On December 21, the planets Jupiter and Saturn aligned to create a bright “star” in the sky. Some speculated that the star of Bethlehem may have been this same event. I did some research a few years ago on the star, because I wondered what astrologers from “the east” would have seen that told them a new king of the Jews was born, and why Herod and his Jewish subjects didn’t see it. I’ve found what I think is a plausible explanation for it.
If it’s anything like the “star” I saw Monday night, you and I probably would have missed it, because it wasn’t particularly bright. Popular art has depicted the “star” like fifty times brighter than any other star. But then, everyone would have noticed it and come to see Jesus. The star of Bethlehem is more likely to be something only astrologers “from the East” would have seen.
A conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn happens on average about once every 20 years. But in the year 7 B.C., there were three conjunctions of the two planets. That might have got their attention. However, it looks to me like the most likely explanation is rather a conjunction of Jupiter, Venus, and a star called Regulus.
A Wikipedia article brought back most of the details for me.
- In September, 3 B.C., there was a triple conjunction of Jupiter (the “king planet”) with Regulus (the “king star”).
- In June, 2 B.C., Jupiter was in conjunction with Venus, associated with love and fertility. We don’t usually associate fertility with Jesus, but considering this came nine months after the Jupiter-Regulus conjunction, astrologers from the East might have seen the previous event as the conception, and this as the birth.
- A comet, supernova, or some other new bright “star” in the sky would have been noticed by most people in Jerusalem. However, an alignment of planets would be subtle enough that Jews would not notice, since astrology was forbidden to them. That makes this a much more likely explanation.
One problem with this theory is that Herod’s death has been dated at 4 B.C., because Josephus said it happened shortly after a lunar eclipse ( Ant. 17.6.4). However, modern physics has calculated besides 4 B.C., there were also two lunar eclipses in 1 B.C. I think a good argument can be made for the lunar eclipse of December 29, 1 BC as the one Josephus referred to. That would put the Jupiter-Regulus-Venus conjunction(s) still within the right time-frame. One question you might have now it, “How could Jesus have been born ‘Before Christ’?”
Most Experts Think Jesus Was Born B.C.
The makers of the Gregorian Calendar (the one we still use today) tried to reset the calendar with the birth of Jesus at 1 AD. But evidence came to light later that indicated they miscalculated. Most notably, Josephus reports Herod died in the time between a lunar eclipse and the following Passover ( Ant. 17.6.3–4, 9). Astronomical events like that can be dated accurately. A lunar eclipse was visible in Judea in 4 BC, and two more in 1 BC. This could give us a solid reference point, because the Gospel of Matthew says Jesus was born shortly before Herod’s death. Here is the order of events according to Matthew.
- Jesus is born in Bethlehem.
- The magi see a star that tells them a new king of the Jews has been born.
- The magi visit Herod, seeking the new king.
- The magi encounter Jesus as a child (not a baby) with his father and mother. They offer gifts they brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
- The magi return home, avoiding Herod.
- Joseph is warned to flee to Egypt with his wife and child.
- Herod orders every male child under two years old killed.
- Herod dies.
- Joseph and family return to the land of Israel, settling in Nazareth.
Herod’s death (8) in either 4 or 1 BC seems to be the most solid reference point. Matthew hints that the star (2) appeared to the magi as much as two years before the slaughter of the innocents (7). Herod’s death happened shortly after that, but we don’t know how long. If we accept June, 2 B.C., based on the magi’s observations, and the lunar eclipse of 1 B.C. as the one (how long?) before Herod died, then Jesus could have been about a year and a half when Herod died.
The visit from the magi could not have been long before that, since Herod thought the child could be as much as two years old. Maybe Jesus was about one-and-a-half, but Herod made the age limit two, just to be sure.
So this looks to me like the most plausible theory about the star of Bethlehem. Now here are a few other details around the Christmas story you might not have known.
Did You Know?
Jesus Was Not Really Born on December 25
The story of Jesus’ birth comes from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. The most relevant detail for Jesus’s birthday comes from the Gospel of Luke, which says,
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see-I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
(Luk 2:8–12 NRS)
You are probably familiar with this story of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus to some shepherds. For trying to figure out what time of year Jesus was born, the key phrase is that the shepherds were keeping watch over their flock by night. I have heard from modern shepherds who say this would place it between late February and mid-April, when they had to stay up to assist the ewes giving birth. On the other hand, if it was at the Jupiter-Venus conjunction, that would place his birthdate in June.
All of that to say no one knows exactly the day he was born.
So Why Do We Celebrate on December 25th, You Ask?
In the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine wanted to make Jesus’ birthday a holiday, no one knew exactly when it was. Devotees of a Persian deity named Mithras, who was also popular at the time, claimed his birthday was on December 25th, probably to coincide with the winter solstice. Constantine figured since no one knows when Jesus was born, why not make it the same day? He believed combining the two celebrations would help unite the people.
Now you may be wondering, why didn’t anyone record the date of his birth if he was going to be such an important person? From what I’ve seen, the date a great man was born was not necessarily important among the Jews. Do we know the birthdays of Abraham, Moses, Jacob, David, Solomon, or any of the prophets? And if you follow the trajectory of preaching about Jesus in the first century, no one seemed to think his birth was important until decades after his death. The focus of their message was on Jesus’ death, resurrection, and promised return.
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
-ancient church confession
They seemed to believe great religious figures should have some mystery surrounding them, so they would not necessarily be interested in his natural origins. Mark and John did not include birth narratives in their Gospels, because it wasn’t important to them (see also Heb 7:3).
It was only in later years, maybe around the 60’s or 70’s, that people began seriously wanting to know where and when he was born. The issue of where he was born became more pressing, because scholars insisted the Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem (Mat 2:4–6). How was Jesus of Nazareth born in Bethlehem? Luke investigated and found there was a census where Joseph had to return with a pregnant Mary to the place of his birth, which just happened to be (drum roll) Bethlehem! If he’s right, we’re good on that. Matthew also included a “birth narrative” that placed his Nativity in Bethlehem. I put birth narrative in quotes because …
… Jesus Was Probably Not a Baby When the Magi Arrived
Yes, I already told you this, but you might forget it when you look at your Nativity scene. Matthew gives us the narrative of the Magi who came from the east to pay homage to the one “born king of the Jews” (2:2). They saw a star that told them this had happened. Since they were looking for a newborn king, the palace of Herod seemed the natural place to look. They didn’t know, however, just how jealously Herod guarded his power.
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.
(Mat 2:7 NRS)
He would make an infamous order based on that information. Herod told the magi the king they seek would have to be born in Bethlehem, according to the chief priests and scribes (2:4–6). He sent them on their way and asked them let him know where the child was, so that he too could come and worship him. Yeah, right.
When the magi find Jesus, he is referred to as a “child,” not a baby (2:11; cf. Luk 2:16). The conclusion some have drawn from this is the shepherds visited the holy family the night of Jesus’ birth, but the magi arrived some time later. This is recognized in some traditions that celebrate January 6 as Epiphany or Dia de los Reyes (“Day of the Kings”). The belief is that the magi (also called “kings” or “wise men” by some) arrived twelve days after his birth. But Matthew’s account says it could have been as many as two years.
“According to the Time That He Had Learned from the Wise Men”
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
(Mat 2:16 NRS)
The magi (or “wise men”) tricked Herod, because an angel warned them in a dream not to return to him, so they went home without informing the reigning king. In the same way, Joseph received warning from an angel and fled with his wife and child to Egypt.
Herod responded with shocking cruelty. He ordered his soldiers to kill every male child up to two years of age. Herod was known to be ruthless to anyone who could threaten his position. There is some debate about whether this “slaughter of innocents” really happened. First century historian Josephus gives a lot of detail about Herod the Great, but he says nothing about this. However, Josephus tells us enough to say it is consistent with his character. He even had two of his sons killed when he suspected they were not willing to wait for him to die of natural causes. Afterwards, Emperor Augustus commented it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son, since as a Jew he would not kill a pig.
But if Jesus was a baby (newborn or less than a month old), why kill all the males under two years old? Under one, I could see. You want to be generous with your margin for error. But by the time they are two years old, they are usually walking and much bigger than a newborn. They might even be speaking a few words. You don’t need to go that far ahead to “off” a newborn baby. But remember, Matthew told us Herod asked the wise men “the exact time when the star appeared.” That is probably why he said two years or under.
The Kingdom of God vs. The Powers that Be
The shepherds and the magi saw Jesus’ birth as a cause of celebrating and worshipping God for giving the long-awaited Messiah to the world. Herod saw Jesus’ birth as a threat to his power and position. The powers of this world would be even more threatened when he became an adult and revealed himself as the Messiah. He was not like the kings of this world, who secure their power through violence, oppression, and intimidation. And he would not ally himself with such powers. He was the Messiah because he came as the prince of peace, and of the increase of his kingdom and his peace there would be no end. The shepherds and the magi, representing the lowly and the high born, both received the news with rejoicing. The ruling king of the Jews, on the other hand, saw this news as a threat to the power and position he had worked so hard to maintain.
Truly he taught us to love one another,
His law is love, and his gospel is peace.
The chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
“O Holy Night”
The power structures of the world were turned upside down, good news for those living under violence and oppression. Bad news for the oppressors. Herod is not unique. This is how the powers of this world have always reacted when they see their power threatened. Not so with Jesus. He taught his disciples greatness in his kingdom does not come through power, wealth, and military might. If you want to be great in his kingdom, you must be the servant of everyone (Mat 20:25–28; Mar 10:42–45).
It seems our world today is still ruled by Herods, even where we once thought we were safe from them. Still, the voices of the angels ring through the ages,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
(Luk 2:14 KJV)
Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen.
If you want something to read while staying at home, check out my award-winning ebook, Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain, also available in paperback. And check out other books I recommend on Biblical Fiction, Depression, and Self-Publishing. And see the Recommended tab at the top. In the category of Depression, you should check out Carrie M. Wrigley’s Your Happiness Toolkit, now available in audiobook.
Originally published at http://davidandersontheauthor.com on December 22, 2020.