The Star of Bethlehem – A Fairy Tale?

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“Adoration of the Magi” by Gentile de Fabriano (1423)
Notice the star about 2 feet above Joseph’s head.
In 1303, Giotto painted the star of Bethlehem as a comet.

We are often told by materialists and “skeptics” that as scientific knowledge has advanced, belief in the Bible has become irrational. We have been informed that science and the Bible are impossibly at odds. I contend that this can be shown to be a nonsensical view. We can now see many examples where science and the Bible intersect. In fact, for those who have an open mind toward the Bible, this is an amazing time to be alive. Recent advances in scientific fields such as genetics, paleontology, geology, and astronomy are making belief in the Judeo-Christian scriptures surprisingly, even amusingly, viable.

During this joyous advent season I thought it would be fun to relay some recent research I’ve seen pertaining to one of many implausible accounts in the Bible – the star of Bethlehem. The gospel of Matthew gives an account of Magi being led by a star. This star “went ahead of them until it stopped above the place where the child lay. They were overjoyed at the sight of it” (Matt 2:9,10). Ridiculous. Obviously a fairy tale, right? If one wants to believe this story, one must obviously chalk it up as a supernatural event that can be only “taken on faith”, right? Certainly this event, if it occurred at all, couldn’t possibly be scientifically verified. Right?!

Well…hold onto your latte. Technological advances have yielded some jaw-dropping affirmations about the Creator of the universe. This could be the best Christmas ever for you.

You may or may not know that the movement of the stars and planets is set and predictable, like the workings of a giant clock. There now exists a computer program, (Starry Night,) that enables us to run that clock back to any point in human history, so that we can now know exactly what was going on in the sky, say, 2000 years ago. Furthermore, we can know how those goings-on looked to observers on earth, from any point on earth. We can know what the Magi were seeing from Jerusalem. Not to belabor the point, but this is not speculation. We can know. It’s verifiable astronomical history. If there were nothing extraordinary going on in the sky 2000 years ago, then we could write off the biblical account as a fairy tale. But in fact, the heavens were writing a freaking celestial birth announcement.

In determining a correct date, it is worth mentioning one coordinate given to us by Josephus Flavius, a Jewish historian who lived from 37 to 95 A.D. He tells us that Herod the Great, shortly before he died, executed two rabbis on the night of a lunar eclipse. We now know that there was a full lunar eclipse on January 10, 1 B.C., occurring 12 and a half weeks before Passover. What astronomical events occurring before Herod’s death could have pertained to the star of Bethlehem? Let us remember that all of Jerusalem, including Herod, seemed surprised by the momentous visit of the Magi. The birth of a king was news to everyone in the capitol city of Israel. This suggests that whatever was happening in the sky had gone unnoticed by the average person. The idea of a bright star “dancing in the night with a tail as big as a kite” comes to us from Christmas carols, and greeting card illustrations, not from the scriptures. The Bible’s description of the star is quite matter-of-fact, and it only says the Magi saw it and understood what it meant.

It would seem that conjunctions of planets provide the best explanation as to what the Magi were seeing. (Comets are generally considered ominous.) A conjunction is the appearance of two celestial objects approaching each other. The closer the objects, the more astrologically significant the event. To describe the relevant celestial events, I quote Ph.D. astronomer, Craig Chester, president of the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy. Here he describes what he calls merely the highlights of a series of astrological events that the Magi must have seen as announcing the impending birth of a great king of Israel:

“In 3 B.C. and 2 B.C., there was a series of close conjunctions involving Jupiter, the planet that represented kingship, coronations, and the birth of kings. In Hebrew, Jupiter was known as Sedeq or “Righteousness,” a term also used for the Messiah. In September of 3 B.C., Jupiter came into conjunction with Regulus, the star of kingship, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo. Leo was the constellation of kings, and it was associated with the [Hebrew] Lion of Judah. The royal planet approached the royal star in the royal constellation representing Israel. Just a month earlier, Jupiter and Venus, the Mother planet, had almost seemed to touch each other in another close conjunction, also in Leo. Then the conjunction between Jupiter and Regulus was repeated, not once but twice, in February and May of 2 B.C. Finally, in June of 2 B.C., Jupiter and Venus, the two brightest objects in the sky save the sun and the moon, experienced an even closer encounter when their discs appeared to touch; to the naked eye they became a single object above the setting sun. This exceptionally rare spectacle could not have been missed by the Magi.” (Hillsdale College’s Center for Constructive Alternatives seminar, ‘Man and Creation: Perspectives on Science and Religion,’ 1992)

In case your mouth is not yet hanging open, consider this. He goes on to say that on September 11, 3 B.C., in addition to Jupiter and Regulus being very close in the first of the three conjunctions mentioned above, there was something else. The sun was in the constellation of Virgo, together with the new moon. Get it?…Virgo – the virgin. My drawing below shows how this configuration looked…

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…Keeping the above in mind, read the the following passage from the book of Revelation, penned by the gospel writer John while he was in exile:

“And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; and she was with child; and she cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth…And she gave birth to a son, a male child who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up to God and to His throne” (Rev 12:1-5)

One must surmise that John was describing either something he saw in the sky as a very young man, or else something he saw in a vision as an old man, or both. At any rate, the biblical record and the astronomical record correspond perfectly.

But what of this business of the star moving and stopping over Bethlehem. Can stars do this? Actually, from our perspective on earth, yes, they can. Again I quote Chester:

“The word ‘stop’ was used for what we now call a planet’s ‘stationary point.’ A planet normally moves eastward through the stars from night to night and month to month, but regularly exhibits a ‘retrograde loop.’ As it approaches the opposite point in the sky from the sun, it appears to slow, come to a full stop, and move backward (westward) through the sky for some weeks…It seems plausible that the Magi were ‘overjoyed’ at again seeing before them, as they traveled southward, His star, Jupiter, which at its stationary point was standing still over Bethlehem. We do know for certain that Jupiter performed a retrograde loop in 2 B.C. and that it was stationary on…”

Wait for it…

”December 25.”

That’s right. During Hanukkah, and precisely on the date on which the gentile world now observes Christmas.

I don’t read horoscopes, and I don’t believe the stars influence my day-to-day life. However, clearly, according to scripture, there have been times when God has given us unmistakable signs in the heavens for our benefit. If He is indeed the Creator of the heavens and the earth, then it would only make sense that there would be some correspondence between the two. In fact, in the very first chapter of the Bible in the creation account, it says as much: “Then God said, ‘let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years’” (Gen 1:14). Furthermore, it’s a beautiful thing that He has provided signs that are transcendent; that can’t be mistranslated or tampered with by human hands. Signs written across the expansive sky above us if only we will remember to look upward.

May you have a very Merry Christmas!

(For more info and corroborating evidence, visit Rick Larson’s excellent website, http://www.bethlehemstar.net)

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