Star of Bethlehem in the Eyes of the Magi
Star of Bethlehem shines in December in the wide eyes of children
thrilled by its gleaming rays at the tip-top of the Christmas tree. So too,
a single, glorious star stands watch above many a miniature or life-sized
nativity scene, depicting the birth of Jesus, carefully put together this
time of year in churches and homes around the world by believers celebrating
the miracle of God born as man. The star glitters in the artwork of the Christmas
cards friends and family send to one another to mark the season, and its
wondrous, luminous guidance is invoked in the songs of carolers.
|The Adoration of the Magi by Juan de Flandes, from the
collection of the National Gallery of Art, U.S.A.
It is, without
a doubt, the most famous star in Christianity, and it appears scripturally
in the very first book of the New Testament of the Bible, the Gospel according
to Matthew. The Wise Men who followed the star to find and honor Jesus are
traditionally seen in Christianity in connection with Old Testament prophecies
of a Messiah who would be a teacher, priest and king. The Magis visit
puts the accent on the royal aspect of Jesus as the Messiah who fulfilled
the scriptures. The Magi cause a stir in Jerusalem when they say they have
come to honor the newborn king of the Jews. The Magis journey
from their homeland, probably in Persia, to worship the child in Bethlehem,
is seen as religiously symbolic of Jesus being born of the chosen people
of Israel, yet being a light that would shine for all nations.
What form the divine
light took has been the subject of a contradictory jumble of theories since
the 1600s, when the famed German astronomer and astrologer Johannes Kepler
suggested there could have been both an astronomical event that attracted
the Magis attention - and also a star more like an angel of light,
which miraculously led them to Bethlehem. While the Catholic Church has
traditionally spoken of the star poetically, symbolically, and consistent
with a miracle view, some Protestant and Evangelical Christian ministers
have developed their own theories, spinning off from Keplers ideas.
Likewise, astronomers and planetariums, trying to answer the queries of curious
kids at Christmas, have sometimes looked to Kepler and sometimes pointed
to other flashy astral events, like comets, documented in the skies around
the time of Christs birth.
The Biblical account
says Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod, and most historians believe
Herod died in 4 B.C., so the search focuses on years before then.
View of the Magis Astrology
Kepler saw a nova
in the 17th century sky, which he thought might have been formed from a
conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, and he wondered if new, bright stars were
routinely born of such conjunctions and whether the Magi had seen the same
phenomenon he witnessed. But, in reality, planetary conjunctions dont
give rise to novas, and novas appear to have figured very little in the astrology
of the ancients. What would the truly ancient astrologers say about the star
of wonder? That is the most relevant question to ask in a quest for a
historically accurate view of the star, according to Michael Molnar, a computer
professional with a doctorate in astrophysics, who detailed his historical
analysis in his 1999 book The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the
in Christian literature as the Wise Men and sometimes, erroneously, as Three
Kings, the Magi were clearly astrologers, according to recent scholarship
reflected in todays Bibles. Magi in the Roman times of Christs
birth, across the map of the ancient world, had a reputation as diviners
and healers; the medicine men of the time, Molnar said in an
interview. They were highly respected and were consulted by kings.
analysis, the Christmas Magi would have been practicing a standardized,
Hellenized form of astrology that had become prevalent across the lands of
Greco-Roman influence. Star study of the time didnt separate astrology
and astronomy, and the Magi predicted and tracked the stars, along with
interpreting them. Although developed from various Babylonian, Persian and
Egyptian roots, astrology at the time of Christs birth had settled
into conformity with regard to regal horoscopes, Molnar said.
of conditions were described in ancient writings that were said to reliably
indicate legendary reigns, great monarchs; even emperors of an almost
divine and immortal character, according to the roughly contemporaneous
astrology texts Molnar consulted. Those regal conditions, many of them based
on ancient interpretive principles that go unused today, were satisfied with
abundance on April 17 of 6 B.C. Molnar believes the chart of that day is
what called the Magi to the kingdom of Herod, to pay homage to a king born
not in a palace but in a stable.
That Got Crossed in the Translation
Although most cultures
of the times practiced astrology, and many people thought of the stars as
gods, the Jewish people were a culture apart. As monotheists, they rejected
star worship as idolatry, although some of their scriptural prophecies spoke
of stars as signs of events of great importance. Christianity, sprung from
a savior whose lineage is Biblically traced to the Hebrew King David, likewise
avoided what was considered the idolatry of the pagans. Preaching a religion
that spoke of forgiveness and redemption, the Christians no doubt also sought
to overturn the fatalistic attitude that pervaded many cultures where astrology
reigned. Astrologys connection with the Greek pantheon of gods was
a mark against it for the Church Fathers, and so was astrologers contention
that a star could be malefic. All Gods creation is good,
the early Christian teacher Origen wrote in refutation.
Perusal of the
early Christian writings shows that by the fourth century, after making a
few forays into possible theories, the teachers with authority in the early
Church felt most satisfied explaining the star as a miracle, partly because
its movement, as described in Matthews Gospel, seems supernatural.
Molnar, however, views those same passages of scripture as containing allusions
to the astrological concepts of the Magi. In fact, there are ancient astrological
terms contained in the Biblical description, he said.
As the Bible tells
it, When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King
Herod, behold, Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, Where
is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come
to do him homage. Hearing this, Herod, the puppet king
ruling Judea for the Romans, called together authorities who connected the
sighting of the star to prophecies of the Messiahs birth in Bethlehem.
While Herod plotted, ultimately unsuccessfully, to kill the child, the Magi,
after their long journey from Persia, set out on the short trek from Jerusalem
After their audience
with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its
rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the
child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house
they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did
Molnars research, the Magis original declarations about the star,
and the description of strange movement that follows, are both built on terms
with ancient astrological significance.
Ancient Astrological Details
|The chart of April 17 of 6 B.C., at the point in the day when
the central symbol reached Midheaven.
The chart of April
17 of 6 B.C., as illustrated in Molnars book, brimmed with regal portents
centered on beneficent Jupiter, king among planets. The techniques Molnar
brings to bear in support of his theory are arcane, but seemingly well
documented. In the first place, Jupiter that day was in its heliacal rise,
ascending ahead of the Sun in a precisely calculated position of its strongest
influence. That is what the Magi meant by seeing the star at its
rising, or, as it used to be translated, in the east.
later Jupiter would be the plainly visible morning star as it rose before
the Sun, but on the day of Molnars focus, Jupiters powerful position
was the kind of knowledge only astrologers would have. Jupiter couldnt
be seen because, although far enough out of the Suns rays to be considered
reborn, it still was too close to be visible. It was also exactly
conjunct, in fact covered or occluded, by the Moon.
conjunction of such exactness was a regal sign in ideal form and was said
by one ancient astrologer-turned-Christian, Julius Firmicus Maternus, to
be a sign of rulers of an almost divine and immortal nature.
Whats more, the gathering of the two luminaries, Sun and Moon, with
Jupiter, as appeared that day, was the only sort of triple conjunction that
reliably indicated royalty, according to second-century astrological writings
cited by Molnar.
In addition, the
days sunrise in Aries, together with Jupiters heliacal rise,
created a combination that signified most powerful emperors, just and
fortunate, according to Firmicus.
of the planets, each to the other and within the wheel of the zodiac, further
emphasized the idea of a monarch of divine destiny. All seven of the planets
then known, including the luminaries, arose together like a royal procession,
with everyone in his or her appointed place to ideally protect and attend
the ruler. Molnar matches the planetary positions with the ancients
rules of planetary attendance to illustrate how ideally arranged is the
Indeed, all the
planets were situated in harmonious signs or positions, and even the so-called
malefics, Saturn and Mars, were arranged so that their influences were seen
as serving and protecting the central formation, where the heavens
two lights illuminated Jupiter, the king. The ancients positioned their charts
so that the beginning, or zero degree, of Aries was set at what today is
the fifth degree of the sign, and Molnars reading of the chart reflects
that convention. Also, because there was no year numbered zero, a Julian
year of -5 must be entered in modern computerized astrology programs
to generate a chart like the one Molnar describes.
In astrology, then
as now, certain planets were said to rule certain signs, and triangles of
signs were related to each other in the wheel of 12 signs. Today these different
sets of trine signs are described as earth, air, fire and water
trines, but in those days, the elements were not yet associated with them.
What was important was for planets to be located in compatible signs in their
appropriate trines. To have planets that were rulers of the trines well-located
within their trines was a very good sign. The chart of April 17 of 6 B.C.
was replete with optimally placed trine rulers and other signs of well-ordered
planets, happy in their heavenly abodes. Venus was exalted in the sign of
Pisces, exuding good will to all. The Sun was exalted in Aries, and the royal
procession was centered there.
The sign of Aries
is key, Molnar said, because it told the Magi where the king was born. Some
might think the tribal symbolism of the Lion of Judah would translate into
Leo as the astrological symbol for the Jews, and modern astrologers love
to associate Jesus with Pisces, seen as a sign of transcendence and peace,
but Molnar said there is no evidence for either of those in the astrology
of the ancients. Aries is the only documented sign associated in ancient
astrology with the people in Judea. The astrological texts of Julius Claudius
Ptolemy pinpoint the geographical association, confirmed by another ancient
astrologer and the symbolism of ancient coins.
Retrograde Creeps into Scripture
If Jupiter in its
heliacal rise in Aries, supported by all the host of heaven, served as the
Star of Bethlehem that sent the Magi on their journey, why does the Bible
seem to indicate that the star precedes them, literally leading the way,
at least at their journeys end? Molnar draws his answer again from
the translation of a term.
In its Greek version,
the gospel account of how the Magis star went before meshes
with terms the Magi-astrologers used to describe a planets retrograde
motion, when it appears from Earth to go backwards in its orbit. Jupiter,
the star at the heart of the regal April horoscope, went before
on a retrograde course in August 6 B.C., re-entering Aries and stationing
there December 19, a stationing that Ptolemys text indicates would
bestow blessings upon the Judean region represented by Aries. Jupiters
retrograde back into Aries and stationing there could explain the Biblical
description of a star that went before and stopped to mark the place, bringing
the Magi great joy at the end of their journey.
has found support among academics and has been reported, in simplified form,
by mainstream news outlets including CNN and ABC News. It remains to be seen
whether his ancient astrological findings can earn widespread acceptance
among those who traditionally celebrate the birth of Jesus either on Christmas,
December 25, or those, like the Orthodox, who combine the birth celebration
with the Epiphany, the January 6 holiday associated with the visit of the
Magi. Modern astrologers, steeped in their own sense of what the astral patterns
mean, might be another tough crowd to win over. But Molnars carefully
documented approach provides an eloquent and coherent theory explaining how
the stars of 6 B.C. could have spelled out the birth announcement of a newborn
king of the Jews, worthy of adoration, in the eyes of the