalem would have been the logical first stop because it was the capital, and thus the most likely place for a king to be born. Or maybe they were following it physically, but at that point they could not pin the location down more precisely. Once they talked to the scholars in Jerusalem, they headed for Bethlehem, not because Star Beth led them there, but because the scholars told them that the prophecies said the messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

It is only at this point that we are told that they followed the star physically. It is possible that they were following it physically before, and that whatever means they had to track its location was not precise enough to distinguish Jerusalem from Bethlehem. The two cities are only about six miles apart.

Some object to the idea of physically following Star Beth on the grounds that a star is not above a particular place on the Earth. But of course it is. Just because a star is far away doesn't mean that we can't identify the point on the Earth's surface that it is above, at least in principle. Draw a line from the center of the Earth to the star. This line will pass through some point on the surface of the Earth. The practical problem is how precisely one could determine this. Matthew implies that the Magi followed Star Beth to a particular house. Would the Magi have been able to measure the position of Star Beth precisely enough to do that? I don't know.

Note that Matthew says that the star "went ahead of them" and then "stopped". The stars move over our heads, of course, but one star doesn't stop while the rest keep moving. This point probably rules out Star Beth being a nova or any other star in the English sense of the word. Planets can appear to move and stop: As the Earth and other planets move in their orbits, when the Earth catches up with a slower-moving planet, it appears to stop and go backwards for a while, and then return to moving forward. This is called "retrograde motion". If Star Beth was a planet, one could in principle plot exactly what point of the Earth it was over when it stopped and began its retrograde motion. Most of the astrological theories revolve around the planet Jupiter. Interestingly enough, in 2 BC, which has been suggested as a possible year for Jesus's birth, Jupiter was involved in some interesting conjunctions, and would have stopped and begun retrograde motions on December 25. Could this be where the early church got the traditional date for Christmas? Or is it just a coincidence? Unfortunately, to get to Bethlehem from Jerusalem one heads south, and planets move east and west, not north and south.

It is a lot simpler to explain this motion, and the precise location above a single house, if Star Beth was not a star, not a planet orbiting the sun, but something in the Earth's atmosphere or near proximity on its own trajectory. This would leave out any predictable astronomical phenomenon. A meteor could move in such a path, but a meteor does not stop and hover over one place. I know of no natural phenomenon that behaves as this verse seems to be saying the star behaved.

Either we are taking the words too literally, or Star Beth was something specially created by God for the occasion, or possibly it was a natural object that is not known to modern astronomy. (The latter seems unlikely but is surely possible. There must be lots of things in space we still don't know about.)

One big problem with any "follow the star" theory is that when the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, they didn't just say that they had seen a star and followed it here, but also that they understood it to mean that a king had been born. Where did they get the king part? Maybe we're back to astrological explanations. Or maybe God sent them a dream or vision telling them the significance of Star Beth. If so, why is there no mention of it in the Bible? We are told that God warned them "in a dream" not to go back to Herod. If it was a dream that brought them there in the first place, why doesn't the text say so? Still, the account is very brief, clearly lots of details are omitted.

Away in a manger

The traditional Nativity scene with the Magi arriving with the shepherds at the stable is almost certainly wrong. When Matthew describes the arrival of the wise man (Matthew 2:11), he says, "On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary". Note "house": by the time they got there, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were in a house, not a stable. Also, Matthew 2:16 says that Herod ordered all the children in Bethlehem under 2 years old to be killed, "in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi". Even if Herod was allowing a generous "safety margin", this implies that Jesus was probably at least a year old by the time the Magi got there.

Conclusions

Most people who have studied the subject today conclude that Star Beth was a conjunction of Jupiter and either Saturn or the star Regulus. The references I gave at the beginning of this article give detailed explanations of the astronomical events and their possible astrological significance. These explanations are tempting because they fit the facts in so many ways. But we shouldn't rush to accept them, because they also have problems, like the "star" versus "event" issue, the motion of the star, and the question of whether God would use astrology. We should also be careful that we do not accept the details in proposed astrological explanations too blindly. Who says that the Magi would have interpreted this or that astronomical event in a certain way? Is that really based on a study of ancient Babylonian astrological texts, or did the modern writer just spin interpretations that fit his theory?

If the astrological theories are wrong, then there are some amazing coincidences. But people have found astrological events occurring during at least two different times, 5 BC and circa 2 BC, both of which fit the facts. Some prefer the 5 BC events because it fits better with the 4 BC date accepted by most historians for the birth of Jesus. Some prefer the 2 BC events because they are astrologically more interesting, and they make a historical argument -- plausible but debatable -- that historians have the date of Jesus's birth wrong. My point here is that we have two sets of events, both of which are either true or amazing coincidences. But both can't be true. So at least one is, in fact, just a coincidence.

Theories that it was a unique event, possibly a miraculous one, avoid all the technical objections because the very nature of such a theory is that we mold it to fit all the facts. But this very strength is also a weakness. If there is no possible evidence that could prove a theory wrong, then there is equally no possible evidence that could prove it true.

My conclusion? I don't know. Before I started work on this article I tended toward the 5 BC conjunction. After reading more about the 2 BC conjunction I found that more convincing, but I think I'm tending toward a unique event.


Side Note

Anti-Christians like to jump on such differences in language as proof that the Bible writers were ignorant people who didn't know anything about modern science. I've seen a few discussions of Star Beth that propose that it was something other than what we mean by the English word "star", and then explain away the distinction by saying something like, "Matthew called it a star because he was an ignorant primitive who didn't know the difference between a star and a planet". But may I point out two rather obvious rebuttals to this denigration: (a) Even we smart, hip, modern people have the term "heavenly body" that means essentially the same as what the Greeks meant by "aster", and we call everything not on the Earth "outer space". Indeed, "heavenly body" would be a better translation of "aster" than "star", but it's rather long and awkward. There is nothing ignorant about using general terms that include many different things. Every word in any language that is not a proper name identifying one particular person or object is inevitably a grouping of different things. Would you say that if I use the word "animal" that this proves that I must not realize that there are many different kinds of animals, ranging from the octopus to the horse to the shrew, and I must be an unscientific primitive to group them all together under one word? That would simply be silly. (b) In any case it was not Matthew or any other Biblical writer who invented the word "aster", but some nameless Greek. I suppose God could have invented a whole new language to write the Bible in that would have avoided any possible technical objections. But then who would have been able to read it? God used the languages people spoke at the time.

© 2006 by Jay Johansen


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