I find the science behind the Star of Bethlehem fascinating. I have always loved astronomy and Psalms 8 and 19 are among my favourites. The heavens declare the glory of God in more ways than one.
If, like me, your faith is not a blind one but uses the reason that God has given us all to bolster it and if you, like me, enjoy scientific truth searching then I think this will encourage you.
The truth is that God announced His first coming with clear signs in the heavens – which you can see now using computer software that you can buy off the shelf. These include the Star of Bethlehem which turns out to have been a particularly close conjunction between Jupiter and Venus (the second and third brightest objects in the night sky after the Moon) that took place on June 17th 2BC.
I won’t repeat here what Rick Larson has dealt with in depth in his excellent website and DVDs. To understand what I have written below I strongly recommend you read the materials at that site first.
I have created two short stories below based around pivotal events which led to the Magi (or the three wise men as they are more commonly known) leaving their city in the East and coming to a stable in Bethlehem in Judea some time up to 2 years after the star appeared. You can read that story in full in Matthew’s gospel chapter 2 verses 1-12.
The first story deals with a hypothetical lesson taught by the old testament prophet Daniel to the children of his fellow Jewish captives in Ancient Babylon about 585 BC. During this lesson, which presumes knowledge about the stars from previous lessons, Daniel explains how the Magi would know when the Messiah was coming.
The second story tries to describe the reaction of the successors of the Magi, many generations and centuries later, when they finally see the events occurring in the heavens that they had been awaiting so long.
[The Magi themselves are a fascinating study in their own right. The empire appropriate administrative systems that Daniel and his fellow Jewish exiles (Shadrack, Meshack and Abednego) put in place lasted for over a thousand years from about 600 BC to 500 AD surviving numerous dynasties and bringing untold blessings to the peoples of central Asia for all that time (Gen. 12:3). But that needs another blog.]
Daniel the Prophet Teaches Messianic Astronomy
Asenah was looking forward to today’s lesson with his super “uncle” Daniel. It was going to be on his favourite subject: Astronomy. His uncle could be scary at times but he knew so much that was fascinating and never more so than when it came to the stars. He knew all about the names of the stars and the wandering stars and the comets and meteors and eclipses and….. and well everything there was to know about everything in the sky above them. So Asenah was excited.
“Today, I am going to teach you something very special about the coming Saviour of the world.” Daniel said. Asenah knew that the stars contained a very ancient story in them about this coming Messiah who would be his people’s salvation as well as that of the whole world.
“You know that God named the stars as our esteemed prophet Isaiah and a writer of the psalms has said. So can you tell me which stars are connected with the coming King?”
Asenah and the other students knew the answers, this was an easy question. He put his hand up.
“Go ahead Micaiah, son of Shadrech” Daniel had asked Asenah’s brother for the answer.
“The wandering star Jupiter, the King of the wandering stars, and Regulus the king star in the constellation of Leo, the symbol of the tribe of Judah.” Micaiah answered.
“Very good, Micaiah. Those are indeed the two main stars associated with the coming King.”
“Anyone else want to tell me what a conjunction is?” The question that Daniel asked this time was not so easy but still several hands went up.
“Yes, Samuel son of Meshach, what is your answer?”
Samuel was one of the brighter ones in the class. He answered confidently: “A conjunction is where a wandering star and a fixed star or another wandering star meet up and dance together.”
“Well done Samuel, that is true. So today I am going to speak to you about triple conjunctions and one to look out for in particular.”
At this stage Daniel brought down one of his large star charts and spread it out on the table in the middle of the classroom. On it was drawn an accurate picture of the part of the sky above them that included the constellation Leo:
“As you know, I have a lot of these charts.”, Daniel said, stating the obvious (they were all around the classroom from floor to ceiling), “You also know how I told you what Shem, the son of Noah, told our father Abraham about the coming Messiah, how he was to look out for His signs in the heavens.
We know from our fathers the importance of the king star, Regulus, and the king wandering star (or planet as you could call it), Jupiter. You also know that Jupiter, the king planet wanders in and out among the 12 constellations of the tribes of Israel doing dances with them. So, now I am telling you, that when you see the king planet Jupiter doing a dance around the king star Regulus in the constellation of our tribe Judah – when it crowns the king star with a triple conjunction – then know that the Messiah is about to come.”
Asenah never forgot that lesson.
The Capital of the Parthian Empire 3 – 2 BC
Melchior was on star gazing duty that evening. He and his Magi companions and ancestors had been observing, taking notes and drawing up star charts for centuries now. Always the focus was on the king planet Jupiter and the king star Regulus. For over 500 years they had continued to look for the predicted dance and so often it had seemed tantalizingly close. But over the last 9 months it had finally happened.
In September of the previous year, Jupiter passed as close as it ever has to Regulus and went on its way.
In December it was half way through the constellation on its way westward when it turned back for its second pass by Regulus. It reached Regulus this second time in February. In the middle of May it went back for its third pass thus fulfilling the requirements of a triple conjunction for the first time in all the centuries they had been looking for it.
So now Melchior was out again observing and his companions had joined him because something remarkable had started happening in June. Venus was coming closer to Jupiter and tonight it looked like they would be so close they would be indistinguishable from each other. Such a close conjunction was a rare sight, but it was even more significant after the triple conjunction that had been happening over the previous 9 months.
Melchior wondered if the Messiah had been conceived in September and was being born tonight in Bethlehem in Judea as the prophet Micah foretold. These were indeed exciting times!
The three Magi loaded up their camels. They were taking a visit to the neighboring Roman empire on a mission to see their new born king. The king planet would lead their way westward.
An Explanation and some References
The above stories about Daniel and the Magi are mainly based on information that you can find at Rick Larson’s excellent website Bethlehemstar.com. If you haven’t already read the material on that site please do so before asking me any question about this post since most of the answers to your questions can be found there.
However, some of the above stories are at least partly speculation. I will deal with some of the more speculative points below.
- There is no direct evidence that Noah’s son Shem interpreted the gospel in the stars to Abraham. They were both alive at the same time on earth (Shem lived to a very great age) and it is possible that Abraham met Shem. Some scholars believe that Shem was Melchizedek (see Genesis 14:18–20 and Hebrews 7). But there is no biblical evidence to suggest that Shem told Abraham what to look out for nor that Abraham subsequently passed down that information to his descendants so that Daniel knew it. It is a nice idea though, it could have been true. Either way, we are left wondering why the Magi were so knowledgeable about the star that had appeared for just one day (June 17, 2BC) and why they thought it was so special.
- The gospel in the stars is a theory that many people have problems with. I like it and think that it glorifies God to say that He has written the gospel in the constellations. But since we have the bible it is not something I get hung up about. If you don’t agree I don’t blame you. Just don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. There is no better explanation that I know of for the Bethlehem Star than the one described in detail at Larson’s site. I have written more about the gospel in the stars in this post.
- There is a good reason to believe that each of the 12 tribes of Israel had a corresponding constellation. The connection between the constellation of Leo and the tribe of Judah is one of the more obvious ones. I am slow to say what the other ones are but, take it that Daniel and the Magi would have taken some of this for granted even if, these days, Christians are (understandably) not inclined to look to the constellations. Again, Rick Larson does a good job of dealing with this problem.
The pictures in this post are screen shots from a computer application called Starry Night: Complete Space & Astronomy Pack available online. I love the way it is possible to verify the positions of the stars and planets on any night in history (or in the future) using a computer program. God created the universe with such order inbuilt.
Oh, and yes, the implications of this are that Jesus was actually born on June 17th, not December 25th.