THE CHRISTMAS STAR
PART 1: WHEN WAS JESUS BORN?
Josephus records that Herod died shortly after an eclipse of the Moon seen at Jericho, and sometime before the Feast of Passover. It is this point which has caused much historical. confusion, as we have to select between four Lunar eclipses. There is one key piece of evidence which is often overlooked. The Jewish historian Josephus, records that there was a Jewish holiday celebrating Herod's death on 2nd day of the month Shebat. Significantly, this date is in accord with only one of those 4 eclipses, namely the one an 9th Jan, 1 BC. The 2nd Shebat date fell just 15 days after that eclipse. This means that Herod died 24th January I BC. Consequently, the Christmas star must have appeared throughout 3 and 2 BC. This accords with the census completed by late 3 BC.
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. This constitutes the third reason why we celebrate Christmas on that date.
But, aside from all this, there is a fourth reason. All the astronomical evidence suggests that this date also marked the final appearance of the Christmas Star. It was on 25th Dec in 2 BC when Jesus was 15 months old, that the Wise Men presented their gifts to the young Messiah.
THREE POINTS OF POSSIBLE CONFUSION:
(1). Three different calendars were in use at the time - their relationship to our BC-AD system must be established.
(2). Herod's death is historically linked with an eclipse of the Moon seen at Jerusalem and Jericho. There are 4 choices.
(3). Some dates are given in terms of the year of reign of Caesar Augustus. -- The career of Augustus has 3 possible starting dates to count from.
ELIMINATION OF THESE 3 POINTS OF CONFUSION:
(1). The Calendar Problem
A. Our current BC-AD calendar was introduced in 527 AD by the then Abbott of Rome, Dionysius Exiguus.
B. The Varronian Calendar used by the Romans gave dates in years AUC (Ad Urbe Condita - from the founding of the city of Rome). This calendar was cross-referenced to the ...
C. Olympiad System - based on the 4 year cycle of the Olympic Games. Year 1 on this system occurred 23 years before Year 1 AUC.
D. The Seleucid Calendar - began with the 1st year of the reign of Seleucus Ist in Babylon. This occurred on 1st year of Olympiad 117.
E. Seleucid calendar used by Syrian Christians in Lebanon until mid-20th
Century. This gives us an accurate cross-link to BC-AD system.
AUC System began on 21st April 753 BC.
Olympiad System began on 1st July 776 BC.
Seleucid Era began 3rd April 311 BC.
(2). The Date of Herod's Death:
A. The statement of Josephus - Herod died shortly after a Lunar Eclipse seen at Jerusalem and Jericho and sometime before Passover. Enough time between the eclipse and Passover was needed for funeral rites and other events listed by Josephus.
B. Only 4 eclipses of Moon near Herod's death.
I. Earliest was 15 September 5 BC. Eliminated as too late for Passover.
II. Partial eclipse 13 March 4 BC. Passover began April 12th.
III. Full eclipse 9th January I BC.
IV. Full eclipse 29 December 1 BC.
Note: It is often assumed that Herod died about 1st April 4 BC because of the partial eclipse on March 13, as referenced above in II. Many other events are dated upon this premise. Therefore the following item C is vital.
C. Elimination of contenders from the remaining 3 Eclipses.
I. Josephus lists too many events to fit the time from Herod's death to the Passover in 4 BC. This favors the I BC eclipses.
II. A Jewish holiday celebrated Herod's death on 2nd Shebat. This is incompatible with the 4 BC eclipse. The 2nd Shebat date came just 15 days after both the 1 BC eclipses.
III. Early Christian historians placed Christ's Birth after 4 BC eclipse and before 9th Jan I BC eclipse. This may eliminate the 29 December eclipse in I BC.
Conclusion: Josephus' eclipse was probably the 9th Jan I BC, so Herod died about 24th January I BC. The less favorable eclipse on 29th December 1 BC gives Herod's death on 13 Jan. 1 AD.
Note: Herod had all children under 2 killed. This suggests that Jesus may have been born sometime in 3 or 2 BC.
(3). The Beginning of the Reign of Caesar Augustus:
A. Julius Caesar nominated Octavian his son and heir in his will. Julius was murdered on 15th March 44 BC. Will effective from 17th. Octavian and Mark Antony had joint rule from 17th March 44 BC.
B. A cross-check on Herod: Antony appointed him King of Judea in winter. late in 39 BC. Herod's 1st Regnal year was thus 38 BC. Josephus records that he reigned 37 years from that appointment.
Conclusion: Herod died early in 1 BC. Messiah therefore born 3 BC.
C. On 2nd September 31 BC, Octavian scattered fleets of Antony and
Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. Antony and then Cleopatra committed suicide. Octavian became ruler of Egypt and undisputed leader of all Roman Legions on that date.
D. On 13th Jan 27 BC the Roman Senate proclaimed Octavian as Augustus.
Summary: Octavian joint rule with Antony from 17th March 44 BC. Octavian leader of all Roman Legions and all Egypt2 September 31 BC. Octavian proclaimed as Augustus by Senate 13th January 27 BC.
E. Christ's Birth from Augustus' dates (selected from 18 historians).
I. Clement of Alexandria statement - Jesus born in the 28th year of Egyptian rule of Augustus. That was 31 BC less 28 years = 3/2 BC.
II. Eusebius adds that this was also the 42nd year of the reign of Octavian.
That is true if counted from 44 BC. This results in 3/2 BC.
III. Tertullian and Origen further specify that Augustus ruled for another 15 full years after Christ's birth. As Augustus died on 19th August 14 AD we again come to 3/2 BC for the birth.
Conclusion: Eighteen Christian historians give birth of Messiah as 3/2 BC.
DATING THE WORLD CENSUS-TAXATION OF AUGUSTUS.
(1). The Activities of Quirinius: [Cyrenius in Luke 2].
A. Consul in Rome with Messala in 12 BC.
B. Conducted the Homonadensian War sometime between 10 and 1 BC.
C. Became Advisor to Gaius Caesar late in 1 BC.
D. Conducted a Judean Census when direct Roman Rule began in 6/7 AD.
Note: Cyrenius (Quirinius) was Legate to Syria twice. The first time was for 5 years during the Homonadeneian War. The second was for the 6/7 AD tax. The evidence indicates the first appointment was from late 6 BC to I BC.
Conclusion: The Census when Cyrenius was 1st Governor of Syria was sometime between 6 and I BC during the Homonadensian Campaign.
(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 Exact Knowledge of His Empire's Resources
A. Geographical information obtained by Agrippa was collated by Strabo. His map of the Empire and commentary 'Geography' was complete in 6 BC.
B. A world census such as experienced regularly by citizens of Rome since 28 BC was needed to complete the information.
C. The Res Gestae inscriptions date the initial proclamation as 8 BC. I. Provincial Italy always taxed one year before Rome - 8/7 BC. II. Rome taxed in 7/6 BC. Empire then taxed province by province. Ill. Saturninus delegated to Roman Syria late in 6 BC.
D. Two years spent on location preparing and mobilizing the people. Order acted on in 3 BC.
E. Saturninus left when Census complete early in 2 BC.
Conclusion: The Census Tax of Augustus was acted on in Judea in 3 BC. Jesus the Messiah was probably born sometime during that year.
THE TIME OF THE 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,
(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 or 2 BC.
WHY CELEBRATE THE NATIVITY ON DECEMBER 25TH?
(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). Roman Festival of the Saturnalia - 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.
PART 2: WHO WERE THE WISE MEN?
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
(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 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.
Part 3: WHAT WAS THE STAR?
(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.
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 attracted no great interest in Judea or Jerusalem. Consequently, its significance to the population in that area was minimal. They may casually have noted an astronomical display but have attached no particular significance to it. Only the Wise Men were attracted by the phenomena.
There is, however, 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 singular form "anatole" has quite a special astronomical significance, in that it implies the observation of the early rising of the star, the so-called heliacal rising. The translators of the Authorised Version could not have known this. When 'en te anatole' is translated properly Matt.2:2 reads as follows: 'We have seen his star appear in the first rays of the dawn.' That would correspond exactly with the astronomical facts."
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 cannot be considered until after the departure of the Wise men from Jerusalem.
An event as momentous as the incarnation of the Son of God at Bethlehem would surely merit a unique "sign" the heavens.
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