Makes You Wonder Resources
The Light of the World Has Come
This lecture was given in Perth, Western Australia, on January 6th, the Sunday of Epiphany, which commemorates a group of magi who came from ‘the east’ to the home of Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus.
Australian Joke: why did the first Christmas not happen in Perth? You can’t find three wise men ‘over east’. The rejoinder: it is also too hard to find both a virgin and an honourable man in Perth.
The story moves dramatically. A long search, they meet the King, a Jerusalem theological colloquium, the wise men then head south and find the child, and Herod sends troops to slaughter any boy under two, while the holy family escape westwards. What is this about? Well it is not like the Sunday school pageants in the traditions of western Europe, which do have their point, by the way. Note in the bible that there are three kinds of gift not three kings. Also, these magi arrive after the birth (v1) to see a child (paidion v 11) not a baby, in a house (11) not a stable. It appears from Herod’s best enquiries and the orders he gave the soldiers , that the infant Jesus was born up to two years prior to the arrival of the wise men. Herod died soon after so we are probably looking at the period 2-3BC.
Who are these magi? They were not kings. The word, ‘magi,’ which is sometimes translated ‘wise men,’ is the root from which we get our word ‘magic.’ Some of them were learned men who studied the physical world and were knowledgeable about many things, including the stars. Magi were often court astronomers and diviners who were consulted by the rulers of the day for guidance in affairs of state. This was an old and longstanding practice and very wide spread. For example, some 500 years earlier, King Nebuchadnezar in Babylon kept a stable of court magi. He even appointed the Jewish prophet Daniel to be his Chief Magus when Daniel was able to interpret a dream which the other magi could not.
The star of the story is the star. What star is that? Or is it just fanciful legend as Jack Spong and others would maintain? Let us use this celestial focus to work through the story, with great debt to The STAR project, by Frederick Larson.
(Researched and written by: Frederick A. Larson The STAR Project, A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, 111 University Drive East, Suite 220, College Station, Texas 77840-1700 USA, http://bethlehemstar.net/)
Working from the Biblical account in Matthew, unpacking it verse by verse, Larson compiled a list of nine qualities which must be present before any celestial phenomena could be considered to be the Biblical Star of Bethlehem. He took a very forensic approach, that is – looked for clues and used them to paint a ‘most likely’ picture.
v1 After Jesus was bornin Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod,
When exactly was this? To begin, the date of Herod’s death is crucial to the investigation. Until recently the popularly accepted date was 4BC, based on one version of the text of Josephus, so then Christ had to be born a year or two before that– so, 5 or 6 BC. But according to another text of Josephus, the most recent theory is that Herod died in 1 BC, then we should look at the years 2 and 3 BC. For the sake of time, that is where we will go to assess the rest of the evidence.
1 (cont’d) Magi from the east came to Jerusalem
Matthew does report that the Wise Men were from the East, most likely Babylon in present day Iraq. Philo (a philosopher of Jesus period) records that there were scholarly Jewish and non-Jewish schools in Babylon. So it is possible the Wise Men were of this prestigious Eastern school. This would account for Herod giving them an audience, and for his strong reaction to the news they brought.
2 the magi asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?
The Magis’ question gives us three points for our list of qualifications for the Star. Whatever happened in the sky indicated 1) birth, 2) kingship and 3) Jews. It also gives us a clue about the Magi. They were interested in things Jewish.
2 (cont’d) We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him."
The Greek text here says they saw the Star in the east – "en anatole" – meaning they saw his star rising in the east. Nothing remarkable about that. Because of the rotation of the Earth, stars and planets normally arise in the east. So, that’s another qualification for the Star: it must rise in the east like most other stars. Not a meteor, not a supernova. So it follows that its distinctiveness would not be immediately obvious to all.
The motive of the Magi in coming to Jerusalem tells us more about them. They wanted to worship a Jewish king. It can’t be proven, but maybe the Magi were of Jewish descent. This would help explain why a Jewish philosopher, Philo, would admire them, why they wanted to pay him homage, and why they were taken so seriously by Herod and the Jerusalem establishment. In our times, Jewish or not, they would be called New-Agers. They were persuaded somehow that this event was a mystery of great significance in the region. Thus, this story is a model of how the person of Jesus fulfills the searching that lies at the foundations of all religions. That does not make Christianity better than other religions at all things, it just means we all need to welcome Jesus into our lives, not just the church – but no more about that issue today.
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.
Why were Herod and Jerusalem so very troubled at the Magis’ news? The threat of another king, obviously, but why did they take it so seriously? Not obvious to us, respect for the stars and guidance derived from them was at a peak in the ancient world, so they took the magi’s interpretation seriously. For example, Suetonius the Roman historian tells us that 60 years earlier, some other magi had made a presentation to the Roman Senate. They described portents in the stars indicating that a new ruler had been born. The Senate responded by ordering the death of baby boys in the candidate age range. Sound familiar? Later, when Herod, who was fond of being more Roman than the Romans, ordered the slaughter of all male toddlers under two in Bethlehem he may have been following a Roman precedent. That may be one further reason Jerusalem was troubled at the news the Wise Men brought. Perhaps they realized that their overlords the Romans, as occupying army, might come down and shed their blood in response.
4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written: 6 "’But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’"
Herod took the Magis’ message as factual, and consulted Jerusalem’s biblical scholars about the location of the birth. The fateful verse in the Book of Micah soon resulted in the death of many little boys in Bethlehem. We don’t how many – one would be too many. When we read of innocent bloodshed in Kenya and Gaza and Iraq, and other places where the young die too soon, we must recall that this was the very context for Jesus’ birth.
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.
Another qualification for the Star: 5) It appeared at an ‘exact time’. And yet another qualification: 6) Herod didn’t know when it appeared. He had to ask.
8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him." 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was and they were overwhelmed with joy.
And now we have the last three qualifications for the Star: 7) its remarkable qualities endured or reappeared over a considerable period of time. The Magi saw it from where they lived in the east, traveled to Judea and saw it again or saw it still. 8) It ‘went ahead of them’ as they traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The Star was not needed to guide the travelers to Bethlehem. At a very visible five miles south of Jerusalem on the main road, they couldn’t miss it. No, the Star that had been in the east appears again or still, this time in the south as a confirmation of the signs they had seen. They were overjoyed, either because it was a second appearance of the same brilliant star or because it came to a full stop right on cue. Which is the ninth characteristic of the star we seek. The Star stopped! Can a star do that?
We now know much about what the Star must be to satisfy the evidence.
- It signified birth.
- It signified kingship.
- It had a connection with the Jewish nation.
- It rose in the east, like other stars.
- It appeared at a precise time.
- Herod didn’t know when it appeared.
- It endured over time.
- It was ahead of the Magi as they went south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
- It stopped over Bethlehem.
Was it a meteor? Lie on your back in a clear desert night and you will see twenty meteorites on any night, going in different directions. It is not obvious how the Magi could form significant associations with kingship, birth, the Jews, the Messiah’s birthplace and all. The Star was very likely not a meteor.
Perhaps a comet? There are several problems with the comet hypothesis.
The first problem is sociological. At this time in history (and all the way into the middle ages), comets were well-observed and well-recorded and always regarded as omens of doom and destruction, the very opposite of good tidings. A bigger problem is that no comets are recorded for these years. Finally, comets are obvious things. Herod would not have needed to ask the Magi when such a thing appeared. The Biblical Star was very likely not a comet.
What about a super-nova? A nova is an exploding star, that appears suddenly at a point in time, endures over a fairly short time, can be spectacular but may not be. No novae are recorded in the ancient records for this period. If a nova had suddenly appeared, many astronomers would likely know about it, and Herod would not have had to ask the Magi when it appeared. The Star was probably not a nova.
That Herod had to ask when the Star appeared is a powerful clue. Anyone can glance up and see planets and stars. But, in this case, apparently, one could look up at the Star without realizing it. Herod didn’t know of it. It took experts to explain it. But once the Star phenomenon was pointed out, all Jerusalem went abuzz, and Herod jumped into murderous action. A reasonable hypothesis is that the Star must have been something in the normal night sky which was striking when explained. Did anything interesting happen in the night skies over the Middle East in 3 or 2 BC?
Larson’s investigations led him to the behavior of the bright planet JUPITER, the name of the greatest god of Roman mythology. And the name of the largest planet of our solar system, the fourth brightest object in the night sky. Jupiter has been known from ages-old to the present as the King Planet. This "gas giant," is eleven times the size of Earth and circles the Sun far beyond Earth, in an orbit of about twelve earth-years duration. In ancient times, planets like Jupiter were considered "wandering stars" because, we now can say, their motion and positioning was out of sync with earth’s motion, like cars from bicycles.
This large planet to which humans have assigned divine or kingly qualities for dozens of centuries, has something to do with our Star announcing the birth of a king.
To be Jesus’ Star, Jupiter as viewed from the middle east would have to do peculiar things during the years 3 and 2 BC, in fact all nine characteristics of the Star. In September of 2 or 3 BC (Larson says 3BC, my computer programme shows it as September of -2BC, but then it sometimes shows a year as 0000, so it may be a year out when it goes BC – we will stick with Larson’s dates) at the time of the Jewish New Year (September-October), Jupiter began to do just that. And the following year did something else even more remarkable.
Lets look at these two events, and note that it is only in the days of personal computers that these ideas can be worked out. This is new news. For a few hundred dollars you can now buy software that will give you a visual representation of the night sky at any moment in history and from any position on earth. In all the previous centuries until the last decade, theories of planetary position was a matter of laborious calculation. It should be noted that Larson’s work has received high commendations from scientists and astronomers – it is not a cosmic conspiracy stunt. It is new news.
The first conjunction
A magus watching Jupiter late September 3BC saw two objects moving so close that they appeared to touch. This close approach of celestial bodies is sometimes called a ‘conjunction.’ Jupiter came into close conjunction with the star, known in English as Regulus. Regulus takes its name from the word for king. In fact both the Babylonians and the Romans called Regulus Sharu or Rex, which means ‘king.’ So at the beginning of the new Jewish year, the Planet of Kings met the Star of Kings. This conjunction may have indicated kingship in a forceful way to a Babylonian magus (satisfying one qualification for the Star), but would it have startled him?
Probably not. Jupiter glides slowly past Regulus about every 12 years. We don’t know how old the Magi were, but if our man was in the second half of his career, he might have seen such a conjunction two or three times before. Not every conjunction would have been quite as close as the one he saw in 3 BC, so it would be recorded with some interest, but not great excitement. But, of course, there is more.
Triple conjunction and Retrograde motion
The planets move against the field of fixed stars. From Earth, they appear to be "active." For example, were you to watch Jupiter each night for several weeks, you would see that it moves eastward (backwards) through the starry field, just as the moon does each day. Each night Jupiter rises in the east (satisfying a second Star qualification).
But the wandering stars exhibit another, stranger motion. Periodically, they appear to reverse course and move backward through the other stars. This may seem odd, but the reason is simple enough: we watch the planets from a moving platform—Earth—hurtling around the Sun in its own orbit. When you pass a bicycle on the highway, your neck turns backwards, the bike appears to go backward as it drops behind, though it has its own forward motion. For similar reasons, when the Earth in its orbit spins past another planet, that planet appears to move backward against the starry field. Astronomers call this optical effect retrograde motion.
In 3/2 BC, Jupiter’s retrograde wandering would have called for our magus’ full attention. Both before and after Jupiter and Regulus had their kingly encounter, Jupiter had entered retrograde. It entered the constellation Virgo(the virgin) then "changed its mind" and headed back to Regulus for a second conjunction. It is amazing to watch on a time lapse computer programme. After this second pass it reversed course again for yet a third rendezvous with Regulus, a triple conjunction. A triple pass like this is more rare. Over a period of months, our watching magus would have seen the Planet of Kings dance across the Star of Kings. Jupiter’s interesting behavior explains the kingly aspect of the Star.
So around the time of Jesus birth or conception a remarkable kingly display is on show for those who watch long enough. How did Jupiter’s movement relate to the Jewish nation? Is its association with the Jewish New Year enough? And where is an indication of a birth?
The Jewish nation is composed of twelve ancient tribes. Jewish prophecy states that a particular tribe will bring forth the Messiah: the tribe of Judah. The symbol of Judah’s tribe is the lion. Kin David was known as a lion, coming from that tribe. You can see these connections in an ancient prediction of Messiah’s coming found in the first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, Chapter 49: 9 You are a lion’s cub, O Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness– who dares to rouse him? 10 The sceptre (the sign of kingship) will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.
This association of Kingship and Messiah with the tribe of Judah and with the lion is a clue. It clarifies the connection between Jupiter’s behavior and the Jewish nation, because the starry coronation—the triple conjunction—occurred within the constellation of Leo, The Lion. Ancient stargazers, particularly if they were interested in things Jewish, may well have concluded they were seeing signs of a Jewish king. Presumably the passage from kingship to the Virgo/virgin and back to kingship was a portent that might indicate a birth. One can see how it might be so – all this took place between September (the rise into visibility of Jupiter) and the following May when it descend below the horizon.
Not all of Larson’s argument did I find compelling. But anyway if these symbols could have been taken to indicate a birth or conception might there be something interesting in the sky nine months later which would confirm that interpretation? Indeed. In June of 2 BC, Jupiter continued the pageantry.
A fourth conjunction
By the following June, King Planet Jupiter had finished the triple conjunction with King Star Regulus, and traveled on through the star field toward another spectacular rendezvous, this time with Venus, the Mother Planet, within the constellation of Virgo, the virgin. This conjunction was so close and so bright that it is today displayed in hundreds of planetaria around the world by scientists who may know nothing of Messiah. They do it because what Jupiter did makes such a great planetarium show – two of the very brightest stars meet. Jupiter appeared to join Venus. The planets could not be distinguished with the naked eye but became the most brilliant star our man had ever seen. (This conjunction will again take place on Jan 31 this year around 8pm low in the south west, I think. We can think on its summons.) That evening, our magus would have seen the spectacle of his career while facing west toward Judea. No one alive had ever seen such a conjunction. Its interpretation, in the science of its day, were ‘virgin, mother, birth, out west and a king’s king’. We have to conclude that in this small period of time Jupiter had issued a summons. If they weren’t already on the road, they would be motivated to go by this spectacular passage.
How long did they travel? We don’t know when they left or when they arrived in Jerusalem. They told their tale, and "all Jerusalem was disturbed." Herod wanted to know two things: when the Star had appeared, and where this baby was. The Magi answered the when question – presumably they described the events starting in September of 3 BC and continuing through June of 2 BC. The theologians gave the location which presumably the magi did not know exactly. For all they knew, they sought in the royal palace of the house of Judah. But to their great joy, in December of 2 BC if the Magi looked south just before dawn, the Planet of Kings hung in the south over the town of the Messiah’s birth.
All but one of the nine Biblical qualifications for the Star have now been plausibly satisfied:
- The first conjunction signified birth by its association to the day with Virgo "birthing" the new moon. Some might argue that the unusual triple conjunction by itself could be taken to indicate a new king.
- The Planet of King’s coronation of the Star of Kings signified kingship.
- The triple conjunction began with the Jewish New Year and took place within Leo, showing a connection with the Jewish tribe of Judah (and prophecies of the Jewish Messiah).
- Jupiter rises in the east.
- The conjunctions appeared at precise, identifiable times.
- Herod was unaware of these things; they were astronomical events which had significance only when explained by experts.
- The events took place over a span of time sufficient for the Magi to see them both from the East and upon their arrival in Jerusalem.
- Jupiter was ahead of the Magi as they traveled south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
The planet stops
But the ninth point would require that Jupiter stop over Bethlehem. How could a planet do that? And did Jupiter do it?
For some people, there is no problem at all with a planet stopping. Just the opposite. The planets are always stopped to the eye of a human observer. The sky moves above Earth at only half the speed of the hour hand on a common clock. Its movement is only perceptible to the patient eye. So, if all stars are always stopped, what can Matthew have meant?
Perhaps you have already guessed: retrograde motion. An astronomer tracking the movement of planets through the star field watches not so much on the scale of minutes, but on the longer scale of days, weeks and months. On this scale of time, Jupiter did stop. Believe it or not, it was on December 25 of 2 BC that Jupiter in the south began to retrograde, and as it did of course it reached full stop in its travel through the fixed stars. Magi viewing from Jerusalem would have seen it stopped in the sky above the little town of Bethlehem. So, ironically, Dec 25 is not the date of Jesus’ birth but of the magi visit.
What are to make of all this? There are, to be honest, other theories.
The science may be of no interest to you, for which this failed-biochemist apologises. It is a relief that faith and science have a plausible conversation when often they are made to seem at odds. But hear this – Epiphany is good news.
The early Christians were impudent enough to claim that the coming of Christ Jesus was for everybody, everywhere, for all time. In the story of the coming of the magi to Bethlehem, they saw a declaration of the universality of Christ’s kingdom. This birth was not a minor incident in an insignificant location, but a happening of cosmic relevance. It was a revelation; an epiphany. It was not a fanciful legend of literature or tradition, its phenomena can today be tracked in the sky of its day. Notice that immediately above Bethlehem on that morning, the Southern Cross already signals the Saviour’s role in history. (It is currently not visible from this latitude but was visible then.)
Christians believe that in Christ God was breaking down the barriers of race and social distinctions and was superseding all religions. God was breaking in among the vulnerable and powerless to side with them against the mighty. This was indeed an impudent claim, and we have to be honest that it can give offense to the religious and the powerful. That the man Jesus, a prophet of brief activity from a distant outpost of the mighty Roman Empire, was held up as the Saviour and Lord of all, was a joke to both cultured Roman and Greek. But the Christians went on impudently proclaiming this message no matter how often they were mocked, thrown out of town, out of jobs, into prison, or executed.
Epiphany is a Greek word used chiefly for the unveiling of a God to the eyes of human beings. It is the event of revelation. The church did not invent this. They did not ask for this. The impudence, as Bruce Prewer calls it, is God’s, as he reclaims the lost world for himself in love, one person at a time.
Some times those first Christians expressed their glorious, impudent, epiphany gospel with plain words like St Paul used: “We have seen the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”. This was reinforced by the words of the prophet Isaiah who looked forward to a time when the light of the Presence of God would shine forth from Jerusalem, ‘Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising……….. And they shall bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.’
Let us not shrink-wrap Christianity to make it less impudent than it is nor presume to soften the sharp edges to make it just another religion. God has spoken a unique word to us in Christ Jesus, which makes all religions including Christianity very relative, and it is our solemn privilege to get ourselves organised to share that word. Jesus Christ truly is our joy and salvation.
We are not in the business of saying that others are all wrong and that we are completely right. We leave the judgement of others to God, just as Jesus says in Matt 25 that he will bring judgment against Christianity. Our task is to be faithful to the Epiphany that happened in Christ Jesus. With due respect for other views and other religions, I believe the world still needs us to carry on with that impudence of the early apostles: Christ Jesus has a universal relevance. Jesus Christ is Lord, tot he glory of God the Father. Let it be said clearly, let it be lived wholeheartedly, as Isaiah said:
And Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.
In 2008, let our life word and deeds proclaim – The Light of the World has Come.