Star of Wonder-- Myth or Astronomical Event?
A Stellar Event…Strangely, Not So Unexpected.
In Part 1, I suggested that the story of the Star of Bethlehem is one that starts in the wrong place and the wrong time. I see that as an asset, for perhaps that contradiction contributed to both its lasting power and to its veracity. In the previous post, we looked at the creation myths from the Aztecs of Mesoamerica and from the Sumerians of Mesopotamia. These narratives were created by peoples on opposite sides of the Earth who never had contact with each other. Despite that, their creation stories have unmistakable and remarkable similarities that suggest that there is an archetypal human story, following the models about which Joseph Campbell wrote extensively.
The Star of Bethlehem, which appears only in the Gospel of Matthew, is an anomaly. One of the unsolved mysteries of the Nativity narratives is that the star is not mentioned in the Gospel of Luke. Other than the opening passages of Genesis the writers of the Bible simply seem to have no interest in the sky, except metaphorically. Stars are lights in the night sky that are compared to something earthly or are evidence of God’s creative power. The Hebrews, however, did have an organized cosmology:
Hebrew Cosmology Illustrated. Photo source: unknown
The remarkable contrast of the above Hebrew model of the universe is clearly evident when compared to those of the Aztec’s and the Sumerian’s: In Genesis, there is a complete lack of violence in the act of creation. Few other religions have a similar cosmology in which an Earth Mother-goddess does not have to be destroyed and her various body parts used to make the earth, sky and humans. The ancient Hebrews had knowledge of these various stories from Mesopotamia and from Egypt, but in the Genesis account, those elements do not appear. For example, this Egyptian version (one of many Egyptian origin myths) demonstrates the more common world view of the Beginning:
Egyptian Creation Myth Illustrated--This Picture is based on the "Heliopolis Cosmogony," one of several dominant myths in the Egyptian Pantheon.
The Problem of “The Sky.”
I also suggested that humans began to differentiate the sky being distinct from the land and the oceans perhaps around circa 4300 years ago. Gavin White (2008), in his book Babylonian Star-Lore, maintains that “Babylonian astrologers started to export to their neighbors as early as the 13th century BCE” (p. 7). He goes on to contend that the development of natal horoscopes required a level of mathematics that was compiled in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, with the first modern equivalents finally appearing in the 5th century, or 2500 years ago. It is this assertion that raises the prospect of historically credible ties to planetary observations by Matthew’s Magi, and the possibility that the Star of Bethlehem’s discovery, or rather interpretation of a sky-based observation, was based on their millennial old texts and maps of the constellations.
These particular Magi were likely among the most highly educated individuals from any civilization, and familiar with astronomy from the known regions of the world. That would include Greece, where we must take a brief trip to meet the man who changed the sky and the universe four hundred years before the birth of Jesus.
To set the stage, I return to the question, “What is the sky?” White shares my view that these ancient cosmologies are neither crude nor primitive:
Today this “flat-earth” cosmology is generally belittled as being rather “primitive” and as far as it is given any attention it is relegated to the kindergarten of metaphysical speculation. This is unfortunate, as the model is actually a rather elegant presentation of archaic man’s view of himself and the universe in which he acted and had his being. It is a complex view of the world, one full of awe that utilizes the mysterious language of symbolism, where every element is a part of an interrelated network of forces. This model also underpins the rationale of celestial divination and magic, mankind’s first attempts to foretell and forestall the shape of things to come. (p. 21)
The tools of those attempts included defining the constellations, plotting the motion of the planets, phases of the moon, vital because they were tied to the seasons, but of course eclipses: lunar, more common than solar, the unexpected darkening of the day often believed to be a portent of evil or disasters. To many in the ancient world only comets might inspire a greater fear.
From China to India, Persia to the Mediterranean, Egypt across the great Sahara of North Africa, Asia Minor, Greece, the expanse of the Roman Empire all the way to Britannia, the great celestial scroll of the night sky unrolled from horizon to horizon, open to be examined, its mysteries to be plumbed, and the fate of humans read in its aetherial language.
Sometime around the 7th century BCE, in Greece, the question of the sky rose once more, and a startlingly new answer was ventured. What if, these renegade philosophers dared to suggest, using their emerging expertise in mathematics and geometry, the sky was not the abode of the gods? What if the sky was a place, just like the earth, that the Sun, Moon and stars, even the ones which wander, were places? And if that were even possible, how far away were these places? What caused them to move around the earth? And if they moved, what if the Earth moved, too? The intellectual battle raged for over 400 years, but no one could seem to find that one all-important key to prove whether it was right or wrong.
The Greek Geocentric Cosmos. Photo: Source Courtesy, A.H., 1996.
These were dangerous questions, on the level of heresy, but we’ll come back to that in a moment.
The Sky Problem Solved–But 1700 Years Too Soon!
Aristarchus of Samos
Those willing to think about daring questions at times come up with extraordinary answers. One such radical was Aristarchus of Samos, a mathematician and astronomer who lived circa 310-230 BCE. Samos, a volcanic island in the Aegean Sea, lies in the archipelago that separates modern Greece from Turkey. An older contemporary of Archimedes, he was known among his generation as “the Mathematician.”
According to Sir Thomas Heath, who published Aristarchus’ full text of “On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon” into English (1913, 2004), “There is not the slightest doubt that Aristarchus was the first to put forward the heliocentric hypothesis. Ancient testimony is unanimous on the point and the first witness is Archimedes, who was a younger contemporary of Aristarchus, so that there is no possibility of a mistake. Copernicus, himself admitted that the theory was attributed to Aristarchus, though this does not seem to be generally known” (p. 301).
Archimedes, to his discredit, did not accept Aristarchus’ heliocentric theory and campaigned against it. Aristarchus’ idea was not theologically popular either in some circles. One Cleanthes attempted to indict the Mathematician “on the charge of impiety for putting into motion the Hearth of the Universe… ” (Heath, p. 304). What enraged Cleanthes was Aristarchus used geometry to prove his hypotheses: “by supposing the heaven to remain at rest and the earth to revolve around an oblique circle, while it rotates, at the same time, about its own axis” (Ibid.). No one knew how prescient this hypothesis really was, until seventeen hundred years later another mathematician named Copernicus reached the same conclusion after studying Aristarchus’ text , and a second, 150 years after him, one named Galileo.
The Magi: The Hubble, Sagan, and Hammel of Their Age
What is the connection to our Christmas Star? Aristarchus used star charts and calculations developed by the Babylonians centuries earlier. Sir Thomas presents a number of examples where Aristarchus used, what he called “Chaldean lunations,” basically books of tables that all mathematicians of the era would have as a standard in their libraries (p. 314).
The Magi, it is reasonable to infer, would have read Aristarchus. Mathematically he was an “Einstein” of his age, his texts were in circulation, and even though they likely would not have accepted his heliocentric hypothesis, just like modern astronomers who still read Copernicus’ and Galileo’s works, they would have studied his math proofs and geometry to predict lunar and solar eclipses, and to calculate “The Great Year,” “which is completed by the sun, the moon, and the five planets when they return together to the same sign in which they were once before simultaneously found” (quote from Censorinus AD 238; Ibid, p. 316).
That very high level of geometric expertise would have been invaluable in calculating planetary conjunctions with a high degree of accuracy. Furthermore, the ability to correctly forecast the birth of a king was the Gold Medal of astrology/astronomy. Whoever they were, the Magi were convinced they had gotten this one right, and with a level of confidence so strong they were willing to travel from their homes somewhere east of Jerusalem, command an audience with King Herod and tell him right to his face!
Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him. (Mt 2:2, NIV)
Saying that to a reigning monarch is the kind of thing that could get you beheaded in short order. What stayed Herod’s hand? Perhaps the sight of this from an east-facing palace balcony:
Bethlehem Star 12Aug -03 Jerusalem 0210hrs. Star Chart by TheSky6 Serious Astronomer Edition. The proof, as they say is in the pudding. This is a natural sky view of the proposed Star of Bethlehem. See if you can spot it without scrolling down to the annotated version.
A Historical Event Reconstructed out of a Myth: The Power of Good Science and an Astronomy Software Program
Michael Bakich, a Senior Editor of Astronomy Magazine writes in the January 2010 issue:
The biblical account says that the wise men spoke to Herod about the star. Neither Herod nor his scholars knew what they were talking about. No other Bible verse or secular writing mentions the star. What was it? Could it be Matthew, the only gospel writer who mentions the star, wanted to prove to his readers what he knew from reading the Old Testament? I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh; there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel… (Num. 24:17). Did the writer of Matthew invent a story to fulfill this prophecy from Moses? Most historians don’t think so (p. 37).
The solution is most likely a planetary conjunction. It is not, in the end, the definitive answer, nor does it subtract the mystery and miracle of that night.
It was the Star of Wonder. And if this particular conjunction or cycle of conjunctions that occured in 3 BCE signaled the birth of the Savior, how we can rejoice what a clever God we worship!
Bethlehem Star 12Aug -03 Jerusalem 0210hrs with Annotations. Star Chart by TheSky6 Serious Astronomer Edition
One can only imagine what was going through the minds of the Magi as they pointed this astronomical event out to Herod and his astrologers, going over their data and calculations. We know what was going through Herod’s mind.
The conjunction would have been very bright. Jupiter was shining at a magnitude of -1.8 and was at 99.98% phase full (think full Moon), and Venus was at a shadow-producing magnitude by itself of -3.9 and 93.38% full phase! Regulus by contrast would have almost seemed dim at its very bright -1.38 magnitude, and Sirius, the brightest star in the northern sky at -1.44 magnitude was glowing high in the SW sky.
Star of Bethlehem with Magi Card
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. Matt 2:9.
Merry Christmas and may the Blessings of the Christ Child Come to You and Your Loved Ones.