Was the Star a Real Star?
The language that Matthew employed to describe the Star of the Magi strongly suggests that it was an ordinary star or planet. After all, the Magi themselves were astrologers and interested in the motions of the heavenly bodies. Since most people profoundly respected the practice of astrology in the time of Augustus and Herod, it has convinced many scholars that the Magi were observing a real star. This is surely what the New Testament is stating.
Probably no other star in history has been sought after more than the Star of the Magi. What star could this have been? The ingenious Kepler in the early 17th century suggested that it might have been a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn appearing near some other star. In the last century, Ideler found that three conjunctions of Jupiter with Saturn in the constellation of Pisces occurred in the year 7 B.C.E. and there was Mars coming into their vicinity in early 6 B.C.E. that gave a triangular positioning of the planets to one another. It was also found that a Jewish rabbi named Abarbanel, commenting on the Book of Daniel (C.E. 1437–1508), said that a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn within Pisces had messianic meaning. Several scholars in the last century felt that the occurrences of 7/6 B.C.E. were probably the ones that inspired the Magi to go to Jerusalem.
The reason Ideler picked this early year as the likely candidate is because it was beginning to be thought among historians that Jesus could not have been born after 4 B.C.E. Though some of the prime historical sources were chronologically contradictory for the period, historians were already beginning to dogmatize that Jesus had to have been born at least 4 years (or better yet, 5 or 6 years) before the beginning of our common era. This is why Ideler concentrated on astronomical signs before 4 B.C.E.
There is, however, a major difficulty with this earlier year of 7/6 B.C.E. It is very early for the birth of Jesus. It is almost too early if one relies on the simple New Testament chronological statements as a guide. Accepting this earlier period also casts aside virtually all the testimony of the early scholars and historians of the Christian Church who said that Jesus was born in the period of 3 to 1 B.C.E. 1
The Birth of Jesus Was After 4 B.C.E
This period of 3 to 1 B.C.E. for the dating of Jesus’ birth for the early Christian historians, however, should not be jettisoned from our thinking. It is unfair and nonprofessional to dismiss as unworthy of consideration the vast number of these early Christian scholars who testified that Jesus was born in the period we recognize as 3 to 1 B.C.E. Properly, modern scholars are now beginning to recognize that the early Christian scholars had far more ancient records to consult than we do today.
They were able to examine the volumes in the famous Alexandrian library (reportedly having up to 700,000 volumes), the library at Pergamus with over 200,000 volumes and the library of Caesarea on the Palestinian coast with its great numbers of historical documents. To show the extent in these libraries of historical records of important individuals, we have from a reliable source that the Alexandrian library had in their catalogue of scrolls two million lines (at 50 lines a page this would equal 40,000 of our pages) on the life of Zoroaster alone. 2 Zoroaster was the early teacher of the Magi as Moses was to the Jews. This shows that an abundance of material was available for Greek speaking peoples to read about the doctrines of Zoroaster. If the records of Zoroaster’s life were found in the Alexandrian library in such quantity, what about the accounts of the other individuals who were important in the Roman Empire? There must have been vast numbers of other historical works that would have described events in Palestine and Rome within those early libraries.
This does not end the matter. Besides those libraries in the east, there were the official records at Rome, the capital of the empire itself. Records were kept at the capital like those in our Library of Congress. Those records would have been available to Christian scholars, especially after the time of Constantine. And besides government record-keeping, there were at least twenty-six other libraries in Rome that were associated with certain institutions at the capital whose scrolls could also have been examined by early Christian scholars. 3 There can be no doubt that those scholars had access to much of this literary evidence to study and evaluate in making their historical judgments. But what do we have left of them? Only rags and tatters have come down to us.
Early Christian Historians Had Many Historical Sources Not Known to Us
Let us be plain about the early historical records which concern the time of Jesus’ birth. There is not a single Christian scholar (who was able to do research at the above libraries) who has stated that 7, 6 or even 5 B.C.E. was the time for Jesus’ birth. Every one of them is at odds with modern historical opinion on this particular subject. Most of the early scholars focused on the year from 3 to 2 B.C.E. and Dionysius Exiguus in the 6th century finally accepted a late 1 B.C.E. for Jesus’ birth.
It is truly a disservice of the highest rank that no serious attention is being given to the historical beliefs of these early Christian scholars. Their historical evaluations given when Rome and the empire had functioning libraries (during the period of Pax Romana) have been dismissed out of hand and without the slightest consideration by many modern scholars. This is not only unfair, it is absurd. Forgive me for being blunt, but it is time to demand reversal of this situation. It is not that I want my opinion to prevail at the expense of all other historical evaluations, but it is only reasonable that all ancient authorities be given a fair hearing in this important chronological and historical matter.
The Apathy of Modern Theologians
But what is the state of affairs today? So engraven in stone is the opinion that one has to look before 4 B.C.E. for the birth of Jesus and the celestial events that brought the Magi to Jerusalem, that few theologians have felt it is necessary to convene a forum of competent scholars even to discuss the issue. The present opinions are considered by many church leaders to be infallible. And why are some theologians so adamant today in advocating a period before 4 B.C.E.? It is because of a single section of an account by the Jewish historian Josephus which has been misinterpreted and misunderstood concerning the time of Herod’s death. I will discuss this matter in a later chapter and show the simple answer to the problem.
The truth is, however, the years of 3 to 2 B.C.E. have far more historical credentials and spectacular astronomical displays than any immediate period before 4 B.C.E. When we focus on these two years, then the evidence that the Star of the Magi was a real star is overwhelming. Other years around the beginning of our era pale to insignificance compared to 3 to 2 B.C.E. The description of Matthew about the star does not at all fit what happened in 7 or 6 B.C.E. Jupiter and Saturn in their three conjunctions at that time were at least two diameters of the Moon away from each other. No one could possibly imagine them as being a single “star.” As a matter of fact, there was a similar conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces which occurred 59 years before and it was even a closer one. If such a conjunction had messianic overtones to it from an astrological point of view, why did not that occurrence also bring Magi to Jerusalem?
Even Abarbanel’s astrological interpretation given in the 15th century has problems. Though the rabbi may well have been relating a general belief among Jews in his own time about the messianic significance of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces, there is no early literature of the Jews or Gentiles that they would have interpreted it that way some 1500 years before. Indeed, there are so many uncertainties of interpretation connected with the astronomical events in 7 and 6 B.C.E. that even scholars today (probably most) hold little confidence that any of those celestial phenomena are the ones to which Matthew refers even though they continue to dogmatize that Jesus was born before 4 B.C.E. 4
What Does the Bible Mean?
These difficulties have prompted scholars to offer other explanations. Some have suggested the Bible is possibly talking about a comet that cannot now be identified. This proposal is unlikely because comets were almost always interpreted as being harbingers of evil, not of good omen as the star of the Magi surely suggested. Others have thought it might be an exploding star ― a nova. This theory is completely unprovable and most scholars reject the idea. After all, how can a comet or a nova “lead” Magi to Jerusalem and “stand over” Bethlehem as Matthew said the star did?
Some religious people have wanted to dismiss the account of Matthew as referring to any “star” in heaven. They believe Matthew was talking about the actions of an angel. Others say it was an outright miracle that is impossible to explain by natural laws. Of course, if Matthew were describing the actions of an angel or simply recording the results of a supernatural event, then further astronomical or historical inquiry is useless. This is the opinion some religious folk wish to adopt. Some religious people feel afraid to look at any explanation that might be astronomical (which they often interpret to mean as “astrological”). They prefer outright miracles to anything that might be considered as natural.
Are Supernatural Explanations Correct?
The supernatural interpretations that some propose are not necessary. Such evaluations run counter to the simple descriptions given in the Gospel of Matthew. Let us recall Matthew’s account in which he used words denoting astronomical terms as ordinarily understood by Greek speaking people in the 1st century. He said the Magi saw “his star” rising in the east. Would the Magi have seen an angel or some miraculous sign rise above the eastern horizon? This belief is hardly suitable. After all, the Magi were themselves astrologers. They were looking for celestial signs involving the Sun, Moon, planets and the stars of heaven, not miraculous events. Had the latter been the case, they simply would have told Herod that they had seen an angel or a miraculous display in the heavens and that would have been the end of the matter.
There is another problem in evaluating the star as an angel. This belief is not compatible with the narrative of Matthew and Luke. It was the custom of Matthew to state when an angel was involved in an event associated with Jesus’ nativity (Matthew 1:20) or when a vision or dream was given by an angel (2:13). The same was the case with Luke. He even named the angel who gave the announcement to Mary. He called him the angel Gabriel 5 and Luke certainly did not think of Gabriel as a “star.” Luke recorded that many angels were seen by the shepherds who were minding their flocks near Bethlehem. And again, he did not describe them as being “stars.”
Only in highly figurative (or prophetic/poetic) language in the Bible are angels equated with stars. 6 Matthew was not giving this type of narration in his Gospel account. The terms he used to describe the “star” were the ones that the general population used to denote ordinary “stars” or “planets” without any reference to supernatural angelic appearances.
A Supernatural Appearance?
There is yet another miraculous explanation that has been suggested for the Star of the Magi. Some theologians have imagined that the Magi simply observed an appearance of the Shekinah (the glory of God) like that which led Moses and the children of Israel out of Egypt. This was a shining light during darkness and a cloud by day. 7 Yet when the Bible mentions such visible glory, it was seen by all people in sight of it. 8 Had the Magi observed such a miraculous light, biblical examples show that others in their vicinity would also have seen it. Josephus, the Jewish historian, reported such an appearance of light over the temple just before the Passover season of C.E. 66 which the people of Jerusalem observed. 9 But there is no example in the Bible or history that the Shekinah was ever seen rising above the eastern horizon like the Star of the Magi appeared.
Granted, some people for sentimental reasons (or to maintain private theological doctrines) wish that the “star” of Matthew could be an angel or a miraculous light in the sky. They refuse to believe that Matthew was referring to an actual “star.” It is their privilege to believe such things if they wish, but the evidence in the New Testament and history profoundly suggest that the “star” was a normal heavenly body that astrologers were interpreting as the sign that a new Jewish king had been born.
The Star Was a Real Star
The Magi were basing their decisions to go to Jerusalem on the motions of the heavenly bodies. After all, that was their primary occupation. They were professional observers and interpreters of heavenly signs involving the Sun, Moon, planets and stars. This procedure is thoroughly harmonious with the teachings of the Bible about such things. In the first chapter of Genesis it says that the stellar bodies were designed to provide “signs” to those on earth. 10 For the Magi to have seen a “star” or a “planet” rise above the eastern horizon in some significant relationship to other stellar bodies would have been thoroughly in accord with the statement in Genesis 1:14. The Jewish authorities, and even King Herod, would not have found such interpretations by the Magi as being odd or anti-biblical.
The Bible and Astronomical Occurrences
The Bible actually gives much credence to astronomical signs and Herod knew this. It records a divine revelation given to the patriarch Joseph in which the twelve tribes of Israel were compared to the twelve zodiacal signs. Joseph dreamed that the Sun represented his father, the Moon (being feminine) his mother, and his eleven brothers were the other eleven constellations of the Zodiac (Joseph himself being the twelfth). “Behold, I have dreamed a dream more: and behold the sun and the moon and the eleven stars did obeisance to me.” 11
So consistent, methodical and symbolic were those motions of the heavenly bodies that King David in Psalm 19 equated the celestial bodies with the perfection of the teachings of God. David said that all of the stars, planets, Moon and Sun spoke a “language” to all people on earth. He said there was,
“no speech, nor language, where their voice is not heard. Their line [rule or motion] is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” 12
David was saying that these heavenly bodies spoke symbolic teachings to people in the world. Even the apostle Paul quoted Psalm 19 and said that the heavenly bodies symbolically spoke with their voice or their words and that their sounds were heard throughout the world. “Their [the stars] sound went into all the earth, and their [the stars] words unto the ends of the world.” 13 The heavenly bodies contained much symbolic teaching as far as people in the 1st century were concerned.
Biblical Astronomy Had Prophetic Overtones
The Old Testament contained precedents for this belief. In the Book of Job there is recorded the words of Yahweh himself [the God of the Bible]. God said that the star cluster known as the Pleiades (the Seven Sisters) influenced things that were occurring on earth. 14 These “Seven Sisters” may be equated with the seven “stars” of the Book of Revelation that denoted the seven angels of the seven churches (congregations). Recall that such congregations of Christians were even called “sisters.” 15
There is much teaching in the Old and New Testaments about the “influences” of the stellar bodies with affairs occurring on earth. David particularly singled out the Sun for its symbolic role in teaching. He called it a “bridegroom” (like a newly married man with a responsibility for his wife). And who is the “bridegroom” in the New Testament? It is the Messiah. 16 His coming was prognosticated as being like the lightning [the Sun] that comes out of the east. “For as the lightning comes out of the east, and shines even unto the west, so shall the coming of the Son of man be.” 17 The Messiah is thus equated in a symbolic way with the Sun. This relationship should not appear strange to biblical readers. The Old Testament itself said that Yahweh was the “Sun of righteousness.” 18 It was common among the early Jews to equate the Sun with Yahweh and the New Testament writers persisted with the same theme by calling Jesus the “Bridegroom” or the “Lightning [the Sun]” which shines out of the east. These astronomical comparisons were made without the slightest condemnation by the prophets or apostles.
The Book of Revelation and Astronomical Symbols
It even goes further than that. In the Book of Revelation we find four living creatures that surround the heavenly throne (see also Ezekiel 1:4–28). Scholars recognize that the faces of these creatures (like that of a lion, an eagle, a man and a bull) denote the four main seasons of the zodiacal year. These are equated with Leo the Lion, Scorpio (an eagle with a snake in its talons), Aquarius (a man bearing water) and Taurus the Bull. 19 The tribes of Israel were positioned the same way around the tabernacle in the wilderness. 20 Leo, representing Judah, was directly east of the entrance to the temple and it was the beginning sign for the Hebrew Zodiac. The other three principal tribes were located 90 degrees from each other in a circle around the sanctuary forming a zodiacal design.
And besides that, in another section of the Book of Revelation, the apostle John saw a sign in heaven of a woman ready to give birth to a manchild who was to rule the earth with a rod of iron. 21 This woman had the Sun clothing her and the Moon under her feet. There can be no doubt that this was an astronomical symbol showing the time of Jesus’ birth. 22 When the apostle John said he saw a “sign in heaven,” the word “sign” in Greek is the precise word used in ordinary Greek literature to refer to a zodiacal sign.
Jews Were Interested in Astronomical Signs
These biblical matters reveal that the New Testament writers commonly identified prophetical events on earth with symbolic comparisons found in the heavenly bodies and their motions. Jews in general were also doing the same thing in the 1st century. Note this comment by Professor Charlesworth concerning new discoveries that show this.
“Jewish interest in astrology and the zodiac is at least so early as Jesus of Nazareth. This new insight is shown by the early date of the Jewish Sibylline Oracles, especially 5:512–531, and the discovery among the Dead Sea Scrolls of two Jewish astrological documents, one called 4QCryptic (formerly 4Q186) and the other still unnamed and unpublished.” 23
While this is certainly true, Jewish interpretation differed from ordinary Gentile methods in reading the signs. The Jews normally stated that God was in charge of the stellar bodies and that their influences were a manifestation of God’s power (His prognostications in order to teach mankind) and not some spiritual manifestations emanating solely from the celestial bodies themselves. Charlesworth gives several examples of this early Jewish mode of interpretation. 24
The Condemnation of Astrology
We must, however, be clear about one fact. The wild interpretations that many astrologers gave about these heavenly motions brought forth the wrath of the prophets in the Old Testament. It was the wrong use of the symbolic meanings that the Bible condemns. The abuse of such things brought forth the anger of the biblical prophets.
“Thou art wearied in the multitude of thy counsels. Let now the astrologers, the star-gazers, the monthly prognosticators, stand up, and save thee from these things that shall come upon thee.” 25
The prophets were condemning the misuse of the signs that Genesis 1:14 was speaking about. The author of the Book of Jubilees (written about 150 B.C.E.) mentioned the same thing. 26 The prophets, however, would not have censured the symbolic “teaching” associated with the celestial signs themselves. The Bible drew attention to the heavenly signs and even forecast future ones. 27 Recall that the apostle Paul himself said the voice and sound of the stars spoke a symbolic language that glorified the role of the Messiah in world affairs. 28
Astronomical Signs and History
The purpose of this book is not to plead for recognition of the symbolic veracity of these various celestial signs. As a book of history, I am only showing what was believed in the world in the 1st century. I also wish to show what is contained in the Bible that may have prompted Herod to do what he did. There can be no doubt that Herod was deeply persuaded by what the Magi from the east told him about the “star.” Since celestial signs were anticipated for the arrival of the messianic king who was to rule Israel and the world, Herod was anxious to find out what the Magi were interpreting about the heavenly signs that all were able to see from 3 to 2 B.C.E. Herod was well aware of what Moses had prophesied in Numbers 24:17. It was a prophecy involving a future star that was to arise in Israel.
“There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel.”
While Herod must have had his own court astrologers to give him celestial interpretations concerning the biblical prophecies about that important “star,” he also wanted the opinion of the respected Magi from the east who were recognized throughout the world as being top professionals in the field. Herod wanted to know their interpretations of what the spectacular stellar signs of 3 to 2 B.C.E. really entailed. Since Herod was a king, he was entitled to be initiated into the divine knowledge that the Magi were thought to have.
Astrological Interpretations Are Not Science
It must be remembered that astrological interpretations could differ widely from astrologer to astrologer. The Bible itself shows this. While the early Babylonian astrologers and soothsayers were not able to interpret the visions of Nebuchadnezzar, nor the Egyptian priests the dreams of Pharaoh, the Bible shows that Daniel and Joseph were able to do so. Daniel was even in charge of the “Magi, astrologers, Chaldeans and soothsayers” in Babylon. 29 Because the Magi who came to Herod originated in the east, Herod would have been aware of the differences in skills and interpretations of the various astrologers and he would have wanted to hear the opinions of these professionals from the east. After all, they might have had the correct evaluation from Herod’s point of view.
In the practical way that Matthew described the whole affair concerning the Magi, it is evident that these Magian priests observed a normal heavenly body ascend above the eastern horizon. It may have been seen in some kind of unusual configuration or relationship with other celestial bodies within the two-year period before they visited Herod. We now know that an 18-month period within the years 3 and 2 B.C.E. was an extraordinary one for visible astronomical occurrences. Nothing like it had happened for centuries. Since this is the very period when most early Christian scholars said Jesus was born and also the time remarkably in agreement with New Testament chronological indications, it would be prudent to focus our attention on this period. Some major points of significance will be in store for us when we do.
1 Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, 1st edition, 229.
2 The Oxford Classical Dictionary, article “Libraries,” 606, 608.
3 By the end of the 4th century all such records were in the hands of Christians.
4 Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, 1st edition, 229.
5 Luke 1:26.
6 Revelation 12:4 is an example.
7 Numbers 9:15–18.
8 Mark 14:62; Acts 22:6–11.
9 Josephus, War VI.290.
10 Genesis 1:14.
11 Genesis 37:9–10.
12 Psalm 19:3–4.
13 Romans 10:18.
14 Job 38:31.
15 2 John 13.
16 Matthew 25:1–10.
17 Matthew 24:27.
18 Malachi 4:2.
19 See also Revelation 6:1–8 where the four beasts are similarly described.
20 Numbers chapter 2.
21 Revelation 12:1–5
22 Chapter Five of this book explains this in detail.
23 James Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, I.476.
25 Isaiah 47:13.
26 Jubilee 8:1–4.
27 Luke 21:11, 25.
28 Romans 10:18.
29 Daniel 5:11.
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