December 2002 A Conscious Evolution Newsletter
The Star of Bethlehem
in the Eyes of the Magi
Holiday Recipe Swap
Walking Softly
Upon the Earth
Metamorphosis Writing
Contest Final Entries
Sun In Hindu Mythology
The Secret of the I-Ching
December Star Watch
Conscious Community
Interactive Calendar
Book Review
Newsletter committee, writers, & contact info
Index of All Articles
Volume 1, Number 4

Opinions presented in Metamorphosis are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of others associated with the newsletter.

The Star of Bethlehem in the Eyes of the Magi

By Maria Barron

The 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 Magi’s 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 Magi’s 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 Magi’s 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 Kepler’s 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 Christ’s 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.

A Historical View of the Magi’s 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 don’t 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 Magi.

Sometimes described in Christian literature as the Wise Men and sometimes, erroneously, as Three Kings, the Magi were clearly astrologers, according to recent scholarship reflected in today’s Bibles. Magi in the Roman times of Christ’s 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.

In Molnar’s 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 didn’t 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 Christ’s birth had settled into conformity with regard to regal horoscopes, Molnar said.

A number 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.

A Star 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. Astrology’s 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 God’s 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 Matthew’s 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 Messiah’s 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 to Bethlehem.

“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 him homage.”

According to Molnar’s research, the Magi’s original declarations about the star, and the description of strange movement that follows, are both built on terms with ancient astrological significance.

The 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 Molnar’s 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.”

A week later Jupiter would be the plainly visible morning star as it rose before the Sun, but on the day of Molnar’s focus, Jupiter’s powerful position was the kind of knowledge only astrologers would have. Jupiter couldn’t be seen because, although far enough out of the Sun’s 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.

A Moon-Jupiter 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.” What’s 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 day’s sunrise in Aries, together with Jupiter’s heliacal rise, created a combination that signified “most powerful emperors, just and fortunate,” according to Firmicus.

The relationships 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 lineup.

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 Molnar’s 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.

A Planetary 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 journey’s end? Molnar draws his answer again from the translation of a term.

In its Greek version, the gospel account of how the Magi’s star “went before” meshes with terms the Magi-astrologers used to describe a planet’s 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 Ptolemy’s text indicates would bestow blessings upon the Judean region represented by Aries. Jupiter’s 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.

Molnar’s theory 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 Molnar’s 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 Magi.