For nearly two thousand years, the Star of Bethlehem has been a powerful symbol of the Christian faith. Its unique story, told here by astronomer Craig Chester, was originally presented at Hillsdale College’s Center for Constructive Alternatives seminar, “Man and Creation: Perspectives on Science and Religion,” in the fall of 1992 and was published in the December 1993 issue of Imprimis.
The Story of the Star in the EastSomeone once observed, “The universe is composed of stories, not atoms.” The Star of Bethlehem is certainly a story, as is most of the Bible, first and foremost. It is also a mystery, involving not only theology and astronomy but also history and even astrology. What do we know about the Star of Bethlehem? The popular conception is summarized in the Christmas carol:
We three kings of Orient are Bearing gifts we traverse afar, Field and fountain, moor and mountain, Following yonder star. O star of wonder, star of night, Star of royal beauty bright, Westward leading, still proceeding, Guide us to thy perfect light.We all know this carol as the story of the Star, which is fine—except for the fact that almost everything in it is wrong. The actual New Testament account of the Star of Bethlehem comes from the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew:
Jesus was born at Bethlehem in Judaea during the reign of Herod. After his birth astrologers [Magi] from the East arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We observed the rising of his star, and we have come to pay him homage.” King Herod was greatly perturbed when he heard this, and so was the whole of Jerusalem. He called together the chief priests and scribes of the Jews and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “At Bethlehem in Judaea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet wrote: ‘Bethlehem in the land of Judah, you are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a ruler to be the shepherd of my people Israel.’” Then Herod summoned the astrologers to meet him secretly, and ascertained from them the exact time when the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, so that I may go myself and pay him homage.” After hearing what the king had to say they set out; there before them was the star they had seen rising, and it went ahead of them until it stopped above the place where the child lay. They were overjoyed at the sight of it and, entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother and bowed low in homage to him; they opened their treasure chests and presented gifts to him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then they returned to their own country by another route, for they had been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod.This is not a fabulous tale. It does not conjure up fantastic details or images, and it is told in a rather mundane fashion, not at all like a fable. It is also the only account we have of the Star in our Bible. Admittedly, later non-canonical sources like the Protovangelium of James and an epistle of Ignatius did elaborate on the story, calling the Star the brightest star in the sky, brighter than all other stars combined, even including the sun and the moon, which bowed down before it. But Matthew is very matter-of-fact. It has also been suggested that this is a commentary by Matthew, always fond of referring to Old Testament prophecies, on Balaam’s oracle in the Book of Numbers that “a star shall come forth out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” But it would be uncharacteristic of Matthew to refrain from pointing out this prophecy explicitly, had he had it in mind.
The Historical PerspectiveTo understand this story, we must view it in the context of its time. Who were these Magi? Where did they come from? Magi is the plural of Magus, the root of our word magic, and “court astrologers” is probably the best translation, although “wise men” is also a good term, descriptive of the esteem in which they were widely held. The group of Magi in question came “from the East.” They might have been Zoroastrians, Medes, Persians, Arabs, or even Jews. They probably served as court advisors, making forecasts and predictions for their royal patrons based on their study of the stars, about which they were quite knowledgeable. Magi often wandered from court to court, and it was not unusual for them to cover great distances in order to attend the birth or crowning of a king, paying their respects and offering gifts. It is not surprising, therefore, that Matthew would mention them as validation of Jesus’ kingship, or that Herod would regard their arrival as a very serious matter. When might these Magi have appeared in Judaea? Obviously, determining the story’s date is important if we are to look for astronomical connections. We might assume that it was around 1 B.C. or 1 A.D., since that is when, by conventional reckoning, Jesus was born. But the calendar on which these dates are based was set by the Roman monk Dionysius Exiguus in the year 525 A.D., long after the fact. Scholars writing in the first and second centuries A.D. asserted that Jesus was born between what we now call 4 B.C. and 1 B.C. They were living much closer to the event and had access to thousands of historical records in many excellent libraries, and their opinions probably should be given much more weight than has been common. How about the time of the year? The best clue is a passage in the Book of Luke:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.If the reference to “fields” is accurate—not pastures or holding pens—we might guess at a date in late summer or early fall, for it was customary for farmers to allow sheep and cattle to graze the stubble in the fields following the harvest. This clue is suggestive, but hardly definitive. One difficulty in seeking a precise date is the fact that Matthew reports two different sightings, possibly separated by a substantial time. First, the Magi saw the Star rising en anatole, best translated as “rising in the East,” the ancient technical term for an acronical rising, when an object rises at sunset and is visible all night. After they come to Jerusalem—we do not know how long that took, and there is no indication that the Star was in any way involved with the journey—they see the Star again as they travel the few miles to Bethlehem:
There before them was the star they had seen rising, and it went ahead of them until it stopped above the place where the child lay.There was no need for a bright or supernatural guiding light to find Bethlehem from Jerusalem; it lies just five miles south on the main road. There is a reference not to the “house” of an infant (brephos in the Greek) but of a paidion, or toddler, indicating that some months may have elapsed since the birth itself. What are the astronomical possibilities? This question has been asked many times since the Christian apologist Origen first raised it around 250 A.D. It is safe to say that every astronomical event known to have occurred during, say, the decade of interest has at some point been proposed as the Star of Bethlehem. The key point to answering this question is to note that it is not just any astronomical event that is of interest. We can restrict our inquiry to those appearances that would have had astrological significance to the Magi, who declared:
“We observed the rising of his star, and we have come to pay him homage.”An astrological event may not have been very obvious at all; certainly it was not obvious to Herod. Had it been an incomparably bright object, as later writers thought, there would be numerous written records of it. It is much more plausible that the Star of Bethlehem went unnoticed by all but a few experts such as the Magi.
The Death of HerodA major key to the chronology is the date of the death of Herod the Great, the father of another Herod—Herod Antipas, who executed John the Baptist and who ruled at the time of the Crucifixion. Herod the Great was alive when the Star of Bethlehem appeared, and the commonly quoted date for his death is 4 B.C. Thus dates of 7 B.C. through 4 B.C. are often given for the birth of Jesus. The political events of this period are best known from the writings of Josephus Flavius, the Jewish historian who lived from 37 A.D. to about 95 A.D. His testimony has always been considered vital in determining these dates. But the accounts of Josephus and the entire history of this period have been reassessed recently, with important new results, by Ernest Martin, whose book, The Star that Astonished the World (ASK Publications, 1991), has become the authoritative source on the subject. According to Josephus, on the night of a lunar eclipse Herod executed two rabbis. They were accused of inciting some young men to climb up on the wall and tear down the golden eagle that the king had ordered placed on the gate to the Temple in Jerusalem. This eagle was, of course, an abomination to the Jews because it was a graven image. Soon after this incident, Herod died and was buried. One of his sons inherited his throne shortly before Passover was celebrated. It was long believed that the lunar eclipse in question occurred on March 13 in 4 B.C. But this was only a partial eclipse (40 percent total) and fairly hard to detect. And it occurred only 29 days before Passover. Here is what would have had to happen in those 29 days: Herod was sick at the time of the execution of the rabbis, and his condition worsened almost immediately. He was treated for a time by his physicians, to no avail. He then decided to pack up the royal household and move to Jericho to take the baths. He tried the baths unsuccessfully for some days and then returned to Jerusalem. Believing that he soon would die, Herod came up with a diabolical plan to insure that all of Israel would mourn his death, in spite of his unpopularity. He commanded the leading men from around the country to come to Jerusalem; there he imprisoned them in the Hippodrome and ordered the army to execute them as soon as he was dead. Israel would indeed mourn, he vowed. (Fortunately, the order was not carried out.) In the meantime, word arrived from Rome that Herod finally had the Emperor’s permission to execute his rebellious son Antipater, and he promptly complied. Five days later Herod died, but not before decreeing that his was to be the largest funeral ever held in the history of the world. His body was embalmed. The army was assembled to carry his body in the funeral procession to a burial site some 25 miles away. The soldiers walked in bare feet, as was required when in mourning, traveling one mile a day. A legate from Rome, where word of Herod’s death had been received, arrived to protect the royal treasury. Finally, Herod’s son Archelaus was crowned king and had time to issue a few decrees prior to the celebration of Passover. The 29 days between the eclipse of 4 B.C. and the following Passover simply did not allow enough time for all of this to have happened. A minimum of ten weeks would have been required. But on January 10, 1 B.C., there was a total lunar eclipse visible in Palestine, and it occurred twelve and a half weeks before Passover. As Martin points out, there are other compelling reasons to regard 1 B.C. as the true date of Herod’s death. For example, the War of Varus, known to have followed Herod’s death, can be redated to 1 B.C., where it fits the other known facts perfectly. As a clincher, it has recently been discovered that Josephus himself dated Herod’s death to 1 B.C.; a sixteenth century copyist’s error is responsible for the incorrect date, which has been propagated to modern editions of Josephus. If we conclude that Herod did die in the spring of 1 B.C., we are free to add the years 3 B.C. and 2 B.C. to our search for the Star of Bethlehem. What was happening then? The year 2 B.C. marked the 25th anniversary of Caesar Augustus’s rule and the 750th anniversary of the founding of Rome. Huge celebrations were planned. The whole empire was at peace. The doors of the temple of Janus were closed for only the third time in Roman history. To honor their emperor, the people were to rise as one and name him pater patriae, or “Father of the Country.” Now, getting the people of an empire to do something “spontaneously” requires a great deal of organization. And so an enrollment, or census, was ordered:
In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled…And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city.This enrollment, described in the Book of Luke, which brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, has always been a mystery since no regular census occurred at this time. But the pater patriae enrollment fits perfectly.