Note: If you have not read the earlier posts about the Star of Bethlehem, you might want to begin with the December 15 post, His Star in the Easts.
I think you can see how astrology could have played a role in the coming of the magi. I hope you can also see that it’s not a way to guide your life. The stars and planets move on their courses according to laws (of gravity) which are not the same as what governs free persons. How people interpret the cosmic meaning of these motions must often be called lawless.
To give you a flavor of the whole matter and then some further interesting details, here is a list of the relevant (and irrelevant) celestial events of the years 7-1 BC.
Beginning with 7-4 BC:
- In 7 BC, a triple conjunction (three meetings) of Jupiter and Saturn. This conjunction was discovered (by research) by Kepler in 1614. All three conjunctions took place in the constellation Pisces, one in May, one in September, one in December. The stars were at least one degree (one Moon-width) apart, an asterism, not a “star.”
- In February of 6 B.C. Jupiter, Mars Saturn came within 8° of each other, also in Pisces, and also an asterism.
- On April 17, 6 BC, the Sun, the Moon, Venus, Jupiter all gathered in constellation Aries; a gathering, not a conjunction. One meticulous researcher claims that Aries, not Pisces, is the constellation of Judaism, and this is the “star.”
- A supernova in Capricorn, in 5 BC, was recorded by the Chinese and would have been visible to all sky-watchers. It was visible for 70 days, but 40° off the ecliptic, so not the first thing you would see looking up, and not necessarily long enough to be visible through an entire journey from Persia to Jerusalem…
- There were comet sightings in 5 and in 4 B.C. but these not likely candidates for “the star” because comets are generally seen (by the superstitious) as negative.
From 3-1 BC
- March of 3 BC is the probable birth time of St. John the Baptist; no celestial marker has been suggested for this.
- May 19 of 3 BC, Saturn and Mercury came close only 40’ apart (40’ means 40 minutes of arc, which means 40/60 of a degree or 2/3 of a degree.)
- June 12 year 3 BC, Saturn and Venus were only 7.2’ apart (7/60) of a degree. This might have been a visual union, though Saturn is not very bright.
- August 12 of the year 3 BC, there was a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in Leo, 10’ apart. They were visually indistinguishable as both are bright planets, so it must have been very conspicuous and beautiful. Note also that Jupiter was close to Regulus, only 19.4’ or 1/3 of degree away. And this took place in the early morning, so “in the easts.” The magi – or any astronomer/astrologer — would have noticed it.
- September of year 3, Jesus was born. Ernest Martin argues for the Feast of Trumpets, Rosh Hashanah, which is regarded as a commemoration of the first day of Creation, and which is the day of the “last trumpet.” He says that this was the New Moon and that the celestial arrangement of that day is found in the book of Revelation 12:1-3. The New Moon of that month appeared on the 11th. (In case you’re wondering, the second edition of Martin’s book was 1991. I think the first was 1976, but I’m not sure. I have read parts, but not the whole book.)
- On the 14th of September in 3 BC, Jupiter had a conjunction (19.8’) with Regulus; the following February 17th, they had a second conjunction, 51’ apart; on May 8 of year 2, they had a third conjunction, 43.2’ apart
- June 17 of 2 BC, Venus and Jupiter met in Leo 6” apart. For some, this is an irresistible date for Jesus’ birth. (6” is six arc seconds, one arc second being one 60th of a minute while an arc minute, remember, is 1/60th of a degree. Give thanks for the decimal system.) This conjunction was visible in the early evening, therefore seen as “west” — at precisely 6:11 p.m. – a time therefore suggested as Jesus’ birth hour by some. (But not compatible with the consideration of Zacharias’ service.) These two planets could not possibly have been distinguished from each other, naked eye, at their maximum conjunction. Jupiter signifies kingship; Venus motherhood, and Leo is considered (by some) to be the head of the zodiac. It is the royal constellation, whose brightest star is Regulus = king. Irresistible!
- August 27, 2 BC, there was massing of Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury in Leo. This was also the 750th anniversary of Rome’s putative founding
- Then Jupiter stopped its wandering motions on December 25, 2 BC. This is the normal stop preceding a retrograde motion. It stopped in Virgo for six days. Since this was the time of the equinox, the Sun was also “standing still” so that if the magi turned south from Jerusalem on this day, then Jupiter lay before them in the southern sky — in the middle of Virgo (the Virgin) — shining directly over Bethlehem.
So how did they find his house?
I don’t know. We draw pictures of the star shining right over the stable, but everyone agrees that the magi came some time after Jesus’ birth. He was in a house, presumably in town; no natural star or planet could have shown where. So the angels might have told them, or some friend of Zacharias and Elizabeth or some protégé of Simeon might have learned of their quest and helped them. God did not allow them to cross the desert for 3 months in search of the Messiah and then drop them. He’s a loving father!
Finally, as you know, Herod had all the Bethlehem boys under 2 years of age killed, not just all infants, so he must have thought that Jesus might be over a year old already when the magi came; surely also he thought he was safely under two years old.
Note: The eclipse of Jan 10th of the year 1 BC makes sense as the one for Herod’s death because he murdered several rabbis just before he died, and then, when there was an eclipse of the Moon, it was said that the Moon was red with the blood of the murdered rabbis. The eclipsed Moon does not disappear from view because earthshine keeps it visible, but it takes on a strikingly somber red color. This is one reason for thinking the eclipse at Herod’s death was total, not partial as in 4 BC.
And that closes our discussion of the Star of Bethlehem. What a strange mix of history, scripture, astronomy, and astrology! But the threads can be teased out and woven into a harmonious and intriguing account which does not, I think, offend theology.
He came. Emmanuel!