December 24, 2010

The Star Of Bethlehem

Although Scripture forbids man from worshipping heavenly bodies (astrology is part of this idolatry), the Bible is replete with references to observations of the stars for evidence of portentous events. In that smoke does not cause a fire, yet it supplies information to an observer that a fire exists, so God has deemed that the night skies may offer such insight into Heavenly events.

I speak of the Star of Bethlehem.

What transpired to drive the Magi to visit Herod? What observations were so acute and unusual that they would seek permission to leave their rulers and travel to a distant, occupied land where they were sure they would find … a King? Before we explore this parody, we must acknowledge the works of several men who give credence to this ancient riddle.

First, Flavius Josephus. He was a Pharisee born in 37 AD. He fought against the Roman occupation of Israel and was captured by Roman forces. An intelligent man, he was retained as a translator by Vespasian (a future Roman Emperor) and worked with Vespasian’s son, Titus, who eventually besieged and overthrew Jerusalem in 70 AD. In his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus writes of Jesus and John the Baptist; he also chronicles that King Herod died in 1 BC. There was a miscopy of his writings in 1544 AD that improperly attributed the year of Herod’s death to 4 BC. Recent research has uncovered this mistake. King Herod died in 1 BC. Thus the Magi had to visit Herod prior to his death, most likely 2 or 3 BC.

Next we turn our attention to the works of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) and Tycho Brahe (1546-1601). Brahe invited the younger Kepler to Prague to join him in his studies of the solar system after Kepler was expelled from Austria. Kepler was one of the greatest mathematical geniuses of all time who used Brahe’s precise measurements of the stars and planets to develop his First, Second and Third Laws of Planetary Motion. These calculations are still used today by NASA.

We now have the basis for determining the events surrounding the appearance of a mysterious heavenly body that the Magi followed to find a King. We have an approximate date set and a series of mathematical formulas that can accurately place any heavenly body with respect to the earth’s orbit for any given period of time. And we have computers that can calculate these positions in seconds. For under $40 you can purchase software used for determining planetary motion and perform these calculations for yourself; there are even free downloads.

There are criteria for this story that must be addressed:

What was the Bethlehem Star? It had to be a planet. No supernovas were recorded in any culture at this time. It could not have been a meteorite or a comet as it would not have been observed for months on end or appear to change direction. Stars simply do not move about in such manner as to excite earth bound observers. Planets were once called wandering stars as they exhibit behavior which, due to the changing positions of the earth and the observed planet, have them appear to be moving backwards, or in retrograde.

Which planet? It had to be Jupiter. This is the largest planet in the solar system and is visible to the naked eye (as are Venus and Mars which are far smaller). Indeed, starting in September of 3 BC, at the beginning of the Jewish New Year, Rosh ha-Shanah, Jupiter began its dance. It appeared in conjunction with a star that was commonly associated with kingship – Regulus. The Romans called this star Rex and the Babylonians called it “Sharu” or King. In and of itself, this conjunction (the two bodies appear to touch) was not extraordinary; Jupiter does this every 12 years. But something extraordinary did happen. Jupiter went into retrograde; it circled back towards Regulus and touched it again, and again. Over a period of months between 3 and 2 BC, three times did the King of the Planets appear in conjunction with the King of the Stars. That got someone’s attention.

Where did the heavenly conjunction occur? Perhaps the Magi were familiar with the Jewish culture, perhaps not, but they did seek out the King of Israel in their search for a King so we can assume that they were completely aware of the circumstances of the conjunction of Jupiter and Regulus occurring in the constellation of Leo, the Lion.This is also the same animal that symbolizes the tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:9-10), Jesus’ tribe.

Jewish cosmology was also well developed and they were undoubtably aware of this body of knowledge. Astrological signs and constellations used in the East were developed centuries prior to these events by the Babylonians.

But there was another conjunction. By June of 2 BC, Jupiter has finished its dance with Regulus. Now it headed towards another meeting – with Venus, the Virgin. This time the conjunction was so close that Jupiter appeared to join with Venus. It was spectacular. The combined brightness of these two planets was never recorded before. To that time, no one had ever seen anything like these combined events. The Magi must have been enthralled.

It had to appear in the West. As the Magi were approaching Israel from the east, this marvelous heavenly apparition was before them - to the West. When these conditions were explained by the Magi to Herod, he was not enthralled; he was frightened. He asked the Magi to locate the child for he had already made plans. Matthew, 2:1-7

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time 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 when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

Perhaps Herod was aware of the slaughter of “eligible” children in the city of Rome in 63 BC when it was foretold to the Roman Senate by so-called magi that heavenly omens signified the birth of a new leader (Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum: Divus Augustus (94). Whatever the circumstance, Herod slew perhaps thousands of Jewish children in an effort to retain his kingdom from the promised Messiah as foretold by Scripture and heavenly interpretations of the Magi.

But there is one more element that needs to be explained. The Star of Bethlehem (Jupiter) appeared to stop over Bethlehem. Once again Kepler’s Laws come into play. Jupiter’s orbit again went into retrograde and appeared to be stopped directly over the town of Bethlehem as the Magi traveled south from Jerusalem, a distance of only six miles.

The date was December 25, 2 BC.

Was this so hard for the Master of the Universe to arrange? No, it was less than child's play. What was hard was to empty Heaven and place His only Son at the mercy of Man as payment for our sin. Perhaps we will never know how hard that was.

To all my dear friends at GNN, Merry Christmas.

For more information see here, here and here.


Christopher - Conservative Perspective said...

A Very Merry and Blessed Christmas to all of you and yours and may the New Year be fruitful and properous!

Nickie Goomba said...

Merry Christmas to the writers, commenters and readers here at Goomba News Network. What a wonderful and talented assemblage of riff-raff we all are.

God bless you all.

LL said...

Merry Christmas

Danilo Sergio Pallar Lemos said...

May this Christmas be a time of happiness and I? Others Uch liked your part? the this year on my blog.
happy new year.

Wetzy said...

Merry Christmas

Adrienne said...

Merry Christmas to you all...

The_Kid said...

Imagine, without light pollution, how the sky would appear to people of this time. It is no wonder they were fascinated and ruled by it.

They had no idea the scale of distance. I read where one observer believed the twinkling stars to be peep holes where the Gods would sometimes stop and have a look in.
The Chinese gentleman who constructed a rocket out of what was essentially a lawn chair and planned to visit the moon.
What a great time to be alive.

Rhod said...

Sig, a remarkablee post, on a difficult biblical and astronomical subject. Thank you.

Barking Spider said...

Merry Christmas, everyone, have a good one, and a very Happy New Year to you and yours.


fuzzys dad said...

Thank-You and God Bless

sig94 said...

It is now Christmas - at least on the east coast. It is time to celebrate God's greatest gift. Merry Christmas.

Zio Rico said...

Merry Christmas. A child was born.

Teresa said...

Merry Christmas and God Bless!

Soloman said...

Merry Christmas to all of you here at GNN. Have a blessed day!

They Say/We Say said...

Merry Christmas to all.

The Conservative Lady said...

Merry Christmas and wishes for a Happy and Healthy 2011.

christian soldier said...

WOW- thank you - love one of your concluding takes:
"What was hard was to empty Heaven and place His only Son at the mercy of Man.."

Anonymous said...

The eligible sons in Rome of 63 BC were not slaughtered. The women of Rome intervened, because they were greedy for power: after all their son could have been the new prophesied Roman messiah.

sig94 said...

Anon - the question is, what influenced Herod?

Anonymous said...

I don't recall any historical evidence for Herod's purported actions in the Gospel of Matthew, i.e. the massacre of the innocents. So the question of what influenced Herod to commit such an act is inadmissible, as long as there is no historical evidence for this passage in Mt. The only historical report of a (planned) infanticide is the one to kill the future emperor Augustus. We have two incidents, but evidence for only one of them. So the most probable answer is that the passage in Mt is a diegetic transposition, i.e. one text (the Roman text) rewritten, relocalized, adapted for a different geographical and cultural/political context, from the Roman savior to the Christian messiah.

sig94 said...

Anon - Herod was a murderous tyrant who frequently used public executions to protect his throne from any challenge, no matter how slight. He was not a Jew but an opportunistic gentile who assisted the Romans in subduing Israel. He murdered his two oldest sons in 7 BC at the instigation of another ambitious son.

There is a hsotorical reference to 64,000 children under the age of 2 who were killed after the Magi snuck out of Israel, but it does not meet modern historical criteria - which seems to be what you are seeking.

Good luck with that.

There are no contemporary documents that contradict the account of Herod's actions as stated in Matthew Chapter 2. Even more so, would you discredit any and all biblical references to events that were not supported by secular contemporary sources? How about the Genesis Table of Nations which may be criticized not for its historicity but for its comprehensiveness or lack thereof?

Be careful of what you seek. There are discoveries that occur that shed much light on the relevancy of Scripture that were unknown decades or even mere years ago. The Bible was written for a targeted audience - seekers after spiritual truth - and as such will ignore what others may deem as important events.

Anonymous said...

Part 1:

sig94, your historical description of Herod is either inaccurate or incomplete. For instance, he was indeed a Jew, but he was a second-class Jew, not of Judean blood, not of Judean soil, because his father and his people, the Idumeans, had been forcefully converted to the Judean religion at the tip of the Jewish sword. If the nationalist Jews of Judea, who regarded themselves as racially and spiritually pure, had regarded Herod as one of their own, i.e. a first-class Jew (you know, the "real deal", still hotly debated today), they wouldn't have raided and destroyed his grave—an unthinkable act in a Jewish context.

Another example: Herod's politics were not based on opportunism, but on allegiance. His father had been adopted into the Julian dynasty, the family of Julius Caesar, Herodian sons studied at the Atrium Libertatis in Rome etc. Like today globally, it was then a trans-Mediterranean ruling elite. And Jews were part of this elite. (The most prominent example is probably the later Flavius Josephus.) Global politics, plain and simple. And most Jews of Palestine (minus the purist nationalists) went along, as Jewish Romans or pro-Roman Jews, e.g. fighting for Caesar or Pompey in the civil war, whole tribes openly supporting the Romans, Jews even worshipping the Caesars as gods, these alleged "occupiers" who allegedly brought nothing but hardship and ruin to the region etc.

Surely Herod, like many rulers then and now, showed traits of ruthlessness, hunger for power and even violence (including violence toward competitors within his own dynasty), but that in itself does not work as evidence for the alleged "massacre of the innocents". On the contrary, from the Roman sources we know that not an autocratic ruler or client king, but the Republican body of Roman senators—of course with an observable oligarchic leaning—ordered the slaying of the children to prevent the birth of a future ruler.

Anonymous said...

Part 2:

As for the "historical reference to the 64,000 children", there are surely reasons why it is not regarded as evidence according to modern criteria. In fact, I have never heard of this alleged historical reference—care to elaborate?—, and (without knowing anything specific) I fear it's not a relevant source, because if it reports that "the Magi snuck out of Israel", we are facing yet another problem, namely that we need to find evidence that the Magi existed in the first place. Augustus however, as the newly born victorious "Son of God", was visited by three kings from the East, namely from Parthia, so this (like the "massacre of the innocents") might also be a case of a diegetic transposition of Roman sources into a Palestinian/Biblical/Jewish context.

That there are no contemporary documents contradicting the "massacre of the innocents" does not mean that it happened. Arguments from silence are pseudoscientific, if there are no auxiliary sources to support these kind of claims. And such a massacre is (obviously) a very bold claim! Naturally, this is valid for the whole Bible, including the Jewish Bible. That doesn't mean that there is no historical truth somewhere and somehow hiding behind these stories—I'm pretty sure that almost every (maybe even every single) passage has a historical origin—, but it might be something completely different from what is usually envisioned, e.g. the strong possibility that the "massacre of the innocents" is simply a diegetic literary transposition of the "slaying of the ineligible children" in the Augustan context (see above). It would be an unexpected historicity, but historicity nonetheless.

"Be careful of what you seek"? In science the "what" isn't really relevant, except at the outset of an investigation. We would rather say: "Be careful of how you seek." Whatever the scientifically (or in this case historically) proven or accepted outcome, it is what it is, even if it's not what we were initially looking for: the result or (for lack of a better word) a scientific "truth". But it is different from the spiritual truths derived from Scripture. (It's much easier to speak of "truth" in this context, by the way.) I would never presume to criticize or challenge the people's religious beliefs. (That's a different cup of tea altogether.)

PS: There was no target audience who the Gospel was written for. On the contrary, these books (and surely their authors) demand universality. It's a book about God, a god for all people of the world, by the way different from the Old Testament god, who is the god of a selected few, namely the Jewish nation. And if I look at the astounding global success of the Christian religions, I can't help but infer that the concept of universality, an all-encompassing integrative character, had always been at the core of Christianity from the very beginning.

Anonymous said...

Correction, pt. 2 §2: I meant of course the "slaying of the eligible children".

Anonymous said...

I need to correct a mistake I made: The nationalist Jews definitely regarded Herod as non-Jewish. But it's also possible that they were correct—which at any rate would neatly explain their behavior after his death (the raid on his mausoleum). His mother was definitely not Jewish, an Arab Nabatean, and at the moment I can't find any source that reports the forced conversion of his father, although you do read this a lot on the internet. Furthermore, it would not be sufficient anyway, because Herod would only have been a Jew if his mother had converted. Herod himself would have needed to convert, and I don't know of any sources for this either. So I guess it's more probable that you are correct, and that he, although king of the Jews, was not Jewish.