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 this post, 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.
‘… a star shall come forth out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel…’Numbers 24.17 (RSV)
This is the messianic prophecy of Balaam (a diviner in the Torah) who, according to Ambrose of Milan (330-397) and Origen of Adamantius (184/5-253/4), was an ancestor of the race of Magi, an ancient priestly caste flourishing on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire.
Evidence suggests the Magi had long awaited the fulfillment of their ancestor’s prophecy. According to the writings of Strabo (43 or 63 BC – c 24 CE), just prior to the birth of Christ the official duties of the Magi included the election of the king of the Parthian empire (a major political power in ancient Iran). Hence not only were Balaam’s Magi sky-watching priests (experts in Mesopotamian astrology) but they also had considerable experience in the business of kingmaking.
Since the Sumerian period ( 3500-2300 BC) planetary tables recorded on clay tablets predicted the future movements of the planets and one such tablet dated from 08 BCE listed a forthcoming Jupiter/Saturn conjunction.
For Balaam’s star prophecy to be fulfilled, the birth of Christ needed to be at night even though at the time, all divine births (i.e. Augustus and Nero) were linked with solar deities and needed to occur at either sunrise or noon. The triple conjunction of Jupiter/Saturn in 07-06 BC was a highly anticipated sky event that fit the bill. Both planets were easily seen by the naked eye in the night sky yet in Mesopotamian astrology, both Jupiter and Saturn were associated with powerful solar deities (Marduk and Ninib, accordingly).
Not only that, but this conjunction occurred in the constellation of Pisces, one of the most ancient of the twelve zodiac signs (first appearing on an Egyptian coffin lid dated c. 2,300 BC) which has since become most closely associated with the Christ.
If one looks closely at the glyph of Pisces, you’ll find that one fish is moving upwards whilst the other is moving parallel with the earth plane.
The symbolism here has been characterized as a formal embodiment of spirit, the penetration and materialization of spirit into the world of duality and form.
And the Word [of God] became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.John 1: 14 (RSV)
As you can see, this all is quite tempting.
Yet conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn are of themselves not really so rare, occurring every 20 years. True, a triple conjunction makes it a bit more rare and adding in that it would happen in Pisces would make it even more rare. But then Balaam doesn’t seem to have stipulated the necessity of Pisces any more more than he specified that Jupiter/Saturn had to be involved.
So was this particular celestial the subject of Balaam’s ancient prophecy?
Or was something else going on?
The Three Magi
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?
Until Ignatius of Antioch ( c. 35 or 50 CE – 89-117 CE), there was no Christmas Star, at least not in its current incarnation. It was with his Letter to Ephesians that the star as we now know it first appeared in an early marketing campaign for Christianity. In the view of Ignatius, the ‘star’ in question was a miracle not a predictable planetary configuration, a sign from the heavens that with the birth of Christ, mankind was set free from the historical bonds of magic and (astrologically inspired) fate.
A star shone forth in the heaven about all the stars: and its light was unutterable, and its strangeness caused amazement; and all the rest of the constellations with the sun and moon formed themselves into a chorus about the star…
From that time forward every sorcery and every spell was dissolved, the ignorance of wickedness vanished away…Letter to Ephesians (19:2-3) – Lightfoot Translation
Following the lead of Ignatius, Origen (184 -253 AD), another early Christian writer, introduced the idea that the inspirational heavenly event in question was indeed not planetary in nature but instead a comet.
We consider that the star that was seen ‘at its rising’ was a new star, and not like any of the normal celestial bodies…
We have read in the book called Concerning Comets by Chaeremon the Stoic that at times comets have appeared when good events were about to occur.
Why would it be a great surprise that a star should have appeared at the birth of one who was going to introduce new ideas to the human race and to reveal his teaching not only to Jews, but also to Greeks, and to many barbarian nations in addition?
Now I would point out with respect to comets that there is no prophecy about comets in circulation stating that such and such a comet would appear at the rise of a particular kingdom or at a particular time. However, the star which appeared at Jesus’ birth had been prophesied by Balaam, recorded by Moses, when he said ‘A star shall appear out of Jacob, and a man shall rise up out of Israel.’Contra Celsum 1:58-59
With this, both Balaam and the pericope of Matthew are covered. Even better, in 5BC, well within the required time frame, astronomers in China, had recorded a bright comet constellation of Capricorn in 5BC.
Here’s additional Biblical support for the comet theory:
And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars: she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. And another portent appeared in heaven: behold a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne.Revelations 12: 1-5 (RSV)
The argument is that only a comet could appear as herein described. Indeed, Balaam’s mysterious reference to a ‘star’ and ‘scepter’ also fits to the appearance of a comet in the sense that at a key state of its apparition, a comet would look like a scepter.
Yet another biblical passage adds support:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light: those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.Isaiah 9: 2 (RSV)
Probably no one has done more to promote the comet hypothesis than Giotto di Bondone (1266/17 – 1337), the medieval Italian artist. His fresco entitled ‘the Adoration of the Magi’ in Padua portrayed the Christmas Star as a comet
But if we are to embrace the comet theory, it appears we must also forgo the pericope in Luke with its shepherds and announcing angel. Indeed, might that not be what Ignatius wanted? And quite how are we to accommodate, the mother of Jesus, giving birth with the moon under her feet as described in Revelations?
There is significant evidence that along with the rest of the New Testament, both the Gospel of Matthew and Luke were originally penned in Greek. This suggests that Hellenistic thinking, including Hellenistic astrology, itself laden with anthropomorphic Mesopotamian sky narratives, probably influenced these biblical texts.
This is important.
Not only were the constellations comprising the Mesopotamian zodiac different from those of our modern zodiac, but celestial prophecy regarding that zodiac was not only prevalent, but also taken seriously.
In his book, Astrological Reports to Assyrian Kings, Hermann Hunger, an Austrian authority on Babylonian astrology and celestial omens, provides several relevant examples:
- ‘If the stars of Orion [known to the Babylonians as The Shepherd of Anu] keep gaining radiance: an important person will become too mighty and commit evil. – Venus stands in front of Orion.”
- The priest Bullutu records a bright Venus in the ‘Crook’, known later as Auriga, the Charioteer and writes of this combination, ‘the foundation of the throne will become stable.’
- ‘If Orion [known to the Babylonians as The Shepherd of Anu] comes close to the moon; the days of the reign of the king will become long…’
- ‘If Ada thunders in the middle of Taurus [the Cosmic Bull], the king will conquer a country not belonging to him.’
Putting to all Together
On 1 May 7 BC, there was a new moon along with the first of the three Jupiter/Saturn conjunctions
- Immediately afterwards, the planet Venus, as the evening star, was just above the crescent moon, in the stars of the Shepherd of Anu,
- While the Sun, the king, was in Taurus just setting at the horizon, close by.
- We now have all the elements central to the nativity pericope in Luke: shepherds, cattle, and a stable (as foundation of the throne).
In Venus, the evening star, we may also have found the ‘woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet’ as noted in Revelations 12:1-5 (RSV).
Could it be that in some sense, both the apparently conflicting bible versions (Luke and Matthew) of the birth of could be true, as sky narratives, recording through visual celestial symbolism the story of the birth of the Christ and the attendant Christmas Star?
Better yet, should any or all of this be considered as having fulfilled the prophecy of Balaam:
…a star shall come for out of Jacob and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel…Numbers 24:17 (RSV)
Interesting, the word ‘sceptre’ originally meant a rod or staff. In the Old Testament, it was thus specifically applied to the shepherd’s crook, which was considered an insignia of supreme power:
And all the tithe of herds and flocks, every tenth animal of all that pass under the herdsman’s staff, shall be holy to the Lord.Leviticus 27:32 (RSV)
Shepherd thy people with thy staff, the flock of thy inheritance…Micah 7:14 (RSV)
The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.Genesis 49:10 (RSV)
As it is impossible to reach any definitive inclusions about the real nature of the Christmas Star, I invite you to consider what has been presented over this four-part series of posts and make up your own minds as how best to interpret all the possibilities and the evidence. Also, when you next sing about shepherds who watch their flocks or three kings bearing gifts, I invite you to consider the cultural role that such celestial symbolism still plays 2,000 years after the historical event that it depicts.