This blog posting, very timely for Christmas, is different. I encourage you to read this astronomical explanation of the “bright star” that led the three wise men to Jesus shortly after he was born. It certainly puts a different and very interesting twist on story of the Magi that we have all heard.
A friend, who has a strong interest in astronomy, told me of an interesting blog posting he had seen in recent years but he could not now find. It involved an astronomical explanation of a well-known Biblical story involving the birth of Christ. The author was Norman George Purves, a college instructor in physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii. Unfortunately, he passed recently and the posting disappeared. My friend was able to obtain a copy of an earlier version of his explanation, posted here with permission of the author’s widow.
To set the background for the following explanation, computer software—such as the Starry Night Pro software (by Simulation Curriculum) used to create the images below of the night sky—enable a visual examination of the night sky from any location on the Earth at any point in time—past, present, or future. As mentioned, Mr. Purves was an instructor in astronomy. He used his expertise, research into how the heavens were viewed in ancient times, and the Starry Night Pro computer software to develop this explanation, as he wrote it, of the Story of the Magi. In reading this, recall that Venus signifies fertility.
“When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the King, behold, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and we are come to worship him.” – Matthew 2:1
Who were these “wise men”? The Wise Men were moved by something they saw in the sky; something that told them that a king was to be born to the Jews. The derivation of signs in the sky, in order to predict the future, the study of astrology, was a common practice at the time in the Hellenistic culture of the Roman Empire and the surrounding states. That the Magi were set into motion by a sign in the sky suggests that they were astrologers.
Where did they live? Judea was the eastern edge of the Roman Empire; to the East was Parthia, modern-day Iraq and Iran, a kingdom ruled by the descendants of the Diadochi, the successors of Alexander the Great. Although Parthia occupied what had been the Persian Empire, its rulers were Greek, and they would have, like all Greek rulers, have made extensive use of astrology to assist them. Parthian astrologers would have been among the best, the most conscientious in making and interpreting their observations of the sky. Their system would have been that of Greek astrology, which had also been adopted by the Romans. The planets, constellations, and stars they watched would have had Greek names, rather than the Roman ones with which we are familiar, but they would have been more or less the same as the ones we recognize today.
What star was it that they saw, that moved them to travel to Judea in order to worship a foreign king? We cannot be sure of any answers to these questions, after two thousand years, but we can apply what is known, and we can make a few deductions.
Astrologers of the time would have possessed some “modern” knowledge: they would have known, for example, that the Earth is round. They would not have known the planets as worlds, as we do now, but as special stars that wandered about in the sky. (“Planetes”, is Greek for “wanderer”) They would have used the Ptolemaic concept, that the sky and all its contents revolved above the Earth, and planets moved in certain orbits around Earth. This theory enabled astrologers to make rough predictions of the planets’ positions. The most important events in the sky would be conjunctions, the close approach of planets to one another as they moved across the sky. The Ptolemaic theory gave them advance notice of when a conjunction would occur, and observation of the event would provide exact details; how close the planets came to one another, and the exact location in the sky, would determine what event was presaged; these had to be observed. The Ptolemaic model was not accurate enough to supply exact details.
How Parthian astrologers would have interpreted the signs in the sky is unknown in detail. The mythology of the Hellenistic world was that of the Classical Greek religion, and Hellenistic astrology used this mythology, so we can make some informed guesses as to what the signs in the sky revealed to those who watched the sky.
But we can know one thing: we can determine, for certain, what it was that they saw. Our knowledge of the motions of the planets makes it possible for us to predict the positions of planets into the future- but we can also determine positions in the past. We can see the sky as they saw it, 2000 years ago.
What follows is a work of fiction: but the appearance of planets and stars at the indicated times and places is authentic. These are the views of the sky that astrologers of the time would have actually seen.
In mid-Spring, in the year 4 BCE by our modern calendar, Parthian astrologers were carefully watching the planet Venus, which was expected to come into conjunction with the planet Mars. On May 17, 4BCE, this is what the astrologers of the court of the King of Parthia, located at Persepolis, the Parthian Capital, would have seen, looking East, at 7:25 PM, about a half-hour after sunset:
The astrologers were excited: this is an extremely close conjunction! It appears as if Mars will come even closer to Venus in another day: there are sure to be many faces turned west-by-northwest at sunset tomorrow! Certainly this sign presages an important event!
Clear weather the next evening would have presented our wise men with this sight:
Venus and Mars have joined! A Perfect Conjunction! Two different stars have come together to make a single star! This has never been observed in the lifetime of any person! It is certainly an event of great significance, but what does it portend? The astrologers reported to the King Of Parthia:
The conjunction of Venus with Mars signifies a birth. The closeness of the conjunction indicates the birth is to be of a great person. The location of the conjunction, in the constellation of The Twins, the Stars of Rome, near to the constellation of The Bull, the Stars of Parthia, points to this birth occurring in Roman land, close to the border with Parthia.
The astrologers were ordered to watch for further signs of an event that was to occur so close to the Parthian King’s domain. They kept a close watch on Venus. A Conjunction between Venus and Saturn was expected thirteen months later. As the two planets approached one another, attention focused on the eastern horizon. By late Spring, the conjunction was under way:
Venus still approaches Saturn: another night will tell the tale. The next rising of Venus would be greeted with silence, awe and reverence. Instead the next rising of Venus stirred a furor:
It had happened again! Another perfect conjunction, this time between Venus and Saturn. And the timing: It was exactly the hour of the new moon! The king would have had his report very shortly:
Another perfect conjunction, now between Venus and Saturn, has occurred near Aldebaran, the Star of the Semites. This sign appeared at the hour of the New Moon. The perfection of the union between the two connects this sign with that of the previous perfect conjunction of Venus with Mars. The second sign appearing at the hour of the New Moon tells the great influence of the birth foretold in the first sign.
The great birth foretold in the first sign will be that of a great king, whose life will begin a new age. He will be born in that portion of the Roman Empire peopled by Semites.
Only in Syria and Judea are there Semites under Roman Rule. Judea is ruled on behalf of Rome by the Parthian King’s enemy, Herod The Edomite. Herod The Murderer.
The watch over Venus continued. A conjunction with Jupiter is expected later in the summer. The rising of Venus on the morning of Aug. 11, 3BCE showed that a third perfect conjunction had occurred:
When Venus had risen the previous morning, Jupiter had been seen below: now it was above. The perfect conjunction had happened 6 hours before. At the moment of conjunction, the planets appeared to be beneath the Earth, below a point to the west-south-west. Perhaps somewhere in Judea.
The phenomenon hadn’t gone unnoticed: the Star Of The East was a common topic of conversation. Not in anyone’s memory have stars joined in this way. Now it had happened three times! Thousands of eyes watched Venus. Later in August Venus came into conjunction with Mercury: not a perfect conjunction this time, but close enough to convince knowledgeable persons that whatever was about to happen, would happen soon. That powerful signs had appeared in the sky was common knowledge- but for the correct interpretation of the signs, the King of Parthia relied on his Wise Men, his astrologers.
A third perfect conjunction has occurred between Venus and Jupiter. This third sign reveals that a powerful god will manifest himself in the birth foretold in the first two signs. The birth will occur to the West, in Judea. The new king will be of royal line, and his descendants will rule in glory. The birth is to occur soon. Further signs are expected.
The last point was disputed among the Wise men. But some noted a conjunction expected between Venus, Mars, and Saturn early in the coming Spring. The King and his Wise men observed the sky after sunset on April 3, 2BCE:
The portent was clear to all. Like an arrow pointing to the West, the triple conjunction was another sign.
The King’s thoughts turned to his predecessor, Alexander The Great. Were there not signs in the sky at his birth? If another Great One is to be born, would it not be prudent to offer Royal Respect?
The birth is to occur in Roman territory- in Herod’s lands. Herod is too old to have any more children of his own, and he has murdered two of his own sons. Is this birth to occur in Herod’s House? If a descendant of Herod’s is to be the new Alexander, I need to know this at once.
The King dispatched one of the Wise Men, and his several assistants, to Jerusalem, as envoys to King Herod, with instructions to watch for further signs, in the sky and on the ground (especially in the Court of Herod), and to be in the place of the expected event. They set out at once.
“When Herod the King heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said onto him, In Bethlehem in Judea.” – Matthew 2:3
The Parthian astrologers established themselves in the town of Bethlehem, where Herod’s advisors had told him was a likely place for a momentous birth. They waited for further signs, under the gaze of King Herod, who wished urgently to know when the birth occurred.
Judea was in turmoil. The Roman Emperor, Augustus, had ordered a census of his domains, which required each person in Judea to register with the census in the place of the birth of his maternal grandmother. Bethlehem was choked with the temporarily displaced, and all available lodging was hired. But the astrologers lived in quarters fit for ambassadors to King Herod. They waited, and watched Venus: a conjunction with Jupiter was due any day now. If it were another perfect conjunction, the sign would be given.
After sunset on June 17, 2BCE, the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter was complete:
It was determined that another perfect conjunction had occurred, in the third hour after noon. This was when Venus was at zenith, directly above Bethlehem. The final sign had been given.
“Then Herod, when he had privily called the Wise Men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go, and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they heard the king, they departed; and lo, the star, which they saw in the East, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. ” – Matthew 2:7
Bethlehem was not a large town, and only one child had been born during the day, a boy, born to a census-displaced family living in some stables on the outskirts of the town. The astrologers were astounded at the poverty of the infant’s parents: surely a great king would be born into luxurious surroundings. But the signs were unmistakable: the great king of the eastern star was this child or it was no one.
“And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshiped him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
Perhaps the astrologers shrugged, not questioning the wisdom of their stars, or the commands of their king. They prostrated themselves in the Royal Respect, and they left the Parthian King’s gift of gold with the young parents, and, to further ease their poverty, perhaps some trade goods, frankincense and myrrh, commodities that could be readily converted to cash. And they pondered: what chance has this infant to become a great king? Against Herod The Murderer?
Perhaps they decided not to tell Herod, but to return to Parthia without telling him of the final sign.
The signs ceased: no more perfect conjunctions were observed in the lifetime of anyone who had seen the Star Of The East. It would be some decades before the story of the Bethlehem Child made its way back to Parthia….