Have Astronomers Found
the Star of Bethlehem?
By Bruce Gerig

The modern search for the Star of Bethlehem began with Johannes Kepler (imperial astronomer for Rudolph II of Germany), who shortly before Christmas in 1603 observed a conjunction (pairing) of Jupiter with Saturn from his observatory in Prague. That this occurred in the constellation of Pisces he thought was important as well – perhaps recalling Rabbi Isaac Abarvanel's belief, noted in his 15th-century commentary on Daniel, that not only does a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn foretell important events, but in Pisces this holds a special significance for Israel; and such an event might even foretell the coming of the Messiah. Kepler then calculated that such a conjunction in Pisces had occurred in 7 B.C., followed by Mars joining Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces, in early 6 B.C. This led him to date the conception of Mary in 7 B.C. and the birth of Christ in 6 B.C. (A conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars is unusual, occurring only once every 805 years.) Then, in October, 1604, Kepler saw an even more unusual sight: a supernova (great exploding star), that appeared out of nowhere in the sky and remained visible for a full year. (This remains the most recent supernova seen located in our galaxy.) Kepler then speculated that perhaps a supernova had also occurred at the time of Christ's birth, somehow produced by the planetary conjunctions.1

The British astronomer David Hughes, in The Star of Bethlehem (Walker and Co., New York, 1979) follows the trail from Kepler's investigation into the twentieth century – but is there any real evidence for a Nativity supernova or nova (a lesser star explosion that remains visible for a shorter period of time in the sky than a supernova)? There wasn't any – until Western scholars began to study Far Eastern astronomical records, some of which are very ancient. For example, by 2,500 B.C. Chinese stargazers had determined that a year was 365 and 1/4 days long; and they also kept detailed records of sunspots, eclipses, shooting stars (bright meteorites), comets and novas.2 Interest focused immediately on two special objects – a 5 B.C. Chinese hui-hsing and a 4 B.C. Korean po-hsing.3 A hui-hsing ("broom star") was usually a comet that displayed a tail as it swept through the sky; and a po-hsing ("bushy star") was applied to a comet or bright star that seemed to emit rays. The Chinese had a third category, k'o-hsing ("guest star"), which identified a new star, like a nova or supernova – but, using only the naked eye, many of these terms were misapplied, so that, for example, the first two terms were sometimes applied to novas or supernovas.4 Actually, supernovas (involving the explosion of a great star), that can produce light on Earth matching that of the Moon and lasting for as long as a year, are quite rare; and to be visible with the naked eye, they would have to occur in our galaxy (only four of these have been observed in the last 1,000 years).5 Since the Chinese hui-hsing of 5 B.C. was visible for only a little more than several months, this would have been a nova, not a supernova.

The first suggestion that the Star might be a nova appeared apparently in the writing of the 18th-century Jesuit missionary J.F. Foucquet, who in translating Chinese astronomical records found reference to the hui that appeared mysteriously in the sky in 5 B.C. for over 70 days. With renewed study of these Chinese records from the 1950s on, K. Lundmark (1953) was sure that the 5 B.C. object was the Star of Bethlehem, while Hugh Montefiore (1960) felt that the Magi probably connected the 7-6 B.C. conjunctions with the 5 B.C. object.6 D. Clark, J. Parkinson and R. Stephenson in their study (1977) concluded that the March 5 B.C. event was a bright nova. A.J. Morehouse (1978) noted that the Korean po should be related to a different calendar than the Chinese hui; so he dated the po as appearing on April 24, 4 B.C. The Chinese text dated the appearance of the hui only generally, in the "second month," between March 10–April 7, 5 B.C. Morehouse argued that these two events should be considered one in the same.7 Still, Hughes did not feel that this bright nova could be the Star of Bethlehem, because novas lacked the astrological significance that planetary movements and conjunctions held for the ancients.8 The Star could not be a comet, since the ancients viewed comets as signs of impending calamity and displeasure from the gods.9 Two meteorites or two fireballs (to account for both Matt 2:2 and 2:9) are also out of the question, since such are only visible for 5-10 seconds; and ancient astrologers accorded no special meaning to them.10

Recently a new theory of the Star appeared in Michael Molnar's The Star of Bethlehem (Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 1999). Molnar, an astronomer at Rutgers, proposed that the Star related to an occultation (eclipse) of Jupiter by the Moon that occurred in the constellation of Aries, on April 17, in 6 B.C.11 Molnar's search for the Star of Bethlehem started with a coin he found, issued in 55 A.D. (called the "Antioch coin"), that shows a ram turning its head to look at a bright star next to a crescent Moon.12 In Greco-Roman astrology, the ram connected with Aries, the constellation of the Ram, which rules over Palestine and was associated with the Jews. The star represented Jupiter coming together with the Moon in an occultation (eclipse), which the Romans viewed as a symbol of majesty and sovereignty. This coin was issued actually to honor Nero's ascent as emperor of the Roman Empire in 54; and the Ram reflected prophecies that some astrologers had made earlier, saying that Nero would rise up as a monarch in the Near East (Aries), some of them even mentioning Jerusalem.

So, the symbolism here of Jupiter (a royal sign), Aries (related to the Jews), and a lunar eclipse of Jupiter (majesty and sovereignty) is clear. Although there were four lunar eclipses of Jupiter in 6 B.C., Molnar became increasingly convinced that, in particular, the event on April 17, 6 B.C. – which included a lunar occultation of Jupiter at its heliacal rising (appearing in the eastern sky before dawn) – was the Star of Bethlehem.13 Scholars had already noted that en te anatolai (in the plural) in the Greek should be translated as "in the east" (see Matt 2:1), while en te anatole (in the singular) had a special astrological meaning: "at the rising," referring to a heliacal rising, when a morning star appears on the horizon in the early dawn before sunrise.14 So, "we have seen his star in the East" (Matt 2:2) in the New King James Version was translated as "we observed his star at its rising" in the New Revised Standard Version.

Molnar also claims that the reference to the Star "stopping" over Bethlehem refers to when Jupiter stopped and appeared stationary in the sky (moving in perfect synch with the Earth's eastward turn) – which happened first in the constellation of Taurus on August 23, 6 B.C. (lasting a week) and then in the constellation of Aries on December 19, 6 B.C. This second stop in movement across the sky, Molnar proposes, is what Matthew 2:9 refers to as: "and the star … stopped over the place where the child was. [NIV]"15

The same year that Molnar's book appeared, Mark Kidger published a new review of relevant data in his The Star of Bethlehem (Princeton University Press, 1999). Kidger, an astronomer at Spain's Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias, in the Canary Islands (off the NW coast of Africa), is still convinced that the Star was a bright nova. He says any explanation, to be viable, must meet six criteria: (1) It must have occurred around 6-5 B.C., when Jesus was born. (2) It must have been a singular, special or spectacular event. (3) It must have been a rare event. (4) It must have had special astrological meaning for the Magi. (5) It must have occurred in the east. (6) It must have endured for some time.16

Kidger has reservations about Molnar's theory of a lunar occultation of Jupiter being the Star of Bethlehem. There were actually four such eclipses of Jupiter in 6 B.C: The February 20 eclipse would not have been visible in Babylon or Jerusalem. The March 20 eclipse would have been technically visible in Jerusalem (not Babylon or farther east), but it would actually have been obscured by bright sunlight. The April 17 eclipse (Molnar's Star of Bethlehem) would also have been difficult to see with the naked eye, because the thin crescent Moon was about a day and a half from New Moon when it occulted Jupiter. (Molnar notes this, but still thinks the Magi would have charted this and found it to be very important.) Finally, the May 15 eclipse would not have been visible either in Babylon or Jerusalem.17 Kidger does not believe that any of these events nor the near-invisible lunar occultation of Jupiter on April 17 would have been significant enough to bring the Magi to Jerusalem. It may have signified a rebirth, but it would not have been regarded as a great sign or a great star.18

Kidger believes that the Star must have been a really bright nova, with special attention drawn to it by the striking heavenly signs that preceded it. The whole sequence included: (1) three conjunctions (pairings) of Jupiter and Saturn, in the zodiacal region of Pisces, in 7 B.C.; (2) Jupiter and Saturn then joined by Mars in Pisces, in early 6 B.C.; (3) two pairings in Pisces on February 20, 5 B.C., of Jupiter with the Moon and of Mars with Saturn; and finally (4) a bright, unexpected nova – the object observed by the Chinese and Koreans in Aquila/Capricornus in the spring of 5 (or 4) B.C. – which most astronomers now assume to be one and the same event. If Christ was born in March, 5 B.C., then Kidger states, "It is hard to believe, in this case, that we need look any further for the Star of Bethlehem."19 But what did the Magi see, more precisely?

The first sign was a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, in 7 B.C. On May 29, the two planets passed a degree apart in the constellation of Pisces – a sight the Magi had seen many times before and so it probably was not too exciting. Nonetheless, they viewed Jupiter as a royal planet and Pisces as a constellation associated with the Jews. Then, on September 29, the two planets came together again in Pisces, moving in opposite directions but close by each other in the sky, separated by a distance a little larger than on May 29. A third time, on December 4, the planets converged again, separated by more than a degree from north to south. So three times in eight months, the royal planet and Saturn had met in the Jew's constellation. But what was the significance of Saturn? Herod was an old man now, hanging on to life; and perhaps Saturn, regarded as an evil planet, pointed to the demise of this detested puppet leader of Judea. The Magi must have pondered the significance of all this.20

The second sign was a massing of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars in Pisces, in February, 6 B.C. As Jupiter and Saturn slipped down in the evening sky toward the horizon in February, 6 B.C., the Maji noticed Mars entering the constellation of Pisces and coming toward Jupiter and Saturn, until it was separated by only 8 degrees in the sky. Although this was not a particularly spectacular event visually, it would have had tremendous astrological significance, since Mars, the blood-colored planet, was a sign of conquest. Could it be that a great world ruler was soon to arise from among the Jews, who would challenge even Rome?21

The third sign was two conjunctions in Pisces, on February 20, 5 B.C. On the evening of February 20, 5 B.C., the two-day-old Moon passed very close to Jupiter, so that astrologers saw a pairing of Jupiter and the Moon – and also slightly to the east a second pairing of Mars and Saturn. From all the signs they had seen, the Magi could have reasoned that a great, benevolent ruler (Jupiter) was surely to arise soon from Judea (Pisces), to challenge a tyrannical ruler (Saturn) in the Roman Empire by use of the sword (Mars). Perhaps they had heard of Balaam's Messianic prophecy: "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near – a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the borderlands of Moab, and the territory of all the Shethites" (Num 24:17, NRSV), along with all of Israel's enemies (v. 18-24). Still, the astrologers would have wondered, When exactly is this going to happen? They would have kept looking for another, the definitive sign. Although there is no surviving reference to these events in Babylonian astronomical records, this may be a "false trail," since we know that these surviving records are fragmentary.22

The fourth and final sign was a really bright nova, that appeared in March-April, 5 B.C. This startling "new star" blazed over the border between the constellations of Capricornus and Aquila, first seen in the eastern sky in the earliest light of dawn. The Chinese records suggest that it was quite bright, even very bright. This unexpected star must have told the Magi that now, indeed, the royal birth had occurred.23 A bright nova occurs approximately every 25 years, and by itself it might not have drawn much attention. But a really bright nova would have been a spectacular event and, lasting the extended period of time recorded by the Chinese, would occur only once every 150-200 years. The reason the Chinese and Korean sightings are considered to be one and the same is that the probability of two such bright novas occurring within 1-2 years of each other carries an almost non-existent probability of 1/10,000. The whole sequence of related astronomical events that we see here preceding the birth of Christ could only happen about every 2,000 years.24 Anyway, for the Maji the last piece of the puzzle was in place, and now they had to act. The logical destination, without a doubt, was Jerusalem, capital of the Jewish world.25

A week or two would have sufficed to prepare for the journey. Kidger believes that the Magi traveled 540 miles, from Babylon to Jerusalem, coming straight across the desert. Every day they would rise before dawn and ride through the morning, then retire to their tents to rest during the scorching heat, then rise again in the late afternoon to travel some more. This way they could preserve their precious supply of water. Even traveling 6 hours a day at the most comfortable rate, they would have reached Jerusalem in 7 weeks. But, in a hurry to get there, they could made the trip in just 4 weeks.26 However, this direct route would have required carrying a huge supply of water – and Hughes is more realistic when he suggests that, instead, the Magi's caravan followed the normal travel route up the Euphrates River, then across to Damascus, then southward to Palestine and Jerusalem – in other words, traveling from oasis to oasis, from watered place to watered place.27

Kidger thinks that the Magi came from Persia, a journey that would have been more difficult and would have taken more time – if, say, they came from Ecbatana or Susa, two of the three great cities in the Parthian (Persian) Empire, besides Babylon.28 They would have had to cross the Zagros Mountains before reaching the fertile plain of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers; and this would have made it more difficult (but not impossible) for the Magi to arrive within the 70 days plus period of visibility for the nova seen by the Chinese and Koreans.29 The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia reports that camels can carry loads of 500-1,000 pounds each and travel for three days without water, and still cover 25 miles a day.30 Following the Euphrates route, a caravan from Babylon could have traveled the 700 miles needed and reached Jerusalem in 47 days (traveling at 15 m.p.h.); and from Ecbatana or Susa it could have traveled the 900 miles needed and reached Jerusalem in 60 days (traveling at 15 m.p.h.) – so Magi from any of these cities could have traveled to Jerusalem within the 70+ day limit.

Certainly the curious Herod would have received his important foreign visitors without delay; and after a week of comfortable rest, replenishing of supplies, and diplomacy with Herod, the Magi would have set off for Bethlehem. One interesting aspect of Kidger's scenario is that the Star (bright nova), which at first they saw in the east at dawn, would have risen an hour earlier every two weeks until it was almost exactly due south at dawn. So when the Magi set out for Bethlehem, traveling south from Jerusalem, they would have once again seen the Star before them, appearing like it "hovered" right above Bethlehem. Some have suggested that the Magi lost track of the Star for a time – and this probably was true, since once a month when the Moon passed through the constellation of Capricornus, its brightness might have made it impossible to see the Star with the naked eye for several days to a week. Also, with the Full Moon every month, all but the brightest stars in the sky "disappear" from view. And also, by the time the Magi reached Bethlehem, the nova might have started to fade.31

For those who seek a purely scientific explanation for the Star of Bethlehem, "this combination of events, culminating with a bright star, is compelling…" Yet, also, who can say that such a progression of astronomical phenomena climaxed with a very bright nova, right at the time of Jesus' birth, was not also "indeed miraculous."32

But can we solve more specifically any of the other mysteries related to the dating of Christ's birth and its surrounding events? First, why wasn't Jesus born in the year 0, if the new Gregorian calendar, ordered by Gregory XIII (pope 1572-85) to correct a ten-day error that had occurred under the old Roman Julian calendar, was to have started with the year of Christ's birth? The problem is that Dionysius Exiguus ("the Little One" - a title of humility this Scythian monk assumed to distinguish himself from the famous St. Dionysius of the 3rd century) incorrectly figured both the day and year of Christ's birth. He made two errors, (1) forgetting to include a year zero and (2) forgetting to include the initial four-year period during which Augustus ruled under his given name, Octavianus (Octavius). So, Dionysius' dating was off by a total of 5 years.33

Contemporary records (Josephus) tell us that Herod died shortly after an eclipse of the Moon visible in Palestine (occurring on March 13, 4 B.C.), but before the feast of Passover (occurring on April 10, 4 B.C.).34 Clearly Christ could not have been born on April 24, 4 B.C., the date Morehouse assigned to the Korean po-hsing, which falls too late. We therefore can assume that Christ was born sometime in March, 5 B.C., when the Chinese hui-hsing was first sighted (sometime between March 10–April 7, 5 B.C.), marking that event. Then, also, we can propose that: (1) Gabriel appeared to Mary and she conceived in August, 6 B.C. (2) Since Mary had to wait 41 days before offering a sacrifice for her "uncleanness" (from the birth of a son), the family probably visited the Temple in Jerusalem in late April, 5 B.C. (3) Requiring some 47-60 days to travel from the East to Palestine, following Jesus' birth and the appearance of the bright nova, the Magi must have arrived at Jerusalem and Bethlehem to visit the new king in May, 5 B.C. Immediately, thereafter, Joseph fled with Mary and the Child to Egypt. (4) Because they did not return to Palestine until after Herod's death, Joseph and his family must have stayed in Egypt for around 10 months, before returning to Nazareth, perhaps in late March, 4 B.C., after Herod's death – Jesus now being around one year old.

 

FOOTNOTES:  1. Hughes, p. 96-97,100.    2. Hughes, p. 148.    3. Hughes, p. 53.    4. Kidger, p. 232-33.     5. Kidger, p. 139,157-65.    6. Hughes, p. 158.    7. Hughes, p. 160-1.    8. Hughes, p. 157.    9. Hughes, p. 140.    10. Hughes, p. 169-70; Kidger, p. 111.    11. Molnar, p. 86.     12. Molnar, fig. 26, p. 111.    13. Molnar, p. 109-16.     14. Molnar, p. 87.    15. Molnar, p. 89,93-96.     16. Kidger, p. 248.    17. Kidger, p. 107.     18. Kidger, p. 249.    19. Kidger, p. 253.     20. Kidger, p. 255-56.    21. Kidger, p. 257.    22. Kidger, p. 257-58.    23. Kidger, p. 260.    24. Kidger, p. 263.    25. Kidger, p. 260.    26. Kidger, p. 260.    27. Hughes, p. 41.    28. Hayden, R.E., "Persia," ISBE, III(1986),779.     29. Kidger, p. 261.    30. Dorsey, D.A., "Travel; Transportation," ISBE IV(1988),896.    31. Kidger, p. 261-63.    32. Kidger, p. 266.    33. Kidger, p. 43-45.    34. Kidger, p. 46-49.

REFERENCES: See main article, "Mysteries of Christmas".

TRANSLATIONS: See main article, "Mysteries of Christmas"

 

© 2003 Bruce Gerig


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