The Bethlehem Star

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem saying, Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?  For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him.  Matthew 2:1-2.

And having heard the king,[Herod], they went their way; and lo, the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.  And they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshiped Him.  Matthew 2:9-11

A number of decades ago, when I had just begun my walk as a Christian, I was very interested in non-Biblical evidences for Biblical events.  Thus, I found the book “The Bible as History” which makes the case that the Magi saw conjunctions of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C.  This “star” had astrological significance that directed them to Jerusalem.  This is the most popular view today and I held it until I started writing this article and dug a lot deeper.  I am now persuaded that it was NOT conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C. that the Magi saw, but conjunctions of Jupiter and Venus in 3 B.C. and 2 B.C.  My conclusion is based on astronomy, secular history, the scholarship of others, and the accounts in Matthew chapter 2, and Luke chapter 2.

Here is my understanding of the likely sequence of events:

Luke:  Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register for the census.

Matthew:  On August 12th 3 B.C., the Magi in Babylon see a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus, looking east, just before dawn.  They plan a trip west, to Jerusalem.

Luke:  Jesus is born – perhaps on the same day the Magi saw the conjunction.  The shepherds leave their sheep in the fields and find the newborn Jesus as the angels had said.  Eight days later Jesus is circumcised.  Forty days after his birth, he is dedicated and blessed in the temple in Jerusalem.

Matthew:  About 10 months after Jesus’ birth, the Magi arrive in Jerusalem inquiring about the birth of a king.  They meet with Herod and the scribes and are directed to Bethlehem, five miles south.  On the evening of June 17th 2 B.C., they enter Bethlehem and see Jupiter and Venus merge, appearing as one VERY bright star.  It is low in the west, setting over the house where they find Jesus, now a toddler.  And they worship Him.

Matthew:  The next day the Magi head home by a different route, having been warned in a dream.  The day after that, Joseph heads for Egypt with Mary and the Christ Child to escape Herod’s soldiers who kill all the boys under two years.  They return to Nazareth after Herod dies.

Contemporary history:  Herod dies sometime between January 10th 1 B.C. and April 6th 1 B.C.

I cannot prove what the Magi actually saw or did, but I believe the above timeline provides a reasonable agreement among the Biblical account, the two conjunctions, and historical knowledge of people and places.  If in fact the above timeline is possible and plausible, it gives credence to the historicity of the Biblical account of the Wise men.  Note: I’m not into astrology, but the Magi were, and that led them to Jerusalem and to the Scriptures which led them to Bethlehem and the Christ Child.

Additional notes that were not in the 1/2/21 Gazette Times article.

  1. I would encourage you to read carefully the full accounts of Matthew 2:1-23, and Luke 2:1-40.
  2. Summary of the timeline. There were two conjunctions of Jupiter and Venus; the first occurred at or near Jesus birth and the visit of the shepherds.  It was what motivated the Magi to travel to Jerusalem.  The second conjunction occurred ten months later, when the Magi arrived in Bethlehem.  Following that were the flight to Egypt and the death of Herod about nine months later.
  3. This integrated timeline helps us understand the different accounts of Matthew and Luke. Matthew doesn’t mention the shepherds, and Luke doesn’t mention the Magi nor the flight to Egypt.  Taken properly together they give us a complete picture.
  4. “Sheep were in the fields”. Not in pens or pastures.  Sheep were typically in the fields in late Summer or early Fall.  This is consistent with a birth in August of 3 B.C.
  5. The Magi from the east. The Magi were from Babylon or Persia.  It’s generally acknowledged that they were astrologers.  The text says that they saw something ‘east’ of them yet they traveled west, to Jerusalem.  The event had some astrological significance.  Namely, a child has been born, he’s a king, and He’s of the Jews.  [The words, “seen His star in the east” do not mean “we were in the east when we saw it.”  The words “in the east” mean literally, in the ‘rising’, or at dawning.]
  6. A close conjunction. On June 17th 2 B.C. at 9:15 pm, Jupiter and Venus were very close, about the diameter of Jupiter, and 15 degrees above the horizon – very low in the west.  A conjunction of Jupiter and Venus that close, is quite rare.  It has only happened a handful of times since, and those times were not visible in the Middle East.
  7. “The Star ‘stood’ over where the Child was.”  The Greek word for “stood” may be translated in the sense of “set”, as in “Jesus ‘set’ a child before him”.  So the joined planets appeared to be ‘set’ just above the roof of the house and soon disappeared below the horizon.  They did not “stand still”.
  8. According to this scenario, the Magi took ten months to arrive in Jerusalem. Why so long?  I don’t know.  Perhaps to wait until the “king” was a little older?  Perhaps for preparation and travel time.
  9. Herod’s death in 1 B.C. The date of Herod’s death is important in determining the date of Jesus birth because Jesus was born before Herod died.  If Herod died in 4 B.C. then we can only consider conjunctions prior to then.
  10. Josephus the Jewish historian. Josephus wrote that Herod’s death was between a lunar eclipse and a Passover.  This situation occurred in 4 B.C. and also in 1 B.C.  There are various arguments supporting the 4 B.C. date of his death.  That date has been persuasively challenged in the last century. The strongest argument against the 4 B.C. date is as follows:  In the 4 B.C. ‘eclipse-Passover’ situation there are only 29 days between the eclipse and Passover.  In that time period the following events had to have happened:  the execution by Herod of two prominent rabbis, a worsening of his sickness, a trip to Jericho to seek healing in the baths, his return to Jerusalem, his assembly of all the elders of Judea to be executed upon his death, his execution of one of his sons for rebelliousness, his own death 5 days later, his funeral procession to a site 25 miles away, and the coronation of another of his sons.  There is not adequate time for all of those events to have taken place in the 29 days between the eclipse and the Passover of 4 B.C.  On the other hand, the 1 B.C. lunar eclipse and Passover are separated by twelve and a half weeks which is adequate time for those events.  That would place the death of Herod in the Spring of 1 B.C. and allow for consideration of the Jupiter – Venus conjunctions of 3 and 2 B.C.
  11. The recent conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, (12/21/20), generated a lot of “Bethlehem Star” interest. Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions occurred three times in 7 B.C., and similar Jupiter – Saturn conjunctions have been suggested as the “Bethlehem Star” over the centuries.  According to the scenario I have presented, the December 21st 2020 Jupiter-Saturn conjunction was NOT a “Bethlehem Star” event.
  12. In the timeline presented, I have sought to go no further than what the data reasonably supports. Thus, I cannot say with confidence that Jesus was born at the time the Magi saw the first Jupiter-Venus conjunction.  I have not appealed to arcane and speculative Babylonian astrology, except to the extent that the Magi saw something that had astrological significance to them.  I have not suggested interpretations that require the miraculous, such as “the Magi followed a light that only they could see”.  I am indebted to the work that many others have done, though their conclusions often vary considerably from one another and from mine.
  13. I believe that what I’ve presented is a possible and plausible sequence of events, and that the accounts of Matthew and Luke are neither myth, nor fable, but in fact are accurate historical accounts.
  14. I’m sorry that this is so involved. Does someone want to create a graphic to better illustrate this?

Gilbert Smith