More Than Ever do Christians Seek Heavenly Signs in a Troubled World
Star of Bethlehem, Hebrew Astronomy, & Christmas: A Scientific Perspective
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Can Christianity’s historical claims be successfully addressed with science? Many scholars and writers believe they can. So how does the dramatic assertion that a star stood still over a small Near East town long enough for foreigners to reach the place—hold up to scrutiny—as reported in the Gospels. In fact, a recent video by Frederick E. Larson paints a careful yet intriguing explanation for how a star could seem to stand still in the sky. Also detailed is the somewhat controversial belief God used the starry constellations to teach His people important truths. Examined as well is the proposal that the Prophet Daniel had trained the magi long ago how to seek Yahweh in the cosmos through natural signs. This would explain why foreign star-gazing “pagans” would come to worship a Jewish child king revealed through the heavenly bodies. These are the topics of this paper.
I. Star of Bethlehem Background
Many theories have been espoused to explain the “Star of Bethlehem” which identified the child Jesus as mentioned in Matthew 2: 1-12:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
This account has created one of the mysteries of the ages, namely—what was the “star” mentioned by the Gospels? Also, who were the magi? Various theories have been proposed. John Mosley, program supervisor for the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, CA and author of The Christmas Star, offers several scientific scenarios for the “Star of Wonder”:
Through the years, astronomers and others have proposed a variety of objects for the Christmas star—comets, an exploding star or a grouping of planets. Some suggest that the star was a miracle created especially by God. Such a suggestion cannot be proved or disproved, and it is entirely outside the realm of science. But there’s no need to resort to miracles, given the actual astronomical events of the time.
There is no room in a short essay to list the myriad theories used to explain the Bethlehem star. But a recent explanation proposed by Fredrick Larson has become a popular explanation for this phenomenon.
II. Larsen’s Theory of the Bethlehem Star
Dr. Frederick Larson has suggested an answer to the Star of Bethlehem problem. While his theory will not end speculation on the issue for all times, he created an entertaining film called The Star of Bethlehem to illustrate his theories (which can also be seen in its entirety here on Youtube.)
Larson’s theory assumes the date of the death of King Herod—typically thought to be 4 AD—must be adjusted for his ideas to fit into what is known of the historical star calendar. Then he proposes Jupiter in an unusual orbit as the Star of Bethlehem. His website www.bethlehemstar.com describes the theory in more detail:
In 3/2 BC, Jupiter’s retrograde wandering would have called for our magus’ full attention. After Jupiter and Regulus had their kingly encounter, Jupiter continued on its path through the star field. But then it entered retrograde. It “changed its mind” and headed back to Regulus for a second conjunction. After this second pass it reversed course again for yet a third rendezvous with Regulus, a triple conjunction. A triple pass like this is more rare. Over a period of months, our watching magus would have seen the Planet of Kings dance out a halo above the Star of Kings. A coronation.
By the following June, Jupiter had finished crowning Regulus. The Planet of Kings traveled on through the star field toward another spectacular rendezvous, this time with Venus, the Mother Planet. This conjunction was so close and so bright that it is today displayed in hundreds of planetaria around the world by scientists who may know nothing of the Messiah. They do it because what Jupiter did makes such a great planetarium show. Jupiter appeared to join Venus. The planets could not be distinguished with the naked eye. If our magus had had a telescope, he could have seen that the planets sat one atop the other, like a figure eight. Each contributed its full brightness to what became the most brilliant star our man had ever seen. Jupiter completed this step of the starry dance as it was setting in the west. That evening, our Babylonian magus would have seen the spectacle of his career while facing toward Judea.
In essence, Larson claims that the illusion of the star standing still was caused by the “retrograde movement” of the planet Jupiter, causing it to apparently move up, stop, then come back down. This made it seem fixed for awhile, argues Larson. His theory is much discussed on the Internet for its ingenious elements, but also criticized at length, as analyzed by this website.
Larson then states that a group of pagan scholar/astronomers notice the unusual planetary activity and decided to investigate, which then led them to Bethlehem. Larson claims they may not have been any normal pagan astrologers, but possibly the spiritual descendents of the Jewish Prophet Daniel who lived in Babylon and rose to high power after being kidnapped by King Nebuchadnezzar.
III. The Three Wise Men—Daniel’s Magi?
Who were the mysterious “Magi” or Wise Men mentioned by Matthew? Generally the term refers to Persian soothsayers. These are mentioned by several ancient authors. Says one author:
Basically, the cult of the Magussaeans was a combination of heretical Zoroastrianism and Babylonian astrology. When Cyrus the Great conquered the great city of Babylon in the sixth century BC, the Magi came into contact with the teachings of the city’s astrologers, known as Chaldeans. According to Diodorus of Sicily, a Greek historian of 80 to 20 BC, and author of a universal history, Bibliotheca historica:
...being assigned to the service of the gods they spend their entire life in study, their greatest renown being in the field of astrology. But they occupy themselves largely with soothsaying as well, making predictions about future events, and in some cases by purifications, in others by sacrifices, and in others by some other charms they attempt to effect the averting of evil things and the fulfillment of the good. They are also skilled in the soothsaying by the flight of birds, and they give out interpretations of both dreams and portents. They also show marked ability in making divinations from the observations of the entrails of animals, deeming that in this branch they are eminently successful.
In addition, the sixth century BC is also known in Jewish history as the Exile, when their entire population was located in the city, having been removed to there by Nebuchadnezzar, at the beginning of the century, after he had destroyed Jerusalem. Having become substantial citizens, with some achieving minor administrative posts, it is possible the Jews also contributed to this development. In fact, in the Book of Daniel, Chapter 2:48, Daniel is made chief of the “wise men” of Babylon, that is of the Magi or Chaldeans. In any case, scholars have certainly recognized that the later teachings referred to collectively as the esoteric Kabbalah, seem to have been a combination of Magian and Chaldean lore. Astrology was not a component of mainstream Zoroastrianism, and those who incorporated its concepts into their version of the faith seem to have been regarded as heretical.
Another interesting idea is that somehow a line of Babylonian magi were influenced by the Prophet Daniel and taught about the coming Messiah. Says another writer at the website doctrinepastor:
The Magi were from a hereditary priestly tribal line of people from among the ancient people called the Medes. The Magi were credited with great wisdom and knowledge, some of which was valuable human knowledge which could help a king to rule wisely. However, they also claimed to have great occultic knowledge from divination (fortune telling and hidden knowledge), the influence of the moon and stars (astrology), and sorcery. They also claimed to be able to interpret dreams which they saw as communications from the pagan gods.
The author then describes why Daniel is probably the only explanation for why the magi sought a Jewish king in order to worship him:
In the book of Daniel we discover that Daniel saved the lives of the entire school of Babylonian royal counselors who included the astrologers (Magi). Daniel was a Magi although we know that he was faithful to the revealed Jewish faith. Because of his interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, Daniel became the Master of the Babylonian School of Magi.
Throughout the book of Daniel we see that he was faithful in every way to the Scriptures and the God of the Scriptures. “Since Daniel saved their lives as well as becoming their head, there is little doubt that he was able to lead many of them to a saving knowledge of the God of Israel. A number of these astrologers turned away from the worship of the stars to the worship of the God of Israel who made the stars”
As the years rolled by the truth was told from one Magi to another and there was a faithful group of believers who, though they operated in a pagan society, retained the truth they learned from the greatest of all Magi, the Jewish prophet Daniel.
IV. Jewish Star Signs—Heavenly Astronomy
A theory has been proposed that the Jews once studied the stars in a manner consistent with Yahweh’s revelation and not in the interest of astrology, which was condemned by the God of the Bible. In his book God’s Voice In The Stars, Zodiac Signs And Bible Truth, Kenneth C. Fleming explains how the ancient Jews used the starry constellations as a means of revelation and teaching. This was definitively not astrology which was a pagan means of predicting the future. As Fleming explains,
Some significant truths from the Bible indicate a relationship between the constellation of stars and God’s early prophetic revelation of the gospel to man. Long before written records were in use, the prophetic outline of the great plan of redemption was signified in the star groups and in the names of individual stars.
So Fleming claims the early Jews used the night sky as a way to communicate their beliefs and illustrate their message. He says God uses the stars for the ancient to declare prophetic events. So, for example, God used the twelve zodiac symbols to lay out His most basic themes, etc. This idea was first introduced by Frances Rolleston in Mazzaroth: or, the Constellations. These ideas have also been heavily criticized so must be taken with a grain of salt.
Believers can rest assured in revelation and that there is a strong connection between creation and God. He sometimes uses heavenly bodies to send a message to His people. This is stated in Psalm 19:1-4:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows His handiwork.
Day unto day utters speech,
And night unto night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech nor language
Where their voice is not heard.
Their line has gone out through the earth
But whatever one believes explains such phenomenon as the Star of Bethlehem, Christmas is worthy of celebration for its message of God coming down to earth as man to save all mankind. And this can never change.