If you have not been following these posts about the Star of Bethlehem, you might want to begin with His Star in the Easts and then His Birthday.
From 7 to 4 BC
The years between 7 and 4 BC were unusually crammed with events of astrological import. Let me give you an idea of the material that astrologers work with:
In 7 BC, there was a triple conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn. That is, these planets moved into such positions, partly due to retrograde motion, that they came fairly close to each other, not once, but three times, in May, September, and December. Kepler first discovered this and, believing that the constellation Pisces was special to the Jewish people, concluded that the triple conjunction was the birth star of Jesus, one for his birth perhaps, and the other two to “guide” the magi. Actually, they were not close enough to appear as a single star, but they would have been a pretty asterism, so it was an interesting idea.
In 6 BC, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn lined up in Pisces. Interesting, unusual, but again, not really close enough to look like a single bright star.
Also in 6 BC, the Sun, the Moon, Venus, and Jupiter all gathered in the constellation Aries, which, according to one researcher is “really” the constellation of the Jewish people, and that makes this the right astrology. But if the Sun and the Moon are that close to each other, the Moon can only be just a sliver on the horizon, and the planets cannot have been at their most spectacular either — except to the eyes of an astrologer.
The Chinese record a supernova in 5 BC. It would have been visible worldwide; would that have been noticed by the magi? Maybe. Actually it was only visible for 70 days, so it would not likely have been visible through to the end of a journey from Persia.
There were some comets in 5 and 4 BC; most say that comets had a negative connotation, so they shouldn’t be the answer.
And anyway, we already said we wanted 3 BC, right? But I wanted to say that astrology, left to itself, meanders.
From 3-2 BC
So what was up in 3 and 2 BC?
Well, Saturn and Mercury came within half a degree in May of 3 BC. Half a degree is about half the width of the Moon; it would be pretty, but not the appearance of a single star and Saturn and Mercury are not bright. Only an astrologer could note.
And then Saturn had a much closer approach to Venus in June; this time it was a tenth of a degree, much more impressive, visually a single star; Saturn is not very bright, but Venus is.
But on August 12 of 3 BC, we hit the jackpot. Maybe.
Jupiter, king of planets, meets Venus the morning star, the fertility and the “mother” star, — in the constellation Leo the Lion, as in: the Lion of the House of Judah. Yes, the Jews really did see this constellation as their very own lion. Jupiter and Venus are each bright seen alone, and this conjunction was within a sixth of a degree, so their light would merge; furthermore they were attractively close to Regulus, the bright “king star” in Leo. (Regulus means king.) On September 14, in fact, Jupiter moved on to a “conjunction” with Regulus. The star and the planet were about a third of a degree apart, so not really one star, but the story does not end there. After leaving Regulus for a few months, Jupiter started its annual retrograde motion, backed up and returned for a second conjunction in February of 2 BC and then, after completing its retrograde, turned around for a third conjunction in May. None of these were conjunctions of merged light, but they were striking asterisms and it might have been thought that the king planet was circling and “crowning” the king star in the constellation of the Lion of Judah.
And after that, there was an even closer conjunction between Jupiter and Venus on June 17 of 2 BC and, this time, they were too close to be distinguished even by the best of human vision. Six seconds of arc. One second of arc is one 60th of one 60th of one degree. Go figure; you can’t see it.
Before you leap to any conclusions, however, it’s worth knowing that this year was the 750th year since the founding of Rome, and the 25th anniversary of the reign of Caesar Augustus, and the year he was proclaimed Pater Patriae. Given that Venus was supposed to be the mother of his family, can you be in any doubt as to how his court astrologers interpreted all this king-crowning stuff? And Leo was supposed to be the protector of Rome. The astrologers were on a roll. And on August 12, when Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury met in Leo, they had a great bash in Rome, certain that kingship, war, fertility, and whatever Mercury stands for were all united in affirming their Augustus Caesar.
The magi would not have known about this competing interpretation, however, nor would they have cared. Daniel had prophesied the birth of Jesus sometime about this time, and Zoroaster, founder of the Persian religion, had prophesied the coming of a king who would raise the dead and bring a reign of peace – and that he would come from the family of Abraham. The magi had every reason to believe that the time was ripe; it would have been natural for them to set out for Judaea to find the newborn king.
If they set out in late August, perhaps on the propitious morning of August 27, when Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and Mercury gathered in the constellation Leo (though not as a single star), they would have arrived in Jerusalem a few months later, in late November or in December. After discussing matters with Herod, who “inquired closely,” — you better believe that Roman procurator questioned very closely! – they learned of specific prophecies about Bethlehem and set out again, south towards Bethlehem.
And lo! What did they see? No conjunction, but the king planet, bright Jupiter, the character from all the other kingly conjunctions, now burned in the southern sky in the middle of the constellation Virgo. Virgo the Virgin. It was preparing for another retrograde, and, as it does in retrograde, it stopped its wandering for a few days. In fact, it stopped for six days, starting in the dawn of December 25.
“And lo, the star that they had seen went before them and “stopped” over the place where Jesus lay.”
How do you like that?
We know they came. We know they came partly in response to considerations of astrology. Maybe they really got there December 25 of 2 BC when Jesus was, by our earlier calculations, just over 15 months old.
One more post coming on this topic — Emmanuel! God with us.
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