The Star of Bethlehem

Here, we discuss one of the better known astronomical references in religion—the Christmas star. In the time when stars were considered angels, this particular story, unattested outside of the Gospels of the New Testament, nevertheless has a cohesiveness that suggests possible astronomical interpretations.

The New Testament records the familiar Christmas story in Matthew5 ii:1-12:

xNow 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, 2Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and have come to

5 The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version. Collins: New York, 1973.

worship him." 3When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet:

6And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel."

7Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; 8and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him." 9When they had heard the king they went their way; 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. 10When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy 11and 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. 12And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

This verbal depiction of the Christmas star has become a familiar and integral component of the annual celebration. The eyes of faith do not require astronomical confirmation, but it is interesting that the details provided in the Gospel accounts do permit astronomical interpretations. The interpretations have been numerous, as the extensive bibliography by Ruth Freitag (1979) indicates, and they continue to appear, year after year.

Consider the details as they are laid out in Matthew. The "wise men" are magoi, "magi," in the Greek, a word that carries connotations of astrology. They are traditionally regarded as Zoroastrian priests, whose duties would have included interpretations of astronomical events and of dreams. The statement, "We have seen his star in the East," has been the source of some controversy, because it has been claimed (Hughes 1976; Molnar 1999) that the form used for "in the East," ev th avatolh, has a special, astronomical meaning with astrological significance. The meaning in an astrological or astronomical context is that of "heliacal rising," the first rising of the season to be seen—just before dawn—and does not mean more generally "in the East part of the sky," for which the plural, avatolai, is used. In addition, Hughes (1976) interprets the passage as indicating an acronychal rising—a rising after sunset. However, we do not really know if the intent of the writer was astrological, and from the lexicons (Lampe 1961; Liddell and Scott 1940), it is evident that the phrase can equally well mean "in the East" meaning a geographic area. If this was the intent, the passage may be telling us nothing more than that the star appeared to the magi before they began their journey somewhere "in the East," probably Persia. Hughes (1976) argues that the magi were unlikely to use this expression to refer to their country; he, of course, may be correct, but the true meaning of the phrase is still uncertain.

We are told that Herod was king in Jerusalem, which places the event before mid-March, 4 b.c., when many scholars believe that he died—a few days after a lunar eclipse, according to Josephus (93 a.d., Whiston tr., p. 365). A lunar eclipse did occur on Mar. 12-13, 4 b.c., although Edwards (1972) has argued that Josephus's chronology pointed to another lunar eclipse—that of Jan. 9-10,1 b.c., which would imply a correspondingly later date for Herod's demise. The star was not so brilliant or marked that Herod had seen it, or if he had seen it, recognized its importance. Kings may not have needed to be astrologers, but in the narrative, at least, Herod was uninformed. Molnar's (1999, p. 16) explanation, that this was the case because Jews did not practice astrology, we find unconvincing. For one thing, although it may not have been sanctioned officially by the priests, there is ample evidence of its importance even to the extent of details on the High Priest's robe (cf. 7.1.2.2), and, for another, Herod had been educated at Rome and was thoroughly Hellenized, a circumstance that did not endear him to a sizable number of his subjects. Additionally, the account implies that he appreciated the significance of the star once the Wise Men had mentioned it to him. In the first instance, though, the significance that the star held for the magi had to be different from its significance for Herod's advisors. This suggests to us that the Wise Men were talking about a phenomenon that was not strictly interpretable within the omens of either Jewish or Hellenistic astrology.

We are next told that when the magi left the palace, the star "went before them" and it "stood over" the place where the child lay. They "rejoiced greatly" when they saw it; so seemingly it had not been continually visible to them since they left their homeland. Thus, it would be a strange reaction for astrologers to have to a recurrent planetary phenomenon involving a single planet or even a conjunction of two planets. In any case, we have either two distinct events or a recurrent phenomenon. The possibilities are

(1) none—the narrative being a literary invention for the purpose of identifying the birth of a king with heavenly signs;

(2) a comet, which could be seen prior to and following perihelion passage;

(3) a variable star, most likely one or more novae or supernovae;

(4) a planetary conjunction—either a two- or three-planet conjunction;

(5) at least for one of the events, an exploding bolide; and, finally,

(6) a unique or rare event or combination of events, which believers could well call a miracle.

Concerning the first possibility, there is the oracle of Balaam the son of Be'or, given in Numbers 24:17:

... a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel. . ..

which provides a purpose for including the narrative of a Christmas star. In early Christian times, the magi were regarded as the intellectual heirs of Balaam, as is illustrated by paintings in the catacombs (Lindsay 1971, p. 231). The star is not mentioned in the other Gospels, but it is mentioned in the apochryphal Protoevangelium of James, where there is a description of a star so bright that it caused other stars to dim to invisibility. Although stars are not explicitly mentioned, it is not impossible that the angelic visitation in Luke 2:8-15,

8And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.

is a reference to a bright and perhaps transient object. Yet in neither source is there explicit mention of the fulfillment of a prophecy regarding a celestial event; this would seem to be a strange omission if evidence of prophetic fulfillment was the purpose for inclusion of the narrative. The depiction of the star in connection with the symbol of the Good Shepherd, the earliest Christian depiction on tombs, would testify to the power of the Christmas star symbolism to the early church. A note by Beehler (1980), discussed in an astronomical context by Hoffleit (1984), purports to provide just such a linkage. Beehler suggested that the fruits hanging from trees in a catacomb painting represent a sky map, which provides a record of the Star of Bethlehem. She claims that the map suggests approximate coordinates (a = 20h, 8 = -20°) for the "nativity" star. A person standing next to a rotated image of a mother and child allegedly points to this fruit/star. Beehler claims that this object is the only one that does not match known stars in the vicinity. She further argues that the name of the deceased, Priscilla, was the same Priscilla mentioned in the New Testament (Acts 18:2,18, 26; Rom. 16:3; I Cor. 16:19; II Tim. 4:19). The Priscilla mentioned in the New Testamant was married to a man named Aquila (originally from Pontus); they were exiled from Italy because of an edict by Claudius banning Jews from Rome in 49 a.d. They subsequently converted to Christianity and, with Paul, were active in the early Church by about 52 a.d. In attributing astronomical knowledge to Aquila, however, Beehler appears to conflate this Aquila with another, also from Pontus, who was active in the mid-2nd century a.d., and who apostatized to Judaism because of opposition to his astrology. The latter Aquila was instrumental in providing a new version of the Old Testament in Greek (more acceptable to the Jewish establishment of the time than that which had been used previously by Christians and Jews alike), a work dated to ~140 a.d., and is clearly a later figure. It is unlikely (but not impossible—as we note below) that the tomb has anything to do with this Aquila because there is no reason why an apostate would wish to be connected with Christian symbolism. There is no evidence that the Aquila mentioned in Acts knew astronomy or astrology, let alone practiced it. There are other problems with the claim as well, which create doubt that the scene represents the Christmas star and the nativity:

(1) The relative locations do not agree with the stars of the summer sky in any consistent way (although one has to concede that a subjective depiction from memory could be faulty, especially given the difficult conditions in the catacombs in which the artist would have had to work).

(2) The relative sizes of the fruit do not agree with the brightnesses of the stars as identified by Beehler.

(3) The figures are unclear, and it can be argued that the "pointing" figure is rather in a gesture of adoration. The figure of the child does not appear to be that of a newborn infant; and, finally, neither image appears to be connected with the fruit trees at all, which, however, frame the more traditional scene of the Good Shepherd.

Therefore, in our opinion, there is neither credible evidence for an astronomical depiction in this scene nor any convincing basis for supposing that there should be one. However, there are arguments on the other side of the issue. Hoffleit 1984; (private communication to EFM, 1998) points out that if the stars were intended to be disguised as apples, the relative sizes need not be indicators of stellar brightness. Moreover, if the later Aquila was, as is sometimes alleged, the grandson of Aquila and Priscilla, he might have executed the imagery prior to leaving Christianity as an act of devotion to his grandmother, whether or not he was a devout Christian at the time of commission. As an astrologer, he could have been motivated to do the scene. Thus, the identification, although neither fully demonstrated nor convincing, is not greatly implausible, and in fact is made somewhat more plausible by the discovery of Mclvor (1998; reviewed by Hoffleit), discussed later.

In his work, Against Celsus (Book I, Chaps. LVIII-LX; tr. Crombie, in Roberts and Donaldson/Coxe, repr. 1994, pp. 422-423), the early Christian theologian Origen takes the Star to be a "new star," by which he means an object, "such as" a comet,6 newly visible in any of the heavens. The qualification is required by the wording of the Balaam prophecy, which Origen cites "with respect to comets there is no prophecy in circulation to the effect that such and such a comet was to arise in connection with a particular kingdom or a particular time; but with respect to the appearance of a star at the birth of Jesus there is a prophecy of Balaam recorded by Moses" [Book I, Ch. LIX]. Halley's comet was visible between Aug. 26 and Oct. 20,12 b.c. (Marsden 1993, p. 38), which is earlier than most scholars would accept for Jesus's birth. If Joseph's enrollment did take place, and there is evidence cited by Hughes (1976) that a census for Roman taxation purposes was ordered for 8 b.c., then Comet Halley was too early. Ho's (1962) catalog of Chinese comets indicates that a comet appeared in 10 b.c. ("During the third year of the Yuan-Yen reign period a comet was seen at She-Thi and Ta-Chio"), but it is mentioned in only one source, Thung Chien Kang Mu. Ho (1962) also records comets for the years 5 b.c. and 4 b.c., but in neither case is there any indication of movement. The 5 b.c. object appeared in the Chinese constellation Chhien-Niu (the ninth lunar mansion)

6 Origen writes that "The star which was seen in the east we consider to be a new star, unlike any of the well-known planetary bodies, either those in the firmament above or those among the lower orbs, but partaking of the nature of those celestial bodies which appear at times, such as comets, or those meteors which resemble beams of wood, or beards, or wine jars, or any of those other names by which the Greeks are accustomed to describe their varying appearances" [Book 1, Ch. LVIII]. He argues [see §5.5] that such "comets" can portend good as well as evil events, and therefore would be appropriate to mark the birth of Christ: "If, then, at the commencement of new dynasties, or on occasion of other important events, there arises a comet so called, or any other similar celestial body, why should it be matter of wonder that at the birth of Him who was to introduce a new doctrine to the human race, and to make known his teaching not only to Jews, but also to Greeks, and to many of the barbarous nations besides, a star should have arisen?" [Book 1, Ch. LIX].

sometime in the interval Mar. 10 to Apr. 7, 5 b.c., and was visible for 70 days. The other "ominous star" appeared in Aquila in April 4 b.c., but it was described as a po-hsing ("sparkling star"), one that radiates in all directions and so may be without a tail, making it a possible nova.7 The latter object is also recorded as a po ("sparkling") object in the Chronicle of Silla, in Korea.

Stephenson and Clark (1978, Table 3.1) provide a list of novae visible in pretelescopic times, and they include among them the Chinese hui-hsing or "broom-star" type object of 5 b.c., cited above, at position a = 20h20m, 8 = -15°, in eastern Capricorn near b Cap. The term "broom-star" is often used to describe tailed comets, but Stephenson and Clark (1978, p. 63ff) note that the Chinese records are sometimes inconsistent and include this object in their list of novae because there is no mention of any motion. Clark and Stephenson (1977) suggest that this object, whatever it was, represents an independent sighting of the Star of Bethlehem.

A more recent study (McIvor 1998) argues again for supernovae—but with a twist. There is a binary pulsar: PSR1913 + 16 (the designation gives its coordinates in RA and DEC), which implies two supernovae events. McIvor argues that successive supernovae may have appeared in 4 b.c., when he thinks the Magi had their 1st sighting, and again in 2 b.c., after they left Herod's palace. No pulsars have been detected in the locations given in the annals for the objects of 5 b.c. in Chhien-Niu (in eastern Capricorn), and of 4 b.c. in Ho Ku (Altair and its flanking stars, in Aquila). The double pulsar, is, however, some 12° northwest of Altair, near the Chinese constellation of Tso-chi (in Sagitta). If the location given in the annals for the the 4 b.c. event is in error, the identification is plausible, if not demonstrated.

Configurations of planets were important astrologically. If more than one "star" was involved, however, Matthew's account must be faulty. Hughes (1976, 1977) argues that Matthew was writing in Koivh or popular Greek, and he was merely following Old Testament tradition in referring to the phenomenon as a star (aoxqp) instead of stars (aotepoQ) or planets (plavhtev aoTspeg or aoxspeg plavrjiaQ—see §2.4.1). Sinnott (1968) selected six conjunctions that would have been spectacular as viewed from the Middle East; the criteria were that the planets must be <12 arcminutes apart and be >15° from the Sun. Two conjunctions of Venus and Jupiter were particularly noteworthy in this list. The first was visible in the dawn sky in Leo on August 12, 3 b.c., when they were 12 arc-minutes apart. See Figure 15.5a for a simulation of this first event.

The second was visible in the evening sky of June 17, 2 b.c., when they were less than 4 arc-minutes apart and would have seemed to fuse into a single bright star over Judea, to the west. See Figure 15.5b, for a simulation of this second event. The dates appear to be too late, however, unless the familiar Christian era base (from the work of Dionysius Exiguus in 525 a.d.) turns out to be nearly correct.

There were other sets of conjunctions also. Every 120 years, Jupiter and Saturn undergo a set of three conjunctions

7 However, Comet Halley in the apparition of 12 b.c. is also described as a po comet, although it is clearly described as having a tail and moving among the stars (see §5.5).

Figure 15.5. Simulations of two conjunctions of Venus and Jupiter that are particularly noteworthy candidates for the Star of Bethlehem: (a) The first is seen in Leo in the pre-dawn sky on August 12, 3 b.c., at Baghdad. (b) The second conjunction is

seen on June 17, 2 b.c., in the evening sky at Bethlehem, when the planets would have fused into a single brilliant point of light. Simulations by E.F. Milone with the Red Shift software package.

(a "triple conjunction") over an interval of about six months. Kepler is known to have viewed a close conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn in 1603-1604 (joined, in Spring 1604, by Mars). The significance of such conjunctions for Mideastern astrologers is that Jupiter was associated with the ruler of the world, and Saturn with the Jewish people, hence, a conjunction at a particular instant of history. On May 29, Sep. 29, and on Dec. 4, 7 b.c., conjunctions took place in Pisces, which in Kepler's time and in the Middle Ages was astro-logically associated with the Jews. However, Molnar (1999, pp. 27-30), among others, argues persuasively that this association between the Jews and Pisces was not held at the dawn of the Christian era, and that Judea, as part of a more general region, was at that time astrologically held to be governed by Aries.

Correct or not, the predominant view today is that conjunctions were somehow involved, at least among those who regard the Christmas Star event as historical. As we have noted, the conjunction interpretation was opposed by Origen, who moreover derided Celsus for confusing the magi with Chaldeans (whose interest in conjunctions was and is well attested), and thereby expecting the magi to be interested in conjunctions [Against Celsus, Book I, Ch. LVIII (see Roberts and Donaldson/Coxe, repr. 1994)]. Molnar (1999) ignores the point of this distinction and assumes that the magi held Hellenistic astrological views (whereas Herod and his court did not, thus, explaining their apparent ignorance of the "star"). He also argues that the magi were most likely impelled to Jerusalem by an occultation or appulse of Jupiter by the Moon in Aries, an astro-logically powerful configuration. His interpretation depends strongly on his view that the Jews did not practice Hellenistic astrology, despite Herod's background and strong associations with Rome, but that the magi did. If, as is commonly thought, the magi were Zoroastrian priests, however, their religion, extant well before Alexander's invasion (see Ch. 9.2), might have resisted Hellenism better than had Herod's cosmopolitan court. If this were the case, Molnar's case could be inverted, and Herod's ignorance of a nonstandard Hellenistic astrology interpretation given to the star by the magi becomes perfectly reasonable!

The possibility of a meteoritic event has been widely discounted because of the apparent extended aspect of the occurrence. However, the accounts in Luke and the Proto-evangelium make better sense if the event described in Bethlehem was that of an exploding bolide. The account in Luke refers to a speaking angel, and a heavenly multitude that could be interpreted as an audible explosion and fragmentation. The fireball could well "go before" the magi and seem, in an azimuth sense, to go "over" the place where the child lay. The explanations need not be exclusive: if a conjunction got them on their way, a bolide could have provided the magi with their endpoint once they were at Bethlehem. If the account in James is correct, two bolides are required. A similar suggestion but involving a comet instead of bolides was made by Humphreys (1991, 1992). Molnar's (1999) explanation for the apparent reappearance of the star as given in Matthew involves the stationary points and retrograde motion of Jupiter when at opposition. The phrase "went before them" is interpreted to mean that Jupiter is moving in the same direction as the diurnal motion of the stars, westward (i.e., in retrograde motion). The phrase, "and stood over" the place where Jesus lay, Molnar interprets as a reference to one of the two stationary points flanking Jupiter's opposition (see discussions of the planetary configurations in the early chapters). If correctly interpreted, this provides a limit on the interval between the heliacal rising of Jupiter (his interpretation of ev tq avatolq) and Jupiter's opposition, namely, about six months. Molnar's most propitious date is Apr. 17, 6 b.c., which would date the movement of the magi from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to the end of October 6 b.c. As we have noted, however, there are problems with the various assumptions that lead to this scenario, not the least of which is the supposition that Matthew is using astrological terms in their technical meanings. We find this interpretation forced and unconvincing, but it is certainly not ruled out.

Finally, there is the prospect that none of these explanations is appropriate but that the phenomenon was in fact unique and of a kind not knowingly seen since it occurred in Bethlehem nearly two millennia ago. Science is notoriously ill equipped to study phenomena that are not recurrent because the usual checks on hypotheses cannot be applied. As far as some scientists are concerned, such an event could well qualify as a miracle. Perhaps more palatable to modern consciousness, although not necessarily any more correct, is the possibility of combinations of the phenomena that we have discussed, for example, an appulse or conjunction for the first sighting and a nova, comet, or bolide for the second.

This concludes our brief examination of examples of apotheosis, celestial omens, and related ideas. We next turn to cosmological and cosmographic frameworks and concepts around the world as we explore other aims of ancient astronomy.

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