The Christmas Star is one of the holiday season’s most fascinating and enduring stories. Yet even today, astronomers remain uncertain as to the precise nature of the heavenly event that inspired it.
In a series of blog posts, I’ll be reviewing some key pieces of evidence supporting several of the most likely contenders along with some traditional and not so traditional interpretations.
Yesterday, we investigated the messianic biblical prophecy of Balaam (Numbers 24.17) and how it may be connected, through the Magi, to one of the strongest contenders, a triple Saturn/Jupiter conjunction in Pisces in 06/07 BC.
Yet, because such conjunctions are not really all that rare, the question then became whether or not something else might have been going on.
Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) suggested that there was.
After witnessing a conjunction of the three superior planets, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in 1603, Kepler calculated that this event also occurred in 06/07 BC. Given that this happens only once in 796.4 years, it seems a better fit to the long-awaited ‘star’ prophesied by Balaam. Better yet, it provides evidence for the Western tradition that there were three magi who visited Jesus after his birth.
Interestingly, nowhere in the Bible does it specifically state that there were three magi. This notion must, however, have come from someplace and Hellenistic astrological thinking of the time might provide a clue.
Not only was there a triple conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter but now we have three powerful planets involved in what Ptolemy (c. 87-150) called a doryphory, or a train of important planetary attendants in service to one of the two luminaries (i.e. the sun or the moon). The very nature of the planets comprising a doryphory is that they bring useful gifts to the luminary, and, in the case of our magi, the gifts brought to the luminary (the son or Sun), Jesus, the new king, were three: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy: and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.Matthew 2:9-11 (RSV)
With the Matthean pericope, featuring the gift-bearing magi, the plot thickens as we now must account for King Herod.
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem saying ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.’Matthew 2: 1-3 (RSV)
Historically, it is accepted that Christ was born during the lifetime of Herod, which is generally acknowledged to have died around 04 BC. So far, so good because the conjunction of the three superior planets that so impressed Johannes Kepler, occurred prior to the death of Herod in 06-07 BC. This would also seem to support theory of the triple conjunction of Jupiter/Saturn that otherwise fit in with Balaam’s prophecy. If we recall, that triple conjunction is clearly noted to have also occurred in 07-06 BC.
Yet when we delve deeper, we also learn that prior to visiting Bethlehem, our wise men, or Magi, first visited Herod. Doubtless when Herod asked them to locate the child and then return with the news so that he too could worship the child, they were pleased. But after having paid homage to the child and delivered their gifts, they ‘departed to their own country by another way’, having been tipped off ‘in a dream not to return to Herod’. Later, according to the Matthean pericope, Herod was not best pleased with this turn of events and ordered the death of ‘all male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under’.
Clearly the Magi and Herod are key players in the story as reported by Matthew although there is little or no historical evidence that Herod actually ordered the reported infanticide. Furthermore, there is even a suggestion that Herod and the Magi (three or not) do not form part of this picture at all. Not only that but, the star seems to have disappeared altogether, potentially replaced by a shining angel.
And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them and their were filled with fear.
And the angel said to them, ‘Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to a all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to another ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this this that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.Luke 2:8-20 (RSV)
These two biblical accounts could not be more different. Luke’s is humble, peaceful, and low-key in direct contrast to that of Matthew which is driven by the high political stakes tension of Herod’s reaction to the new born child.
What will early Christian writers make of all this?
The plot thickens more.