The Christmas Star (The Magi Continued)

My male relatives on my mother’s side were all physicists or some other stripe of scientist, and as a boy one of my cousins got me into astronomy. So throughout my boyhood I was an astronomy geek. I subscribed to Boy’s Life and Sky and Telescope. And while it was a rite of passage for most boys to send away for xray glasses from an ad in the back of a comic book, my analog to that is I sent away for a lecture by an astronomer advertised in the back of my Sky and Telescrope magazine. The lecture was recorded on a long-playing record album, and addressed astronomical explanations for the Christmas star.

As I recall, it was a fairly standard lecture of the type that is probably repeated every December at planetariums around the country. The lecturer explored the possibilities of the star being a comet, a supernova, a planetary conjunction or something miraculous and foreign to our knowledge.

Last night we had our ward Christmas party, and they showed a Mormon film clip of the Nativity. The video showed the star as simply a very bright star in the night sky, which is the way I imagined it as a boy. At that time I assumed that the star must have been a supernova, because the other naturalistic explanations wouldn’t have looked like that.

But now in my old age I’m much more partial to the planetary conjunction theory.

We know Halley’s comet appeared in 12 BCE–far too early. Chinese records record a supernova that appeared in Capricorn in 5 BCE. While that is a possibility, the text of Matthew seems to be describing the retrograde motion made by planets (from planEtEs “wanderer”), and a supernova would not make such a motion. There was a conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in 2 BCE, but given that Herod died in 4 BCE that’s too late.

Which means that perhaps the best solution is a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces that occurred in 7 BCE.

We have numerous astronomical almanacs from Babylon from the period 220 BCE to 75 CE, from which it is clear that they had the capacity to predict the movements of the five visible planets.

The planets would not have appeared as a single star; there would have still been one degree of arc between them. It is the astrological significance of such a conjunction that makes it a viable possibility.

There are extant four copies of a Babylonian astronomical almanac dating to 8 BCE, predicting movements over the ensuing 13 months, which accurately predicts this conjunction.

Although no astrological interpretation of this event is extant, from general Babylonian astrology one can posit a reasonable reading of this conjunction. Pisces is the last constellation of the Zodiac; Jupiter represents Marduk, the supreme deity, and Saturn represents the king. So this conjunction could have been understood as God raising up a new king at the end of an age. Mars joined the conjunction on its third occurrence, and it was the planet of the Amurru, or the West, particularly of Syria-Palestine (from the perspective of Babylon).

A prediction of a new king in the West would have been of great interest at the time, as the Seleucid Empire had been annexed to Rome, although Rome’s power in the East had not yet been consolidated. The magoi may have seen the astrological portents as telling of the birth of a new king who would drive the Romans from the East, a positive development from their perspective.

[For much more detail on this planetary conjunction, see Simo Parpola, “The Magi and the Star,” Bible Review (December 2001.]

Comments

  1. You’ve probably already seen this – but I always found the writings of John Pratt to be very interesting. One of his articles talking about this subject can be found here

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for that link, Dan. I personally am on the other side of the aisle from Pratt on this issue, which was hashed out in a sort of debate in the pages of BYU Studies a number of years ago.

  3. The 2 sides being Christ born in 4 BC vs. 1 BC?

  4. Then of course there is the science fiction short story by Arthur C. Clarke, “The Star”. Here’s the synopsis from Wikipedia,

    “The Star” is the story of a group of space explorers from Earth returning from an expedition to a remote star system, where they discovered the remnants of an advanced civilization destroyed when their sun went supernova. Their chief astrophysicist, a Jesuit priest, is suffering from a deep crisis of faith, triggered by some undisclosed event during the journey.

    As the story unfolds, the reader learns that the destroyed planet’s culture was very similar to Earth’s. Recognizing several generations in advance that their sun would soon explode, and with no means of interstellar travel to save themselves, the doomed people spent their final years building a vault on the outermost planet in their solar system, whose Pluto-like orbit was distant enough to survive the supernova. In the vault, they placed a complete record of their history, culture, achievements, and philosophy, hoping that it would someday be found so that their existence would not have been in vain. The Earth explorers, particularly the astrophysicist-priest, were deeply moved by these artifacts, and they found themselves identifying closely with the dead race’s peaceful, humanlike culture and the profound grace they exhibited in the face of their cruel fate.

    The final paragraph of “The Star” reveals the source of the priest’s pain. Determining the exact year of the long-ago supernova and the star system’s distance from Earth, he calculated the date the emitted light from the explosion reached Earth, proving that the cataclysm that destroyed the peaceful planet was, in fact, the very star (or supernova), that compelled the wise men on Earth to travel to see the Child Jesus. The scientist’s faith is shaken because of the apparent capriciousness of God:

    [O]h God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?

    Yes, yes, I know, sci-fi. But if the “Star” was a supernova?

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Yes.

    John Lefgren published a book entitled April Sixth, taking the position Christ was born 6 April 1 BCE.

    S. Kent Brown, C. Wilfred Griggs and H. Kimball Hansen published a review taking issue with Lefgren in BYU Studies 22/3 (Summer 1982).

    John Pratt wrote a letter defending Lefgren, to which Brown, Griggs and Hansen published brief response. These items both appeared in 23/2 at the back.

    I agree with Brown, Griggs and Hansen as against Lefgren and Pratt.

  6. I thought it was a cigar box belonging to a little boy angel. Did I miss a memo?

  7. While completely non-scientific of me and information from a friend ofa friend, I have, so long as I had an opinion, thought the star was generated by the aligning of other heavenly bodies to form one greater heavenly body. I got this idea third hand from a friend of my first branch president who wrote computer programs for the government. The story goes that he was writing a program for the government which tracked the stars in the sky at specific times, and he went back with this program to the birth time of christ and the program allowed him to see the “super star”.

  8. wow, it’s like Barneypalooza II!

  9. Jonathan Green says:

    Roger Bacon and Pierre d’Ailly in the 14th/15th centuries saw the conjunction (which they took to be in the sign of Aries, in 6 BC) as a sign of Christ’s birth in addition to the appearance of a new star. (See Laura Smoller, History, Prophecy, and the Stars, 1994, about d’Ailly and his efforts to reconcile theology and astrology).

  10. NoCoolName_Tom says:

    Is there any place where I can get more info on these conjunctions (i.e., location and dates) so I can look at them in Stellarium?

  11. I’ve always thought it was probably a comet, as those were astrologically typically interpreted to mean the rise or fall of kings and kingdoms. There are many, many comets that are undiscovered, have single passes, or are such long cycle comets that they haven’t appeared but once in recorded history. Who is going to call a conjunction “a star”? It’s not singular, it’s plural! But, as you pointed out, comets, asteroids, planets, just about any light in the sky was historically and is currently called a star by most everyone.

    I’m totally going with a comet. Comet or pure myth, that is.

  12. I’m thinking it was a spacecraft from Kolob.

  13. #6 (smb)– :-)

  14. Robert Boylan says:

    Kevin B. wrote:

    ==here was a conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in 2 BCE, but given that Herod died in 4 BCE that’s too late.==

    Some who hold to this view in Maynooth (not the theology faculty, BTW) argue that Herod did not die in 4 BCE, just merely no longer served as king, dying instead in 2 CE.

    I don’t buy such, I heard the argument being made in a presentation two years ago on the Christmas Star.

    Thanks for the informative posts, Kevin.

  15. Robert Boylan says:

    ==[D]ying instead in 2 CE.==

    I meant 2 *B*CE

  16. I LOVE this stuff! Give us more, Kev.

  17. Rameumptom says:

    I’ve always kept an open mind on this: star or planetary alignment, etc.

    I do have a question, though. How do you see this in light of 3 Nephi 1, which clearly specifies a star, rather than a planetary alignment. I do note that the day-night-day with no darkness was followed by the star. To me, this seems descriptive of a nova, as the light would have reached the earth first, lighting it up for several hours, until it dimmed enough to see the new star.

  18. #17 – Lack of terminology for a nova or planetary alignment in their language?

  19. I’m no astrologer but I go with the planet alignment because it would have had to have been visible for a long time. After the magi visited Herod he inquired to when the star appeared and then had children 2 YEARS and under killed. And the gifts they brought of gold, francenscence, and myrr represent royalty, deity, and I forget the last, it’s either death or spirit but goes well along with the alignment of the planets Jupiter (supreme diety), Saturn (king), and Mars (see above). I love when the Bible proves history and history proves the Bible.

    Does anyone know the info relating to Christ’s death and a solar eclipse that was suppose to have happened that year? It’s been too long since I heard this I’m too foggy on it to even start a google. Thanks!

  20. This may simply be a product of my ignorance of ancient astronomy (and/or astrology), but I have never quite understood how the star actually led them to the specific house where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were. The text states:

    When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. (NRSV Matt. 2:9-11)

    How did they distinguish that house from the rest of Palestine? Or the rest of Jerusalem? Or the house down the block? Or the house next door? Was the star literally standing over only the one place?

    This has led me to wonder if the “star” could have been an angel, or a “host” of angels (similar to the host singing praises in Luke’s gospel), or even Heavenly Father himself, standing above the scene, watching over the epochal event. The heavenly being(s) probably would have appeared like a star, but at the same time would have been able to move and stand still and be close enough to the ground to pinpoint an exact location as needed. While stars or other celestial events can also appear to be move in the sky and stand still (with the earth’s rotation), could ancient astronomers/astrologers use a star to pinpoint a location as exact as a (likely) small house?

    Certainly, their knowledge of the stars plus a dose of revelation could have led them. However, it was a heavenly being, it wouldn’t be the last time a heavenly being would be mistaken for a celestial body. In describing Christ’s second coming, Joseph Smith stated in a general conference in 1843:

    . . . but what will the world do? they will say it is a planet. a comet, &c. consequently the sun [Son] of man will come as the sign of the soming of the son of man; is as the light of the morning cometh out of the east

    Just an idea.

  21. Oops – 2nd to the last paragraph, second sentence, should read: “However, if it was a heavenly being . . . .”

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    I think that part is a bit of poetic license. You’re right that no natural celestial phenomenon could have pinpointed the exact location. Herod directed them to Bethlehem, which is small, and they didn’t have much difficulty finding the little family.