"Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and have come to worship him" (Matthew 2:1-2)
"... and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was." (Matt.2:3-10).
Fascinating how Tim Tebow has brought Christianity back to the mainstream. It has been pushed to the side of public discourse for years. No where is this more apparent than in speculations on the Christmas Star, which used to be a rife topic for discourse. I remember growing up and going to a Planetarium at this time of year, and being shown astronomical options for the Star of Bethelehem. I daresay such shows are rarities today, and even back then, they were rich in Science and poor in Religion, as if the religious context was like an oddball uncle, better left outside the room. Yet how can one understand what the Star was, without seeking the context of the times?
In an overarching irony, I found the context not in the Planetarium, nor in orthodox Christianity, but outside the US, in the New Age section of an Australian bookstore. I wrote about this years ago, and would like to update my findings in this Time of Tebow.
One of the odd pleasures of traveling is to find books with ideas that are not common in the home country. My first vacation to Australia brought me into the very active subculture of British investigation of the Freemasons, and their connection to the mysterious Knights Templar of the Great Crusades. On my return to NZ, I found a further work by the same authors, exploring even earlier connections between the Freemasons, the Templars and Solomon's Temple. In the course of their analysis, they propose yet another candidate for the Star of Bethlehem, one that ties much better into Jewish tradition than the mainstream candidates.
The Star of Science
The Christmas Star has been a well-explored space. Ever since Kepler figured out the rules of planetary motion, astronomers and enthusiasts have eagerly wound back the celestial clock to see what wonders arose in the period around 1 - 7 BC. A quick Google will show you a myriad of possible Stars, none of which is fully convincing. And a whole lot of dispute over even basic facts - such as when the Star shone.
Here is the synopsis: Two of the Gospels (Matthew and Luke) give stories of Jesus's birth, and in Matthew a star appeared signaling the birth of a new King of the Jews. This star was mystic (or mythic) enough to cause some Magi to come to Israel to find him. The Magi met the ruling King of the Jews (Herod) and told him that the star foretold a new king being born. The ruling King put out an order to kill all children 2 years and younger. The Magi found Jesus first, and gave him gifts. Jesus's family escaped into Egypt and lived there until the death of Herod.
Not much more to the story but a lot in that little bit. A 'star' could be a whole variety of stellar objects, but some of the more interesting can be rejected:
- A meteor is too short lived.
- A comet is usually attributed to evil or bad tidings.
- A nova would be good - it would correlate a new star to a new king - but the only known candidate novae are too dim to have warranted all the attention.
- Most likely the star was a conjunction of planets. Many have been proposed.
Kepler proposed a conjunction of Jupiter (the King planet) with Saturn (the defender planet of Palestine), later joined by Mars, in the constellation Pisces (associated with the Jews, as well as with epochal events) in 7 BC. A similar epochal formation of planets occurred in 6 BC, with all seven planets in the pre-dawn sky, arrayed around the heavens, with Jupiter as the kingpin. Jupiter later went into retrograde orbit, then stopped in the sky when it went back to the normal procession across the ecliptic - which seems to fit the Gospel account of the Star wandering then stopping over Bethlehem (see above). Others have proposed a Jupiter conjunction with multiple planets during its retrograde orbit in 3 BC, and again in 1 BC.
The Gospel of Matthew has Herod the Great still alive during the birth of the Christ. Most historians place his death at 4 BC, although there is an argument he died in 1 BC. The Gospel of Luke dates the birth from a census that most historians attribute to one conducted in 6 AD, based on the name of the governor of Syria mentioned in Luke. This puts it so outside the range that our earnest Star gazers ignore Luke, and indeed this inconsistency is cited as a major historical problem with the Gospels. The Bible, however, oft surprises. The named governor had also served an earlier term as a legate or military commander to Syria, and during his first tenure were two suitable censuses - one in 8 BC that would have gotten the family in Bethlehem in time for a birth in 7 BC, and the other in 3 BC.
The Star of Prophesy
The reason for the confusion over the Star is lack of context - we no longer know what would have been a convincing Star in that period. Indeed, this very mechanistic search for some stellar event, so symptomatic of our scientific times, is the wrong way to find the Star. The Star first and foremost had religious significance, and our search for the Star needs to start there - with Judaism, and the prophecies of a Messiah.
The Star needs to be compelling enough to have drawn the Magi on a long journey from (mostly likely) Persia to Bethlehem, yet not so obvious as to have risen to Herod's attention - he had to have the Star explained to him by the Magi. Once explained, he then took it so seriously he sought to kill all the newly born in Bethlehem.
What would help make it so compelling is if it were predicted or prophesized.
The premise that the Star was an unexpected, singular event that somehow the Magi figured out, like a puzzle in the sky, is ahistorical. Messiahs were in the water, so to speak. It was expected that the Messiah would come around the First Century. Perhaps the Star was similarly predictable? If so, its appearance would have signaled to the Magi that the prophesized events were coming to pass.
Who were these Magi? The root is the same as "Magician", and means Wise Man or Wizard. Probably astronomers, or astrologers, or both. According to a 1999 analysis by Molnar, they may have been Zoroastrian priests - the Zoroastrian philosophy included the expectation of a Messiah born of a virgin - from the great Parthian Empire, which at this time rivaled Rome. They could have been an embassy to the Israelites to suggest an alliance with the new king. They were probably surprised by the can of worms they had dug up when Herod went after the newborn kids.
How would they have known Jewish myths? In around 600 BC the Jews had been captured and brought to Babylon. During that period the prophet Daniel had predicted the Messiah, and given timing. (Interesting, his timing can calculate out exactly to Apr 3, 33 AD, when most scholars believe Jesus was crucified.) The Jews were allowed back to Israel, but many stayed on. Quite possibly the Magi were steeped in their myths and history. There is a lot that has been stripped from history of this period.
In addition to Daniel there were other Prophets of the Messiah, especially Isaiah. Various books of the Bible discuss stars, including a reference in Numbers:
"[T]here shall come a star out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel." (Num.24:17).
We can assume the Magi knew all of this and more, the more being lost in history.
Hence the Star must have been something which connected to Jewish mythology of a Messiah or King. It could not be any old King, or they would not have come at that particular time. Many of the candidate conjunctions of various planets in various constellations for the Star could have applied to any King of Israel, and so lack uniqueness to the one and only Messiah. That is why I think this Star must have been not just predictable but actually foretold, and the Magi were watching for its emergence.
The Star of the Jews
The star-like object in Jewish history is the Shekinah, often described as the light of God. It is not today attributed to a star. It is usually described as the presence or Light of God. Burning Bush - Shekinah light. Pillar of light - Shekinah light.
What if our interpretation has evolved, and in those days among the Jewish priesthood it was known to be a rare but recurring stellar event? This is the premise for a new candidate Star of Bethlehem.
Historically, we know the Shekinah appeared at the dedication of the Temple of Solomon in 967 BC. It also provided the light at night during the Exodus, and shone at Moses's birth.
In 967 BC, there was a conjunction of Venus and Mercury in the morning sky. Could this be the Shekinah? These planets come close off and on, but every 480 years they come very close, when both are very bright. They would appear as a brilliant dagger - or a cross, or a sceptre - in the morning sky, pointing down. In 7 BC, this conjunction happened again. Could this be the Star of Bethlehem?
(Side note: Kepler presumed that a new King would be compared with Jupiter, and most planetary explanations for the Star involve Jupiter. Yet in the Gospels, Jesus never compared himself to Jupiter, but to Venus. Why Venus is a topic for another investigation, but suffice to say, Venus held a special spot to ancient astronomers. It was brighter than Jupiter, and was used until modern times as the most precise clock of time. Our Naval Obnservatory in Washington, DC used Venus until the 1950s, when atomic clocks became out official timekeepers.)
The Shekinah is described as coming and going depending on God's will, not in a regular pattern. The conjunction happens more often than 480 years, with varying levels of brightness and closeness. Hence the Shekinah could sometimes appear bright, but often not, and without seeing the larger pattern, could appear a bit random. This period of 480 years is very long, much longer than the experience and astronomical knowledge of most societies. But if nothing else, the ancients were attentive astronomers, and a few 'Magi' may have noticed the 480 year pattern and kept it a tradition passed down to the priesthood over generations.
The 480-year pattern also corresponds to periods mentioned in the Bible. Jewish tradition has the Exodus as 480 years before the dedication of the Temple, and 960 years after the Flood. While we no longer believe these reflect the real periods of time between those events, the important point is in Jewish tradition these periods are related by 480 years.
If we call that 480-year period a Shekinah Period, we find that 7 BC is:
- two Shekinah Periods from the dedication of the Temple
- three Shekinah Periods from the Exodus, and
- five Shekinah Periods from the Flood.
This is a remarkable confluence of periods worthy of some great event, such as the birth of the Messiah.
The Shekinah has not been noted in history since. It would have re-emerged in 474 AD, about the time of the end of the Roman Empire in 476; and in 1914, right at the start of the Great War and the end of the British Empire. But its influence lives on, at least within the heady world of Templars, Freemasons and students of exotic history. Rosslyn Chapel, the center of speculation in The Da Vinci Code as the resting place for great secrets spirited out of the ruins of Solomon's Temple, was built beginning in 1441 AD - three Shekinah Periods from the birth of the Christ, had He been born in 1 AD - which they had no reason not to believe back then. Perhaps a coincidence, or perhaps the builders of Rosslyn were aware of the significance of the Shekinah Period.
The Star of History
We often wonder what ancient secrets were burned with the Library of Alexandria, or lost in the perishing of ancient religions and cultures. The Shekinah Period and the true Star of Bethlehem may be one of those heretofore lost secrets.
We also should be cautious, because history has been re-written.
It is not even clear if the Star story is true. It sounds remarkably like another Star story, from 63 BC, that Magi came to the Roman Senate to announce that a King of the Romans had been born. A half-hearted attempt was made to weed him out, but the Romans were losing their superstitions. Turns out to have been prophetic - it was the birth year of the first Emperor, Augustus. Maybe the Christians knew of this prophesy, and added their version to add legitimacy to the Gospels.
Nonetheless, my hat is off to the authors of this theory, who have done a remarkable job of scholarship mixed with speculation. Their fourth work, The Book of Hiram, and the three earlier books, provide a fascinating journey through history.