PART 1: When was Jesus born?
The Christmas story, as told by Matthew and Luke, with the angels, shepherds, wise men and star has gripped the imagination of many over the last 20 centuries. What is interesting is that these biblical narratives provide the basic information needed to reconstruct both Mid-Eastern history and astronomical events of that time. In doing so, we can discover exactly what occurred in the night sky on that first Christmas when the Messiah was born in Bethlehem.
As Luke records, it was the Emperor Augustus who, wanting to know the population and tax base of his kingdom, ordered a census taken. Unlike today, where we can stay where we are and be counted, Augustus ordered that each family go back to the historical family home. Little Bethlehem, being the “City of David” thus had to accommodate many times its normal population for the duration of the census in Judea. Joseph and Mary had about 85 miles to travel to get to Bethlehem. Joseph had to walk, and Mary traveled on the back of a donkey. This would have been exhausting for a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy. They got to Bethlehem just in time. Bethlehem was jammed full, and we know there was “no room in the inn”, despite the fact that Mary had started into labor.
The Census order was given by Augustus in 8 BC, but it was implemented province by province. Provincial Italy was taxed in 8/7 BC. Rome itself was taxed in 7/6 BC. As for the province of Judea, Luke records that it was taxed when ‘Cyrenius was first Governor of Syria.’ Senator P. Sulpicius Quirinius, otherwise known as Cyrenius, was Governor of Syria twice. As Luke states, it was on the first occasion that the world census occurred. Quirinius was Legate (Governor) to Syria an that first occasion for 5 years during the Homonadensian War. He then become Advisor to Gaius Caesar in I BC. Additionally, the Christian historian Tertullian records that the Judean census took place when Sentius Saturninus was Proconsul to Syria, attending to the day to day running of the province, which included Judea. He left early in 2 BC to be replaced by Quinctillius Varus, about a year before the death of Herod, who was the king of Judea. These facts indicate that the census acted on by Joseph and Mary had been completed by late in 3 BC. This is confirmed by the date of Herod’s death. According to Matthew, Herod ordered the slaughter of all children two years old and under, according to the time the Star first appeared to the Wise Men. Therefore, if we back-track two years from the date of Herod’s death, this will give the latest possible date for the first appearance of the Star and an approximate date for the birth of the Christ-Child.
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.
As to the time of the year that Messiah was born, Luke gives us further details. He records that shepherds were watching over their flocks by night. There are only two specific times in a year when this was done — when lambs were being born in the spring or autumn. At other times of the year they were kept safely in their sheep-folds at night to protect them from wild animals. However, since lambs born in a crowded sheep fold can easily be trampled by the other sheep, it was necessary for the shepherds to take the flock out into the fields during the two lambing seasons. Significantly, the flocks bred in the Bethlehem fields were used for the Temple sacrifices. It was there, to those shepherds, that the angels announced the birth of the Lamb of God who was to make the final sacrifice for the sin of the world.
However, we can pinpoint the in the time of Messiah’s birth more exactly. Look at the strange reference to Messiah’s birth in Revelation 12:1. It talks of a woman cloth with the sun and with the moon under her feet. If we understand that the “woman” is the constellation Virgo, then this tells us that Jesus was born when the sun and moon were in Virgo. In other words, Jesus was born at the time of the September New Moon, or shortly thereafter. This fits the autumn lambing season. Furthermore, it coincides with the season of the three Jewish feasts, Trumpets, Atonement and Tabernacles. Interestingly, the apostle John records in John 1:14 that the “Word became flesh and tabernacled amongst us.” As the New Moon was on the 10th and Tabernacles on the 25th September in 3 BC, the birth of Christ would be somewhere between those dates.
Why then do we celebrate Messiah’s birth on December 25th? There are 4 reasons. Firstly there was the Jewish feast of Hanukkah – the Festival of Lights, or Feast of Dedication as it is called in John 10:22. On this occasion, Jewish children lit candles, sang hymns and gave gifts to celebrate a genuine miracle which occurred with the Temple Menorah (or 7-branched lamp-stand) in 165 BC. Now the early Christians were nearly all Jewish and the other Festivals were linked with Messiah’s ministry rather than his birth. It seemed the natural occasion to commemorate the birth of Messiah who had come to be the Light of the World [Jn 8:2), and who admonished His followers to have their Lamps trimmed and burning as they waited for Him to Return (Matthew 25).
This Jewish feast 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.
However December 25th was also celebrated by the Romans as the feast of the Saturnalia, which celebrates the winter solstice-the longest night of the year. In the northern hemisphere this now occurs on December 21 or 22, but back then it was December 25. On this day the Romans celebrated the birth of the ‘New Sun’ as the days lengthened and light triumphed over darkness. Romans Christians in those days saw a new significance in this pagan festival. They too celebrated the birth of the New Sun in accordance with Malachi 4:2 – this time the Sun of Righteousness who will arise with healing in His wings.
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.
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Technical notes for part 1
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.
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.
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.
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 Egypt 2 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.
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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 census decree of Caesar Augustus that resulted in the overcrowded conditions at Bethlehem and its inn.
CLUE 1: This gives the earliest possible date for Christ’s Birth as Census decrees took time to implement.
(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). Census decree of Caesar Augustus was issued in 8 BC and implemented province by province. Messiah was born after that decree.
(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). Census was acted on in Judea when Saturninus was Proconsul to Syria. Saturninus left with Census complete by 2 BC. Jesus was born before that. This places the Birth in 3/2 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. [It is just possible that it may have been the 29th December I BC eclipse]. Christ was born before Herod died -perhaps 2 years before or 3/2 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 [with 2BC a distant possibility].
NOTE: The Shepherds and Flocks; The Tabernacles Festival; and Revelation 12 all combine to give the time of the year as September or October.
PART 2: Who were the “Wise Men” and what was the Star?
The evidence points to Messiah being born in September of 3 BC, and, contrary to popular notion, there are 4 reasons why this event is celebrated on December 25th. One of those reasons involved the Wise Men and the final appearance of the Christmas Star. Matthew 2:1 says that they came from the East, meaning east of Judea. At that time, Judea was a buffer state between the sprawling Roman Empire in the West, and the fabulous Persian Empire in the East controlled by the Parthian Dynasty. In the frequent military clashes between the Romans and the Persians, the Persians had won every major battle but one. The Persians had crack cavalry units that could pin down the Roman legions indefinitely.
The Persian Empire controlled the Silk Route to India and China. Consequently, the gifts the Wise Men brought to the Christ Child – the gold, the frankincense, and the myrrh — were the very best that world trade could offer from this route.
In the typical Christmas scene, the Wise Men are usually pictured as three old men on camels. Matthew tells us that all Jerusalem was “disturbed.” Three old men on camels would not disturb a city.
So who were the Wise Men? The word that Matthew uses to describe them is Magoi. As we take this word over into a Persian setting, we find something very interesting. The Parthian Dynasty was ruled by something equivalent to our houses of Parliament, or the United States Congress, consisting of two houses. The entire legislative body was called the Megistanes. The Lower House members were called the Sophoi or ‘Wise Ones’: the Upper House members were called the Magoi or ‘Great Ones’. It was a number of these Magoi, the king makers of their empire – not astrologers — that come to visit the newborn King. Although we read of only three types of gifts given, there were more than three visitors who traveled to Jerusalem that winter.
This delegation of Rulers from Persia penetrated 750 km (more than 500 miles) into Roman territory. They did not travel alone, or unarmed. Being in enemy territory, they would be escorted by their expert cavalry units – the same that had defeated the Romans continuously. These Persians were the finest equestrians in the world. They always rode horses as their means of transport – camels were only used for baggage. It was this political and military contingent that arrived at the gates of Jerusalem. It was no wonder that Herod was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
All Herod had to defend Jerusalem was a small army of mercenaries. The garrison that normally protected Jerusalem was away helping fight the Homonadensian War, leaving Jerusalem virtually undefended. Upon their arrival, these politicians announced that they were not there to visit Herod, but they were proclaiming the birth of a contender for the throne! Their army was there to back them up in their support for this Child-King.
It was a very tense time for Herod; he had to play his options skillfully.
Why did the Persian Magoi make such a perilous trip at all, and how did they know about this King? There were 3 reasons.
First, the Hebrew prophet Daniel had been held in high regard in the Persian court when the Jewish nation was in captivity there. He been in charge of the astronomer-astrologers, the wise men (in the original language, the “sophoi”) and the “magicians” (in the original language, the “magoi”) in the Persian court under three kings, and as such, his material would have been written down in the official records. In Daniel 9, which would have been part of their records, we read the prophecy of Messiah’s sacrifice as a man cut off at age 35 (in the midst of his years). The Persians who studied these things knew that this event would occur 483 Babylonian years of 360 days after a specific decree. Backtracking 35 years gave a birth date for Messiah of 448 Babylonian years or 442 actual years after the decree. As It turned out, that decree was issued by the Persian king Artaxerxes in his 20th year which was 445/444 BC. The Magoi consequently figured the time of Messiah’s birth would be around 3/2 BC on our Calendar.
The second reason was that there had been a Mesopotamian prophet called Balaam who had foretold the coming of the Star that would herald Messiah for all the tribes of Israel (see Numbers 24). Then, the third reason was that Zoroaster, a pupil of Daniel, had incorporated these prophecies in his bible, called the Zend Avesta. Zoroastrianism was the State Religion of Persia at the time of Christ’s birth. It 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 in the constellation Virgo (lest the referral here of the constellations cause concern, it must be noted that astronomy and astrology were essentially the same science at this time).
This leads us to this “sign in the heavens.” What was it that appeared in the skies of 3 and 2 BC? As we begin this search, we note that the word “star” had a variety of meanings then. It could mean anything that blazed, shone or moved across the sky. It could mean an aurora, the sun, moon, or a star. It may mean any strange light in the sky – a bolt of lightning, an oddly illuminated cloud, a planet, or grouping of several planets.
The two-year time period for visibility automatically eliminates many objects. Meteors are too transitory. Meteor showers only last a few weeks. Novae or unstable stars shine longer, but rarely last two years. When the record is searched, there was only one nova at the time – a faint one in 4 BC. Supernovas last longer and can be visible in broad daylight. But again we are disappointed. Only two supernovae are recorded near the time of the Nativity: one in 134 BC, the other in 173 AD.
As we examine Matthew, it becomes apparent that the account requires the star to appear in the eastern sky, move across the starry background, and go before the Magoi to Judea. Only comets, planets, or groupings of planets behave this way. Comets can travel through the background stars at the rate of 1 or 2 degrees per day. They may be visible to the naked eye for 100 days or so. Now a journey to Judea from Persia would take the Wise Men about 6 weeks. Comets would thus be visible long enough for the journey itself. But none last 2 years, and no comets were recorded for the prime dates of 3 and 2 BC. Halley’s comet flared in the skies in 11 BC. Another comet swept across the heavens in 4 BC. But both of these were too early. So comets fade as a possibility for the Star.
This leaves the option of planets. When we examine the night sky with planets in mind, a series of amazing celestial events occurred during this time. On the 1st August 3 BC the drama began to unfold with Jupiter rising in the first rays of dawn. On the 13 August Venus and Jupiter stood very close together in the sunrise. On the 18th, Mercury came out of the solar glare, and on September 1st, Mercury and Venus stood 1/3rd degree apart in the constellation of Leo.
These were dramatic events. The astronomers who were based at the Sippar Institute would see an astrological significance in these signs. Essentially, Jupiter, the King planet, had left the Sun, the Father of the Gods, to be conjoined with Venus, the Virgin Mother in the constellation of Leo, which is the symbol for the tribe of Judah in Israel.
Furthermore, Mercury, the Messenger of the Gods, had come from the Sun’s presence to stand with Venus the virgin mother in the rays of the dawn.
Mythology to us, perhaps, but signs in the heavens to them, and God speaks to people in the language they understand.
On 14th September 3 BC and 17th February and 8th May in 2 BC, Jupiter the King planet stood next to Regulus the brightest star in Leo, which also represented Royalty. Then came a climax to the display. On June 17th 2 BC, Venus and Jupiter, the two brightest planets in the Solar System, appeared to collide. They stood an Incredible 1/50th degree apart and seemed to fuse into one immense ball of Light. This was an unprecedented event. But that was not all. On 27th August in 2 BC there was a grand meeting of the planets In Virgo. Jupiter and Mars were only 1/7th degree apart and close at hand were Mercury and Venus standing together in the glare of the rising sun.
This dramatic sequence of events ending in Virgo qualified for the Star spoken of by the Zend Avesta. But then Jupiter left the other planets in the dawn, and started to move to the West. This was the sign the Magoi were waiting for. Jupiter the key player in the Christmas star sequence was leading them towards Judea. And so they set out. From that moment in Mid-November, Jupiter the King planet actually went before them in the sky towards Judea. Six weeks later, as the Magoi checked the pre-dawn sky, Jupiter was on the Meridian due south of Jerusalem. It would appear directly over Bethlehem 65 degrees above the southern horizon.
And just at that time, the final event occurred. Jupiter had reached its furthest point westward, and no longer moved against the background store. It actually ‘stood over’ where the young Child was. Incredibly, on that same day, the Sun was at its furthest point south for the year, and “stood still” in the heavens (for that is what the word ‘solstice’ means). Jupiter was again in the constellation Virgo,as the Zend Avesta predicted, when this occurred on 25th December in 2 BC. It was a unique sequence of events that had landed the Magoi at Bethlehem.
There is one more important detail. Matthew 2:9-11 implies that something was marking the very house that Jesus had been living in for 15 months. The planets and stars can never mark a single building. So what is this referring to?
Throughout the Scriptures, God has consistently appeared to His servants in what has often been called the Shekinah Glory Cloud. The Children of Israel were guided from Egypt to Canaan by the ‘Pillar of cloud by day, and a Pillar of fire by night’ (see Ex.13:21.22 etc). In Genesis it is described as looking like a twisting blazing, shining object at the entrance to the Garden of Eden. The Shekinah out of which God spoke to the patriarch Job appeared as a whirlwind of bright and shining cloud. Abraham saw this cloud of Glory at sunset outside his tent as a burning smoking light. Ezekiel witnessed the Shekinah in which God dwelt as a whirlwind of fire enfolding itself.
For the Magoi, this oddly Illuminated cloud would also have qualified for the word ‘star’. It would have been seen and described by Balaam as he looked down on the hosts of Israel. The Wise Men also had the record of Daniel 7 where the Shekinah is linked with Messiah and described as the ‘Cloud of Heaven’. This same Glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds just before the angels announced Messiah’s birth to them. Similarly, when the Persian Magoi arrived near Bethlehem in the early dawn, the Shekinah would be seen standing above and marking the very house where Messiah was. The Magoi would immediately recognize this as a sign of Messiah’s presence. They had seen the blazing planetary orb in the sky. Then the key planet, Jupiter had led them to Judea and was now poised above Bethlehem. Finally, with the sign of the Shekinah Glory Cloud standing over the house, the Magoi from Persia would know their quest had ended. They had found the One of whom the Star of David speaks – the Messiah of the Tribes of Israel, who was the Savior of the world.
Has your quest to find Messiah ended? Remember, with child-like faith in the prophecies of Daniel and Balaam contained in the Scriptures, the Wise Men set out. In the depths of winter, they undertook a long and difficult journey deep into enemy territory to come and worship Christ. Today Messiah awaits your response. You may have found yourself on a difficult journey in your life, and felt you were deep in enemy territory. But Messiah is here. Will you bow down to him as King and Lord of your life? This is what Christmas is all about. He has come. He comes to save us from sin, and from ourselves. He has come to give new life to those who are sick of the way they are now. Messiah has come to rule as King — first in our lives individually, then, when He returns as He said He would, from the throne of David, internationally.
What will you do with Jesus? Turn away in an effort to run your own life or offer your life back to your Creator and Lord, Jesus of Nazareth? Will you be a Herod, trying to get rid of everything and everyone who seems to threaten your control over your own life, or will you be a Wise Man, giving all you have on your knees before your King? The choice is yours, and the consequences are eternal.
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technical notes and summary for Part 2
The date for the Nativity of September or October of 3 or 2 BC also fixes the time the Christmas Star appeared and the subsequent visit of 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.
WHAT WAS THE STAR THE WISE MEN FOLLOWED?
(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.