The Bethlehem Star

A little over two thousand years ago, on September 11 of 3 BC, Jupiter, king of the wandering stars that we know today as planets, passed in close conjunction with Regulus. To the naked eye they appeared as a single star. Using modern astronomy software, like Starry Night Pro, it is easy to turn the clock back and confirm this. Regulus is a fixed star in the constellation of Leo the Lion, and as its name suggests, was known as the 'king star'. In the East, probably in Babylon, certain astronomers known as Magi took note (Matthew 2:1). On its own this would not have been an unusual astronomical occurrence. It happens about every 12 years, the time that Jupiter takes to rotate around the Sun. But it was also the day of the Jewish New Year, and after Leo rose above the eastern horizon it was followed by the constellation of Virgo the Virgin. Virgo was clothed with the Sun, and had the New Moon at her feet, if I may borrow the language of Revelation 12:1-5. What is more, in the weeks that followed, and as Jupiter continued on its path through the night sky, it appeared to stop and do a backwards loop. This is what astronomers call retrograde motion, and is because we view things from planet Earth which is itself a moving platform. Twice more, on February 15 and on May 9 of 2 BC, Jupiter came again into close conjunction with Regulus. Perhaps it was at this point that the Magi realised that the stars were telling them about something special. A conjunction of the king planet with the king star spoke of a king. The triple repetition declared 'King-King-King!', pointing perhaps to the superlative 'King of Kings'. And was there a significance to the constellations of Leo the Lion and Virgo the Virgin?

It is possible these Magi were of Jewish ancestry, like Daniel the Jewish Prophet whom Nebuchadnezzar had appointed as Chief of the Babylonian Magi in the 6th Century BC (Daniel 2:48). Could this be speaking of their anticipated Messiah king, the King of Kings? The Torah promised that he would come from the tribe of Judah, a tribe that their ancestor Jacob had likened to a lion's cub (Genesis 49:9-10). And their prophet Isaiah had promised that Messiah would be born of a Virgin and be called 'Immanuel', meaning 'God with us'.

On the evening of June 17 in 2 BC, nine months after the first conjunction with Regulus, Jupiter was visible in the western sky. But this was no ordinary Jupiter. To the naked eye, Jupiter appeared in perfect conjunction with Venus. On its own, Venus is the brightest object in the sky after the Sun and Moon. In conjunction with Jupiter, they shone like the single brightest star anyone had ever seen! What could this mean? Could it be that the first sign had announced Messiah's conception in the womb of a Virgin? Now, nine months later, had he been born? There was no time to lose. The star pointed west towards the Land of Israel, and to Israel they must make haste! Camels were prepared, and they set off on the 900 mile journey, carrying gifts fit for a king.

When they arrived in Jerusalem, they sought an audience with Herod, King of Israel. They asked, "Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him". (Matthew 2:2). The signs the Magi had seen had been visible to the naked eye, but their question was met with shock and surprise. "When King Herod heard this he was alarmed, and all Jerusalem with him," Matthew tells us. Magi were like professional detectives and riddle solvers. Kings employed them to interpret dreams and solve all kinds of mysteries (Daniel 2:2, 5:7). They recognised clues that ordinary people overlooked, and they knew how to piece them together. But there were some pieces missing in this puzzle, and they needed Herod's help. He called the chief priests and experts in the Jewish law, asking them where the Messiah was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea", they replied (Matthew 2:5) and they proceeded to quote from the prophet Micah 5:2, "And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are in no way least among the rulers of Judah, for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel". With this extra piece of the puzzle, the Magi were ready to set off on the final part of their journey. But Herod wasn't quite ready to let them go yet. He wanted to know the exact time the star had appeared. Though visible to the naked eye, apparently no-one in Israel had noticed this great sign and taken note.

By now it was mid-November of 2 BC, and as astronomers who followed the night stars, the wise men awoke in the early hours. As they examined the sky just before dawn, there indeed was Jupiter, due south in the sky above Bethlehem, pointing the way. It was only a five mile journey, but there would be many people in Bethlehem, so how would they find him when they got there? The king had instructed them to "Go and look carefully for the child". We don't know how long this careful search took, but Matthew tells us that after the star rose and pointed them towards Bethlehem, it then stopped above the place where the child was (Matthew 2:9). Planets like Jupiter do not stop exactly, but today with the use of modern astronomy software we can turn the clock back and examine what they perhaps saw. At the end of September of 2 BC, Jupiter had arrived in the constellation of Virgo, at the tip of her arm. Jupiter then proceeded down her arm, coming to a stop on November 20, whereupon it looped backwards in retrograde motion. On May 3 of 1 BC it stopped again, and then continued its forward journey down Virgo's arm, body and legs, reaching her feet at the beginning of February of 1 AD. Jupiter then did a retrograde loop around her feet, before leaving Virgo in August of 1 AD, and proceeding towards Libra. It is as though the stars depict Jesus as a babe in his mother's arms for about a year, and then a toddler at her feet for a year after that.

From Luke's account of the Shepherds, it is clear that the shepherds arrived to find Jesus as a new-born babe who had been placed in a manger (Luke 2:16). At Christmas time, when we re-enact the Christmas story, we typically depict the Magi arriving on this same night. However, the bible tells us in Matthew 2:1 that they actually came 'after' Jesus was born in Bethlehem. In Matthew 2:7 it says, "Then Herod privately summoned the wise men and determined from them when the star had appeared". This implies an expectation that his birth had coincided with the timing of the star. After their visit to Bethlehem, the Magi failed to return to Herod as he had instructed them, and Matthew 2:16 says, "When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he became enraged. He sent men to kill all the children in Bethlehem and throughout the surrounding region from the age of two and under, according to the time he had learned from the wise men". This suggests that Jesus had been born some time during the preceding year or so, but to make absolutely sure, Herod killed all the infants under the age of two.

Flavius Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian records that Herod died not long after an eclipse of the moon (Jewish Antiquities, Book 17, Chapter 6, section 4). Scholars often assume this to be the partial lunar eclipse that occurred on 13 March of 4 BC, and that Jesus was therefore born sometime between 6 and 4 BC. If so, there is nothing in the astronomical record to explain Matthew's account of the Magi. But a total lunar eclipse was also visible from Jerusalem at 11pm on 9 January of 1 BC. If Herod survived until 1 BC, the astronomical record is stunning. It suggests that Jesus was born on June 17 of 2 BC, the day that the brightest star appeared due to the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus. The wise men then arrived in Jerusalem on about November 20 of 2 BC. Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt with the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:13-15), then Herod's soldiers slew the innocents at the end of 2 BC or in early 1 BC, and Herod died soon afterwards.

If Jesus was indeed born on June 17 of 2 BC, the day the brightest star appeared, nine months after Jupiter's first conjunction with Regulus, this means Jesus was born on 17 Tammuz 3759 in the Jewish Calendar. 17 Tammuz is a Jewish fast day. The Jews believe that 17 Tammuz was the day when Moses came down from Mount Sinai holding the stone tablets inscribed with the ten commandments, only to find that the Israelites were worshipping the golden calf (Exodus 32:19, Mishnah Taanis 4:6). It seems fitting that on the same day of the year that the God's Law was presented to mankind on tablets of stone, the Word of God was later presented in human form, when 'the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us' (John 1:14). As John 1:17 says, "For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ". Unfortunately for the Jewish nation, John 1:11 also says, "He came to what was his own, but his own people did not receive him", and exactly 70 years later on 17 Tammuz in 69 AD, the Roman legions broke through the walls of Jerusalem after a length siege. This happened just as Jesus prophesied about Jerusalem in Luke 19:44, "They will demolish you—you and your children within your walls—and they will not leave within you one stone on top of another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God". But the good news is, as John 1:12-13 says, "But to all who have received him - those who believe in his name - he has given the right to become God’s children - children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband’s decision, but by God".

The details I have described contain some of my own observations, but are primarily based on my review of Rick Larson's presentation in the DVD, 'The Star of Bethlehem', produced by Stephen McEveerty in 2009. They are not simply details taken from the bible and to be believed by faith. The bible encourages us to carefully examine the things we hear in order to see if they are really true, just like the Bereans did when they heard the Apostle Paul's message (Acts 17:11). So I purchased Starry Night Pro astronomy software, just as Rick Larson had done, and I was able to confirm the details he presented. They are based on the laws of modern science that govern planetary motion. As such, modern science provides us with incredible external evidence to support the biblical record of Christ's birth, and to place it within 2 BC.

But this story also leaves me intrigued, for several reasons. As Larson points out, it demonstrates that from the beginning of time God knew when his Son would be born into the world. As he set the universe in motion like a gigantic clock, he embedded signs to point us to Christ's first coming. It demonstrates that God knows the future, and that he presents us with information about the future in the form of riddles or puzzles. And yet the people whom you would most expect to have solved the puzzle of his first coming, namely the Jewish religious experts, were oblivious both to the signs and to their meaning. Instead, it was an unlikely group of people from a foreign land who solved it, and were privileged to present their gifts before the infant King of Kings.

The bible also describes many signs that will precede Christ's second coming, and tells us we are blessed when we read or hear about them (Revelation 1:3). But how many wise men or women will recognise them when they appear, and understand what they mean? The study of these signs is known as eschatology. I like to call it 'The End Time Puzzle'. And I believe that like the wise men of old, we are supposed to try and fit the pieces of the puzzle together, in so much as we have them, and to seek out or wait for the pieces that we are still missing.