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The Real Star of Bethlehem

Jimmy Akin

Audio only:

The author of The Bible Is a Catholic Book reviews the biblical evidence for the Star of Bethlehem. What was it? How did the Magi follow it? Was it real or just a literary device?


Cy: What should we make of the star of Bethlehem? Next, Jimmy Akin. Hello and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I am Cy Kellett, your host. And today we discussed the star, the star of Bethlehem. What do we know about it? What do we believe about it? What are we obligated to believe and what might we possibly discover about that star?

Our guest is Jimmy Akin, senior apologist here at Catholic Answers and the author of a wonderful new book the Bible is a Catholic Book. Welcome Jimmy Akin.

Jimmy: Howdy, how’s it going?

Cy: Very, very well. So we’re all familiar with the Bible containing the angels, the shepherds, the star of Bethlehem, the little drummer boy.

Jimmy: Doesn’t have the little drummer boy.

Cy: What?

Jimmy: Yeah.

Cy: That’s in my Bible.

Jimmy: That’s Rankin/Bass I think.

Cy: Oh okay. All right. My bad. All right, so, but the star is in there. So where did we find the star in the Bible?

Jimmy: It’s in Matthew’s gospel in Matthew’s infancy narratives, which is chapters one and two of the gospel of Matthew. And in particular it’s in chapter two. That’s where we read about the star Bethlehem.

Cy: When does the star appear in the story?

Jimmy: Well, it appears to the Magi before we actually learn about it. In at the beginning of Matthew 2, the Magi come from the East to Jerusalem seeking the newborn King of the Jews and they say we saw his star when it arose in the East. So it arose before they came. And since it’s interpreted by them to be a birth omen, something that signals the birth of the newborn king, it presumably appeared either at or approximately at the time that Jesus was born.

Cy: Oh, okay. So their travels actually start about the time Jesus is born.

Jimmy: Right. And they’re coming from a distant country, which means despite what you may have seen on a Christmas card or in a Rankin/Bass, little drummer boy special, they didn’t show up the same night. What happens is Christian artists tend to compress the events of Luke’s infancy narrative and Matthew’s infancy narrative down to the same night. And actually in Matthew’s gospel, the Holy family are living in a house at the time in Bethlehem and it’s as much as two years later.

Cy: Okay. So now let’s get the date down then. Because when I went to school, they taught us that Jesus was probably born around 6 BC to 4 BC.

Jimmy: Mm-hmm.

Cy: Is that correct or…?

Jimmy: Well this is probably the most common view you hear today. It’s based on a particular calculation of when King Herod died because one thing the gospels agree on both Matthew and Luke indicate that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. And according to a common calculation these days, Herod the Great died in 4 BC. So if Jesus was born up to two years before that, or at least possibly more than that would put Jesus’s birth if you back up from 4 BC, that would put you in 6 BC, maybe 7 BC. You hear a lot of people proposing that Jesus was born in 6 or 7 BC. That’s difficult to square with other evidence from both the gospels and the church fathers, who assigned Jesus’ birth to a particular year that on our calendar would be the back half of 3 BC and the front half of 2 BC.

Cy: Oh, okay.

Jimmy: And because their years didn’t necessarily coincide exactly with ours. There is a better case to be made if you revisit the evidence about Herod the Great, that he actually died in 1 BC. If you back up two years or so from that, you get to that 2 BC-3 BC timeframe.

Cy: Okay. What are these Magi? We call them wise men, three kings, all that.

Jimmy: Yeah, kings, they’re not kings. That’s just a mistranslation. The term Mágos in Greek does not mean king at all. There’s a different word for that entirely. Wise men is semi-okay as a translation, but it’s not a really good one. There are lots of wise people, like philosophers for example, philosophy is the love of wisdom. But these guys were not philosophers. Mágos in Greek or Magus in Latin. The term originally referred to a particular tribe from the Medo Persian empire. And this tribe was kind of like the tribe of Levi. They had priestly functions. So, for example, if someone from that empire wanted to offer a sacrifice to the Gods, he needed a Mágos to come and preside over the sacrifice and say certain prayers and stuff. So they were like the priestly tribe of Levi, but for a different nation. And over the course of time, Magoi, that’s the plural in Greek came to be a term that was used for anybody who practiced arts that were similar to the original Medo Persian Mágos tribe. Anybody who does what they do is one of them.

Cy: Just categorize all that together.

Jimmy: Yeah. And it could even be applied to people and this is actually where we get magic. [crosstalk 00:05:47].

Cy: The word magic.

Jimmy: Yeah. Originally, the term magic just basically meant a foreign religious rite or an unauthorized religious rite. It’s something like those foreigners do, but it’s not what we do. So you could have people, even people with Jewish ancestry who would be considered Magoi. For example, in Acts 8 we meet Simon who’s a Samaritan. So he has mixed Jewish ancestry and he’s described as practicing magia; The arts of the Magi or magi. So he’s known to us today as Simon Magus. Also, we meet another fully Jewish Magus in the book of Acts who Paul strikes blind. So your ethnicity in Jesus’s day didn’t, you didn’t have to be a Medo Persian in order to be a Magus, but you didn’t need to practice foreign or unauthorized religious rituals in order to be one.

Cy: So these Magi then we presume that are somewhere pretty far to the East.

Jimmy: Yeah. We know they’re from a different country and we know that countries in the East, we don’t know exactly what it was. Possibilities include lands that today would be in Arabia or Iraq or Iran or places like that.

Cy: Then they see this star, they take it as a sign that there’s a new King of the Jews born and so then they follow the star?

Jimmy: No, this is a common misconception. Again, you see this on lots of Christmas cards and in animated Christmas specials, but no. We don’t have evidence they were following the star. Because if they were following the star, they would have followed it straight to Bethlehem if it was leading them around by the nose.

Cy: Oh yeah. Okay, good point.

Jimmy: And they don’t do that. Instead, they say, “We saw the star in the East. We’ve come here to the Royal Palace in Jerusalem to find the newborn King of the Jews,” which is where you would go if you wanted to find the newborn King of the Jews. And that indicates they’re not following the star. And when they discover that the newborn King of the Jews is not in the Royal Palace, they don’t say, “Oh, well we’ll just go out on the road and start following it again.” Instead, Herod has to consult with the scribes, the Jewish scribes to find out where is the Messiah supposed to be born? Oh, it’s Bethlehem. Let’s head there. So the Magi then start heading to Bethlehem, which is to the South of Jerusalem. And they providential, coincidentally see the star again in the sky in front of them.

Cy: Oh, there it is.

Jimmy: As they’re going and and Matthew says, “And they rejoice greatly.” Because this is a surprise. They weren’t expecting to see the star, yet there it is.

Cy: Ah, okay. Okay. So they’re confirmed in what they’ve learned.

Jimmy: Trek. In their Star Trek. Yeah.

Cy: It is kind of a Star Trek. Okay. So what is the star then?

Jimmy: Well, there’ve been a bunch of proposals and some of them are better than others. Some people have said this is all just a myth or if it’s not, it’s just a legend. It’s not really historical. Other people have said, “Well maybe it’s a symbol.” It’s a symbolic narrative. It’s not meant to be taken as a historical narrative. The problems with those are, Matthew is a Jewish-Christian or this is one problem with those. Matthew is a Jewish-Christian and Jews did not, for the most part, look favorably on astrology. It was one of those foreign authorized things that Jews didn’t really have much truck with. Some Jews did, but it was this unauthorized fringy kind of stuff. So it’s unlikely that if Matthew would have invented this, it’s something that would have come from his sources. And since I argue Matthew is quite early, maybe around AD 63. There is no time for legend to develop and this is not the kind of thing that an author would have made up as a symbolic narrative, not if he’s a Jewish-Christian. Just on an evidential basis, this sounds like something Matthew’s getting from his historical sources and those would have been within Jesus’ own family.

Cy: They would’ve recalled the story that had been told to them.

Jimmy: Oh yeah. So I don’t favor those views for a variety of reasons. You sometimes hear the idea that this might’ve been a meteorite.

Cy: Oh yeah. Right.

Jimmy: Yeah. The problem is meteorites last seconds and there’s no way. People see meteorites all the time. You go out on a night with no light pollution in Babylonia, you’re going to see multiple meteorites every night. There’s no possibility that that’s what this was. And especially when you look at the trek to Bethlehem it’s like, “Oh, there’s the same meteorite that burned up months and months ago.”

Cy: It’s back. It bounced.

Jimmy: Yeah. They would have no way of identifying it as the same meteorite. So it’s clearly not that. Another proposal in terms of transient stellar phenomena is a comet and comets were considered stars. In Greek, a comet is an aster komētēs; a long-haired star. Comets were often seen as omens of things that were going to happen. Usually though comets were taken as bad omens, like indicating the death of a king, not the birth of a King. Although there is one record of a comet that was by the Romans interpreted as the birth of a king of their enemies.

Cy: Oh, so that’s still bad news.

Jimmy: It’s still bad news for them. We just don’t have good information about a comet that plausibly would have been interpreted by Eastern astrologers as being the sign of the birth of a Jewish king. Another possibility that’s been mentioned is a supernova. This is an idea that was explored, for example, by the Renaissance modern astronomer Johannes Kepler. Because by that point in history, we’ve learned that sometimes stars suddenly get brighter and become visible for the first time and and so forth. Some people have said, “Well, maybe it was a supernova, a new star that appeared in the heavens.” Problem with that is supernovas are so rare that they really don’t seem to have been part of Babylonian astrology. Because if something happens every 500 years, and a lot of times, supernovas were not even noticed because it’s like, “Oh, there’s a new star up there.” But it’s like, “Whoa, maybe I just hadn’t seen that before. Maybe my eyes are clearer tonight.” So we don’t have good evidence for that. Then that brings us to things that are in the sky more normally like constellations. The problem with constellations is they’re fixed stars and they always appear every year as the sky rotates. Whatever constellations you see this year, they’re going to appear next year. But that makes them too frequent by themselves to serve as the sign of a birth of a Jewish king. Because if there’s a constellation that means Jewish king born, guess what? There’s a Jewish king born every year. So that’s a little too frequent. And that leads us to the other class of what the ancients considered stars, which was planets. Planets because they move against the background of fixed stars, they’re seen as wandering stars or in Greek astraeus planeta. That’s where the word planet comes from. It means wanderer, because it’s a wandering star.  And the planets because they wander around and interact with each other and the background stars in different ways, that’s a significant chunk of the omens that were looked for by Babylonian astrologers. And in particular the planet Jupiter in Babylonian astrology as in Greco-Roman astrology was the king planet. There’s a very good case to be made that Jupiter was the star that the Magi thought of as the new kings star, because it was the King star in their own system. In fact, Jupiter is connected in multiple different ways with Kings in their astrology. One of my favorite things it’s sad, but it’s also funny. They had one of the omens that we’ve dug up. We’ve dug up all these tablets that the Babylonians had describing you see this in the sky, it means this is going to happen. Well, if a lunar eclipse occurs, so the moon is also a symbol of the king for them. So you’ve got the moon going away. And if also Jupiter, the king planet is not in the sky. So the king’s doubly going away. King’s going to die. What they would do is they had a way to protect the king when this happened. It’s called the substitute king ritual. And what they would do is they would take a condemned criminal and appoint him temporary king, so he’s already under the death penalty. They make him temporary king and dress him up like the king. They let him eat and drink like the king. They say the king prayers over him and stuff. Meanwhile, the actual king is pretending to be a gardener, who just happily dresses like a gardener. He eats like a gardener. He’s oddly for a gardener consulted on important state matters. He’s not the king. So then at the end of the specified periods, since the king’s going to die, they then put the temporary king to death and then restore the gardener to be the actual king.

Cy: How has no one made a movie of this? That’s such a great theme for a movie.

Jimmy: I know. Jupiter was very much connected with kings for the Babylonian astrologers. And it’s very likely that when they say “We saw his star rise in the East,” they mean Jupiter. But it wasn’t Jupiter alone because Jupiter rises almost every day.

Cy: But in the context of what the other things they’re seeing in the sky automatically means the Jewish king.

Jimmy: Exactly. Yeah. if you see a lunar eclipse and Jupiter is there, the king is going to be okay. But if Jupiter’s not there, it’s in the context of is it there or not in context of a lunar eclipse. It was probably Jupiter in context of something else. And the question is what’s the something else? Well, there have been bunches of proposals. Scholars debate exactly when Jesus was born, but it was some time in the first decade BC and there’s so much going on in the sky with Jupiter in that decade that there have been multiple proposals and really you need to narrow down, if you want to narrow down what the exact circumstances of the star may have been, you need to know more precisely when Jesus was born. One theory that’s become very common in astronomical circles in recent years was popularized by a guy named Michael Molnar, who has made a special study of horoscopes of famous individuals like Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar and King Mithridates and so forth. And how these horoscopes would have been understood by people at the time. And he then did one based on Greco-Roman astrology saying what would symbolize the birth of an important Jewish King. And he found one on April 17th that involves Jupiter at its what’s called its heliacal rising, on April 17th in the year 6 BC.

Cy: Oh, okay.

Jimmy: Two problems. 1. I think he’s got the wrong year. I think he’s too early. I think the year is 3 or 2 BC. Second problem: He’s using Greco Roman astrology. [crosstalk 00:19:06] Not from the East. So are there possibilities based on what we know about Eastern, say Babylonian astrology? Yeah. Recently, I was reading a book and this is just a possibility. But based on various things that you would see in conjunction about Jupiter in relation to other things in the sky, there was an omen that Babylonian astrologers looked for that said a king from the West is going to kill the King of Akkad, which was their own king. Now at the time Babylon, was under the control of the Parthians and they didn’t like the Parthians. Nobody likes to be occupied. So actually the idea of a king from the West is going to kill the current king.

Cy: Hey, that’s good.

Jimmy: Hey, yeah, we could be liberated here. And in association with some of these omens, it was proposed that you send a delegate to seek peace to establish good relations. It looks like the Magi may have been fulfilling that function. We’re going to go be the peace delegation to try to secure good relations for when the Western king kills our King that we don’t like. Then from a Babylonian perspective, you look West, where are the kings that might plausibly serve? Well, the most important one in this Western region was the King of the Jews.

Cy: Herod the Great.

Jimmy: Herod the Great at the time. They thought, okay… And various other things also could indicate a birth here. It’s like, “Okay, it looks like maybe Herod the Great’s had a new son. We want to be a peace delegation to secure good relations when they knock over our king that we don’t like.” And that may have been what prompted the mission. Also, there’s a connection here to the Book of Revelation. In Revelation 12, John sees a woman, a heavenly sign of a woman with a crown of 12 stars, clothed with the sun, with the moon at her feet. Now, this symbol represents Mary because she gives birth to Jesus. It also represents the nation of Israel based on the symbolism, which comes from Joseph’s dream back in Genesis. But various people in history have proposed, this also may be encoding astronomical information about the birth of Jesus because there’s a Virgin in the sky, Virgo.

Cy: Virgo

Jimmy: Yeah and it doesn’t happen very often that you have the sun in the middle of Virgo clothing Virgo with the moon at Virgo’s feet. But it did happen on September 11th of 2 BC.

Cy: What?

Jimmy: Yeah, or actually maybe 3 BC. In any event, that occurred nine months after one of these other Jupiter-related signs that the Magi might’ve seen. And between this nine-month later thing, that could be what suggested a birth.

Cy: Wow. Wow.

Jimmy: Those are possibilities. There are other possibilities, but those are some of the ones that I find most intriguing in light of the evidence, especially not relying just on Greco-Roman astrology, but looking at Babylonian astrology since these guys came from the East.

Cy: What about Jewish teaching? Was there anything in Jewish history or teaching that would have suggested anything here?

Jimmy: It’s possible. Some people have suggested that the star Regulus, which in Latin it means little king and it’s in the constellation of Leo. Leo is of course the lion. And in Genesis in one of the big prophetic speeches about the future tribes, this is Jacob’s prophetic utterance about the tribes. He refers to Judah as a lion’s whelp as a lion. The symbol of the lion has been associated with Judah. Some people have suggested that therefore maybe Jewish individuals who were dialoguing during the Babylonian exile with Babylonian thinkers may have mentioned, “Hey, our tribe symbol is the lion” and they might have therefore associated the heavenly lion Leo, which is also right next to Virgo. There may be some connection there.

Cy: Okay. All right. But okay. It’s taking all of this in, isn’t astrology wrong in itself?

Jimmy: So astrology, historically astrology has been the same thing as astronomy. I mean ,there was no distinction in the ancient world. If you studied the stars, you were an astrologer and you were an astronomer. There was no distinction. Over the course of time, what’s happened is we’ve disentangled the two so that we can figure out to what extent do stars have an affect here on earth? Answer, unless it’s a really close supernova, not so much. Although they can occasionally fling comets into our solar system. We’ve seen that a couple of times recently where neighboring stars have sent comets into our solar system like Oumuamua, which was a comet that came through in 2018-2019. But the influence that the stars were thought to have in the ancient world is much, much less. It’s superstitious to look at them and say, “Oh, because I was born here in this star sign, that means this is going to happen to me.”

Cy: I see.

Jimmy: So horoscopes, yeah. Horoscopes, no, but that doesn’t mean that God can’t providentially use stellar phenomena to signal things. It doesn’t mean they’re causing it. God can use it to mark things. In fact, in Genesis it says that the lights in the sky, the sun, the moon, and the stars were created to serve as signs. In a conventional everyday way, they serve as signs marking the day, the night, the months, the years and things like that. But there’s no reason that God can’t providentially also use them to signal major events in his plan of the ages, like the birth of his son or the death of his son. Because Peter at Pentecost interprets Joel’s prophecy of the Messiah’s age being connected with the moon turning to blood as having been fulfilled in their day. And on the night of the crucifixion, there was a lunar eclipse visible from Jerusalem, the moon turned to blood because the moon looks red during a lunar eclipse.

Cy: Oh wow.

Jimmy: It looks like both the birth and the death of the Messiah may have been providentially signaled by signs that God allowed to happen. And then God also allowed certain people to recognize their significance, like the Magi and Peter.

Cy: Fascinating stuff, Jimmy Akin. I really, really appreciate it.

Jimmy: No problem.

Cy: Have you ever covered any of this stuff on Jimmy Akin’s Mysterious World?

Jimmy: I have. We did episode 23 on astrology, so you can check that out. Also, on December 20th of this year, we’re releasing episode 75, which is all about the Magi.

Cy: Oh, cool. Very good. All right. Jimmy Akin. Thank you very, very much.

Jimmy: Thank you.

Cy: Thank you to everybody who listens to Catholic Answers Focus. Maybe let other folks know where you get it so they can get it too. Wherever you get this podcast, if you would give us a like or a comment that really helps to grow the podcast and you can send folks over to Catholic Answers Focus. Excuse me. No catholicanswersradio.com where they can sign up for Radio Club and then they get a weekly notice of when Focus is available. We’ll see you next time on Catholic Answers Focus.

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