The Star of Bethlehem and how It May Have Existed

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Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

When I was little nothing signified Christmas more than the big star on Seattle’s Bon Marché Department Store.  It hung over a beautiful nativity scene at street level.  Christmas shopping was not complete until we had muscled our way to the corner window, gaping like back-country provincials.  

The star is one of the more compelling images in the Nativity story and the Magi from the east who followed it to Bethlehem.  But the star also seems one of the least plausible accounts in the New Testament, given that the Jews did not even notice it until the Magi brought it to their attention.  Since then, people have tried to understand what it could possibly have been.  

According to Michael Molnar, an astronomer at Rutgers, that star is one of the most historically well-documented events in the Gospel narrative, substantiated almost wholly by non-Christian sources.  In his book: The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi (Rutgers University Press, 1999), Molnar presents his thesis in well-documented argument, making the story one of the better Christmas stories one could read during this dark and fretful time.  

In his Gospel Luke gives us the version of Joseph and Mary traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be enumerated in a census.  Because of the crowds, the bundled infant Jesus sleeps in a caravansary’s manger, a feeding trough, “because there was no room for them in the inn.”  Angels announced his birth to shepherds who were the first to arrive and marvel.  

In his somewhat different Gospel, Matthew describes the visit of the Magi.  Alerted by the star these Zoroastrian astrologers made a long journey to the kingdom of Judea. They went to King Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, announcing that they had come to do homage to the child who had been born King of the Jews.

One of the more successful and least-loved kings, certainly in Judea, Herod the Great was a Hellenized Nabatean Arab whose people had been forcibly Judaized.  An observant Jew nonetheless, he was a brilliant administrator and builder. He was also utterly ruthless, murdering anyone who threatened his reign, even his sons, prompting Augustus to quip that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son.  Herod was “troubled” by the Magi’s assertion, as were the people of Jerusalem who did not want to be in the way if a bloodbath ensued.  Neither Herod nor his councilors had seen the star, and they asked their visitors to explain themselves. 

The Magi quoted the prophet Micah: “But you Bethlehem Ephrethah who are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come forth to Me One to be ruler over Israel…”  The referent in Micah, a minor 9th century BCE prophet, was King David of a century before, but also to a prophesied future ruler from the Davidic line called the Mashiach, Messiah, “One anointed with oil.”  

Matthew writes that the Magi arrived at Bethlehem where they entered the house of Jesus—not a manger—greeted Mary and her child and presented gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Aware of Herod’s dark intentions, the Magi returned home on a less traveled route vanishing like the star.  

Molnar, a serious coin collector, never gave the story much thought until one day he realized the markings on an ancient bronze coin from the Syrian capitol of Antioch might refer to it.  Its obverse side (heads) featured a bust of the god Jupiter.  On the reverse a leaping ram, symbolizing the constellation Aries, looks back at a star.  Four Antiochian versions of Aries coins were issued from 5 to 13 AD.  Long before, Alexander the Great’s general, Seleucus Nicanor, founded the Hellenistic dynasty in Syria, and Greek myth told how the nymph Nephele saved her two children, Phyxos and Helle, from murder by sending a ram to carry them into the sky.   Phyxos held onto its golden fleece, but Helle fell into the body of water subsequently called the Hellespont.  The ram on the coin looks back for Helle.  But what did the star signify?

Molnar’s book, an engaging detective story, describes his immersion in the field of astrology. As a scientist, he had dismissed astrology but its arcane traditions ultimately provided the most cogent explanation for the star.  We associate astrology with the daily horoscope. But in Greek, mathematici, “mathematical art,” applied originally to astrology, which is one source of modern mathematics.  The Babylonians made astrology a systematic study involving math and analysis to a remarkable degree.  It spread throughout Eurasia, but Molnar found Hellenistic astrology at the turn of the first millennium the most relevant to his work and well documented in period texts.  

One of Molnar’s arguments is that at that time, the Zodiac constellation of Aries designated the kingdom of Judea.  Among Molnar’s critics, the Cambridge astronomer, Michael Hoskin, claims that earlier Babylonian astrology identified Pisces as the sign for Israel, but Molnar counters that the Hellenistic and Roman sources of Jesus’s time identified it as Aries. This is important because Molnar demonstrates that astrologers at the dawn of the first millennium identified an extraordinary portent visible in the sky in 6 BC announced the birth of a Jewish king 

Judea had always been a pawn in the machinations between Antioch and Ptolemaic Egypt, a major rival in the Levant.  A Greco-Roman city with a large, Hellenized Jewish population, Antioch had begun using the ram and star on its coinage during the lead-up to the Roman annexation of Samaria and Judea in 6 BC.  

A 5th century miscalculation by Dionysus Exiguous (Dionysus the Small), made Jesus’ birth the first year of the Christian calendar, but it is now thought that Herod died in 4 BC, meaning that Jesus was probably born between 8 and 6 BC.  This is corroborated by Matthew who writes that Jesus was born during Herod’s reign and was a young child when the Magi found him.  If the ram on Antioch’s coins celebrated Rome’s annexation of two Jewish states in 6 B.C., Molnar argues that the city coopted the star’s message by claiming the star referred to the Emperor Augustus, adopted son of the Divine Julius Caesar, thus symbolizing its triumph over Jewish hopes. 

Hellenistic astrology, with its houses, trines and aspects, is highly complex, and with the help of computers to date the risings, settings, and positions of celestial objects, Molnar could accurately determine that in the early afternoon on April 17, 6 BC, the sun and moon and planets were in a unique position relative to the constellation Aries that announced a royal Jewish birth.  If so, how was it that Herod and his counselors and most Jews did not know this? 

First, Jews did not practice astrology, a feature of the pagan world.  Second, even if they had, they would not have seen anything notable in the sky.  Historically, interpreters of the Bethlehem Star have envisaged something dramatic like a comet, but comets were universally regarded as heralds of disaster.  Moderns speculate that the star, which soon vanished, was an exploding star, a nova or supernova lasting only a few weeks or months.  But because they were temporary phenomena, people of the time dismissed them as unimportant atmospheric disturbances.  

That left notable planetary conjunctions, but the climax of the April 17 event occurred shortly after noon when the sun’s glare blocked observation.  Spectacular visuals were less important in astrology than accurate calculations.  Astrologers could track the motions of celestial bodies, visible or out of the line of sight. All, including the sun and moon, were identified in Greek as astra, “light in the sky,” the source of our word for star.  The term planetes, by which we distinguish planets, simply means “wanderer”: stars that move in unusual ways. 

The event began in the eastern sky in 6 BC with the rising of Jupiter at dawn before the sun within that part of the Zodiac consigned to the constellation Aries.  Escaping the “burning” aspect of the sun Jupiter assumed its regal power joined by the other planets that magnified its importance.  They rose in the eastern sky until a little after noontime when the sun reached a point in the sky and Aries marking its “exaltation.” For two months, Jupiter had been in retrograde in Aries, an unusual apparent motion caused by the changing position of the Earth relative to Jupiter in its orbit as seen against the backdrop of stars. This means Jupiter appeared to briefly reverse its normal motion—from west to east, opposite the procession of the constellations, and move westward “before the stars” until resuming its easting motion.  This motion underscored its position in Aries, and on April 17th, Jupiter was also occulted by the Moon, making a stupendous astrological announcement not only of the birth of a king, but of a “divine and immortal person.”  

Another critic, David Hughes, an astronomer at Sheffield in the UK, points out that lunar positions were almost impossible to predict until Edmund Halley devised methods of doing so in the 17th century.  He also cites the work of Assyriologists Hermann Hunger and Simo Parpala indicating that the occultation of Jupiter by the moon would have signified the death of a king. Molnar does not refute these points, but he does mention that the astrological portent determined which gifts the Magi offered the Christ child.  And it is interesting to note that of the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the latter two were associated with the death and burial that is also part of Matthew’s account.

In writing his Gospel, Matthew was advised by astrologers, and we can credibly envision him asking his sources for the correct wording.  As a Jew disbelieving in astrology but accepting its judgement, his wording is important.  In his Gospel, Luke avoids mentioning the Magi but has a more general description of the assembled Moon and planets’ rising before the sun and accompanying it to its exaltation.  This phenomenon he describes exquisitely (and who cannot hear Handel’s chorus at this point) as the “multitude of the heavenly host praising God and singing ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to his people on earth.’”

A final critic of Molnar’s thesis, Biblical scholar Neville Birdsall, confesses “innocence” of both astronomy and astrology, but attacks Molnar’s translation of Matthew’s Koine Greek as “insecure.”  But Molnar acknowledges help from a wide variety of academics and linguists whose mastery of their subjects was quite secure.  I would note the comment of Michael Hoskin regarding Molnar’s methodology: “So obvious is this approach in hindsight that historians of astronomy should be kicking themselves for not having thought of it first.”  

Molnar’s careful presentation of data makes his account a compulsive page-turner and his revelatory climax deeply moving.  It also sheds light on other problematic biblical issues, for example, the 2nd century theologian Clement of Alexandria’s remark that Jesus’s actual birthday took place around mid-April.  Any shepherd could have told us that flocks are not “watched over by night” in wintertime but during the spring when ewes birth their lambs.  

There is also the interpretive problem of Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem’s children two years and under, a massacre mentioned by no other source.  Molnar’s work provides a plausible explanation for Herod’s murderous acts. 

 Christianity quickly became a gentile movement, its separation from Judaism painful and fraught.  Among its gentile followers familiar with astrology, we may see astrology’s influence in the theological ideas of the divinity of Christ, his virgin birth, and the trinity.  

The celestial/astrological events of April 17, 6 BC are scientifically and historically demonstrable.  We may not accept astrology as a credible science, but the methodology is accessible.  (By way of comparison, the sensationalism surrounding the current so-called “Christmas Star” of 2020 celebrates an astronomical planetary blip. But the fact that we continue to find such news compelling underscores our persistent human need for hope at this darkest time of the year.)

There was in fact a star of Bethlehem, invisible to most but overwhelming in its intrinsic significance.  Molnar provides us with an astonishing Christmas gift: being able to imagine the Magi’s faces as they beheld the heavenly lights assemble on the eastern horizon at dawn, a moment beautifully invoked by William Butler Yeats in his 1914 poem, “The Magi”:

Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,

In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale, unsatisfied ones

Appear and disappear in the blue depths of the sky

With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,

And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,

And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,

Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,

The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

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