Star of Wonder

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By Rita Bocher

 

In the Gospel of Matthew, we read the story of the Magi and of the wondrous star they followed seeking the “newborn king of the Jews.”

The association of a star with a major event was not unusual to the ancients. In Virgil’s Aeneid, he reported that a star guided Aeneas to the location where Rome should be founded. Or stars were used as symbols for important references.  In the Book of Revelation, written at the time of the Roman persecution of the new church, the apostle wrote that “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (chapter 12)—the twelve stars in the Old Testament interpretation referring to the twelve tribes of Israel  and in the New Testament, referring to the twelve apostles.  When, in the Old Testament, the seer Balaam pronounced that “A star shall advance from Jacob” (Numbers 24) , it was interpreted to foretell the coming of the Messiah. 

 Stars were especially the focus of desert cultures as the night-time heavens would appear wondrous to them. The Magi were astrologers or priestly star gazers in the Persian culture of Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest faiths still being practiced.  Zoroastrianism followed the cult of Mithras in which the god who moved the universe was Mithras. 

But on a physical level, what did the Magi observe on that Christmas Eve so many centuries ago?  What was the “star” they had seen “at its rising?”

Was it the flashing light of a comet?  A comet is highly unlikely as that phenomenon was perceived by the ancients as a foreteller of impending doom. Josephus wrote that a comet continued for a year at the fall of Jerusalem.

Perhaps a meteor? A meteor is a chunk of space rock that brightly burns in the Earth’s atmosphere. However, a meteor, although burning brightly, fades pretty quickly, so that it was unlikely that the Magi would have been able to follow such an event for weeks.

 Perhaps a supernova? A supernova is the explosive death of a star.  The brightness associated with the explosion could last for months.  Such an unusual brightness in the sky might well have been a special event for the Magi. However, such events have been witnessed and recorded.   And if one had escaped being recorded, modern astronomers would have been able to observe remnants of such a supernova at the period of its peak brightness.  As it happens, the closest supernova happening to Christ’s birth was recorded by Chinese astronomers in 185 A.D.

What is the most accepted explanation is that the Magi-astrologers observed a three point planetary conjunction.  The German astronomer and mathematician, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), observed a three point conjunction in 1604 and calculated that such a phenomenon also had occurred in 7 – 6 B.C.

 

In 7-6 B.C., there was a rare three point conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces in May/June, September/October and December—and that a third planet,  Mars, passed early the next year.  Jupiter and Saturn are the slowest of the visible planets in their orbit around the sun. Jupiter’s orbit is every twelve years; Saturn’s is every thirty years.  During the course of their orbits they pass each other, and in passing, even though they are far apart, they seem to be one, and are said to be in conjunction.  It is very rare to have a third planet observed during or shortly after that conjunction so that the three planets are viewed as one. 

 

The “star” appeared to stop and seemed to form a backdrop to the sun, the moon, and the planets as they moved across the sky.

The constellation Pisces was associated with Palestine, the planet Jupiter with the primary deity in Babylonian astrology, and the planet Saturn with the Jews. So, while the Magi had gotten insights from the star of the happenings in Palestine, they did not have the information that the Jews alone had.  They had to get to Palestine to learn the secrets of the Jewish Scriptures, the special revelations given to the Jews alone.  Then they personally could pay homage to this leader that they had discerned in nature. 

It would have taken some months for the Magi to get organized for the trip to this world leader.  When they got to Palestine, then they must find him.  We do not know how long the Magi traveled.  Matthew says only that “the star which they had observed at its rising went ahead of them until it came to a standstill over the place where the child was.”

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