The story of the Star of Bethlehem fascinates our secular society. At Christmas, cards and manger scenes display it, planetariums feature special presentations on it, and department stores use it in their advertising. Many websites are devoted to it. Yet, anyone wishing to understand it better will have difficulty finding a good explanation of what the star was and what it means in its context. The Star of Bethlehem: Science, History and Meaning fills this need, and does so in an innovative way.
The book leads the modern reader on a voyage to ancient Babylon, Israel and Greece to learn how the people of these ancient lands understood stars, and how they sought to draw meaning from them. We discover from them that the Star of Bethlehem is to be found not in what we might find spectacular, but rather in what they found auspicious. Most auspicious for them were the complex motions of the moon and planets.
The Star of Bethlehem equips the modern reader to hear the story just as its first audience would have heard and understood it. To do this, the book calls upon the reader to join a group assembled to hear the Gospel of Matthew somewhere in the Roman Empire toward the end of the first century. It provides detail on how Matthew constructed his gospel, how first century people understood stars, the role of stars in the Bible, and most importantly how stars functioned in early Christianity’s understanding of the mission of the Messiah. The book closes with a retelling of the story in modern terms.
Here is a list of chapters, including some summaries and extracts from the book:
For the eastern dignitaries, the celestial sign meant the child was king of the Jews. The old ruler feared the Star showed a rival for his throne. The evangelist Matthew believed the Star showed the child would bring the present world order to an end, and usher in the Kingdom of God. Listen as Matthew recounts the story:
Jesus was born at Bethlehem in Judaea during the reign of Herod. After his birth astrologers from the east arrived in Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We observed the rising of his star, and we have come to pay him homage.’ King Herod was greatly perturbed when he heard this, and so was the whole of Jerusalem. He called together the chief priests and scribes of the Jews, and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. ‘At Bethlehem in Judaea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet wrote: “Bethlehem in the land of Judah, you are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a ruler to be the shepherd of my people Israel.”’
Then Herod summoned the astrologers to meet him secretly, and ascertained from them the exact time when the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, and said, ‘Go and make a careful search for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, so that I may go myself and pay him homage.’
After hearing what the king had to say they set out; there before them was the star they had seen rising, and it went ahead of them until it stopped above the place where the child lay. They were overjoyed at the sight of it and, entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother and bowed low in homage to him; they opened their treasure chests and presented gifts to him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then they returned to their own country by another route, for they had been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod.
After they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother and escape with them to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’ So Joseph got up, took mother and child by night, and sought refuge with them in Egypt, where he stayed till Herod’s death. This was to fulfil what the Lord had declared through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
When Herod realized that the astrologers had tricked him he flew into a rage, and gave orders for the massacre of all the boys aged two years or under, in Bethlehem and throughout the whole district, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the astrologers. So the words spoken through Jeremiah the prophet were fulfilled: ‘A voice was heard in Rama, sobbing in bitter grief; it was Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted, because they were no more.’
After Herod’s death an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said to him, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who threatened the child’s life are dead.’ So he got up, took mother and child with him, and came to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus had succeeded his father Herod as king of Judaea, he was afraid to go there. Directed by a dream, he withdrew to the region of Galilee, where he settled in a town called Nazareth. This was to fulfil the words spoken through the prophets: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’
(Matthew 2, The Revised English Bible; this version has “astrologers” where many translations retain the original “Magi.”)
What mysterious celestial sign riveted astrologers’ attention, perturbed a king, and upset the whole of Jerusalem? Only a voyage into the strange and foreign world of the ancient Magi can give a reasonable answer to this question. And what did the Star mean to Matthew the evangelist and those who first read his gospel? Only by entering into their world can we grasp their answer to the meaning of the Star.
The world of the past is a strange place, much stranger than we often suppose. Yet, to find the Star of Bethlehem, and even more so, to understand the Star once we have found it, we must travel in our imagination to this strange world. Stepping into a realm as different and foreign as that of the Babylonians, the ancient Greeks, of the Magi or of Matthew the evangelist, is exotic, exciting and just a little unsettling. This book will call upon the reader to enter into a world where much of what is familiar and reassuring simply does not exist.
Imagine no internet, no television, and no radio. Imagine no cars, buses or trains. Imagine night with no electric lights. Imagine not only no internet, television, radio or electric lights, but probably also no books, as only the rich owned books in antiquity. And if this gives a headache, imagine the pain with no Aspirin or Tylenol.
The world this book will invite the reader to visit is, however, much stranger even than what has been suggested so far. Try now to conceive of a world without the music of Bach or the Beatles, the science of Newton, the logical order of Descartes. This may seem less difficult than not having the physical things mentioned in the last paragraph. In reality, however, it might be much easier to live without many of our modern conveniences than it would be to live without the order brought to our thinking by the modern way of seeing the world. For without modern ideas, the whole natural order of the world looks different. Before Newton, apples still fell down, but society did not have the idea of universal gravitation. Apples fell down because it was their nature to go down, while stars did not fall because their nature was different. Much of the structure of modern science that makes us sure of the way things are, could not be imagined in the time this book will invite the reader to visit.
The voyage into history proposed here will not be a mere sight-seeing trip. Quite to the contrary, it will have two clear goals: to learn the identity of the Star, and then discover its meaning. This introductory chapter will briefly outline the method used in this book to seek the identity of the Star, and to search for the meaning of the Star. Finally, this introductory chapter will note some legitimate questions that will remain unanswered by this book.
The Identity of the Star
Supernova? Comet? Conjunction? The first half of this book will look at these and other celestial candidates for the Star. The modern scientific understanding of each of these will be the first order of business. Once understood from a modern point of view, the reader will be invited to take the initial step into the past: the records of ancient peoples will be searched to find out which, if any, of these celestial candidates actually occurred at the right time to be the Star of Bethlehem. Just reading ancient annals, however, is far from being enough to find the Star. The reader will have to learn the mind of the ancient people who wrote these annals. To do this, several chapters will be devoted to piercing the mystery of ancient Babylon, ancient Greece and ancient Israel, and to uncovering the true identity of the Magi. The quest will not be in vain: the first section will close by identifying what the Star of Bethlehem may have been.
The Meaning of the Star
The Star had only one identity, but many interpretations. To the whole Western world the Star means Christmas. It stands above the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping and gives that frantic period a deeper meaning. To the Magi, two thousand years ago, it announced the birth of the king of the Jews. To Herod it meant the birth of the Messiah. The Gospel of Matthew sets the Star in a story with a deeper significance only to be grasped, if at all, by reading the whole gospel.
Many of these understandings of the Star are important and valid. This book chooses to look for one historical meaning. The Magi’s interpretation will not retain our attention. An understanding which announces Jesus as a newborn monarch does not do justice to the importance of Jesus. Herod’s opinion that the Star announced the Messiah is more interesting. More interesting still is Matthew’s view. This study chooses something close to Matthew’s view. It chooses to pursue the meaning which Matthew sought to awaken in the minds of those who first heard or read his gospel.
In the second part of this book, the reader will be invited on an imaginary journey to a house somewhere in the Roman Empire, some time near the end of the first century, to listen with a group of early Christian believers to a reading of the Gospel of Matthew. So that we may learn to think and understand like those ancient Christians, the book will devote sections to common religious ideas of the time, how Matthew wrote his gospel, and how the Bible and early Christian traditions speak of stars. With this background, the book may approach its goal of bringing the modern reader to understand the Star as Matthew wished his first audience to understand the Star.
Questions Not Answered in This Book
Not all theories of the Star are discussed in this book. In the story, the Star announced the birth of Jesus to the Magi, and Herod the Great interviewed the Magi. So, any theory which puts the appearance of the Star after the likely date of Herod’s death will not be discussed in this book. Chapter two will be devoted to the problem of dating the Star’s appearance.
This book cannot prove that Matthew’s story of the Star is historical. It is possible the Star is not historical, and the story arose in the early Christian community. Specific theories on how the story might have developed in the Christian community are generally more speculative than those which deal with stars, and they are beyond the competence and methods of this book. We will thus touch only briefly on such theories.
This book’s second question, “What did the Star mean?” could raise the problem of the sense of “meaning.” Meaning is a slippery concept. Does the Star mean what the Magi thought it meant, or what Herod thought it meant, or what Matthew thought it meant, or what a reader of the story thinks it means? Does the Star mean what a Christmas card illustrator thinks it means when she draws a beautiful card, or what an advertiser means when he uses it in a commercial for some consumer item proposed as the perfect Christmas gift? And where does meaning reside: in the mind of the Magi, or the mind of someone telling the story, or does it lie in the story itself? Or is meaning what happens in the mind of the reader when he or she reads the story?
The problem of the nature and place of meaning is important, but this is not the place to deal with it. This book will not delve into metaphysical questions of how meaning is created, or where it lies. This study has chosen to assume that Matthew had a certain understanding of the story of the Star of Bethlehem, and wished to awaken a particular understanding in the minds of his first hearers or readers. This is the “meaning” which will be sought in the second half of the book.
The implied use of astrology in the story of the Star of Bethlehem does not seem to have bothered Matthew or his first audience. The chapters on the understanding of stars in the ancient world and in the Bible, if they are successful, will show clearly why the presence of a star and astrology did not upset Matthew and his readers. Within a few centuries, however, the story did create a religious problem for some of the leaders of the church in their opposition to astrology. This book is concerned only with the meaning of stars in Matthew’s background, and of the Star in Matthew’s story. The later debates on astrology are beyond Matthew’s story of the Star and thus beyond the scope of this book.
“We observed the rising of his star.” With these words the Magi recount how the adventure began for them. They knew the identity of the Star. Chapter one investigates the most spectacular of the modern theories for the Star: a supernova. To supernovas we now turn.
No surviving Babylonian tablet records the explosion of a supernova. No writer in Greek or Latin has described a supernova at the time of Jesus’ birth. The Chinese astronomical records are the most complete from ancient times, so complete that every single appearance of Halley’s Comet since 87 B.C. has been recorded in the Chinese annals! No object resembling a supernova was recorded by the Chinese any time near the birth of Jesus.
The silence of the records is eloquent. The Star of Bethlehem was not a supernova.
Chapter Three: Was the Star of Bethlehem a Comet?
“Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens and make a name for ourselves…” (Genesis 11:4)
And make a name for themselves they did:
Babylon the Great.
Babylon’s true greatness lay not in its empires but in its commerce, religion, culture and science. Its computational mathematics was the admiration of the ancient world. For over six hundred years Babylonian scribes made careful observations of the sky, and devised two mathematical systems for predicting the positions of the moon and the planets. Though the city lay largely in ruins at the time of Jesus’ birth, astronomers there still calculated the future positions of the planets and recorded those predictions on cuneiform tablets. Of the many tablets which remain to this day, four cover the period of the Star of Bethlehem and may contain the clue to its identity.
Chapter Six: Astrology in Ancient Babylonia
Chapter Seven: Astrology Comes to the Greek World
Chapter Eight: The Path of the Planets, the Music of the Spheres
Chapter Nine: Candidate for the Star: Jupiter Occulted by the Moon
Chapter Ten: Babylonian Astrology and Parthian Magi
Chapter Eleven: Candidate for the Star: Jupiter Takes the Hand of Saturn
Chapter Twelve: Three Points of Agreement in the First Century
Chapter Thirteen: Stars in the Bible
Chapter Fourteen: The Gospel of Matthew Prepared for Its First Audience
Chapter Fifteen: The Gospel of Matthew and the Star’s Knowledge
An angel appeared to shepherds in the field announcing to them that “unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour…” So Luke recounts the day of Jesus’ birth, painting a scene which has inspired music, art and plays for two thousand years. Luke and Matthew’s stories are written from a very different point of view, and Luke’s account deals with the day of Jesus’ birth while Matthew’s story seems to be set about a year and half later. Furthermore, Luke never mentions the Star. Luke’s account nevertheless, like Matthew’s, says that a celestial being gave information about Jesus’ birth to chosen humans.
While travelling as a prisoner to Rome to be torn apart by the lions, Ignatius wrote a letter to the church in Ephesus in which he speaks of the Star. His is the second oldest account of the Star, written during the reign of Trajan (A.D. 98-117). While Matthew tells the story of the Star as seen from the earth, Ignatius recounts how the Star revealed the birth of Jesus to the astrological powers in the sky. Ignatius in his letter confirms the astrological setting of the story of the Star and links Jesus’ birth to certain signs of the coming of God’s kingdom. Ignatius sees the birth of Jesus as the appearing of God as a human being.
Herod never let events overtake him, but rather turned them to his advantage. If a new king had been born, he wanted to know who, when and where. He gathered the Jewish leaders together and asked where the Messiah was to be born. In one of those strange but frequent contradictions, Herod, who flouted the laws of the Scriptures in his private conduct, nevertheless believed the Scriptures. On the basis of those ancient writings, the leaders told Herod that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. He would strike quickly and not let this potential rival be used by his enemies.
If the Magi had presented Herod with a new problem in the form of a potential rival to the throne, they might also, he reasoned, have presented him with the solution to his problem. His own agents, he knew, would have trouble in searching for the Messiah. His subjects would know why Herod was looking for the Messiah, and what he would do with the child if he found him. Few would willingly give information to anyone suspected of being his agent. But Parthian Magi were different. No one would ever suspect them of being his agents. So, he reasoned, if he could trick them into working as his agents, then he could find the child. He acted quickly.
Herod’s spies of course knew exactly where the Parthian Magi were to be found. Herod summoned them in secret. In the middle of the night a knock on the door of the inn awakened Arshak. He and Farnah were invited—was it an invitation when the men inviting them carried swords?—to meet King Herod. The rather nervous Magi met Herod at a small house which was clearly not his palace, but was nonetheless very well guarded. There Arshak and Farnah were the sole audience to Herod’s famous oratorical magic.
The devious Herod held out at great length that he had turned from his impious ways and now served the God of Israel. He told them that the child just born was the Messiah. Now that he had advanced in age and wisdom, he wished to redeem himself, and go down in history as a just king who had prepared the way for the Messiah and the full restoration of his people.
The amazed Magi began to believe his protestations. Perhaps it was true. Furthermore, he gave them the one piece of information they still lacked. He told them that the Scriptures foretold that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. Herod then praised the wonder and accuracy of Babylonian learning. He drew them into a long discussion of how the Lord Marduk revealed his will to his servants through the stars. He surprised and deceived them with his knowledge of Marduk’s star, and Saturn, the star of the king. Herod inquired in detail about the signs of the stars until he found the one piece of information he needed: the period of time during which the omen had been appearing. In their long and complicated discussions, the vital information at last came out: Farnah let out that the omen’s appearing had begun about a year and a half before.
This was the information Herod was seeking. The farce did not continue long after Herod learned the time of the star’s appearance. He assured them in his most pious voice of his desire to pay homage to the new king. “Honour this Messiah, and come back to me with a full report on him. I will see to his future.” With that, he brought his performance to an end, sending them to Bethlehem with orders to make a careful search for the child, and, if they found him, to bring him news of the newborn king. Herod gave them a scroll, written in both Aramaic and Greek, with his own seal, confirming their authority for the search.
By the time the armed guards had returned them to their inn, the night had run its course and the first light was dawning. They did not awaken the elderly Lord Ariobarzan, who had found their long voyage very hard. They took only a few servants and with the rich gifts set out immediately for Bethlehem.
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