New Testament Chronology
New Testament Chronology, (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990)
The birth of Jesus is told in only two Gospels. Matthew tells the story of the Magi following the Star, the Slaughter of the Innocents and the Flight into Egypt, which appears to be retold from an account by Joseph.1 Luke tells of the shepherds coming to Jesus in the manger and His presentation at the Temple, which appears to be retold from an account by Mary.2 The first task is to attempt to harmonize these two accounts into one story,3 which allows an analysis of the two Stars seen by the Magi.
In Luke, Chapter 2, Joseph and Mary went from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register for a census. While in Bethlehem she gave birth to a child, who was laid in a manger; the inn was full. On the evening of His birth an angel of the Lord appeared to nearby shepherds, who came to see the child. They then spread the word about His birth, and all who heard wondered at what the shepherds said. On the eighth day He was circumcised and named Jesus. According to the Law (Lev. 12:4), Mary then waited an additional thirty-three days, to complete her purification. Then, after the forty-one days, Jesus was presented to the Lord at the Temple in Jerusalem. While there Simeon and Anna identified Jesus as the Messiah. After this Joseph, Mary and Jesus departed for Nazareth.
In Matthew, Chapter 2, the story begins after Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Then, two or more (there were three gifts) Magi arrived in Jerusalem from the east. They were looking for the King of the Jews, for they had seen His Star arise in the east. But Herod and the people of Jerusalem did not seem to know of the Star or His birth. Herod inquired of his chief priests and scribes and determined that the Messiah should be born in Bethlehem. He secretly summoned the Magi, and exchanged the information about Bethlehem for the time the Star appeared. He then sent them to Bethlehem to find the child, claiming he too wished to worship Him. During the six-mile trip to Bethlehem the Star "went on before them, until it came and stood over where the child was." (Matt. 2:9) The child was now in a house, where the Magi worshiped Him and presented gifts. God warned the Magi about Herod in a dream, and they returned to the east by a different route. After they left, God also warned Joseph in a dream that Herod would attempt to kill the child. They left that night for Egypt. When Herod realized that the Magi would not return, he sent men to kill all the children of Bethlehem and the surrounding area, from two years and younger. Later, while still in Egypt, God told Joseph in a dream about the death of Herod. They returned to Israel, where they heard that Archelaus now reigned over Judea. Joseph was afraid to go to Jerusalem, and, when warned by God in another dream, they departed for Galilee and Nazareth.
Can these accounts be blended to support the popular image of the Magi honoring the baby Jesus in a manger, a few days after His birth? The difficulty is that Luke tells of leaving from Jerusalem for Nazareth, about forty-one days after the birth of Jesus. But Matthew tells us that the holy family left Jerusalem for Egypt. On the return from Egypt the holy family bypassed Jerusalem on the way to Nazareth. The returns to Nazareth must be told from two different visits to Bethlehem.
If there were two occasions, then after Jesus' presentation at the Temple and the return to Nazareth, the family later returned to Bethlehem. This has been suggested as a permanent move to raise Jesus in the town of His heritage. But since they initially returned "to their own city of Nazareth," (Luke 2:39) it is not likely that they intended to relocate their household to Bethlehem. However, they did always return to Jerusalem for the Passover, since "His parents used to go to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of Passover." (Luke 2:41) On such a return trip they may have been welcomed to stay in nearby Bethlehem, with friends made during their first visit when Jesus was born. The Magi would then have come to worship the King of the Jews on a later visit of the holy family to Bethlehem, which has been proposed as late as two years later. Then came the flight into Egypt, also with a possible sojourn of up to two years. By such dating the birth of Jesus may have been up to four years before the death of Herod, or as early as 7 or 8 BCE.
By interpreting Matthew as describing a second visit to Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus may have occurred any time between 8 and 4 BCE. In this search for the Star that led the Magi on their quest for the Messiah, the extra effort to establish the later death of Herod on November 27, 4 BCE now becomes important. There are several possible natural stars that might be the Star of the Magi, and one falls after the presumed death of Herod in March of 4 BCE. That Star and other astronomical occurrences between 8 BCE and the death of Herod will be examined.
Some may object that a scientific explanation of a natural star is suggested instead of a miraculous Star, or the "Shekinah" glory of God. The objection is based on the Bible's ban on astrology (Deut. 17:2-7). However, we are not here dealing with astrology.4 Astrology is belief that the movement of the stars can forecast the future, and in those days was usually accompanied by worship of the heavenly bodies. God may have interpreted the meaning of the first Star for the Magi in a dream, just as he spoke to them later (Matt. 2:12). The leaders of Jerusalem did not know of the Star or the meaning attached to it. This might not have been the case if it could be discovered by the astrology of the day. There was no worship of false gods or deterministic forces. Also, heavenly signs are used by God as signs to man (Joel 2:28-32; Matt. 24:30; Acts 2:19-20). Scripture does not exclude that the Magi saw an actual star.
This study is seeking an understanding of the truth of God's word, and the birth of the "word." (John 1:1,14) In interpreting the word, faith that goes beyond the interpretations of science is often justified. But a scientific solution can become faith justified. In an examination of the alternatives that can fulfill Scripture, one can later exercise one's faith where science ends.
The Magi did see something that they called a "star" and interpreted it to herald the birth of the King of the Jews. They sought Him in Jerusalem, where the time of the appearance of the "star" was made known to Herod. That information influenced Herod's choice of the age of two years and under as safe in assuring the destruction of the Messiah. That time of the prior appearance of the Star might be taken as a year or even less, the extra year being Herod's safety margin. His choice may have also been influenced by his being made aware of the stories surrounding the birth of John the Baptist. This was about six months before the birth of Jesus (Luke 1:65), and Herod may have thought those stories referred to the Messiah. The Magi saw the "star" again on the way to Bethlehem. These two appearances of the Star must be considered. The Magi's first sighting of the "star" marked either the conception or birth of Jesus. There was then an interval for the Magi's trip and the second sighting of the Star at Bethlehem. This interval of up to two years may account for Herod's selection of two years for the Slaughter of the Innocents in Bethlehem.
The search for the Stars of the Magi as nonperiodic astronomical occurrences such as comets and nova, has turned many to the extensive ancient records of the Chinese astronomers. In the Ho Pen Yoke catalogue is found a hui star that was sighted in the lunar month falling in March/April of 5 BCE, and it was visible for seventy days.5 Also recorded during this period is Haley's comet in 12 BCE, a comet in 10 BCE, and a comet or nova on April 24 of 4 BCE; the following entry is a comet in 13 CE.6 Of interest in this search are the appearances in 5 and 4 BCE.
The "star" of 5 BCE appeared sometime during the Chinese lunar month from March 10 to April 7. The middle of that month was about March 25. This is a prime candidate for the first Star of the Magi, which coincided with the conception of Jesus.
This "star" was described as a hui-hsing or "sweeping star" or "broom star." This comet or nova was visible for seventy days and was reported in the constellation Aquila. It arose about four to five hours before the sun and was visible in the late night sky toward the east. Bright, long lasting comets tend to be close to the sun and earth, which makes them appear to move rapidly against the background of stars. This was not reported in the Chinese annals, suggesting the "star" was not a comet. A nova rapidly comes to maximum brightness and then falls off over a time to invisibility; it may reappear some years later. Although not certain, the "star" was probably a nova. This nova is suggested as the first observation of the Magi who, "saw His star in the east." (Matt. 2:2)
The "star" of 4 BCE was reported only for April 24. It was described as a po-hsing or "sparkling star." This was a nova, or possibly a supernova, which appeared in the constellation Capricornus. This constellation is next to Aquila and would have appeared very close to the same location as the nova of 5 BCE. It also arose about four to five hours before the sun. If a supernova, it would have continued to be visible into the daylight. A supernova will leave a pulsar remnant. The binary pulsar PSR1913+16b has been identified as this pulsar, although with a low probability because of the density of pulsars in that area.7
The supernova of April 24, 4 BCE is suggested as the Star of Bethlehem. It has been calculated that if an observer looked from the Old South Gate leading from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, which is 20o west of south, that just before sunrise on that day, this star would have appeared 70o above the horizon, directly over Bethlehem. This would be a very possible time of departure from Jerusalem for the Magi. As a supernova in approximately the same location, which is unexpected, it might have seemed to the Magi to be a reappearance of the nova of 5 BCE. The timing of just over a year between the novas might account for Herod's selection of two years for the age of the children to be killed.
It is not known how any Magi would make an astrological interpretation of the first seventy-day nova. The interpretation may have been found according to their established astrological procedures, or given in a dream by God, just as He later warned them not to return to Herod. The April 24, 4 BCE nova would then be the Star over Bethlehem. Here may be a bona fide contender for the Star of Bethlehem.
A possible objection to this interpretation is that by the time the Magi arrived in Bethlehem the nova or supernova would have moved out of position and may have been washed out by daylight. However, when the Magi "saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy." (Matt. 2:10) The initial sighting from the Old South Gate may have become frozen in their minds, standing still, leading them rapidly by their highly charged emotions. An open inquiry in Bethlehem would have then located the child, especially since God brought them there.
The two novas of 5 BCE and 4 BCE fit the two departures to Nazareth. The first nova began in March of 5 BCE, and lasted for seventy days. The middle of that lunar month, about March 25, coincides with the traditional date for the Annunciation, or the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit. This would be more than a coincidence. This would then place the birth of Jesus in December of 5 BCE, possibly on the traditional date of December 25. Jesus was then presented at the Temple forty-one days later, or February 2, 4 BCE. Joseph, Mary and Jesus departed for Nazareth at that time. After Jesus was born, "his parents used to go to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover." (Luke 2:41) If "every year" is to be interpreted literally, then Joseph and Mary must have gone to the following Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread, April 11 to April 18, 4 BCE. They apparently then spent time in nearby Bethlehem, probably with friends made a few months earlier when Jesus was born. On April 24 there appeared the supernova, the Star of Bethlehem. The Magi presented their gifts to Jesus that day. Then followed the flight into Egypt and the massacre of the innocents. Their stay in Egypt ended about six months later with the death of Herod on November 27, 4 BCE. On the way home they bypassed Jerusalem on this second return to Nazareth.
It should be noted that there was no "Christmas Star" associated with the birth of Jesus. The first Star was at His conception, and the second Star when He was about four months old.
The most popular suggestion for the Star has been that of the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces in 7 BCE. A conjunction occurs when two or more planets make a close visual approach to each other. The nearness is measured by degrees, and there are 90o between the horizon and the zenith. A single conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn occurs just under every twenty years. A triple conjunction occurs about every 139 years. A triple conjunction occurs when the Earth and two planets are lined up on the same side of the Sun. Because of the relative motion of all three planets, Jupiter and Saturn appear to stop and go slowly backwards, or retrograde, across the sky for about four months. As the earth passes the center line, the relative motion of the planets slows, and they again reverse to appear in their normal forward, or direct motion. During this sequence the planets visually approach , separate, approach , separate, approach , and separate for another 139 years. The occurrence of this triple conjunction in the constellation Pisces is about every 854 years.
The first closest approach of Jupiter and Saturn occurred on May 27, 7 BCE, coming within 1.0 degrees. This separation is about equal to twice the width of the full moon, which in not particularly impressive.8 They separated to about 2.9 degrees on July 27, and returned to 1.0 degrees by October 6. Then followed a period of only slight separation to 1.2 degrees by November 1, returning to 1.05 degrees by December 1.9 This last period would have been difficult to distinguish visually as not remaining at the same distance apart. By early 6 BCE they were moving rapidly apart, but in February Mars moved into the area for a massing of planets.
Besides their conjunctions, an astronomer or astrologer would consider such as (1) the dates the retrograde motion began and ended, (2) the timing of acronychal risings (rising in the east just as the sun sets in the west, thus being in the sky all night and directly south at midnight) and (3) heliacal risings (rising just before the Sun, and soon lost in daylight). The triple conjunction is recorded in four Babylonian documents, which emphasizes their importance.10 One document records that on Ululu 21, Seleucid 305 = September 15, 7 BCE, that Jupiter and Saturn were to rise together at sunset. Of more interest, in the late afternoon of November 12, Jupiter appeared 50o above the horizon over Bethlehem. Then the planet was stationary in the zodiac as it changed from retrograde to forward motion. This day has been suggested as the day the Magi rode from Jerusalem and visited Jesus in Bethlehem.11
A consideration of all these astronomical events neither adds nor detracts from the general idea of the triple conjunction being the Star of Bethlehem. The main appeal of this idea is that it fulfills a supposed astrological background for the Magi.12 The Magi have been said to come from many countries, but Persia13 or Babylon are good choices.14 Relatively complete contemporary astronomical tables are available from Babylon, including the time of 7 BCE. The triple conjunction and related data are recorded, and it appears to have been predicted.15 If the Magi were Babylonian astrologers, the triple conjunction would have been no surprise. Also, they may have been Jews, left over from the captivity. Some have suggested a reconstruction of possible astrological beliefs at that time indicates the Messiah was expected to be born in Nisan. He was supposed to be heralded in the month prior, Adar, whose sign was Pisces, the constellation of the conjunction. The triple conjunction in Pisces had not occurred in 854 years. Perhaps this was significant enough to send the Magi onto the caravan trail.16
Another idea has the Magi as Zoroastrian priests from Persia. This religion followed one supreme good god, with a good and bad god having created the world. They kept no altars or statues in their temples. The good god was expected to win eventually, but he would be assisted by a sosiosh, or savior, who would be born of a virgin. This sosiosh would heal the world and reign for a thousand years. However, the religious interest of these priests would still need to be backed up by an astrological interpretation of the skies that would lead them to Jerusalem. Perhaps they were aware of some Jewish/Babylonian interpretation, as nothing is found in Persian astrology that would prompt the journey.
When the Magi arrived and told Herod of the Star heralding the birth of the Messiah, "he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him." (Matt. 2:3) They were partly troubled because they had no knowledge of the Star. Surveys have been done of all close conjunctions of all the planets during this era and none is a close contender with the event in Pisces. It is not likely that a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces would be missed by the intelligentsia of Jerusalem. Even if the skies were clouded over for a time, the planets remained close together for a long period and must have been noticed. Alternately, the conjunction may have been observed in Jerusalem, but not interpreted as heralding the Messiah. The residents of Jerusalem may simply have missed the earlier nova. The appearance and reappearance of the Magi's Star does not really fit the description of the conjunction. This interpretation remains a possibility, but lacks any real impact as the expected Star.
Another suggested Star of Bethlehem has been the variable star Mira, or possibly another variable star in the constellation Cassiopeia. Mira is the star Omichron Ceti in the constellation Cetus, the whale. This star fades to visual invisibility and reappears to variable brightness, with a period of 150 to 450 days. While unusual, such a star would have been well known to ancient astrologers. As a repeated occurrence, it is unlikely that it would have had astrological importance related to the Messiah. However, this star has been suggested as the Star of Bethlehem on about May 31, 6 BCE.17 This requires the Magi to sight the Star as they leave Jerusalem about 3:50 AM local time, arriving near Bethlehem at 4:16 AM in order for Mira to lead the Magi and stand over the grotto said to be the birthplace of Jesus. Since this was probably the Magi's first journey between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the six-mile trip in the dark in twenty-six minutes brings us into the area of the miraculous. Perhaps they had champion camels with good night vision.
Matthew describes the Star with the Greek word "aster." This normally means a single star. This tends to rule out the triple conjunction of the planets, but is not mandatory. Other stars, comets,18 and nova are an acceptable usage. Outstanding displays of shooting stars, or star showers, might be acceptable, but no ancient record includes any such event between 12 BCE and 36 CE. Interpretations using the Sun or Moon, such as eclipses, or zodiacal light can be generally ruled out.19 Other natural phenomena such as giant meteorites may be local events, and none are verified in the area. From here the list of suggestions gets even less likely, including early appearances of UFOs.
In the realm of natural explanations for the Star of Bethlehem, the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces in 7 BCE has strength if the present understanding of the astrology of the period is correct, if astrology was required by the Magi, and if a loose approach to the scriptural language it taken. Most other suggested natural explanations cause further scriptural difficulties, or cannot be verified. However, the nova of April 24, 4 BCE, preceded by the seventy-day event in 5 BCE, appears as a prime contender for the Star of Bethlehem.
Science has appeared to stand the test. But, is this the correct solution?
In the evening of the day of Jesus' birth, the shepherds were tending their flocks. Then, "an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them." (Luke 2:9) This is beyond science.20 Faith is required to accept and understand this verse. An astronomer would not attempt to explain the light by which the "glory of the Lord shone" as a usual natural phenomenon. The presence of the Lord is often described with light, as part of the "shekinah" Glory of God. The burning bush, the pillar of fire that led Israel in the wilderness, the fire on Mount Sinai, His Glory in the Holy of Holies, and the transfiguration of Jesus are some better known occurrences of the Light of God. A thorough understanding of His light is not necessary to comprehend that it is one of His manifestations in the physical world. The light is recorded in the Word, and it exists in His creation.
It does not take a large leap of faith to recognize that God and His light were present the day Jesus was born. The shepherds saw it, and they would have certainly told others about it as part of their exciting adventure of that night. If the Magi arrived a few days, a few months, or a year later, apparently as part of God's plan, then there is again the expectation for God to have been present. His light may have been again made visible and interpreted as a star by the Magi. There is little difference between His presence being made known to the shepherds or the Magi in the form of light. They both served the same end, to make known the birth of the Messiah, Jesus. The shepherds announced His birth to Bethlehem and the Magi to Jerusalem.
Is this a final answer? Was the Star of Bethlehem a natural or supernatural
occurrence? The novas of 5 and 4 BCE look tempting as the Stars seen by
the Magi. This fits well with the prior conclusions of the Annunciation
on about March 25. There does appear scriptural support to establish these
as the Magi's Stars, and that Jesus was actually born on, or about, December
25, 5 BCE.
1. J. A. Bruce, "The Flight into Egypt: The Dreams of Fathers," SLJT 27 (1984) reminds one that the story of Joseph's dreams must have come from him. The assumption that Joseph was an older widower with prior children may be theologically biased, but would confirm that Matthew's source was at least second hand.
2. R. E. Brown, "Gospel Infancy Narrative Research from 1976 to 1986: Part II (Luke)," CBQ 48, 4 (1986), 672 notes Luke 2:19 and emphasizes Mary as the unique witness of the infancy narrative.
3. H. B. Green, "Matthew, Clement and Luke: Their Sequence and Relationship," JTS NS40 (1989) concludes that Matthew's gospel became known to Clement, and that Luke drew on Clement as a source. This cannot be true, for Matthew and Luke present almost unrelated birth accounts, unless Clement omitted the infancy narrative.
4. G. L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 317-318.
5. D. H. Clark and Richard F. Stephenson, The Historical Supernovae (London: Pergamon, 1977), 46.
6. D. Hughes, The Star of Bethlehem, an Astronomer's Confirmation (New York: Walker, 1979).
7. A. J. Morehouse, "The Christmas Star as a Supernova in Aquila," JRASC 72 (1978), 65-68. Morehouse dates the supernova to February 23, 4 BCE.
8. R. E. Brown, "Gospel Infancy Narrative Research from 1976 to 1986: Part I (Matthew)," CBQ 48, 3 (1986), 482 notes that the approach was not close enough to give the appearance of a single star, and Babylonian documents of the period do not accord it unusual attention.
9. D. Hughes later revised the dates of the three conjunctions to May 29, September 29 and December 4, 7 BCE in a popular video.
10. K. Ferrari-D'Occhieppo, "The Star of the Magi and Babylonian Astronomy," in CKC, 45-46.
11. Ferrari-D'Occhieppo, "Star," 48.
12. J. H. Charlesworth, "Jewish Astrology in the Talmud, Pseudepigrapha, The Dead Sea Scrolls, and Early Palestinian Synagogues," HTR 70, 3/4 (1977), 198-199, illustrates that by the end of the first century BCE there is limited evidence of Jewish interest in astrology. E. M. Yamauchi, "The Episode of the Magi," CKC, 37 emphasizes Jewish interest in astrology from two Dead Sea scrolls that convey the idea that the zodiacal sign at birth determined the body and spirit. However, it is unlikely from this limited evidence that Jewish astrology was developed to the point of forecasting the advent of the Messiah by heavenly signs.
13. The Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem was spared from destruction when the Persians invaded Palestine in 614 CE because a mosaic in the church depicted magi in Persian dress.
14. Brown, "Infancy Research (Matthew)," 482 notes the suggestion of Nabatean Petra as the home of the magi.
15. Tablet in the Berlin Museum from Sippar.
16. The evidence presented by F. Rochberg-Halton, "New Evidence for the History of Astrology," JNES 43 (1984), 115-139 gives no support to an astrological interpretation of the Magi's stars, although this was not specifically discussed.
17. Close to Clement's date, as discussed in the chapter "December 25, 5 BCE."
18. Dio Cassius, Roman History LIX, notes the comet as a "portent," and says it is a "star called a comet," or literally a "hairy" star.
19. Ferrari-D'Occhieppo, "Star," 49 calculated that on November 12, 7 BCE Jupiter and Saturn appeared near the top of the zodiacal light over Bethlehem in the early evening, the day he proposes for the visit of the magi.
20. K. Boa & W. Proctor, The Return of the Star of Bethlehem (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980).