Friday, December 24, 2010


"wide-ranging and insightful scholarship"
Former Publisher and Editor, Scientific American magazine, and President, American Association for the Advancement of Science

"This explanation of the Star is compelling..."
NASA's Chief Engineer for the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, Director of the Columbia Shuttle Accident Task Force

The Star of Bethlehem
One of the more cheerful events that happen for Christians is to watch the secular, often hostile, world confirm the Biblical narrative. By now its been established that the Bible is incredibly accurate, historically speaking. Locations, names, events, and so on all are regularly confirmed and established as truthful in the face of sometimes angry opposition.

King David, for instance, was considered mythical by some historians. They thought of him as being a sort of King Arthur sort, not real but possibly based on several other real kings. They were forced to back down from that position in the 1990s when Avraham Biran and his team of archaeologists unearthed a piece of stone with fragments of writing on it at Tel Dan near the River Jordan. In the writings was the words "House of David" It was the first mention of David in ancient inscription outside the Bible. This has happened again and again with various skeptical claims.

What archaeology and science tend not to confirm are the more spectacular, supernatural, and miraculous parts of scripture such as axe heads floating or people being raised from the dead. There is one such event, however, which has been very powerfully demonstrated by recent science: the star of Bethlehem.

For a long time people speculated on what this could have been: a nova, a comet, a meteorite, and so on. Each time a little more information was discovered, people got a little closer, but it was the study of Rick Larson which has uncovered the best case yet for the actual star and what it was. The full explanation of this is at

To do so, he studied the account of Matthew and found several clues which helped him uncover what the star really was. Here's his clues:
  1. Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod
  2. The magi had learned about a birth of a king
  3. The king was Jewish
  4. They saw the star in the eastern sky from what was probably Babylon
  5. The people of Jerusalem and Herod were unaware the event had taken place
  6. The star appeared at an exact time which could be confirmed and related to others
  7. The star endured for a considerable period of time
  8. The star was visible to the south of Jerusalem
  9. The star stopped moving
These clues help give a bit of information about what and where the star must have been. Using math determined by Johannes Kepler in the 15th century in a program called Starry Night, this math (refined by Newton) allows anyone to view any part of the starry sky - day or night - from any point on earth at any time on earth.

So Rick Larson took that software and those clues and got to work. He looked at the stars from Babylon (where the magi probably came from - seat of the Eastern school of Magi and the most prestigious), dating during Herod's life, and watched for anything interesting in the night sky that would have caught an astronomer's attention.

Because the magi were early astronomers and astrologers. They also studied math, biology, science, weather, medicine, and anything else they could find including alchemy and what they believed to be magic. Magi were likely Zoroastran, but they could also have been Jewish descendants of the remnant which stayed in Babylon after the exile, like Daniel and others had. These were men who studied the stars for meaning and events to try to understand the world around them. The ancient Roman historian Philo describes these men this way:
"Among the Persians there is a body of the Magi, who, investigating the works of nature for the purpose of becoming acquainted with the truth, do at their leisure become initiated themselves and initiate others in the divine virtues by very clear explanations."
So if something happened in the night sky of import, these guys would see it and take note. What they saw was so impressive they traveled about a thousand miles to a tiny Mediterranean country just to see what was going on. It wasn't the first time the school had done this, and the Roman historian Seutonius records a previous event when Magi came to ask about the birth of a king in De Vita Caesarum: Divus Augustus.

Rick Larson watched the Starry Night program and found one real event that was especially interesting during Herod's reign that took place in the eastern sky from the perspective of Babylon. This event took place in September of 3 BC, during Rosh ha-Shanah, the Jewish new year. It was something that absolutely would have caught the attention of and had deep meaning for the magi.

What they saw was this: Jupiter in retrograde around Regulus. Now, to really understand this you have to know a bit of astrolnomy and history, because that doesn't sound very impressive - and by its self, it isn't.

Jupiter was called a planete by the Romans, and all ancient astrologers considered the planets the same way: stars that move. They were not recognized as other bodies like earth, but considered stars that moved around rapidly in the night sky. So Jupiter was, to them, a star.

And Jupiter wasn't just any star, just about every culture that had any astronomical study considered it the king of stars, as it is the biggest (and with a clear enough night and really good eyes, you can see a bit of a crown around it; Jupiter's moons). Both Babylonian and Roman scientist called Jupiter the king planet.

Apparent retrograde motion is a bit difficult to explain, but basically its the way a planet in a different orbit can appear to be moving in one direction, slow, then move backward, then move forward again. It can do this multiple times in a row depending on the relative motion of Earth and the other planet, its a well known phenomenon first explained by Galileo.

When Jupiter goes into retrograde motion it has a fairly flat circle, like a dish laid almost on edge or a halo in some old painting.

Regulus has the same root as the word regal, which means "kingly." It too was considered a king star by both cultures. So we have the king planet appearing to circle the king star. This was interesting, as Jupiter appears to move past Regulus every 12 years or so, so a conjunction of the two isn't especially meaningful even to astronomers; at least not so meaningful you travel across the wilderness to Jerusalem to talk about it.

What they saw which caught their attention was this: Jupiter went into apparent retrograde motion three times around Regulus. It circled over and over - saying "king, king, king" as Larson puts it - which caught the attention of the magi. And what's more, the constellation (again recognized by both Persia and Rome) which Regulus is found is what we call Leo, the lion. The lion is the sign of the tribe of Judah, the ruling tribe of the Israelites. This wouldn't have been significant if the Jewish people had not been so important to and noticed by the Persian people, particularly Daniel and Esther.

These magi, whose life was devoted to studying such things, would have noticed that meaningful sign. And notice: this was something magi would have absolutely noticed but nobody else really would. It was something you'd only see by tracing the path of Jupiter over weeks, and even though people tended to see the sky a lot more often and better than we do today (less light pollution and smog, for instance), it wouldn't really have been noticeable to someone who wasn't studying astronomy. So the people of Jerusalem were surprised by hearing this news.

Something very significant involving a Jewish king had or was about to take place, they concluded. And so we have found the star that the magi studied and followed to learn more, because that's what magi did.

But wait, the Jupiter event only took place for a few months, and it would have been over with by the time the magi came to Jerusalem, right? It takes a while to get ready, it takes a while to study and learn the meaning of events, you have to get permission from the Persian king to travel, you have to settle things at home. Traveling 500 miles as the bird flies (about double that on a caravan route) was no little thing back then. And these men traveled with more than just a camel (incidentally their number isn't listed in the Bible, nor are their names - the 3 wise men bit is legend, but might possibly be true). So it would have taken them a while to get going.

And they didn't leave right away because while noteworthy, it wasn't apparently enough to take the arduous, dangerous journey. They didn't get going for months until something more happened.

And indeed it did. There are technically two events being described in the Bible. Sure, its the same star - Jupiter - but the event that got the magi's attention isn't the same one that they saw in Jerusalem and followed to Bethlehem.

A few months after the king dance around Regulus, Jupiter aligns with Venus. So now you have the king star, the biggest star in the night sky, lining up almost exactly with the mother star, the brightest star in the night sky. That was enough for the magi to get moving. If they weren't sure what was going on the first event, they had a pretty good idea what was happening now. Because this wasn't something that anyone alive had ever seen before - it happens roughly ever 155 years - and after the first event, it was too significant to ignore. And it happened in the constellation Leo, again.

It was time to travel west to Jerusalem and ask the authorities what was going on, so that's what they did.

But wait, weren't the magi at the manger for Jesus' birth? Absolutely not. Not only does the Bible clearly state that Jesus was not a baby any longer when the magi arrived (he's described in the Greek as a toddler), but he's not in the manger. One of the things that annoys me most is manger scenes with 3 wise men. They were not at the birth of Christ, and they couldn't have been, not even if there were jets back then to fly that fast to that location.

When the magi arrived, they went to the palace first, to Herod's consternation (he was supposedly very paranoid to begin with, hearing about a new king probably didn't sit well with him - especially a Jewish king during a period of revolt and trouble with the Roman authorities). The scholars and Jewish religious leaders pointed to a prophecy in Micah which said that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem, only a few miles south of Jerusalem. On a clear day you can see where Bethlehem was from Jerusalem.

And there in the night sky was the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus, and Jesus is just over a year old at this point. That conjunction was visible in the sky looking south from Jerusalem ("over Bethlehem") and it was at that point that Jupiter began going into retrograde motion; it stopped in the sky and started moving backward. The time it started its retrograde motion is also the brightest point, exactly on December 25, 2 BC.

So there you have it: the star of Bethlehem in simple, clear astronomical terms and unmistakable history. On the Bethlehem Star website, there's a lot of praise from non Christian and mainstream scientists about the methods used, the accuracy of the information, and the veracity of Larson's claims.

What it all means and the significance it is given in the Bible is a matter of faith, but the historical events and the reality of the star is unmistakably true. The rest is up to you.

For much more about the star, the methods used to find this all out, and even more interesting astronomical events that happened at the end of Jesus' life, check out Bethlehem Star, or get Larson's DVD with the video presentation.

1 comment:

Eric said...