By Prof. Asoka Perera The star is a must among our Christmas decorations. However, for a long time I was not comfortable with the Bible passage in Matthew 2:1-9. The reasons being its reference to a star, thus suggesting some relationship to astrology. But now that I know the facts related to the star, it [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Star of wonder: Unravelling the mystery


By Prof. Asoka Perera

The star is a must among our Christmas decorations. However, for a long time I was not comfortable with the Bible passage in Matthew 2:1-9. The reasons being its reference to a star, thus suggesting some relationship to astrology. But now that I know the facts related to the star, it is a great encouragement to my faith as it confirms what the Bible says is true.

Whatever the reason, the Magi (as defined in the New International version of the Bible) travelled a long distance, most probably over 3000km to see a baby, 2000 years ago. This itself is amazing. Therefore it is worth looking at this truth related to this star during this Christmas time. The facts that I am presenting here are based on a research work done by Professor Rick Larson of Texas, USA.

Is the Star an astronomical mystery? According to the Gospel of Matthew a strange star appeared at the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. And many scholars have tried to identify this star. However the mystery was not solved.

A theoretical approach to the Bethlehem Star

Johanes Kepler tried to identify the star by puzzling out the math which drives the heavens. He even used his formulae to search for the Star we seek. He could not solve the mystery. But unlike us, Kepler had no computer.

With software incorporating Kepler’s equations, today we can animate ancient skies over the Mid East with great precision.  So we can now scan the sky 2000 years ago and check whether we can see the star that these Magi observed. One can scan skies over Nazareth 2000 years ago by use of software (eg. – free open source).

Matthew records nine facts/characteristics attached to the Star. They are:
Connected to Jews;
Rising in the east;
Appearing in (at?) an exact time;
Herod and people in Nazareth did not notice;
Enduring over a considerable period of time;
Going ahead of them as they travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem;
And stopping
If a star can fit into those amazing nine characteristics we can resolve the mystery.

The birth of Jesus

To scan the skies we need to know the time of Christ’s birth. According to Matthew the Magi came at the time of King Herod. The scholars rely on the historical writings of Josephus. It appears that copies of his writings used by many had a copying error related to King Herod’s death indicating that he died around 4BC and therefore Jesus Christ should have been born somewhere around 5BC. This one error misled many scholars, thus directing them to look at skies of times where Christ was not born. But the older copies suggest that King Herod died somewhere around 1BC and therefore Jesus Christ should have been born around 2 or 3BC. This makes a big difference to a study related to the Bethlehem Star.

The Magi –

The word Magi means “Wise men”. The kings consulted them. Daniel and his three colleagues who lived during the time of King Nebuchadnezzer, were such wise men. Daniel interpreted many of the king’s dreams. Further he was a great prophet and many mysteries were revealed to him by God. The book of Daniel 9:20-27 talks about the birth of Jesus. These Magi, after seeing the star were absolutely sure that the king of the Jews was born and travelled a long distance to worship him. Their approach to the star is critical. Their question “Where is the one who has been born the king of Jews?” was related to the first three points – birth, kingship and relationship to Jews.

These Magi could be the remnants of Daniel’s days. If not there is no reason for them to be watching for a sign to indicate the birth of the king of Jews. Of course this fact is very hypothetical. They told King Herod that they saw the star “rising from the east” and that it “appeared on exact time”. Up to this time neither Herod nor the people of Jerusalem were aware of such a star. This suggests that it was not a spectacular event such as the appearance of a comet or a similar star. The Magi may have introduced themselves and may have explained why they had come to the conclusion that the King of the Jews has been born. The result was amazing. King Herod was convinced and was disturbed that the king born was not related to him. Calling priests and teachers of that time he found out that the king of Jews was to be born in Bethlehem. He consulted the Magi further and established the exact time of the star’s appearance. His action of killing baby boys under two years suggests that the star appeared well within two years. The Magi saw the star again in Jerusalem and it went ahead and then stopped. Can all this happen?

A Coronation

Jupiter is the largest star in our solar system and it is clearly visible. In September 3BC Jupiter was involved in a starry dance during the time of the Jewish New Year. The Magi must have seen another star getting in close conjunction with Jupiter. That star is Regulus known as king of stars. Jupiter is a wandering star while Regulus is not. This conjunction happens every 12 years. So what was special this time, in September 3BC? This time these two stars had the conjunction and then separated and then moved backward for another conjunction. This process was repeated thrice in 2/3 BC, inspiring the conclusion that these three conjunctions signified a coronation.

Birth of the King of Jews

Jupiter’s interesting behaviour may explain the kingly aspect of the Star. But how did it relate to the Jewish nation? Was its association with the Jewish New Year enough? Where was the indication of a birth? Some might say that the triple conjunction by itself would indicate to a magus that a new king was on the scene. Maybe. But there is more.

The Jewish nation is composed of twelve ancient tribes. Jewish prophecy states that the tribe of Judah will bring forth the Messiah. The symbol of Judah’s tribe is the lion. These connections are made in an ancient prediction of the Messiah’s coming found in the first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, Chapter 49:9-10.

“You are a lion’s cub, O Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness– who dares to rouse him?  The sceptre will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.”
This association of Messiah with the tribe of Judah and with the lion is a productive clue. It clarifies the connection between Jupiter’s behaviour and the Jewish nation, because the starry coronation—the triple conjunction—occurred within the constellation of Leo, the Lion. Ancient stargazers, particularly if they were interested in things Jewish, may well have concluded that they were seeing signs of a Jewish king. But there is more.

The last book of the New Testament is, in part, a prophetic enigma. But a portion of the Book of Revelation provides clear and compelling guidance for our astronomical investigation. The apostle John wrote the book as an old man while in exile on the island of Patmos. Perhaps the austerity of this exile or a lack of companionship left him time to ponder the night sky. Whatever the reason, Revelation is full of star imagery. In Revelation, Chapter 12, verses 1-5, John describes a life and death drama played out in the sky: the birth of a king.

“A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.  Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads.  His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. 5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron sceptre.

A woman in labour, a dragon bent on infanticide and a ruler of the nations. We have already seen this ruler in the Book of Genesis, above. This would be the Messiah, in his role as King of Kings. If that interpretation is correct, then according to the gospel story the woman would be Mary, the mother of Jesus. The dragon which waits to kill the child at birth would be Herod, who did that very thing. John says the woman he saw was clothed in the Sun. She had the moon at her feet. What can he be describing? When we continue our study of the sky of September of 3 BC, the mystery of John’s vision is unlocked: he is describing more of the starry dance which began with the Jewish New Year.

As Jupiter was beginning the coronation of Regulus, another startling symbol rose in the sky. The constellation which rises in the east behind Leo is Virgo, The Virgin. When Jupiter and Regulus were first meeting, she rose clothed in the Sun. And as John said, the moon was at her feet. It was a new moon, symbolically birthed at the feet of The Virgin.

The sheer concentration of symbolism in the stars at this moment is remarkable and led our magus to conclude that a Jewish king had been born. But even so this is not the whole story. These symbols could indicate a birth, but if they were interpreted to indicate the time of conception, the beginning of a human life, might there be something interesting in the sky nine months later? Indeed. In June of 2 BC, Jupiter continued the pageantry.

Westward leading

By the following June, Jupiter had finished crowning Regulus. The Planet of Kings travelled on through the star field towards 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 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.

No one alive had ever seen such a conjunction. If the Magi only began their travel plans in September, when they saw this sight nine months later, someone may have shouted “What are we waiting for? Mount up!” At the end of their travel, which may have taken weeks or months, these experts arrived in Jerusalem. They told their tale, and “all Jerusalem was disturbed.” Herod wanted to know two things: when the Star had appeared, and where this baby was. The Magi presumably described the timing of events starting in September of 3 BC and continuing through June of 2 BC. Herod sent them to Bethlehem in search of the child with orders that they return to tell where he was.

To qualify as the Star, Jupiter would have to be ahead of the Magi as they trekked south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Sure enough, in December of 2 BC if the Magi looked south in the wee hours, there hung the Planet of Kings over the city of Messiah’s birth.

All but one of the nine Biblical qualifications for the Star have now been plausibly satisfied:
The first conjunction signified birth by its association to the day with Virgo “birthing” the new moon. Some might argue that the unusual triple conjunction by itself could be taken to indicate a new king.
The Planet of King’s coronation of the Star of Kings signified kingship.

The triple conjunction began with the Jewish New Year and took place within Leo, showing a connection with the Jewish tribe of Judah (and prophecies of the Jewish Messiah).

Jupiter rises in the east

The conjunctions appeared at precise, identifiable times. Herod was unaware of these things; they were astronomical events which had significance only when explained by experts.

The events took place over a span of time sufficient for the Magi to see them both from the East and upon their arrival in Jerusalem.

Jupiter was ahead of the Magi as they travelled south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
But the ninth qualification would require that Jupiter stop over Bethlehem. How could a planet do that? And did Jupiter do it?

To stop a Star

The problem with a planet stopping is not that planets can’t stop, but just the opposite. The planets are always stopped to the eye of a human observer. The sky moves above Earth at half the speed of the hour hand on a common clock. Its movement is imperceptible to the naked eye. So, if all stars are always stopped, what can Matthew have meant?

Perhaps you have already anticipated the key to this final mystery: retrograde motion.
An astronomer tracking the movement of planets through the star field watches not so much on the scale of minutes, but on the longer scale of days, weeks and months.

On this scale of time, Jupiter did stop

On December 25 of 2 BC as it entered retrograde, Jupiter reached full stop in its travel through the fixed stars. Magi viewing from Jerusalem would have seen it stopped in the sky above the little town of Bethlehem. So the Magi may have visited the baby Jesus on December 25th, 2BC and would have worshipped, what a coincidence with the day of 25th. However, most certainly Jesus Christ would have born on another day other than 25th December.

(The writer is Professor of Civil Engineering, University of Moratuwa and past vice president of the Sri Lanka Baptist Sangamaya)

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