Part 1

November 29, 2009

Truly one of the hardest things to date in the annuals of chronology is the exact birth date of Jesus, son of Joseph the carpenter and Mary from Bethlehem.  Scholars from all denominations, even many from the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches have concluded that Jesus was not born on or near the 25th day of December -- after all shepherds did not attend to sheep from mid-October until early March.

Attempting to decisively date the birth of Christ is a formidable task for any chronologist; and trying to ascertain the nature of the so-called Christmas Star is just as formidable to the astronomer. This paper reviews the current ideas surrounding the Star of Bethlehem and it also attempts to date the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ using a variety of evidence.

To avoid confusion from the outset, the B.C. (before Christ) years do not include the mythical year zero. Many popular commentators to the contrary, there properly should not be a zero year in a calendrical system referring to any historical event. The first year of Christ's stay on earth would be, by definition, the year A.D. 1; the year before his birth would by the same definition be the year 1 B.C. Hence there is no room for a year zero.

There are many naturalistic explanations for the Star of Bethlehem, and most of them can easily be dismissed. In order, though, to ascertain the validity of any and all naturalistic explanations for the star, we need to collect all that is actually and reliably known about the star. For that we need to turn to the Bible.

The only direct reference to the star occurs in Matthew chapter 2 where we read in the second verse that the wise men ask Herod the king:

Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

Earlier they had seen the star in their native land (presumably Babylon), but evidently the star was no longer visible by the time they arrived at Jerusalem, for verses 9 and 10 relate that:

9 When they had 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.
10 When they saw the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

Herod questioned the wise men, asking them when they first saw the star. The Bible does not report when they first saw the star, but we do know from Matthew 2:16 that on the basis of the wise men's report, Herod slew all the children about Bethlehem:

from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.

This passage seems to allow for a delay of as much as two years between the appearance of the star and the visit of the wise men. Jewish Talmudic tradition holds that there would be a two-year delay between the appearance of the star and the actual birth of the Messiah. If this were a common belief in Herod's day, then no doubt Herod was not taking any chances by executing all children two years old and under.

The only other possible mention of the star occurs in Numbers 24:17 where Balaam, in blessing the nation of Israel as it is about to enter the promised land, says:

... there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.

The passage relates that a Star will rise out of Jacob. But what is meant by the term "Star out of Jacob?" Some evidence is found in Joseph's dream in Genesis 37:9-11, where Joseph is the star about whom Jacob (who is Israel), his wife, and eleven of his sons do obeisance. That passage identifies Israel with the sun, and Joseph is a star "out of Jacob." Now Joseph is a type of Christ, and Jesus Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of Balaam's prophecy. Now if Numbers 24:17 refers to the Star of Bethlehem in addition to referring to the Lord Jesus Christ, then either the wise men saw a star ascending into the sky from the very land of Israel; or else a part of the sun was torn loose and was observed as a star by the wise men in the east.

In addition to the Biblical references, there are also three apocryphal references to the star. One of these appears in the blasphemous Protoevangelion, where it is reported that the wise men said unto Herod:

We saw an extraordinary large star shining among the stars of heaven, and so out-shined all the other stars, as that they became not visible, and we knew thereby that a great king was born in Israel, and therefore we are come to worship him. (Protoevangelion 15:7)

A second reference is found in the Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians and it is like unto the first:

A star shone in heaven beyond all the other stars, and its light was inexpressible, and its novelty struck terror into men's minds. All the rest of the stars, together with the sun and moon were the chorus to this star; but that sent out its light exceedingly above them all. And men began to be troubled to think whence this new star came so unlike all the others. Hence all the power of magic became dissolved; men's ignorance was taken away; and the old kingdom abolished; God himself appearing in the form of a man, for the renewal of eternal life. (Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians 4:11-12)

Both of these passages claim that the star was supremely bright; but if that were the case, then why is there no record of the star in any other culture? There are other cultural accounts of Joshua's long day and of Hezekiah's sign, but none of this star which is here reported to have exceeded the combined brightness of the sun, moon, and stars. This star was somehow missed by the Romans, Chinese, Mayans, Babylonians, and even the Jews themselves. All things considered it becomes obvious that these two apocryphal accounts are fabrications.

The third apocryphal account is found in the extremely blasphemous First Infancy Gospel.

And at the same time there appeared to [the wise men] an angel in the form of that star which had before been their guide in their journey; the light of which they followed till they returned into their own country. (The First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ 3:3)

This passage is interesting only in that it attributes the star to an angel, a consideration to which we shall turn our attention later.

It can be concluded that all that is reliably known about the Star of Bethlehem is what is recorded in the Holy Bible: it was a single star; that it was not particularly bright (since it had not been noticed by Herod or the Rabbis); it disappeared after its original sighting until the wise men saw it again en route from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, a distance of a little more than six miles. Furthermore, it went ahead of them until it stood over the house wherein the young child was. Finally, the visit of the wise men may have been as much as two years after the appearance of the star, possibly, even, two years after the birth of the Lord.

Let's consider the naturalistic explanations which have been put forth in order to account for the star. Some of the proposed phenomena may be quickly disposed of. One claim is that the star was actually the planet Venus which can take people by surprise with its brilliance. It can even be seen in daylight, and it is the most commonly reported "UFO" today. But if Venus had been the star, then it would have been recognized by the wise men who undoubtedly were aware of its position and motion.

A second spurious suggestion is that the star was a meteor or fireball. Such "shooting stars," which are little particles of rock or nickel-iron ranging in size from a grain of sand to many tons, are short-lived, common phenomena. They are so common, in fact, that it hardly seems likely that any fireball or bolide (an exploding meteor) could have spurred the wise men on to a 450-mile journey to Jerusalem. After all, most meteors last less than ten seconds.

A third spurious suggestion, that the Star of Bethlehem was an early sighting of the planet Uranus. Uranus was "discovered" by Sir William Herschel in 1781. It is barely below the detectability of the naked eye and it was located in the constellation of Pisces (Figure 1) during the time of Christ's birth. But even though Pisces is made up of faint stars, it is doubtful that the slow-moving, exceedingly faint Uranus would have been detected. Even if it had been seen, there is nothing compelling in its appearance that would urge the wise men toward Jerusalem.

A more feasible possibility for the star is the suggestion that it was an exploding star a nova or supernova. Far eastern records do record two "temporary stars" around the time of Christ's birth.

The first appeared some time in the second month (March 10 to April 7) of the second year of the Ch'ien-p'ing period (5 B.C.) near the stars Alpha and Beta Capricorni. This star was observed for seventy days and there is some question as to whether or not motion was recorded for it. If it did move, then most likely it would have been a comet. At its appearing it would have risen 4.5 hours before sunrise; hardly an early morning or "eastern" object.

The second report of a nova or supernova hails from Korea. It is not too reliable, however, as its date may have been improperly recorded. This object reportedly appeared late in winter or early spring in the year 4 B.C. in the constellation of Aquila. Some have suggested that the 5 B.C. and the 4 B.C. objects may have been one and the same, but Morehouse has suggested that the 4 B.C. object was a supernova which can now be identified with the binary pulsar, PSR 1913+16b. Be that as it may, there is nothing particularly unique about either of the two objects that would provoke the wise men into traveling to Jerusalem.

Another weak suggestion is that the Star of Bethlehem was a comet. Outside of the possibility that one or both of the above objects may have been comets, there is no known record of any comet around the time of the birth of Jesus. Mention is sometimes made of the 11 B.C. appearance of Halley's comet, but that date is far too early for the birth of Jesus.

Of course, there is the unbeliever's conclusion, most unlikely of all, that the star was merely a legend or a fabrication on Matthew's part. It fails on three counts. First, if as some claim, Matthew concocted the star in order to fulfill the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24:17, we are left to wonder why he would do that since there is no reason to concoct such a star, for the passage does not require a literal star for its fulfillment. Second, had Matthew felt it necessary to invent the story of the star as a fulfillment of Balaam's prophecy, then why did he not mention the fulfillment? Third, his star is far too subdued. Truly fantastic stars are such as we encountered in the first two apocryphal writings mentioned above, not as we find in Matthew.

J. A. Seiss proposed a peculiar star as a candidate for the Star of Bethlehem. He referred to the Arab historian Gregory Abulfaragus (1226-1286), who claimed that the wise men were Zoroastrians, and that in their bible, the Zend Avesta, it is written that the appearance of a new star in the constellation of Virgo would herald the birth of the Messiah. Abulfaragus further claimed that Zoroaster was a student of Daniel, whence he learned of the star. Now we have already seen that there is no record of a new star in Virgo anytime near 1 B.C.

As a second possibility, Seiss notes that the word coma, which in Hebrew signifies "to long for" (Psalm 63:1), is also the name of a constellation north of Virgo. Seiss concludes that the constellation of Coma must be the one wherein the Star of Bethlehem appeared. Seiss's account is confusing. He reports a flare-up of a star in the constellation of Coma in the year 125 B.C. Seiss identifies that star which, upon becoming visible in daylight, caused Hipparchus to recognize the transience of the stars and thus to draw up his famous star catalog. Seiss then mentions a Chinese report of a flare-up of the same star about the time of Christ's birth; but he has either confused this with one of the two novae reports mentioned previously, or he had access to an account which is now lost. He continues that Ptolemy wrote that the same star was barely visible in his day (A.D. 150). Seiss identifies the star as 5 Comae which he claims was the Christmas star and which also passed overhead at Jerusalem and was seen by the wise men when they looked down the well.

According to the tale of the well, the wise men traveled by day from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and, when they looked into the well by the inn, they saw the reflection of the star. Now stars are reputedly visible in daytime when seen from the bottom of a long shaft; but there are several flaws with this story. First of all, the wise men would have had to take elaborate precautions to avoid having their heads in the way of the star's light when looking down the well. Second, the star must still be fairly bright, and third, contrary to the Biblical report, they could not have seen it going ahead of them on their journey to Jerusalem. Last, the star's visibility in the well would not have uniquely pinpointed the place but would only have indicated the proper latitude, not the longitude.

None of these naturalistic explanations satisfy the Biblical record of the Star of Bethlehem. Neither does Seiss's candidate star which apparently lasted for 275 years and would thus hardly be considered special, having started 125 years before Christ's birth.

There is one other naturalistic phenomenon commonly associated with the star of Bethlehem and that is that it was one or more planetary conjunctions. In order to evaluate those we need to accurately know when Christ was born.

Next week we will look at some Roman accounts for the dating process and take into account the so-called "Triple Conjunction Theory" and the Planetary configurations around 3 and 2 BC.

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