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Why the Magi Came

The configuration of the Babylonian night sky at the end of the BC epoch gives us insight as to why the magi would have traveled to greet the new Jewish king.

Jimmy Akin

Matthew’s Gospel records that a year or two after Jesus’ birth, magi came from the east to pay him homage. The original magi were a Persian priestly tribe, sort of like the Jewish tribe of Levi. However, over time the term magos came to be used for people of other lands who engaged in similar activities, such as foretelling the future. We thus can’t be sure what nation the magi came from, though they did come from an eastern people. The most famous such people were the Babylonians, and the magi may well have been Babylonians. If so, this opens up a possible window into what they were thinking when they came.

People attempting to identify the star of the magi often make a common set of mistakes. Some of these concern the star itself, but they also involve other matters. One of the most common is picking the wrong time frame for Jesus’ birth. It has been commonly held that Herod the Great died in 4 B.C., and since Matthew 2:16 indicates that Jesus was as old as two years when the magi came, it’s been a widespread belief that he was born around 7-6 B.C. However, recent scholarship indicates that Herod died in 1 B.C. (see Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, and Andrew Steinmann, From Abraham to Paul). This would suggest that Jesus was born in 3-2 B.C., and that happens to be the date indicated by the Church Fathers, who overwhelmingly identify the forty-first year of Augustus Caesar (3-2 B.C.) as the year of Christ’s birth. Another problem concerns the system being used to interpret the star’s significance. For example, a popular theory in academia was proposed by astronomer Michael Molnar. He interprets what the magi saw in terms of what’s known in astrology as a “nativity”- i.e., a natal horoscope or birth chart.

Molnar’s theory

Of course, astrology is problematic, and the stars don’t influence us, but that doesn’t mean God can’t use stellar signs. He obviously did so with the magi.

It was believed in Greek astrology that a person’s nativity forecast their future qualities, and Molnar discovered that a particularly fortuitous nativity occurred on April 17, 6 B.C. On this date, Jupiter, the planet associated with kings, appeared in Ares, the constellation associated with Judaea, along with other astrological factors that could signal the birth of a great Jewish king.

There are two problems with Molnar’s theory. First, he’s using the wrong date range. He’s assuming Jesus would have been born around 6 B.C. Second, his interpretation is based on Greek astrology, but Greeks are from the west of Judaea, while the magi were from the east. Unless we have evidence (and we don’t) that the magi were using Greek astrology, we shouldn’t try to interpret what they saw in Greek terms.

Larson’s theory

In 2007, attorney Frederick Larson released a documentary called The Star of Bethlehem, which is popular in Evangelical circles. Larson recognizes that 3-2 B.C. is the correct time frame for Jesus’ birth, and he sought to find astronomical phenomena occurring in this period that could plausibly have signaled Christ’s birth. Like Molnar, Larson focuses on the kingly planet Jupiter, but he looks at its motion in a different constellation: Leo.

In Genesis 49:9, the tribe of Judah is symbolized by a lion, and Leo is a lion, so Larson conjectures that this constellation represents Judaea. The brightest star in Leo, Alpha Leonis, is also known as Regulus, Latin for “little king,” so he sees Regulus as a “king star.” He notes that Jupiter made three close passes of Regulus in the correct time frame, and so he speaks of Jupiter as “crowning” the king star three times, signaling the birth of a great king in Judaea. But Larson is not drawing his interpretation from any known system of ancient astronomy. He’s piecing together things from different sources and speculating.

Yes, in Greek astrology, Jupiter was associated with kings, and, yes, Regulus was associated with kings (its Greek name is Basilikos, which also means “little king”), but Larson doesn’t have a Greek astrological text that says, “When Jupiter passes Regulus three times, kings are born.” That’s just speculation. Worse, he’s depending on Genesis to identify Leo with Judaea, and there is no indication that astrologers did this. The evidence is that Greek astrologers associated Judaea with Ares, as in Molnar’s theory.

While Larson’s theory may initially sound impressive, it’s ultimately a patchwork of speculation, not something solidly sourced.

A better approach

A problem for both Molnar’s and Larson’s theories is that they are not looking at an astrological system that the magi might have plausibly used. Molnar relies on Greek (western) astrology, and Larson incorporates Greek astrology with biblical speculation, but the magi were from the east.

The magi came from the Ancient Near East (not the Far East, e.g., India or China), and the best documented astrological system from the relevant area is Babylonian. We don’t know for a fact that these magi were Babylonian, but their description in Matthew is consistent with that. And even if they weren’t, they could have been easterners using the influential Babylonian astrological system.

So is there anything in this astrology that could explain the magi’s visit?

How Babylonian astrology worked

There is a big difference between how Babylonian and Greek astrology worked. Babylonian astrology commonly involved waiting to see
an event happen in the sky and then interpreting what would happen on Earth. It thus is often said to be based on “planetary omens.” For example, here are some omens connected with the planet Jupiter:

• “If Jupiter leaps in the middle of the Fish and stands: there will be no rain for one month.”
• “If Jupiter comes close to a planet: wolves will bar the roads of the land.”
• “If Jupiter passes in front of Mars: epidemic among cattle.”
• “If Jupiter stands toward the front of Mars: there will be barley in the land” (Erica Reiner, Babylonian Planetary Omens, 4:43).

Thus, instead of trying to calculate a birth chart—as did Molnar—we should be looking for a celestial omen (or set of omens) that would have suggested to Babylonian astrologers that it would be a good idea to go pay homage to a king in Judaea.

This is essentially what Larson did—that is, look for celestial omens—but they need to be ones actually found in Babylonian tablets and not just speculation.

Jupiter and Regulus

As in Greek astrology, Jupiter was identified as the king of the planets, and its motions could have special significance for the earthly king.

One was connected with the star Regulus. Periodically, Jupiter appears to begin moving backward in the sky as the Earth passes Jupiter in its orbit. When this happens, astronomers say Jupiter is in “retrograde,” and there was an omen about Jupiter going into retrograde above Regulus:

• “If Jupiter passes Regulus and gets ahead of it, and afterward Regulus, which it passed and got ahead of, stays within its setting, someone will rise, kill the king, and seize the throne” (Francesca Rochberg, In the Path of the Moon, 377).

Jupiter went into retrograde above Regulus in September of 3 B.C. Larson interpreted this as Jupiter “crowning” the king star, but Babylonian astrologers would have interpreted it as a sign their king was going to die and someone else would take the throne.

Not that this would have been unwelcome. At the time, Babylon was under the control of the Parthian (Iranian) Empire, and the Babylonians wanted to get out from under the Parthian thumb. In fact, they revolted several times. So in September of 3 B.C., Babylonian astrologers would have seen this as a potentially hopeful sign.

Jupiter and Venus

In June of 2 B.C.—nine months after Jupiter went into retrograde above Regulus—a new sign occurred, with Jupiter having a close encounter with Venus.

• “If Venus and [Jupiter] come close: reign of destruction (concerning) the king of Amurru” (3:45).

Amurru was the name of the country to the west of Babylon. It included modern Syria and Israel. In the 60s B.C., Syria became a Roman province and did not have a king. But the Romans had appointed a king in Israel, and the Babylonians would have understood the Jewish monarch as the king of Amurru who would begin a reign of destruction. How bad the destruction would be for Mesopotamia depended on how close Jupiter and Venus got.

• “If Venus enters Jupiter: the king of Akkad [i.e. Mesopotamia] will die, the dynasty will change; either a soldier will go out or the enemy will send a message (asking for peace) to the land” (3:45).

On June 17, Jupiter and Venus became so close in the sky that they appeared to merge as a single star. From the Babylonian perspective, a Jewish king would thus kill the Parthian monarch ruling their land and change the dynasty. The omen also indicated that there would be a peace embassy with this conqueror, and it may have been this that triggered the magi’s trip to Jerusalem.

Jupiter at a standstill

The visit of the magi was meant to curry good relations with the new Jewish king, which is why they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh as gifts for him. If the magi were coming to seek a peaceful situation for themselves after he overthrew the Parthian king, they may have seen a confirmatory sign in the sky when they arrived. When Earth passes Jupiter in its orbit, there is a brief period when Jupiter appears to stand still in the sky.

This happened on the morning of December 25, 2 B.C., and it has been proposed that this is what Matthew means by saying that the star “came to rest” over the house (Matt. 2:9). The process of a planet coming to rest is too slow to observe with the naked eye, but we know the Babylonians had calculated out when Jupiter did this. If the magi were traveling to Bethlehem in the early morning of December 25, Jupiter would have been ahead of them in the southern sky, rotating slowly to the west as the Earth turned. The road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem also bends to the west, so it would have appeared to remain in front of them, and they would have known from their calculations that it was at its halting point when they saw it over the house.

This also would have been an omen:

• “If Jupiter becomes steady in the morning: enemy kings will be reconciled” (4:41).

That would have been a good omen for their peace mission and a sign that they would be on friendly terms with the new king once he disposed of their Parthian ruler.

Taking stock

This interpretation of the magi’s actions is not free of speculation and needs to be further studied (see Dag Kihlman, The Star of Bethlehem
and Babylonian Astrology). However, it has two advantages. First, it fits the correct time frame (3-2 B.C.), and, second, it is based on an actual astrological system that magi from the east plausibly could have used.

Based on Herod’s slaughter of the boys two years old and under, Jesus would have been as old as two years when the magi arrived, and that could put his birth in September of 3 B.C., while December 25 reflects a memory of when the magi came.

This understanding might be supported by the fact that at dawn on September 13, 3 B.C., the sun was in the middle of the constellation Virgo, and the new moon was at Virgo’s feet. Others have proposed that this is what John describes when he sees “a great sign . . . in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet” who gives birth to Christ (Rev. 12:1). In other words, he may have seen Mary depicted as the virgin (Latin, virgo) of heaven, with astronomical markers indicating the date of Christ’s birth.

If this overall theory is true, Larson may have identified the correct celestial events but misunderstood their significance through lack of familiarity with Babylonian astrology. The Babylonians themselves would have not understood everything correctly. Like many Jewish people, they understood Jesus’ kingship in political terms and thought he would be a military conqueror.

However, Jesus indicated his kingdom was “not of this world” (John 18:36) and it was in a spiritual sense that he would bring “peace on Earth” (Luke 2:14).

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