THE CHRISTMAS STAR
The Jewish feast of Hannukah occurred on 25th Kislev which corresponds to our month of December. Up until 1583 AD, the time when the Gregorian calendar was introduced, the 25th Kislev and 25th December were the same day. Following the introduction of the new calendar, the two dates parted company. England did not adopt the new calendar until 1752 AD, by which time it was 11 days out of step with Europe.
On the 3rd of February 313 AD in Milan, Italy, the Roman Emperor Constantine issued an edict giving absolute tolerance to Christianity throughout the Empire. It comes as no surprise, therefore, to find that December 25th was first documented as Christmas Day in 354 AD. Under the Roman Emperor Justinian, it became an official holiday around 550 AD.
Three possible points of confusion:
Solving these three points:
(1). The Calendar Problem:
(2). The Date of Herod's Death:
Dating the Registration of Augustus.
(2). The Importance of Saturninus:
A. Historically, Saturninus was Proconsul to Syria in the period from 5 years to 2 years before the death of Herod, or 6 BC to 3 BC inclusive. [If the December 29th eclipse is used this becomes 5 BC to 2 BC].
B. Early Christian historian Tertullian notes that the census at the time of Christ's birth was "taken in Judea by Sentius Saturninus".
C. Saturninus left very early in 2 BC once the census was complete. He was replaced by Quintillius Varus about a year before Herod died.
Conclusion: Jesus was born when BOTH Quirinius and Saturninus administered Syria.
(3) Augustus Wanted Allegiance and Approval from Empire
A. Geographical information obtained by Agrippa was collated by Strabo. His map of the Empire and commentary 'Geography' was complete in 6 BC.
B. 2 B.C. marked the 750th year since the founding of Rome as well as the 25th anniversary of his reign.
C. The Roman Senate wanted to give Augustus the title of "Father of his County" -- Pater Patriae -- on the anniversay, in 2 B.C.
D. Augustus refused unless the people agreed, and this coincided with the order for a pledge of allegiance from not only all the populace, but most especially from anyone in any royal line in any provice who might try to claim the crown at some time. This included the line of David in Judea, of which both Joseph and Mary were a part.
E. The decree for the registration and pledge was issued in early August of 3 B.C. and had been completed by the end of the year.
F. On February 5, 2 B.C., Augusted was granted, and accepted, the title of Pater Patraie.
Cconclusion. The Registration of Augustus was acted on in Judea in the autumn of 3 BC. Jesus the Messiah was probably born about that time.
The Time of Year for Christ's Birth [Luke 2].
(1). Shepherds were watching their flocks by night - only when lambs are being born in the spring or autumn, however the flocks would not be in the fields in the spring because they would trample the new crops. They were only allowed in the fields in the autumn to graze the stubble and for the fall lambing season.
(2). Revelation 12 depicts the birth of Christ when sun and moon in Virgo. That dates the Nativity as 10th September 3 BC. or 29th September. 2 BC.
(3). John 1:14 may imply the Birth at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles which is 15 days after the New Moon or 25th September 3 BC or 14 October 2 BC.
Conclusion: Jesus was probably born in September or October of 3 BC.
Why Celebrate the Nativity on December 25?
(1). The Jewish Feast of Hanukkah - the Festival of Lights or Feast of Dedication (John 10:22) - when children lit candles and sang hymns. Jewish Christians saw Messiah as the "Light of the world". Occurred on 25th Kislev (December) on the Jewish calendar.
(2). The Winter Solstice -- the birth of the 'New Sun' celebrated at the winter solstice (December 25th). Roman Christians commemorated the coming of the "Sun of Righteousness that arose with healing in His wings" (Malachi 4:2).
(3). Evidence presented in Part 2 suggests that this date marked the final appearance of the Christmas Star when the Wise Men saw Jesus.
(4). December 25th first documented as Christmas Day in 354 AD and became an official holiday under Emperor Justinian around 550 AD.
Summary of Part 1
Biblical: The two accounts of Messiah's Birth - Matthew 2 and Luke 2 - offer 2 clues as to the time of Christ's Birth. This Birth date must be approximately established to know when the Christmas Star appeared.
(1). Luke 2: The registration decree of Caesar Augustus that resulted in the overcrowded conditions at Bethlehem.
CLUE 1: This indicates Autumn of 3 B.C. as the possible time of Christ's birth.
(2). Matt 2: The interaction of the Wise men with King Herod; his decree for all children under 2 to be slaughtered and his own death shortly afterwards.
CLUE 2: Herod's death gives the latest possible date for Christ's Birth and the subsequent flight to Egypt of Joseph, Mary and Jesus to Egypt.
(1). Registratio decree of Caesar Augustus was issued in 3 BC and implemented that Autumn.
(2). Christ was born during the 5 years when Cyrenius (Quirinius) was first Governor (Legate) of Syria - that is sometime from 6 BC to 1 BC.
(3). Registration was acted on in Judea when Saturninus was Proconsul to Syria. Saturninus left after the Registration was complete by 2 BC. Jesus was born before that. This places the Birth in late 3 or early 2 BC.
(4). Josephus records that Herod reigned for 37 years from his appointment as King by Antony in December of 39 BC. This places his death in 1 BC.
(5). Herod died 15 days after the Lunar Eclipse on 9th January I BC. Christ was born before Herod died -perhaps 2 years before or 3 BC.
(6). Eighteen early Christian historians place Messiah's Birth in either (a). The 42nd year of the reign of Augustus (which began in 44 BC) or (b). The 28th year of Augustus' Egyptian rule (which began September 31 BC). (c) or 15 full years before Augustus died on 19th August 14 AD.
CONCLUSION: These all give a date for the Nativity of 3 BC.
NOTE: The Shepherds and Flocks; The Tabernacles Festival; and Revelation 12 all combine to give the time of the year as September or October.
Where the Wise Men Came From
Matthew 2:1 says they came from the East - that is east of Judea.
(1). Judea was a buffer state between the sprawling Roman Empire in the West and the fabulous Persian Empire of the Parthian Dynasty in East.
(2). The Persian Empire largely controlled the Silk Route to India and China. The gifts of the Wise Men were the best that world trade could offer.
Conclusion: The Wise Men came from the Persian Empire east of Judea.
Who were the Wise Men?
(1). Parthian Dynasty ruled Persia through a King and Megistanes (roughly equivalent to our Houses of Parliament) plus Advisors.
(2). Lower House members called the Sophoi or Wise Ones; Upper House members called the Magoi or Great Ones. Matthew calls them Magoi (this word is also our root for "majority", "major", and "magnify". It is the word "magi", which is different, which is the root for magic and magician.)
Conclusion: The Wise Men were Magoi - the King Makers of the Persian Empire.
How Did They Travel?
(1). This Delegation of Rulers from Persia penetrated 750 Km into Roman territory. They would be escorted by their armed cavalry units.
(2). Persia was the home of the finest cavalry units in the world. They were called the Cataphracti and consistently won out against the Roman Legions.
(3). The Persians always rode horses; camels were only used for baggage.
Conclusion: The Magoi rode horses and were accompanied by crack cavalry units for protection.
Why Was Herod Troubled?
(1). He had a small army from a foreign power at the gates of Jerusalem. With the exception of one time, the Persian Empire had consistently defeated the Roman forces in wars.
(2). Most of his Garrison that normally guarded Jerusalem were away fighting the Homonadenaian War. Jerusalem was virtually undefended.
(3). The Magoi proclaimed the birth of what appeared to be a contender for Herod's Throne whom they intended to support.
Conclusion: Jerusalem was undefended against a foreign army which announced the birth of Messiah Who was to rule Israel from Herod's throne.
Why Did the Wise Men Come?
(1). They had Daniel's prophecy indicating the time of Messiah's Birth.
(2). They had the prophecy of Balaam about Messiah and His Star.
(3). Zoroaster had incorporated these prophecies in the Zend Avesta and Zoroastrianism was the State Religion of Persia at that time. NOTE: The Mithras sect had declined by this epoch, but again became dominant at the close of the 1st century AD.
Conclusion: The Wise Men came to Judea because the bible of their religion prophesied that there would be born unto the Jews a King Messiah and that His coming would be heralded by a sign in the heavens.
(1). Note that the word 'star' had a wide variety of applications. The various possibilities are discussed and eliminated.
(2). Meteors and meteor showers such as the Leonids though impressive last a maximum of a few weeks.
(3). A nova or unstable star is longer lasting. The only nova recorded at the time was a faint one in 4 BC. They rarely last 2 years.
(4). By contrast, a supernova has been seen in broad daylight and can last several years. The Wise Men claimed to Herod that the star they followed was visible for 2 years.
A. Supernovae and fixed stars can be used for North-South guidance.
B. Certain stars pass directly overhead at given locations every day.
C. For this form of guidance the star must pass overhead in Judea.
D. The Zend Avesta prophesied that Messiah's Star would be in Virgo.
E. Virgo does not pass overhead in Judea.
F. Only two supernovae recorded near the Nativity: 134 BC and 173 AD.
Conclusion: The Christmas Star was not a meteor-shower, a nova or supernova.
NOTE: The account requires the star to appear in the eastern sky, move across the starry background. and go before the Wise Men to Judea. Only comets, planets or groupings of planets behave this way.
The Two Prime Candidates for the Christmas Star
A. They travel through the background stars at the rate of I or 2 degrees per day.
B. They may be visible to the naked eye for 100 days or so.
C. A journey to Judea would take the Wise Men about 6 weeks. Comets are thus visible long enough for the journey. But...
D. No comets were recorded in 3/2 BC. Certainly none lasted 2 years.
(2). Planets and Planet Groupings
A. The motion of planets against the background stars is discussed. When two or more planets or a planet and star appear to stand close to each other in the sky, it is called a conjunction.
B. The triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces in 7 BC is detailed. The planets were about 2 times the diameter of the Moon apart. This is an average apparent separation for such phenomena.
C. In February of 6 BC Jupiter, Saturn and Mars stood together in a rather loose triangle in the western sky. The Sippar Institute of Astrology in Babylonia recorded these and the following events.
D. On the 1st August 3 BC Jupiter rose helically in the rays of the dawn. This is the precise phrase used in Matthew "En te anatole". The Greek singular form "anatole" has retained the special astronomical significance of a star appearing in the rays of the rising sun. By contrast "anatolai" means "east". On August 13 at 5 am Jupiter and Venus stood a quarter of a degree apart in the sunrise glare. That is less than half diameter of Moon.
E. On 18th August 3 BC Mercury came out of the solar glare. On September 1st, with sun in Virgo, Mercury and Venus stood 1/3rd degree apart in Leo.
F. On 14th September 3 BC, Jupiter stood in conjunction with Regulus This was repeated on 17th February and 8th May in 2 BC.
G. On June 17th, 2 BC Jupiter and Venus 'collided' - - they stood 1/50th of a degree apart. The two brightest planets in the sky appeared to fuse into one immense blaze of light - - an unprecedented happening.
H. On 27th August 2 BC a grand conjunction of planets occurred. Jupiter and Mars were 1/7th degree apart with Mercury and Venus together just I degree away -- in the rays of the sunrise in Virgo.
I. Jupiter then moved westwards. By mid-November it had passed the zenith and was shining in the western sky-and still moving west. At this point the Wise Men set out.
J. Six weeks later, from Jerusalem, the Wise Men saw Jupiter due south on the meridian above Bethlehem. At that time Jupiter had reached its furthest point west, came to a halt and stood still against the background stars in the sky 65 degrees above Bethlehem. It was December 25th.
CONCLUSION: This extremely unusual set of events in 3 and 2 BC was probably the Christmas Star. Everything seems to fit the Biblical account.
Timeline of Events -- astronomical events shaded in blue
Addendum, December 21, 1999:
There have been a variety of suggestions as to the identity of the Christmas Star recorded in Matthew 2. There is also the idea that the whole sequence of events was a manifestation of the Shekinah glory cloud. It is true that Luke records that the "Angel of the Lord came upon them and glory of the Lord shone round about" the shepherds. In Old Testament terminology that usually referred to a manifestation of the Shekinah. I also consider it likely that the Shekinah was again manifested over the house in Bethlehem where Jesus was staying as a 15 month old boy when the Wise Men came into the town after their evening observation of the Star. This is probably how they knew which building Messiah was in.
However, to attribute the whole Christmas Star sequence that guided the Wise Men from Persia to Bethlehem to the Shekinah does not quite fit all the facts. First, the Star appeared in Persia and led the Wise Men to Jerusalem and also appeared to them there. If it had been the Shekinah, the Rabbis in Jerusalem would have instantly been aware of its significance. However, the Star is not known to have attracted no great interest in Judea or Jerusalem. Consequently, its significance to the population in that area was minimal. It was the Roman astronomer/astrologers who were excited by the display and conjunctions, and they declared it was the heavens approving of Augustus as their "prince of peace." Likewise, the Magoi were also fascinated by what was happening in the heavens and, feeling it coincided with prophecies in their own scriptures, journeyed west, following the path of Jupiter, to find the Child.
There is also textual evidence that it was in fact an astronomical object rather than the Shekinah. In the Authorized Version, the translation of Matthew 2:2 is not strictly correct. It translates the statement of the Wise Men as "We have seen His Star in the East". In the original Greek "in the east" is in fact "En te anatole" which is the Greek singular. However, elsewhere "the east" is represented by "anatolai", the Greek plural. Dr. Werner Keller, the German archaeologist writes on page 335 of "The Bible As History" (Hodder and Stoughton, 1969) the following comment::
The heliacal rising of a prominent star was a defined astronomical phenomenon. The Egyptians noted it, as did other civilizations in the Fertile Crescent and elsewhere. The conclusion is that a very specific 'star' was involved in the heliacal rising. It would therefore seem that a manifestation of the Shekinah should not be considered until after the departure of the Wise men from Jerusalem.