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The Star of Bethlehem and the Birth of Jesus
The Real Star of Bethlehem ?
Some proposals include: a comet (which is a bad omen and does not "stand still", as "His star" is said to have done), a nova, a miracle star, and an angel (if Matthew is describing a miracle, then astronomical consideration is useless).
Matthew reports that the Magi saw the "star" rising in the East, and so it would naturally be called a "morning star" (Christ said of Himself: "I am the root and the offspring of David, the bright morning star", Revelations 22:16; 2Peter 1:19). This shows that the celestial bodies were symbolically significant to NT writers, and clearly, this was the mindset of the ancient world. Recall that on the morning of 12 August, 3BC, (about 1 hour and 20 minutes before sunrise), Jupiter rose as a morning star in conjunction with Venus. How would astrologers interpret such a phenomenon? Jupiter was known as the Father of the Gods. Jupiter had just left the vicinity of the Sun and conjoined with Venus. This could have been an indication of a coming birth. Jupiter was often associated with the birth of kings, and therefore called the King-planet [Hendriksen, Matthew, pg. 153]. To the Chaldeans Venus was Ishtar, the Goddess of Fertility. The conjunction of these two planets signified that the birth of a new king was imminent. This was a favorable sign, as these two planets were known by all astrologers as the Greater and Lesser Good Fortunes of all planets. And note also: while this conjunction was occurring, the Sun (Supreme Father), the Moon (also a Mother), and Mercury (the Messenger/Interpreter of the Gods) were located in the constellation Leo the Lion. [The Lion was the symbol of the Tribe of Judah, and the constellation appears in the Hebrew zodiac. 'Judah is the Lion's whelp', and again, 'The Lion of the tribe of Judah'"].
Following these planetary conjunctions, Jupiter then moved on to unite with Regulus (14 September, 3BC) on three occasions (the Romans called it "Rex," which means "King" in Latin. In Arabia, the star was known as the "Kingly One". The Greeks called him the "King Star". Of all the stars in the heavens, Regulus was universally associated by ancient astrologers with the attributes of greatness and power. It lay practically on the ecliptic [the path which the Sun takes in traversing the heavens], and it was thought that this position made it of special importance to the Sun. This close relationship to the Sun, the ruler of the heavens, made Regulus a "royal star", the one most associated with the birth of kings).
The first conjunction occurred on 14 September, 3BC, and here was Jupiter (the King-planet), which had just united with Venus (the Mother) in August, 3BC, now joining itself with the King-star, Regulus (the star of the Jewish Messiah; see Numbers 24:17) in the zodiacal sign of Leo (constellation of Judah), while the Sun (Supreme Father) was then located in Virgo (the Virgin). These features clearly reflect Biblical themes associated with the birth and person of Christ, who was prophesied to be born of a virgin and a descendant of David.
The 2nd conjunction of Jupiter and Regulus occurred on 17 February, 2BC, and amazingly, the Moon came to be positioned at that exact time between Jupiter and Regulus! At about 5 a.m, looking at the western horizon, an observer would have seen the Moon directly between Jupiter and Regulus. Indeed, it would have been occulting (covering up) the star Regulus with the lower 1/5th of the Moon's diameter. And then, on 8/9 May, 2BC (82 days later), the same conjunction occurred again. This time, however, the Moon occulted Regulus by the top 1/5th of its diameter. (The last conjunction would not have been seen in Palestine, since the Moon had already set some three hours earlier, yet any astronomers, such as the Magi, would have known what was happening.)
Jupiter then moved on its westward journey, and on 17 June 2BC, it had its extraordinary rare reunion with Venus. When Venus had extended herself as far east as possible to encounter Jupiter, a splendid conjunction resulted, visible west of Babylon. And note too: this beautiful conjunction occurred in the constellation Leo and at the exact time of the full Moon. So close were the two planets that they would have appeared very much like one gigantic star in a "marriage union" with each other. And most importantly, the Magi would have witnessed this union appearing on the western horizon precisely in the direction of Judea. This heavenly scene could well have produced a general excitement to look towards Jerusalem for the arrival of the Messianic king of the Jews. It could have been interpreted that these two planets, which possibly introduced the prophesied king when they were both morning stars some ten months before (12 August, 3BC), were now consummating their introduction with an impressively rare evening star union. What a beautiful display this last rendezvous would have made in the early evening sky west of Babylon, and especially to the people looking at it in Israel! There had not been anything like it (nor would there be again) for generations.
This, however, was not all: on 27 August, 2BC (72 days later), there occurred the extremely close conjunction of Jupiter with Mars (planet of war), while Venus and Mercury homed in on them in an unusual massing of four planets. All the primary planets (except Saturn) were clustering in the constellation Leo, while the Moon was just entering the Constellation Leo. The Sun, however, at that very time was entering the Constellation of Virgo!
The stellar body that played the most prominent role in the extraordinary year of 3/2BC and which figured in almost every celestial event was Jupiter. Jupiter soon left the unusual union with the three other planets (August, 3BC) and proceeded in its apparent motion westward. Since the Magi came from the East, it could well be that they simply followed the normal movement of the planet toward Jerusalem as it progressed westward each day, for the Bible says the star "went on before them" (Matthew 2:9), which means they let Jupiter lead them westward. Upon reaching Jerusalem, the Magi were told to look to Bethlehem for the newborn king; this happened when the NT says the "star" came to a definite halt in the heavens; it stopped its motion of leading the Magi and "stood over where the Child was" (Matthew 2:9). In a word, the celestial body became stationary. It is this very action which has caused many interpreters to characterize the whole episode in Matthew as either fictitious or miraculous. Whoever heard of a normal heavenly body having the capability of stopping its movement over a small village in Palestine? Matthew is describing a celestial phenomenon in popular language that astronomers are fully aware of and is explained as follows: Jupiter becomes "stationary" at its times of retrogression and progression. When we look at Jupiter, we see the planet normally moving eastward through fixed stars. This apparent movement is called "proper motion". The Earth, however, is moving in its orbit around the Sun faster than that of Jupiter. When Earth reaches point A, an observer would see Jupiter along nearly the same line as the Earth's own orbital movement. When the Earth is traveling more or less in a direct line toward Jupiter, the planet will continue to show "proper motion". But when Earth reaches position B, it is no longer heading toward Jupiter. The faster velocity of the Earth, as it makes its turn to B and beyond, causes the apparent motion of Jupiter to slow down. This continues until the Earth reaches C. At that point, the speed of the Earth in relation to Jupiter is the same as Jupiter's. That is when Jupiter appears to become stationary within the background of the fixed stars. As the Earth progresses from C to D, it has a greater relative speed than Jupiter and this causes Jupiter to retrogress (it reverses its motion and travels westward through the stars). At D, however, the speed of the Earth and Jupiter are again matched (relative to each other) and Jupiter stops its reverse motion. When D is passed, Jupiter returns to "proper motion". Each of the stationary positions of Jupiter repeats itself in about 13 months. It is this natural occurrence that caused "His star" to stop over Bethlehem.
Amazingly, on September 22, 2BC, Jupiter came to a "stopped" position in the middle of the constellation Virgo, the Virgin! Precisely on September 22, 2BC, Jupiter "stopped" in the abdomen region of Virgo, right where a woman carries a child in pregnancy! As recorded in Rev.12:1-2, a Wonderous sign in the heavens, the pregnant woman about to give birth, the sign of the Son of Man, according to Mt.24:27. But how was it possible for Jupiter to be stationary over the village of Bethlehem at that time? There is not the slightest problem for it to do so. The Bible says that the Magi saw the star come to a stop while they were in Jerusalem. And on 22 September, 2BC, at the ordinary time for the Magi's predawn observations, Jupiter would have been in meridian position directly over Bethlehem at an elevation of 68 degrees above the southern horizon. This precise position would show the planet shining directly down on Bethlehem while it was stationary among the stars! What a remarkable coincidence! This may be the major reason why people in the early Church said that 22 September, 2 B.C., was the day associated with the birth of Jesus and when the Magi presented their gifts to the newborn Savior.
Interestingly, while Jupiter was also in its "standing still" position over Bethlehem, the Sun was also "standing still". September 22 is the time of the Autumnal Equinox. The word equinox in Latin means "equality of night and day", when the sun is directly above the equater, with night and day length is equal in both the northern and the southern hemispheres.
One thing is for certain: the astronomical phenomena of the year 3/2BC did, in fact, occur. Those living at the time were no doubt stirred with excitement and wonder. Back in 1606AD, the ingenious Kepler suggested that the star of Bethlehem was possibly a conjunction of Jupiter. The theologian F. Steinmetzer, back in 1912, wrote an article stating his belief that Matthew was referring to one of those normal "stationary" positions of the planets.
Note: The results of this article does not alter in any way the Scriptural facts pertaining to the life of Christ as previously taught nor does it alter any of the teachings of our Lord and Savior.
See: www.askelm.com for article on: "The Star That Astonished The World" by clicking on "The birth of Jesus."