Ancient Zodiacs, Star Names, and Constellations: Essays and Critiques


Matthew's Star an Historical Fiction by Gary D. Thompson

Copyright 2005-2018 by Gary D. Thompson


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Matthew's Star an Historical Fiction

Introduction

Within the New Testament gospels are contained both birth annunciation genre and birth-myth genre. Matthew's account (and aspect's of Luke's account) readily identifies its folkloric and imaginative (non-historical) basis: e.g., angelic appearances in dreams, guiding birth star, gifts brought from the East, the intrigues of a wicked king, the slaughter of innocent children.

The story of the Star of Bethlehem appears just once in the New Testament. Regardless of the paucity of biblical details, just about every astronomical phenomena in the night sky has been advocated as the identification of Matthew's star. And its uninformed repetition - dressed up in various ways - is indicated to be as ceaseless as it is tedious. Since the 19th-century Matthew's gospel has continued to provide an unceasing source of speculation for the identification of the star of the Magi. It is misleading to state the "Star of Bethlehem" is/remains a great astronomical mystery that continues to intrigue (and baffle) theologians, historians, and astronomers. More intriguing is why a fictional account should continue to be perpetuated by some persons as actual history. The gospels are propaganda texts, not historical documents.

Astronomers are the usual candidates for the constant attempts to identify an historical phenomenon as the basis for the mention in Matthew's gospel of the Magi's star. Many theologians understand that it is a literary fiction. As usual, the nature of historical knowledge is limited by the character and extent of the evidence. There are at least 3 possible types of explanations for the story of the "star of Bethlehem": (1) it was a supernatural event, (2) it was a fiction/Midrash (allegory), and (3) it was an astronomical/astrological phenomenon/event. (See, for example, the discussion in: The Star of Bethlehem: an Astronomer's View by Mark Kidger (1999); and The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomer's Confirmation by David Hughes (1979).) The Matthaean account has been unsubstantiated by hard scientific data. This works against it being some type of astronomical or astrological occurrence. None of the numerous attempts at astronomical and astrological explanations for the Matthaean story have been without flaws and contradictions.

It is also plausible that the story is simply an attempt to add details to the very few biographical facts known about the life of Jesus. Like other aspects of the gospels, the nativity story is clumsy in its construction. Interestingly, Matthew's story does not contain any details of exactly where the Magi were from, or even how many of them there were.

The method of astronomical interpretation usually illicitly transforms 'raw data' into a historical meaning and methodological trap rather than a tool which requires a scrutinizing method, along with the examination of the personal interests of astronomers/scholars choosing to use it, and abandonment as problematic i.e., imaginative outcome using non-historical information (but rather using theological/legendary information). As example of personal interests: Astronomical fascination with the story and the personal conviction ('feeling') that the story is more than fiction.

Note: See the useful modern studies: Birth Annunciations in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East by Scott Ashmon (2012); The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View by Aaron Adair (2013); and The Star of Bethlehem and the Magi: Interdisciplinary Perspectives edited by Peter Barthel and George van Kooten (2015).

Matthew's Story

The historical source for the story cannot be considered reliable. Besides, Matthew does not provide any sources. Gospels were purposely written to be non-historical. They were teaching catechisms (ancient novels) - expositions of what to believe about Jesus. Mythmaking was part of Christian beginnings. The Jesus of history remains elusive. "The infancy narratives  (Matt 1:18-2:23) derive from a special source which had collected popular legends about miraculous events accompanying Jesus' birth. But these narratives are dominated by an unusual motif [to transform the narrative] ... to a record that confirms the fulfillment of prophecy." (Ancient Christian Gospels by Helmut Koester (1990, Page 328).) The gospels are evangelical documents containing assorted traditions (stories gathered by the early Jesus movement) unrelated to historical events. (Theology as fictional narrative = imaginative fiction.) Throughout his gospel narrative of Jesus, Matthew is concerned with theological proofs by means of constantly identifying the fulfillment of scripture/prophecy. See Ancient Christian Gospels by Helmut Koester, 1990, Pages 328-329.

The Matthaean story gives no account of the actual birth of Jesus. The issue for Matthew is the heralding of the birth of the Messianic infant and his first reception by people. "Only the appearance of Jesus as an almost superhuman being who is worshipped by those he encounters is important for Matthew ...." (Ancient Christian Gospels by Helmut Koester (1990, Page 329).)

In Matthew's story the "Star of Bethlehem" has the function of both a portent (i.e., its appearance was a sign that a king had been born in Judea) and a guide (i.e., in the continuation of the story it leads the Magi to a particular dwelling in Bethlehem). It would seem logical to hold it was a newly appeared object. (Note: There is strong scholarly opinion that Jesus was most likely to have been born in Nazareth.)

The "Star of Bethlehem" is properly the "Star of the Magi." Simply, nobody else is reported as seeing it. Even Herod and his advisors, within the context of Matthew's story, did not see the "star." This acts to limit any interpretation of it being a natural astronomical event (that through misinterpretation, or other intention, later became attached to Matthew's gospel). The star story cannot be separated from the Magi story. The problem is that it is obvious a visible star is being referred to. (Note: The 'star' also functions to miraculously guide the Magi.)

Historical Astronomical Explanations

Spectacular celestial phenomena such as planetary conjunctions, supernova, and comets have all been offered as explanations of the "star." However, it is unclear why such explanations would be necessarily relevant to story in chapter 2, verses 1-12 of Matthew's gospel. The text (account) lacks clarity (and adequate details) and contains a number of uncertainties. A major puzzle for any literal historical explanation is Matthew's gospel stating the star went before the Magi until it came to where the child was. Once again, the problem is that it is obvious a visible star is being referred to. Another problem is that the Magi had to ask questions of Herod (and readily obtained a meeting). (There is nothing to indicate the "star" initially showed the path to Palestine (i.e., Jerusalem).)

It is naive to argue - as some have done - that the episode of the Magi is an interesting historical coincidence. The Magi narrative fits Matthew's theme of the Gentile mission (Matthew 28:19). The Magi were the first Gentile converts of the Gospel. The story is part of a theological fiction.

Ease Of Historical Astronomical Explanations

On 2 Jan 2004 Dr. Ed. Krupp wrote to HASTRO-L: "The sky is very accommodating. Give me a date for the birth of Christ, and I'll give you a Christmas Star." This comment summarises the ease with which astronomical explanations can, and have been, made.

The Zodiacal Light As The Star Of Bethlehem

There have been several attempt to associate the zodiacal light with the Christian religion. It has been proposed by some persons that the zodiacal light is a basis for the nativity narratives of 'Matthew' and 'Luke.' The claim is made by Ferrari-D'Occhieppo in his Der Stern von Bethlehem aus der Sicht der Astronomie (1991) that the 'standstill' for Jupiter and Saturn occurring on 12 November 7 BCE was the apex of a triangle made by the zodiacal light. The zodiacal light was the enhancer making Jupiter the Xmas star. For a detailed English-language presentation of this speculative and unlikely idea see: "The Star of the Magi and Babylonian Astronomy." by Konradin Ferrari-D'Occhieppo, In: Chronos, Kairos, Christos: Nativity and Chronological Studies Presented to Jack Finegan, edited by Jerry Vardaman and Edwin Yamauchi (1989, Pages 41-54). (Almost the complete chapter is accessible through Google books.) Some references for other studies of the zodiacal light: Semitic: "The Zodiacal Light in Semitic Mythology." by Solomon Gandz (Proceedings of the American Academy of Jewish Research, Volumes 12-14, 1966, Pages 1ff). Roman: "The Zodiacal Light." by J. Claridge (Knowledge, Volume 37, 1914, Pages 204ff/Scientific American: Supplement, Volume 78, 1914, Pages 45ff). I assume that the connection between the Egyptian pyramids and the zodiacal light is based on enthusiasm for the type of association described in: The Christian Advocate, Volume 12, 1834, Page 515.

Difficulties With The Historical Astronomical Explanations

The likelihood of an astronomical explanation has been exaggerated. Interestingly, the story of the star of the Magi, and their journey related to it, ends with their acting on a warning in a dream not to return to Herod. The story in Matthew then takes up with Joseph acting on a warning in a dream. Such serves to indicate we are not within the scope of natural historical events. (Further evidence of such is the Magi immediately lost contact with Jesus and his family and apparently wrote nothing on the episode.)

The belief that gods/goddesses and other divine forces convey knowledge and insights to humans through dreams was widely believed in the ancient world and the early medieval period. Numerous accounts of dreams exist in ancient literary works such as the Epic of Gilgamesh (Mesopotamia), the works of Homer (Greece), the Bible (Middle East), and the Icelandic sagas (early Medieval world).

Uncritical acceptance of the historical accuracy of the "star of the Magi" story simply fails to address a myriad of issues. The looseness of combining the differing accounts in both Matthew and Luke only serves to confuse. They are quite irreconcilable accounts of the birth of Jesus (Matthew's is ultimately tragic while Luke's is idyllic) and cannot be fitted into a single common story. Neither account will bear critical examination. (Note: There is no effort to establish the historical reality of the nativity angels in Luke's gospel.)

Matthew' story is dictated by Old Testament prophecies. Luke's story shows association with the infancy narratives of the apocryphal gospels. But both are, amongst other things, designed to verify the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem. Mark's gospel most definitely believes that Jesus was born at Nazareth. John's gospel does not accept that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The New Testament documents generally indicate that there was no knowledge of where Jesus was born. The reference to Bethlehem is likely symbolic per it being the city of David a a tradition in Micah 3.2.

The idea that the gospel stories of the birth of Jesus are literal history, and based on later accounts of reliable eye-witnesses to the events, ignores the last two centuries of biblical scholarship.

The Matthaean account has the Magi interpreting events both through the observation of celestial phenomena and through dreams (i.e., they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod). Is an actual eye-witness the source of Matthew's account of the Magi's "warning in a dream," and departure by alternative route? I hardly think so. If we are dealing with literally true events then exactly when was this knowledge known to the writer(s) of Matthew's gospel. (Another "historical" problem is: how did Matthew and Luke establish that Jesus was conceived by divine/supernatural means?)

At best scholarship aspires to tentative claims based on historical probability. It is reasonable to believe that the greater probability is the Matthaean birth narrative involving "Star" and "Magi" is a literary construct. There is no mention of "The Star of Bethlehem" in other sources. There is no mention of such in other books forming the New Testament and also no mention of such in any writings in the Graeco-Roman world. (Matthew's story of the visit by the Magi, however, is retold in increased detail in the 2nd-century apocryphal Book of James.) Within the ancient East there is a long literary tradition of matching fictional astronomical events with actual historical events.

The William Tell myth illustrates how fictitious history can originate and find general acceptance, even in a comparatively recent historical period. The completely fictitious medieval Swiss hero, who reputedly lived in the 14th-century, is based on the (9th-century CE Scandinavian) hero-figure Toke the Archer who appears in the multi-volume work on Danish history, Gesta Danorum ("Deeds of the Danes"), by the 12th-century author Saxo Grammaticus (Saxo the Grammarian / Saxo the Literate).

Problems With Historical Astronomical Explanations

A basic question relation to Matthew's "star" is: Are we dealing with an astronomical/astrological phenomenon or a literary device? The reason that no astronomical (or astrological) explanations satisfactorily fit all the criteria for The Star of Bethlehem is perhaps due to it being a literary device. No actual star had appeared. (A planetary conjunction theory such as the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction is a two-star phenomenon.) No natural historical event matches Matthew's story of the "star."

Interestingly, the "Magi" are not initially directly conducted by the "star" to Bethlehem. They first go to Herod in Jerusalem who advises them that the "king" would be born in Bethlehem. With this knowledge the "Magi" are then conducted by the "star" to the very dwelling-house in Bethlehem. This latter part of the narrative is not astronomy (or astrology). In the context of the story it is strange that the "star" did not guide them directly to Bethlehem. However, the "slaughter of the innocents" motif is a common theme in mythology that is attached to the birth of heroes prior to the time of Jesus. (The "slaughter of the innocents" in Matthew's gospel was likely included to fulfill Jeremiah's prophecy about the biblical matriarch Rachel who was buried in Bethlehem. According to Josephus there was a Roman census of allegiance circa 5 BCE which led to a slaughter of some 5000 people who refused to sign their to the Roman Emperor.) 

The form of Matthew's text has the meaning that the re-sighted "star" remained stationary over a particular dwelling-house (and induced the Magi to stop there). The force of the story is the "star" must have been quite low to the earth's surface and could not have been some astral phenomena high in the sky.

This last function and behaviour of the "star" (as a personal guide to a particular dwelling in Bethlehem) presents a difficulty for the exclusively astronomical explanation of the "star." It shows that a non-astronomical explanation for the "star" needs to be sought. (The use of the term "stood over" indicates position.) It is simply another example where the Bible cannot be literally true. According to the Indian Jesuit scholar Soares Prabhu (The Formula Quotations in the Infancy Narrative of Matthew: An Enquiry into the Tradition History of Matthew 1-2 (1976, Page 280)) the movement of the "star" should be seen as alluding to the pillar of cloud guiding Israel in the wilderness.

Astrological Explanation

Arguments for an exclusively astrological interpretation of "The Star of Bethlehem" would appear to have some merit and some theologians at the beginning of the 19th-century supported such.

A number of modern writes now hold that some Magi in a foreign country managed to both identify the birth of Jesus and specifically locate the new-born Jesus by means of their astrological knowledge. However these theories involve 2 different zodiacal constellations. According to some Pisces the the zodiacal constellation associated with the Jews. According to Michael Molnar (1999), Aries is the constellation associated with the Jews.

The historian Lynn Thorndike suggested that the story of the "star" and the Magi was inserted into Matthew's gospel to conciliate the widespread belief in astrology that existed in the 2nd-century CE. The German theologian and historian Heinrich Voigt (1860-1933) made a similar interpretation. See: Die Geschichte Jesu und die Astrologie: Eine religionsgeschichtliche und chronologische Untersuchung zu der Erzhlung von den Weisen aus dem Morgenlande by Heinrich Gisbert Voigt (1911).

Molnar's Astrological Explanation

The astronomer Michael Molnar believes the simplest and most likely explanation of the "star" lies in astrology as it was practiced in Roman times. Michael Molnar's (clearly overly enthusiastic) position is that the "star" does not need to be a phenomenon that is visible to the "Magi" but only needs to have been astrologically calculated by them and its significance as a sign that a king had been born in Judea understood. See: The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi by Michael Molnar (1999).)

Molnar basically proposes that Matthew merely identified that Jesus was born under a regal portent and this was due to the fact that there was an actual portent that people interpreted as the birth of the Messiah, and associated this with the birth of Jesus. In a nutshell Molnar holds: The triple conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in 7 BCE, in the zodiacal constellation Pisces, was linked to a "son of God" being born in Israel, and the Magi had knowledge of a prophecy of the birth of Jesus. (It also pivots on the assumption that the belief existed at this time that the zodiacal constellation Pisces represented the Jews.)

Molnar proposes a link between a double occultation of Jupiter by the moon in 6 BC in the constellation Aries and the Star of Bethlehem, particularly the second occultation on April 17. (An occultation occurs when the moon passes in front of another body, making it disappear from view.) For Molnar the "star" was a double eclipse of Jupiter in a rare astrological conjunction that occurred in Aries on March 20, in the year 6 B.C., and again a month later on April 17. Molnar holds (Hastro-L posting): "No astronomical event fits the account in Matthew, but well documented astrological conditions do. The event of April 17, 6 BC followed by other astrological events centering around Jupiter in that year fit the account. The astrologer Firmicus Maternus (c. AD 334) referred to these conditions as befitting the birth of a world ruler with a divine and immortal nature. I claim that this is a reference to the Star outside of the Bible."

The heliacal rising of Jupiter was also important.

Molnar believes that Matthew uses astrological terminology, that Matthew's account describes three astrological "phases." He believes the story in Matthew tells us that there was a regal portent under which, as Matthew claims, Jesus was born. The reason Matthew refers to astrology is that there was indeed an astrological portent that people interpreted as the birth of the Messiah. And Christians (i.e., Matthew) concluded that this revealed the birth of Jesus as Christ."

For a thorough and devastating critique of Molnar's scholarship and speculations (astronomical, astrological, and historical) see: Adair, Aaron. (2015). "A Critical Look at the History of Interpreting the Star of Bethlehem in Scientific Literature and Biblical Studies." In: Barthel, Peter. and van Kooten, George. (Editors). (2015). The Star of Bethlehem and the Magi: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Experts on the Ancient Near East, the Greco-Roman World, and Modern Astronomy.

Difficulties With The Astrological Explanation

The problem in a nutshell seems to be: The Matthaean account speaks of a "star" but this can not be successfully matched with any astronomical event. (The term aster means star.) However, in seeking an astrological match the problem exists that a single "star" - as a herald star for a king - does not accord with astrological tradition. Hence "Matthew's" account gets an interpretative tweaking by Molnar. It is actually two occultations of the planet Jupiter by the Moon in 6 BCE in the constellation Aries.

However, several problems exist. One of the problems with Molnar’s theory is that the particular occultations would have been very difficult to see from Jerusalem and one of them would have been impossible to observe from Babylon. The other – big difficulty - of involving both conjunction and occultation explanations is they involve multiple objects in the sky. The passage from Matthew uses the Greek term "aster" the singular, not "asteres" the plural. It is likely that if the text referred to a group of objects in the sky the word "astron," which means constellation, would have been employed. Also, if the author(s) of Matthew’s gospel knew that planets were involved then use could have been made of the word "planes aster" that specifically meant planet.

The astrological theory of the "star of the Magi," which has been around for some 100 years, is also difficult to accept within the context of a natural historical event. That a broad astrological interpretation by the Magi can lead them to journey to a foreign land, and particularly identify the obscure new-born Jesus, requires more than just a focus on the astronomical/astrological side of the argument. Are we to believe that Magi (i.e., professional astrologers) in a foreign country (possibly Persia) actually managed to locate Jesus by means of their knowledge of astrology? (There is nothing other than contextual evidence to identify who the Magi were. There is wide agreement they were Zoroastrian priests of the cast of Medes.)

There is no mention of the Star of Bethlehem in other sources. Molnar, however, would hold there is a reference to the Star outside of the Bible, which can be found in the "Mathesis" of Firmicus Maternus, a 4th-century CE astrologer who converted to Christianity.

The use of a 4th-century CE statement by Firmicus Maternus - to attempt an astrological identification with the Matthaean "Star of Bethlehem" - certainly does not appear to enable a simple and obvious match to be made. Certainly it would not serve to verify the "Journey of the Magi". The introduction of evidence from much later periods can enable us to go down a number of different tracks. Zoroastrian Magi (Zoroastrian astrologers) per Matthew's gospel is a historically implausible story - there is no sound reason Zoroastrian interest. Also, the date of Magi interest in astrology was not until centuries after the date assigned for the birth of Jesus.

Michael Molnar proposes that Matthew merely identified that Jesus was born under a regal portent and this was due to the fact that there was an actual portent that people interpreted as the birth of the Messiah, and associated this with the birth of Jesus. But the "Star" identifies the particular house where Jesus is - and by doing so makes him the person for whom the sign is intended. The text of Matthew is not "history" pure and simple but "history" with a purpose. Matthew does not have the implication that this is a chance event. Back-dating from a later period to make the connection between a particular "Star" and Jesus distorts the Matthaean text. Both the "Star" and the "Journey of the Magi" serve the integral purpose of being current and related to Jesus exclusively.

Molnar strongly maintains standardisation in Hellenistic astrological tradition. The phrase "Hellenistic astrology" has come to be used in contemporary historical discussions to designate a tradition of astrology that appeared in the Mediterranean region during the 1st-century BCE, and then was practiced in something closely resembling its original form until about the 6th- or 7th-century CE. Whilst astrologers in the 4th century CE would have been using texts composed centuries earlier (even as far back as 2nd/3rd centuries BCE - for example Firmicus cites Nechepso and Petosiris) there was no single Hellenistic or Near Eastern astrology.

Molnar's supposed reconstruction of a horoscope for the birth of Jesus

During the 2nd century CE (and indeed the 4th-century CE) astrological ideas were still in the phase of dynamic development (i.e., Valens and Ptolemy, and ). Though the "Tetrabiblos" of Ptolemy had the effect of systematizing astrology it did not standardize such. To infer what the unidentified "Magi" may have practiced as astrology does not establish such as a fact. Both Valens and Ptolemy tended to use simple arithmetical schemes for astrology. It would need to be demonstrated that the "Magi" had a suitable mathematical method. Molnar is very reliant on Ptolemy for his conclusive dating. Accepting the legend of "Three Magi from the East," as factual (which is not the case), it would be most probable that they were not practising in the tradition of Hellenistic astrology, and certainly not Ptolemy who was some 150 years later. It they were Persian they would have been using indigenous Persian methods.

The term "stood over" was also used in the description of comets. Molnar usually limits the "standing (over)" term to the examples of the motions of the planet Jupiter. Colin Humphrey's article points out that the term "stood over" was more commonly applied to comets. In his article "The Star of Bethlehem-a Comet in 5 BC-and the Date of Christ's Birth" he gives examples of such. He cites two references from Josephus and Dio Cassius which are metaphorical descriptions about impending doom that comets brought to Jerusalem and Rome, respectively. In the contexts of the stories 'stood over' and 'hung over' are blatantly about bad omens. This seems to support the wider use of astrological terms in other than a strict planetary context. These passages argue against easy acceptance of terms in Matthew referring to astrological phenomenon involving planets. (See: "The Star of Bethlehem-a Comet in 5 BC-and the Date of the Birth of Christ." by Colin Humphreys, Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 32, 1991, Pages 389-407.) Could it also be that, similar to today, some common astrological terms had a wider "vulgar" use and no astrological beliefs were actually being implied?

"A recent study by Michael Molnar argues that the most likely horoscope in which professional astrologers such as the Magi would be interested was the appearance of the Sun, Moon, Jupiter and Saturn (all regal signs) in Aries on April 17, 6 B.C.E. However Molnar's conclusions are overly sophisticated : there is no need to interpret the Matthean text in terms of technical or sophisticated astrology such as that of Ptolemy and Firmicus Maternus. Rather the star of Matthew 2.1-12 derives from the common, widespread belief (found already in Plato) that all people have a "natal star" that appears at their birth and passes away with them. Moreover, celestial phenomena are of course frequently associated with important terrestrial events in ancient literature : it seems most plausible to read the Matthean pericope as yet another example of the literary topos." ("The Magi and the Star in the Gospel of Matthew and Early Christian Tradition." by Tim Hegedus, Laval thologique et philosophique, Volume 59, Number 1, February, 2003, Page 84.)

The astrological theory for Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions/Moon-Jupiter occultations (occultation of Jupiter by the Moon) was only developed circa 5 centuries after the the birth of Jesus. Ignored by Molnar is the enormous scope for flexibility in the interpretation of horoscopes. It is well demonstrated that there are numerous ways of interpreting horoscopes - ancient and modern.

Lastly, the connection of the Jews with the zodiacal constellation Aries is not firmly established. Molnar's arguments that Aries was the zodiacal sign for Judea is not readily accepted. According to Molnar Aries (not Pisces) was the zodiacal sign/symbol of Judea (the Jews), and where the Magi watched for the star for the birth of a king. Without this connection between the Jews and Aries Molnar's ideas have no basis. (According to Aaron Adair,  in a December 2007 article in the journal Sky and Telescope, such a conjunction would have actually foretold the death of a king.)

The Uncertainty Of An Exact Date For The Birth of Jesus

The modern attempts to make astronomical identifications the "Magi's star" introduce a range of dates, usually from 7 BCE to 2 BCE (and also 1 BCE) but mostly between 7 BCE and 5 BCE. The discussions and interpretations published in the conference volume, The Star of Bethlehem and the Magi (2014) rely mostly on a date for the birth of Christ between 7 BCE and 5 BCE.

However, nearly 40 years ago the the historical foundation for date ranging from 7 BCE to 5 BCE was re-examined in considerable detail and challenged by Ernest Martin, a trained meteorologist, an amateur historian, and for a time an ordained minister in the Worldwide Church of God (from which he resigned). Initially, in his book, The Birth of Christ Recalculated (1978) he capably critiqued the weaknesses in the numerous assumptions that led to the general acceptance at that time of 7 BCE to 5 BCE as a canonical date and developed an argument for a later date falling within the period 3 BCE to 2 BCE. (Martin continued his approach with his later (grandly titled) book, The Star that Astonished the World (1996).) Subsequent academic reviews of Martin’s arguments by experts in Biblical chronology have acknowledged the value of his perspective. Martin's thesis gained some acceptance for a time. However, it is clear that his ideas about Herod's death were driven by his theological focus on having the birth of the gospel Jesus coincide with the extremely close conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in 2 BCE. This was also the date (+/- 1 year) chosen by the great majority of Christian writers of the 2nd and 3rd centuries (the so-called early Fathers of the Church). Within this range may be cited Irenaeus (Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul), Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian (from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa), Origen Adamantius, Hippolytus of Rome, and Eusebius of Caesarea.

Trying to date the death of Herod the Great remains difficult and uncertain. Too little solid information exists. On the basis of some converging evidence scholars generally place it between mid-March and mid-April of 4 BCE. The date of Herod's death depends, in general, upon limited literary information (several literary references, but not including what Titus Flavius Josephus wrote about Herod) and numismatic evidence concerning his rule and the respective incumbencies of his sons. (See: Studies in the Jewish Background of Christianity by Daniel Schwartz (1992).) Also, the attempts to establish the date of Herod the Great's death provides an illustration of problems that can be encountered in dating by lunar eclipses. However, scholarly opinion has now dismissed Martin's thesis as contrary to the numismatic evidence and how Herod's son's dated their own reigns.

It is further indicated that the whole of the Herod story in Matthew's gospel is theological midrash. A major problem is the story of the Roman provincial census at the time of Jesus' birth - assumed to have been implemented by Herod (but which is completely undocumented) - and perhaps confused with the first Roman census in 6 CE. From a historical perspective it is most difficult to make Herod's death agree with Martin's proposed chronology. There is also no historical evidence for the infanticide account in Matthew's gospel. The infanticide was supposedly triggered when Herod (who sought to trick the Magi) realised he had been tricked by the Magi. In Matthew's gospel the account of the "Magi's star" is narrated in conjunction with the account of the massacre of all (male) children in and around Bethlehem aged 2 years and under. The historicity of the one is bound up with that of the other. If the story of Herod in Matthew's gospel is removed from the narrative as midrash, there is even less detail on which to make any historical decisions about the "Magi's star." Current scholarly opinion is that the gospel material concerning Jesus is basically midrash.

Importantly, the continuation of considerable uncertainty for an exact date for the birth of Jesus - the focus figure of the story for the "Magi's star" - greatly undermines any attempt to establish any definitive astronomical or astrological interpretation that is proposed as the solution. The date of birth of the gospel Jesus is beyond reach and will forever remain unknown. Ed. Krupp and (later) Aaron Adair have pointed out that over 20 astronomical (visual) and astrological (significant events) candidates - some not at all plausible - have been proposed for dates between 7 BCE and 1 BCE.

Midrash Explanation

It is indicated that Matthew's gospel is using a Jewish literary genre called Midrash. - specifically haggadah midrash (= interpretation of narrative). At the time of the composition of Matthew's gospel it was common practice for Rabbinic literature to employ Midrash on a large scale. Basically, the writer of a midrash embroidered historical events with non-historical additions. Matthew is utilising Jewish Midrashic method/techniques. Perhaps not technically Jewish Midrash but a method having similar intention - termed by one scholar as "Christian Midrash." The characteristic feature of Jewish Midrash is that it has the scriptural citation (biblical text) as a starting point, and then a short midrashic comment. (For a detailed discussion of Rabbinic mythmaking/midrashic mythmaking see: Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking by Michael Fishbane (2003).) Matthew's gospel adds fictitious or exaggerated details to aspects of the so-called infancy narrative: (1) Roman provincial census, (2) "Magi's star" and journey (3) massacre of very young children, (4) and flight into Egypt. (Also, interestingly, Matthew's Magi and star narrative replaces the angel and the heavenly host in Luke 2:8-15; and Luke's manger scene in 2:16 is replaced with Matthew's house visit in 2:11.)

The "star of the Magi" elements of Matthew's birth narrative is only made meaningful by understanding such as Midrash (or a form of Midrash). Within Matthew's account the fact that the "Star" as portent and guide proved accurate and enabled the "Magi" to find the newly born Jesus places it outside of natural history.

The supposedly natural historical events of "star," "Magi journey," and "Magi success" cannot be separated from the deterministic context of who Jesus is within the gospel story. The story of the "star of the Magi" definitely intends to inform that the circumstances of the birth of Jesus was very unusual. However, if Jesus is simply an ordinary person (and not the West Semitic god Yahweh himself on earth) then both the "star" and the "Magi" are irrelevant and mistaken. There is no purpose to the "star of the Magi" story unless it serves the function of identifying the status of Jesus. This also helps to establish the context of whether we assign the "star" and "Magi" to factual history or Midrash. (At core is the claim by Matthew and Luke that Jesus was conceived by divine/supernatural means?) A coincidence of a 'star' (= astronomical phenomenon) at the same time as Jesus' birth is a 'so what.' It perhaps was not to be connected to anyone in particular, or it could be connected to any 'Tom, Dick, or Harry.'

The infancy narrative affirms "Matthew's" belief - provided latter in the gospel - that Jesus is Messiah and king of the Jews.

The "star of the Magi" story is telling us that the Magi successfully identify, and give recognition to, a significant person. If such is actually a case of misidentification on their part then who, if anyone, did they actually miss correctly identifying? According to Matthew's gospel the Magi were successful because the star stood over the particular dwelling where Jesus was located. This part of the story acts to limit any interpretation of it being an astrological scenario (that through misinterpretation, or other intention, later became attached to Matthew's gospel). Also, nobody else is reported to have been aware of, or involved in, this particular astrological scenario.

To continue to argue the "star of the Magi" as some type of natural astronomical event, or astrological scenario, and the "Magi journey" as historical, is to continue to argue for some incredibly fortuitous set of random occurrences. Few people seem to appreciate this side of the issue.

The use of an astrological argument to establish the likely year of the birth of the gospel Jesus is ludicrous. Clive Davenhall (Reviews, Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, Volume 3, Number 2, 2000, Page 171) has made the point regarding Molnar's (or any astrological) theory (for those persons believing the literal truth of the "star of Bethlehem"): "There is, however a conundrum at the heart of any astronomical explanation of the Star of Bethlehem: whether the event proposed coincided with the birth of Christ by chance or by supernatural intervention. This problem takes an extreme form in Molnar's theory, where it apparently requires astrology's arbitrarily invented rules to work. The problem does not arise if the story of the star is a fabrication. It is, however, possible to reconcile Molnar's ideas with the story being a Midrash."

The gospels are not secular documents and neither are they primarily historical documents. A purely human Jesus was not part of the convictions of the earliest Christians and the New Testament writings depict him as divine. Jesus was believed identical with the West Semitic god Yahweh - Jesus being Yahweh himself on earth. Attempts to extract a purely human Jesus from the New Testament seem not to appreciate that the gospels are primarily teaching catechisms.

We do not have original copies of any of the gospels. The oldest surviving copies of the gospels date from circa 200 CE, and no early copies of a gospel are exactly alike. During the process of transmission it was usual for the hand made manuscripts to be "corrected" here and there by different copyists. It is not possible to claim certain knowledge of exactly what the original text of any biblical writing was.

It is generally thought that an anonymous author compiled the gospel of Matthew sometime after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE and before the council of Jamia in 90 CE. Matthew is also believed to have been composed in Greek in dependence on "Sayings Gospel Q" and Mark, both also written in Greek by unknown authors. The outline of Matthew's gospel is taken from Mark and the "Sayings Gospel Q" material inserted. Matthew at the time of writing embodies current Christian beliefs regarding Jesus.

The gospel of Mark is generally thought to have been written shortly after the fall of Jerusalem and to be based on stories about Jesus and also a primitive Christian gospel. Mark does not give any account of Jesus' birth. The New Testament documents generally indicate there was no knowledge of where Jesus was born.

There is no reason to believe that in the birth narratives "Matthew" was writing a historical record and recording a genuine narrative of real events. Attempting to sort out a scheme of historical events has not led to a persuasive natural explanation of the "Star of Bethlehem".

The attempt to deal with the Matthaean birth narrative as a factual account, that embodies a general accuracy, requires it to be interpreted in isolation to Luke's gospel. Herod's interest in the Magi's journey in Matthew is not shown at all in the scenario described in the birth narrative in Luke.

Recent Scholarship

The publication of a recent conference papers on Prayer, Magic and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World includes a paper setting out that the Star of Bethlehem may not have been anything astronomical. "Conventionally, modern scholars - most often scientists - consider the star a sort of historical puzzle that can be solved by science; they scan records, documents, and data to find likely celestial events that then might have been (mis)interpreted as a portent of Christ's advent by gullible, superstitious Christians. But to focus on a scientific 'explanation' for the star of Bethlehem is to move considerably beyond the interpretive horizons for the first four centuries of the Common Era. Early Christians rarely addressed the question of what exactly the star was, in terms of an astronomical event." (See: "A New Star on the Horizon: Astral Christologies and Stellar Debates in Early Christian Discourse" by Nicola Denzey, in Prayer, Magic and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World, edited by Scott Noegel, Joel Walker, and Brannon Wheeler (2003, Page 208).)

Jewish Prophecy As Possible Basis For Matthew's Star

The gospel birth stories provide some insight into the conflicting strands of the Jesuine tradition. The Bethlehem tradition linked Jesus to Jerusalem and to the Davidic background.

The Old Testament provides literary sources to enable the particular literary construct in Matthew. In this we have the basis for a process of mythification. There is a reasonable case for believing the material in the Matthaean account has been shaped by Old Testament prophecies. The Matthaean birth narratives exhibit a tendency to seek fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The author(s) of the Matthaean birth narrative had the aim of creating a birth narrative able to fit the cultural expectations of the time. A further intent is to convince readers of the validity of Jesus' resurrection and that Jesus is the fulfillment  and culmination of Hebrew history.

The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem meets Micah's prophecy that the Messiah would be a descendant of David (and Bethlehem was the city of David).

The Matthaean "Star" likely meets Balaam's oracle (Numbers 24.17) that a star would come forth out of Jacob. (It would appear that it was applied Messianically to Bar-Cochba, "son of the star", who led the Jewish revolt against the Romans during the time of Emperor Hadrian. Interestingly, no actual star had appeared.) Strong parallels with features of the story of Balaam in the Old Testament suggest that Matthew's story of the "star" and the Magi was shaped by the story of Balaam in Numbers 22-24. See the recent study: "Balaam’s 'Star Oracle' (Num 24:15–19) in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Bar Kokhba." by Helen Jacobus. In: The Star of Bethlehem and the Magi edited by P. Bartel and G. Kooten (2015, Pages 399–429). See also, Ancient Christian Gospels by Helmut Koester 1990, Pages 303-308).

The expectation that the Messiah would be recognized by the Gentiles arose from such passages as Isaiah 60:6. (The appearance of the Magi fulfills the prophecy of Micah 5:2.) The author(s) of the Matthaean birth narrative had the messiahship connected with the birth of Jesus when in fact messiahship was not ascribed until after the belief in Jesus' resurrection.

Rabbinic Messianic Expectations

There is a Rabbinical tradition that at the time of the Messiah's birth, a star will appear in the east and remain for a long time.

According to Rabbinic tradition an unusual (and bright) star appeared in the east ("his star") when Abraham was born. (I am unaware that anybody has successfully maintained an astrological basis for the "Star of Abraham.") Further, there was the star that guided Abraham on his way to Moriah. (See: The Legends of the Jews by Louis Ginzberg, Volume 1, 1909, Chapter V Abraham, Sections "The Star in the East" and "The Journey to Moriah.")

The association between Christianity and Pisces is of late medieval origin. The notion that Pisces was related to Judea or Christianity originated from a Jewish medieval misconception about ancient astrological beliefs. The medieval Jewish scholar Isaac Abrabanel (1437-1508) held certain views regarding the signs Pisces, Aries and Virgo and their associations (See: "The "Star of the Messiah" Reconsidered," by Roy Rosenberg in Biblica, Volume 53, 1972, Pages 105-109.) Isaac Abarbanel held the belief that a Jupiter-Saturn conjunction in Pisces had a connection with Palestine, and in 1463 calculated that such took place three years before the birth of Moses.

Graeco-Roman Herald Stars

Explanations for "The Star of Bethlehem" and "The Journey of the Magi" can be found within the beliefs of the Graeco-Roman world. It is clear that astronomical/astrological explanations are not to be found for all such stories. In the Graeco-Roman world it was generally believed that brilliant stars (or similar devices) foretold or heralded the birth of great persons.

All Graeco-Roman examples of herald stars cannot be simply placed under the umbrella of astrological beliefs. Herald star beliefs can better placed within the context of folklore beliefs. An example of such beliefs found in non-astrological literature in the Graeco-Roman world, unconnected by people fantasizing about astrological conditions, involves Lampridius and Cicero concerning Alexander (the Great).

A star reputedly heralded the birth of Pythagoras and Caesar.

An interesting article regarding a non-astrological origin for stars associated with (the birth of) saviours is "The Influence of the Saviour Sentiment upon Virgil" by the classicist Norman De Witt (Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Volume LIV, 1923, Pages 39-50). It focuses on Eclogues 4 and 9 written by Virgil circa 37 BCE.

Graeco-Roman Guiding Stars

Examples of stars as a guide for journeys and also to light the way for travellers are not uncommon in the ancient world.

In Virgil's Aeneid (2:693), written about the end of the 1st-century BCE, a star (stella facern ducens) marked the way for Aeneas from Troy to the west to the location where he founded Rome. Also, there were the celestial fires that led Thrasybulus and Timoleon. A pillar of light guided Thrasybulus to Munychia. According to a legend from Graeco-Roman times (Lycosthenes, Julii Obsequentis Prodigiorum Liber...per Conradum Lycosthenem Rubeaquensem integrati suae restitutus (1552).): "When Thrasybulus was bringing back the exiles from Phyla, and wished to elude observation, a pillar became his guide as he marched over a trackless region. ... The sky being moonless and stormy, a fire appeared leading the way, which, having conducted them safely, left them near Munychia, where is now the altar of the light-bringer." In Diodorus Siculus' 1st-century BCE text Historical Library, (Book 16, 24-5) we read that the voyage of Timoleon (circa 343 BCE) from Corinth to Sicily was guided by one or more blazing lights referred to as lampas: "Heaven came to the support of his venture and foretold his coming fame and the glory of his achievements, for all through the night he was preceded by a torch blazing in the sky up to the moment when the squadron made harbour in Italy."

According to Flavius Josepheus in his The Antiquities of the Jews (ii. ix. 2) a star conducted Abraham to Mount Moriah.

Pagan Precedents For Matthew's Star

The story of the journey of the Three Magi might also be a literary device inspired by an old Iranian story recast in the formula of the journey of the Armenian king Tiridates from Hamadan to Nero in Rome circa AD 66. (The visit was recorded by Dio Cassius, Suetonius, and Pliny the Elder.) This possible Tiridates-Matthew connection is a case for borrowing by analogy (but not astrology). This ignored (i.e., rejected) 19th-century position was recently supported again by the Iranian expert Ernst Herzfeld. (See: Archaeological History of Iran, by Ernst Herzfeld (1934; pages 65-66).)

When Tiridates journeyed to Rome to pay homage to Nero (as a god) his train included Magi, and presents for Nero. (I think that Pliny referred to Tiridates as Magus.) At the end of their journey Nero responded with fetes and the illumination of Rome.

Whilst Tiridates' visit was political it seems the reason he was deifying Nero was because of Nero's horoscope. However, the story of the journey of Tiridates to Rome to pay homage to Nero was about politics - not astrology. Nero told Tiridates to do such and Tiridates obeyed. In the peace treaty of 61 CE Nero had required this visit, to bestow on Tiridates the kingship of Armenia. Tiridates (1) did not voluntarily make the journey, and (2) was not motivated to do so by Nero's horoscope. The reason for the visit of Tiridates to Rome was politics, not astrology. Using astrology to play politics can be judged as politically astute for that time. The horoscope of Nero was an add-in to the scenario.

It would also appear that the journey of Tiridates to Rome became fused with an old Iranian epic concerning a hero who travelled to a distant land. If "Matthew" borrowed motifs from the journey of Tiridates then this is borrowing by analogy, not astrology. Astrology was not the central theme or impetus for Tiridates' journey. (But the horoscope issue regarding Nero perhaps adds force to the case for Tiridates' journey being the source of the details of the Matthaean nativity story. It can be reasonably held that the nativity story in Matthew is late.)

Nero was the anti-Messiah of early Christian legend. (Nero appears as the Antichrist in the 1st-century Sibylline Oracles. The books comprising this collection of prophecies were compiled by Alexandrian Jews and Christians.) If Nero could receive such homage from the Magi then perhaps "Matthew" could not have Jesus receiving less. (A strong common detail between the Matthew's Gospel and the tale of Tiridates is that Tiridates wished to worship Nero as the Magi had also wished to worship the King of the Jews.) Even Herod and his advisors, within the context of Matthew's story, did not see the "star." (The story may have found its way by popular tale into the Gospel of Matthew.) The Matthean account has an undoubted theological purpose (i.e., that Jesus is the expected Messiah and was born in Bethlehem). Interestingly, like the account of the "Magi" in Matthew, it is related that Tiridates and his entourage returned home by another route.

A star reputedly heralded the birth of the Hindu saviour Krishna.

In his The Histories (1.107ff) the Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus (5th-century BCE) reports the story of Astyages, a Median king (6th-century BCE), who consulted with Magi and then tried unsuccessfully to kill his prophesised successor, the child Cyrus. (According to legend Cyrus was his grandson.) In Isaiah 45.1 the term "anointed one" (i.e., Messiah) is applied to Cyrus. Other verses in Isaiah 45.14, 60.6) make reference to the wealth of nations being brought to Israel.

Pagan Saviour Signs

The Zoroastrians had saviour-signs within their religion. (See: A Dictionary of the Bible edited by [Sir] William Smith (article "Magi" [by Rev. Edward Plumptre], Volume 2, 1863). The last revised edition I am aware of was published circa 1979.) Also see: Hinnells, John. (1969). "Zoroastrian Saviour Imagery and its Influence on the New Testament." (Numen, Volume 16, Fascicle 3, December, Pages 161-185).

A number of writers quote a remarkable prophecy attributed to Zoroaster (flourished circa 600 BC?) which runs: "You, my children, shall be the first honoured by the manifestation of that divine person who is to appear in the world. A star shall go before you to conduct you to the place of his nativity, and when you shall find him, present to him your oblations and sacrifices, for he is indeed your lord and an everlasting king." (See the booklet: Our Pagan Christmas by R. J. Condon (National Secular Society, 2000). Incidentally, Condon has: "... the Wise Men came from the East to Jerusalem according to the prophecy of Zoradasht." See also: Monumental Christianity by John Lundy (1876).) Though it has been denied that this particular prophecy is part of the authentic Zend-Avesta (i.e., it is simply not to be found in the Zend-Avesta) something resembling it was certainly known to the author of the "Arabic Gospel of the Infancy" (an apocryphal gospel of Catholic origin, circa 600 CE). In this particular document we read: "... magi came from the East to Jerusalem as Zeraduscht [Zoroaster] had predicted." This prophecy could well have been known to the writer(s) of the nativity story in Matthew's gospel. The influence of Zoroastrianism is certainly traceable in many other religions.

Two articles, both by Gherardo Gnoli, in The Encyclopedia of Religion edited by Mircea Eliade (1987) are interesting. The article "Saoshyant" (Volume 13) has the statement: "The doctrine of the future saviour had already taken shape in the Achaemenid period (sixth to fourth centuries BCE). ... A similar concept, that of the future Buddha, Maitreya, was most likely indebted to it, and Christian messianism can trace it roots to the same source." The article "Magi" (Volume 9) has the statement: "The Zoroastrian doctrine of the Saviour of the Future (Saoshyant) was the basis for the story of the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-12)."

An additional reference in which the author maintains the same position as Gherardo Gnoli is: I Magi a Betlemme e una predizione di Zoroastro by Giuseppe Messina (Rome, 1933). (Father Giuseppe Messina SJ (1893-1951) was an Italian orientalist and Professeur l'Institut biblique pontifical.)

The Zoroastrian prophecy of a future saviour and also the story of the Journey of Tiridates can provide the basis for the Matthaean narrative of the "Star" and "Magi" which in all likelihood are narrative fictions comparable to haggadic midrash. (Astronomers do not continually waste their time attempting an astronomical identification of "herald stars" and "saviour signs" in antiquity. These are readily accepted as literary fictions.)

Sumerian Origin Of Celestial Signs

It obviously can't be determined what the origin of the star story was. It can be concluded that the birth stories in the gospels are without historical merit. Occasional references to celestial signs exist in texts from the Sumerian period. One of the earliest and clearest references to a celestial sign dates to the Sumerian "Gudea Cylinder A," circa 2,200 BCE, where the goddess Nisaba tells Gudea, with a sign sent in the form of a bright star, when to begin construction of Ningirsu's temple. In the ancient Near East there was a connection between kings and stars. The ultimate origin for the latter Graeco-Roman belief in herald stars probably lie within ancient Mesopotamian beliefs. All modern attempts to identify an actual historical "star" are clearly mixing fact and fiction in a confusing manner.

The Standard Study

Brown, Raymond. (1976; updated edition 1993). The Birth of the Messiah. A standard study of remaining importance.

Some Recent Books

Ashmon, Scott. (2012). Birth Annunciations in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East: A Literary Analysis of the Forms and Functions of the Heavenly Foretelling of the Destiny of a Special Child. (Publishers' blurb: "Ashmon puts forth a structural analysis of birth annunciations in the Hebrew Bible, and Ancient Near Eastern texts. By studying the topic in this way, the author shows a shared culture between Egyptian Hittite, Sumerian, Ugarit cultures and Biblical narratives. It explores an aspect of the Bible that has yet to be the subject of an extensive study. There have been numerous accounts of the birth annunciations of Jesus in the New Testament, but this is the first book to do a scholarly examination of the way prophecies about the birth of special children occur prior to Christ.") Also see the (English-language) book review by Paola Mollo in Review of Biblical Literature, August, 2014; (readily accessible at academia.edu).

Adair, Aaron. (2013). The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View. (Publishers' blurb: The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View is an analysis of the astronomical portent found in the Gospel of Matthew which supposedly led the Magi from the East to the birthplace of Jesus. Throughout history, people have tried to connect the Star to real, naturalistic phenomena, as well as to explain it in other ways. Adair takes a thorough look at all of these explanatory attempts, using the tools of science and astronomy, and finds them fundamentally wanting. Take a trip through the heavens above with Adair as he critically explores many centuries of flawed hypotheses, looking to answer the question "Did the Star of Bethlehem really exist?") Also, see the (English-language) book review by Michael Molnar in Science, Religion & Culture, Volume 1, Issue 3, Pages 174-177).

Barthel, Peter. and van Kooten, George. (Editors). (2015). The Star of Bethlehem and the Magi: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Experts on the Ancient Near East, the Greco-Roman World, and Modern Astronomy. (Publishers' blurb: This book is the fruit of the first interdisciplinary international scientific conference on Matthew's story of the Star of Bethlehem and the Magi, held in 2014 at the University of Groningen, and attended by world-leading specialists in all relevant fields: modern astronomy, the ancient near-eastern and Greco-Roman worlds, the history of science, and religion. The scholarly discussions and the exchange of the interdisciplinary views proved to be immensely fruitful and resulted in the present book. Its twenty chapters describe the various aspects of The Star: the history of its interpretation, ancient near-eastern astronomy and astrology and the Magi, astrology in the Greco-Roman and the Jewish worlds, and the early Christian world – at a generally accessible level. An epilogue summarizes the fact-fiction balance of the most famous star which has ever shone.)


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