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
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.
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.”
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.
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