DATING THE BIRTH OF CHRIST - IT WASN'T DECEMBER
December 6, 2009
In last week's Theological Issue I began a two-part series on "Dating The Birth Of Christ" with Biblical and Extra-Biblical texts concerning the birth and infancy of Jesus. I looked at some naturalistic explanations, some plausible and some not so plausible. I conclude this two-part series with Roman issues and matters going on at the time of Christ's birth along with the documented studies in astronomy studies concerning the configuration of the planets and stars and then draw some conclusions which will lead us to better understanding why the actual date of Jesus birth need not allude us.
To begin, let me point out that if it were important for Christian's to celebrate the "birthday" of Jesus, I believe the Bible would have given us a date. It is nice to celebrate His birth but it is next to impossible to do it effectively now that the world has taken it over and obscured it relevance.
In fact, the commercialization of December 25th is very much reminiscent of the Feast Day it replaced in the late 4th century, namely, the Feast of Saturnalia. This feast derived from the dedication of the temple to the Roman god Saturn. It was marked my what historians called "tomfoolery" in which social roles were reversed. Slaves and masters switched places, men often dawned female garb and played "the wife's role in the domestic order at home."
Let me begin with a look at some of the main research in astronomy as we consider "The Dating of the Star of Bethlehem."
The most popular of those interpretations is that the star was the 7 B.C. triple conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces. A tremendous amount of mythology has been embroidered around the event since Kepler noted it in the late sixteenth century. The scenario of the 7 B.C. conjunction is reported below.
On May 27 of 7 B.C., Jupiter and Saturn approached each other and came as close as 0.99 degree apart. This is twice the apparent diameter of the moon which is about 0.5 degree. The planets then proceeded apart, only to reverse direction, approach each other again until coming to within 0.98 degree of each other on October 5. Eventually, on December 5, they again conjoined at a separation of 1.05 degrees.
One of the mythological embellishments which has been affixed to the triple conjunction has to do with the Day of Atonement. The Day of Atonement fell on October 3, in 7 B.C. This has led many to report that the middle conjunction fell on the Day of Atonement, but more accurate planetary positions show the conjunction to have happened two days after the Day of Atonement, on October 5.
September 30 is sometimes also erroneously given as the date of the middle conjunction.
A second myth oft repeated about the triple conjunction states that the two planets fused into one brilliant star. Actually, they never came any closer than about two apparent lunar diameters; hardly noteworthy at all. Furthermore, even had they fused, they would not have been significantly brighter than Jupiter by itself. Also, an even close triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn had occurred some 59 years earlier. It, too, was in the constellation of Pisces and would have afforded an even more spectacular and significant herald of Christ's birth; but no wise men are reported as having showed up at Jerusalem seeking a new king at that time.
A third myth associated with the 7 B.C. conjunction is the story that it was Kepler who first associated the conjunction with the birth of Christ. Actually, the Annals of the Abbey of Worchester, in reporting on the 0.17 degree approach between Jupiter and Saturn during their triple conjunction in Pisces in 1285, noted that such an event had not happened since the birth of Christ.
All in all, it seems unlikely that the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C. was any portent to the Lord's birth. Martin claims that the star referred to by the wise men was none other than the planet Jupiter, but if that is so, then there would be negative significance in addressing Herod with the words: "We have seen his star in the east" (Matthew 2:2) since such an event occurs regularly as clockwork every 13 months. Martin thus claims Jupiter as the Star of Bethlehem, but others have, by the same type of argument, selected Saturn as the star.
Although the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction was not that significant, there were a number of significant and unusual planetary configurations in the years 3 and 2 B.C. Sequentially, they start with a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus on the 12th of August, 3 B.C. At that time these two brightest of the planets came within 0.23 degree of one another, about half the apparent angular diameter of the moon. That conjunction was followed by another on the first of September when Venus and Mercury approached each other to within 0.36 degree.
On the 14th of September, 3 B.C., Jupiter had the first of three conjunctions with the star Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo, the lion. This could mark the starting date of the star and could be the date given Herod by the wise men. Evidently Herod added a year when he slew the childrenjust to be "safe." At that time it passed about 0.63 degree from the star. The following 17th of February, the second of the triple conjunctions took place at a separation of 1.19 degrees. The last conjunction was on May 9 of 2 B.C. when Jupiter and Regulus were 1.06 degrees apart.
The following month, on June 17, 2 B.C., Jupiter again came in conjunction with Venus. This time the conjunction was truly spectacular as the two brightest objects in the sky outside of the sun and moon merged together into what, to most human eyes, appeared as a single object. At their closest they were only 0.05 degree apart.
Finally, on the 27th of August of 2 B.C., Mars and Jupiter passed within 0.14 degree of each other. At that time all of the major planets, except for Saturn, were in the constellation of Leo, being massed within 10 degrees of each other. We see, then, that the most spectacular planetary configurations all occurred in the year preceding the historic date of Christ's birth.
Spectacular and intriguing though such conjunctions may be, yet they cannot possibly be the Star of Bethlehem. Matthew plainly states that there was one star, not a couple. Hence all speculations which involve planetary configurations must be ruled out from the start. Besides, had the star been a planet, then Matthew could have used that word (planetos) instead of star (astros), for our very word "planet" comes from the Greek word which Matthew did not use (compare Jude 13). This is not to say that the above planetary configurations did not possibly have significance, for the very purpose of their creation was that they be for signs (Genesis 1:14). All I'm saying is that the Star of Bethlehem itself could not have been a planet or a planetary configuration.
What of the star? The wise men originally saw it in an eastern land and in the eastern sky, in the light of dawn, as the Authorized Version clearly states in Matthew 2:25:
For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
Then there is the requirement of Matthew 2:9 that the star definitely moved:
and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
Not only that, but the star had to either be close enough to the ground or else had to move fast enough that the wise men could see it "before them." Strictly speaking, there is no natural phenomenon known which can do this unless it be ball lightning, but ball lightning is too transient a phenomenon to have led the wise men for six miles. In any case, ball lightning is not a star.
That leaves us with only one alternative. The Star of Bethlehem was a miracle; and angel. Angels are referred to as stars in the Bible. One such reference can be found in Revelation 1:20 where we read:
The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches.
Other references could be cited.
This resolves all difficulties about the nature and behavior of the star, since angels can move and stay at will. Perhaps the angel first appeared in the constellation of Virgo, while the sun was yet in that constellation, even as the Zend Avesta reported. If so, then it could have appeared about the first day of autumn in 4 B.C., some two years before the actual birth of Jesus, as the Talmud reports.
Heralding the birth of Jesus the Christ, there was a sequence of close encounters between the planets Mars, Jupiter, and Venus as well as Regulus, the chief star in the constellation of Leo which is associated with Judah. The events started a year before Jesus' birth. Jesus himself was most likely born late September of 2 B.C. at which time Caesar Augustus had decreed a taxation in honor of his silver jubilee on the throne of Rome.
None of these events, indeed no natural event, can match the Bible's account of the star. Those characteristics can only be satisfied by an angel or special miracle. It seems that the wise men saw the angel or miraculous star first in their native land, in the eastern sky, probably in the morning. Possibly the star came from the sun (arising out of Jacob) a year or two before the actual birth of Jesus. The wise men visited the child Jesus in December a year or two later, being led from Jerusalem to Bethlehem by the star they'd seen in the east. At the time of their visit, Jesus was in a house (not a stable). The reason for their visit was to worship Jesus, but in the process they financed the family's flight to and return from Egypt.
We conclude that the most likely candidate for the star was a special miracle, an angelic star.
To hazard my own guess, I would first point out that Herod's time of death is not certain:
Since the nineteenth century the majority of theologians have placed the birth of Jesus before the Spring of 4 B.C., in spite of the fact that most of the church fathers within the early centuries placed his birth from 3 B.C. to 1 B.C. This pre-4 B.C. placement was due to a reference in Josephus that King Herod died shortly after an eclipse of the moon and before a Springtime Passover of the Jews. Astronomers in the last century informed theologians that an eclipse of the moon, which could be seen in Palestine, occurred on the evening of March 13, 4 B.C. Herod's death was arbitrarily placed within the 29 days from that eclipse until the Passover. However, Ernest Martin builds a convincing case that the proper eclipse occurred on January 10, 1 B.C.
Using the eclipse date of January 10, 1 B.C. to place Herod's death, and looking for celestial signs that God might have used to trigger the Magi to come see Jesus as guides to guess at the dates (there was a only once series of events astrologically speaking during that period of time), I would suggest the following as possible dates:
Jesus' birth: September 11th 3 B.C.
The visit of the Magi: December 25th 2 B.C.
Now, the irony of ironies is that in 3 B.C. the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) began at sundown on September 11th! If Jesus was born on September 11, 3 B.C. what a wonderful statement that makes as to Whom the real Atonement was.
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