Friday, December 16, 2011


The Magi Following the Star Across the Snowy Desert
O star of wonder, star of night, Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding, Guide us to thy perfect Light.

Hello My Friend and Welcome.

Today we continue our Christmas posts by examining the lore and legend of the Star of Bethlehem.  Every Christmas choirs sign We Three Kings of Orient Are and, if they’re like me, wonder about the famous star that led the Wise Men to Bethlehem. Was it a natural occurrence or a miraculous event? Although it’s been illustrated thousands of times, each and every one of them is merely a guess. No one knows exactly what it looked like.  From our vantage point 2,000 years after the event is it reasonable to imagine this mystery can be solved?

First, let’s look at the facts. Both the Star and the Wise Men are mentioned in only one Gospel — Matthew’s. Luke tells of shepherds and both Mark and John omit any birth narrative. We’re told very little about the star. The Wise Men arrive at Herod’s palace saying they’re looking for the new King of the Jews, “For we have seen his star in the East…” After Herod sends them on their way, “…the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was.” And that’s it.

Wait, you say. What about the fact that there were three of them, and they were Kings, and their names, and all that other stuff?

Magi in More Temperate Climes
The rest is legend and lore that can be traced to the Historia Trium Regum, the History of the Three Kings, written by the 14th Century priest, John of Hildesheim. Here’s how he tells it: “When the day of the nativity was passed the Star ascended up into the firmament, and it had right many long streaks and beams, more burning and brighter than a brand of fire; and as an eagle flying and beating the air with his wings, right so the streaks and beams of the Star stirred about.” Quite a spectacle.

He says the three Wise Men, named Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar, were the kings of “Ind, Chaldea, and Persia.” He says they met on the outskirts of Jerusalem having traveled from their own lands “in great haste.” From Jerusalem they go to Bethlehem and present their gifts. When the kings depart, they remain together until they reach the Hill of Vaws, or Hill of Victory, on the border of Ind. One of them has a watchtower there and that’s where the Star was first observed. Before going their separate ways, the three build “a fair chapel in worship of the Child they had sought.”

Mt. Palomar Observatory
Astronomers have speculated about the existence of the star ever since. Even with the assistance of computers, high-powered telescopes and the rest, the search continues. The first thing that must be done is pin down the date of Christmas. Not December 25th or some other date, but the year of Christ’s birth. The ancient world wasn’t as precise about time as we are today. Also, modern society lives by a modified Gregorian calendar, whereas the events of the Nativity occurred under the Julian calendar.

There is, of course, no historical record of the Nativity, the Star or the Wise Men other than the Bible accounts. A carpenter’s wife giving birth to a child wouldn’t be noticed by anyone of any import. But there were events significant enough for the ancients to record. Perhaps the easiest way to determine a date for Christmas is to set a stake in the ground and measure, plus or minus, from there.

The death of Herod the Great presents such an opportunity. Roman historian Flavius Josephus wrote that Herod died after an eclipse of the moon before the Passover. Still a little vague, it presents several possibilities. But most historians place Herod’s death in 4 BC. This puts the birth of the Christ child somewhere around 5 — 7 BC. The Wise Men would require some travel time, so the star itself could have appeared as much as two years before they arrived in Jerusalem. Having established a probable date range, we can begin the search.

Some scholars have imagined the star to be a comet, an object traditionally connected with important events in history, such as the birth of kings. However, records of comet sightings do not match up with the time of the Lord's birth. Others have suggested it might have been a supernova. Again, historical records do not indicate a supernova around the time of the Lord's birth.
Banks of Radio Telescopes Search the Skies
Theoretical astrophysicist and Notre Dame Professor, Grant Mathews, set out to identify the star.  Two years of research led him to conclude that the heavenly sign around the time of the birth of Jesus Christ was likely an unusual alignment of planets, the sun and the moon. In 1604 German astronomer Johannes Kepler suggested the same thing when he proposed that the star was a conjunction of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC. The advantage Mathews had over Kepler and others who have pondered the question in the past is that he had access to NASA’s databases. With it he could see any star ever made from the beginning of time, if he knew where to look.
All Mathews had to do was find a good candidate. Among the characteristics written about the star was that it appeared before sunrise and that it appeared to “rest in the sky.” Mathews found writings from Korean and Chinese astronomers of an event about 4 or 5 B.C. which described a comet with no tail that didn’t move.

He narrowed his search down to two possibilities: Feb. 20, 6 BC, when Mars, Jupiter and Saturn aligned in the constellation Pisces, and April 17, 6 BC, when the sun, Jupiter, the moon and Saturn aligned in the constellation Aries while Venus and Mars were in neighboring constellations. Mathews believes the April 17, 6 BC, alignment is the most likely candidate. He believes the Wise Men, being Zoroastrian astrologers, would have recognized the planetary alignment in Aries as a sign a powerful leader was born.

“In fact it would have even meant that this leader was destined to die at an appointed time, which of course would have been significant for the Christ child, and may have been why they brought myrrh, which was used for embalming,” Mathews said. “Saturn there would have made whoever was born as a leader a most powerful leader because Saturn had the strength to do it, in their view.”

So where does this leave us? Matthew admits that unless a document is discovered that allows historians to more accurately estimate when Jesus was born, it will be impossible to say what caused the light with absolute certainty.
There are a few other problems. Though the Biblical text never says so explicitly, it implies that only the Magi saw the star. The star also went before the Magi and led them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The path from Jerusalem to Bethlehem follows a north to south trajectory. However, all natural objects in the sky move from east to west due to the earth's rotation.

So in the final analysis, perhaps the Star of Bethlehem was never intended to be explained by science. Such would be the case, if it were a supernatural phenomenon such as the Shekinah or visible sign of God’s glory.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Christmas is, after all, a time of miracles.

Our Christmas posts continue on Monday when we’ll look at the Jewish Feats of Chanukah.

Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings.

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