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The astronomers and the Magi

28 October 2014

A meeting of astronomers, historians, linguists, Biblical scholars and specialists in ancient astrology is something special. Last week, some eighty specialists, both professionals and amateurs, gathered at the University of Groningen to discuss the Star of Bethlehem.

Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423
Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423

It was an eclectic mix, but that was the plan from the start. Astronomers have speculated a lot about the Star of Bethlehem, a familiar part of the Nativity story in the Bible. But many Biblical scholars have ruled out any historical truth in the description in the Gospel of Matthew , which features the Star and the Magi who followed it to Bethlehem, looking for the King of the Jews. This is why astronomy professor Peter Barthel and New Testament professor George van Kooten decided to hold this interdisciplinary conference on the Star of Bethlehem.

‘One of the first astronomers to speculate about the Star was Johannes Kepler’, says American astronomer Owen Gingerich . Until then, the Star was taken to be something supernatural, possibly an angel. Kepler observed a ‘ great conjunction’ of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars in 1603 and calculated that a similar conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn must have occurred in 7 BCE. ‘Kepler dated the birth of Christ to 5 BCE, to allow time for the Magi to travel to Judea.’

In more recent times, astronomers have also helped date the birth of Christ. According to the Gospels, Christ was born just before the death of King Herod, but the date of the King´s demise was unknown. The only clue in historical documents is that he died just after a lunar eclipse (a bad omen) and just before the Passover feast. Modern astronomers can calculate the position of heavenly bodies at any given time, and could thus show that in 5 BCE, a lunar eclipse preceded the Passover feast in Jerusalem.

Michael Molnar
Michael Molnar

Attempts to explain the Star of Bethlehem in similar fashion have resulted in a range of options. Chinese astronomers recorded a number of comets around the time of the birth of Christ, but novae (stellar explosions) are less easy to detect. Of course, there were also a number of conjunctions.

The great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BCE was central to the conference. In 1977, astronomer Michael Molnar suggested that this conjunction perfectly fitted the description in Matthew. First, astrologers in the East would have considered the close proximity of these two planets to be a royal sign. Second, the conjunction took place in the zodiacal sign of Aries, which according to Molnar points to Judea. Third, the two planets would have come together, moved apart and come together again, which explains the description in Matthew of how the Magi first saw the Star in their home country and travelled to Jerusalem before seeing it again.

For Molnar, the key to the Star of Bethlehem was Babylonian astrology. He concluded that the Star wasn’t something that stood out, like a comet or a nova, because Herod and his counsellors didn’t notice a thing. To astrologers, however, the conjunction would be highly significant.

Cuneiform tablet
Cuneiform tablet

The astronomers at the conference loved the idea, but on the first day, specialists in Babylonian astrology put a damper on the whole theory. ‘There are lots of cuneiform tablets describing omens and their interpretation’, said historian John Steele, ‘But Judea isn’t mentioned in any of them. All the omens refer to cities in the Babylonian heartland.’ Steele couldn’t rule out the possibility that some undiscovered clay tablet might mention Judea. ‘But to Babylonian astrologers, Aries would first mean a city in their own country. I can’t imagine anything that would make them jump on a camel and ride for Jerusalem.’

Astronomer David Hughes, who has published two papers in Nature and a book, all on the Star of Bethlehem, rounded off the first day with a wry smile. ‘I think the astronomers are going to their hotels a bit depressed tonight.’ Religious scholar Willem Drees from Leiden University consoled him with the following: ‘It is still possible the Star could be based on a real historical event.’

Participants in the conference, Senate Room, University of Groningen
Participants in the conference, Senate Room, University of Groningen

And indeed, things did brighten up somewhat for the astronomers on the second day. Historians explained how, at the time, the Romans were expecting a new king or emperor from Jerusalem. For them, this expectation was fulfilled by Vespasian, who became Roman emperor after sacking Jerusalem in 68 CE. But seven decades earlier, the expectation might have primed the Magi to travel to Judea.

There is something curious about the Magi: they were not Babylonian astrologers, as they are known as ‘Chaldeans’. The historians explained that the Magi were in fact important courtiers, who were called upon to choose a king when the succession was in question. They were king - makers, which means they were suited for the job Matthew gave them in recognizing baby Jesus as King of the Jews.

Kocku von Stuckrad, Professor of Religious Studies and Dean of the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen, said that that is why the Magi were incorporated in the ‘propaganda story’ that Matthew gives us. Indeed, added another scholar who works on uncovering the ‘historical Jesus’, the Nativity story in Matthew is not regarded as historically correct. Then, when all seemed lost, some evidence came up to connect Judea with Aries.

Plot of dates for the Great Conjunction
Plot of dates for the Great Conjunction

In the final summing up, David Hughes had clearly shaken off his depression of the night before and concluded that it may all have happened as described in Matthew: astrologers from the East, seeing a great conjunction in Aries and reading in it the coming of a king in Judea, travel to Jerusalem. There, they are directed towards Bethlehem and rejoice to see the second phase of the conjunction.

Organizer Peter Barthel is satisfied with the outcome. ‘It is good that specialists from different fields are really talking about this. And yes, I still think the Molnar hypothesis could be true.’ Co-organizer Van Kooten agrees. ‘What has become clear is that Matthew really did interact with the Roman world and applied Graeco-Roman astronomy to the political setting of his time. Thus, he defined the sort of king that Jesus would be. As such, this conference has brought the Star of Bethlehem back into the historical realm.’

See also the conference reports by astronomer Heino Falkce (Radboud University Nijmegen) and Molnar-critic Aaron Adair.

Last modified:29 September 2017 2.25 p.m.
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