Star Over Bethlehem

In the book of Matthew in the New Testament, written c. 70-75 CE, the “star in the rising” is routinely misinterpreted as some bright phenomenon standing in a stationary position above the town of Bethlehem to herald the birth of the “king of the Jews.”  Since Herod died c. 04 CE, any startling celestial happening had to have occurred before that, for Herod supposedly put out a contract on the infant’s death (told only in John).  There actually were a few astronomical configurations of interest in the indecisive time of Jesus’ birth from 12 BCE to 04 CE.

The  periodic appearance of the comet that is known today as Halley’s Comet made one of its visible passages in the year 12 BCE.  Interestingly, the comet would have appeared over the Middle East showing itself at 31 degrees North, which is very close to the latitude of Bethlehem.  Over the centuries various devout Christians, desperate to explain the “star” that allegedly guided the Magi to Bethlehem have seized upon this astronomical fact as the event alluded to in the birth story.  But it is certain that no astronomer, referred to as “Magi,” would ever have mistaken a comet for a star.  And there were two other comets in this general timeframe: one in 05 BCE and another in 04 BCE.  Nonetheless, comets are not repeated stationary happenings, so they simply could not serve the purpose of the myth.

There was, however, a less common but definitely not a supernatural occurrence in the heavens in 07 BCE: it was a triple conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces.  This event has intriguing elements that have made it attractive to writers of the Jesus birth account.  The planet Jupiter was considered the royal planet and the sign of kings, hence it could be used to introduce the “king of the Jews.”  In addition, the Romans regarded the planet Saturn as representative of the Jews, as did the Jews themselves.  Furthermore, the world cultures were very much aware that planet Earth had recently entered the Age of Pisces (60 BCE), and Pisces was considered to rule over the regions of Syria and Palestine.  These associations may well have played a role in concocting the birth story plotline, but it is unlikely that Magi—meaning astronomers—would have concluded that a savior-king was to be born in Bethlehem.  If such was the general interpretation then there would have been more than just three astronomer-travelers going to Bethlehem, for the natural phenomenon was predicted as early as 17 BCE in almanac books of the time.  In other words, it was not a “miracle” event.

Whoever the real authors of the New Testament accounts may have been, it is certain that the literati in Rome were quite familiar with several other myths in which stars were claimed to have announced the birth of an alleged divine being.  Probably the most well-known in Rome in the time when the NT was being written was of Mithras (or Mithra), a Persian divinity of light, whose holy day was Sunday and whose holiest day was December 25th—the date when the Sun begins its northerly movement after the Winter Solstice.  Magi and shepherds were said to have seen the star announcing the birth of Mithras and were guided to the birthplace to adore him.

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One Response to “Star Over Bethlehem”

  1. Always pleasant to discover a new site this great I’ll be coming back for sure!

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