Part Three: What the Magi Saw
By Jesus’ time, the average person was familiar with the incredibly dark, night sky. The movement of the Sun controlled their yearly rhythms of life, and the starlight provided entertainment. Sometimes there were “hairy stars” or comets, and the flashing needles of light were called “meteors” by the Greeks, and word that means “things in the air.”
The writers of the Bible often put astronomical phenomenon in their story to enrichen the message. Light, itself, is the purest form of God, just as Jesus is often referred to as “the Light.”
Phenomenon in the sky was watched by all but interpreted by just a few. In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2, we are told:
“In the time of King Herod after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, Wise Men from the east came to Jerusalem asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.”
But King Herod, whose death is a key to the Nativity story, summoned the Wise Men to ask them where he could find the “Star.” Clearly, King Herod couldn’t see it from his back porch, though he obviously looked.
Matthew 2:7: “Then Herod secretly called for the Wise Men and learned from them the exact time when the “Star” had appeared.”
Herod, fearing the birth of a Messiah to rob him of his power, sent the Wise Men to Bethlehem as his emissaries.
Matthew 2:9-10: “…they set out, and there ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”
The Wise Men were warned in a dream not to return to King Herod, he was going to kill them. They left for their country after offering the baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Those three gifts mentioned in the Bible create the symbol of three Wise Men. But there may have been a half-dozen “Magi,” along with their caravan of camels, servants and probably a harem mate or two.
A mad King Herod, betrayed by the Wise Men, made a horrible decree:
Matthew 2:16: “Herod ordered killed all the male children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the Wise Men.”
The story of the Nativity and the Star of Bethlehem ends here and has no other written account of the Wise Men exists.
So, what exactly did the Wise Men see? And just who are these Wise Men, or Magi, described in the Book of Matthew?
The three other Gospels—Mark, Luke and John—document Jesus’ days on Earth but are absent of any reference to the Star of Bethlehem, probably second only to the Cross as the most identifiable Christian symbol.
The Book of Luke mentions that shepherds are tending their flocks at night when visited by angels. So that tells us that it was the spring of the year, when shepherds were outside with the newborns, looking for preying wolves. Shepherds certainly weren’t outside in December, when it’s rainy and cold.
Just because no observations from the common people exists of the “Star” doesn’t mean normal villagers didn’t see it. The mystery is solved by interpreting where the planets and Moon were during the decade before Jesus’ birth in the ancient Holy Land.
A planetarium program used on any desk or laptop computer—available free on the Internet—can take the 21st Century stargazer back in time. (check out free download at Stellarium.org)
And when looking at the stars and planets in the timeframe of Jesus’ birth there are revealed some unusual and rare planetary groupings that would turn many heads to the western twilight horizon.
Because of the laws of physics, planetary motion is predictable to the second in the future and in the past. And with a simple computer program, the amazing story of the Star of Bethlehem begins to make sense.
First, what year do we set in our planetarium “time machine?”
The exact year of Jesus’ birth is a mystery. It certainly wasn’t “Zero.” A big clue is that King Herod had to be alive, of course. The Roman historian Josephus wrote that Herod died after and eclipse of the Moon. That date is either the lunar eclipse of March 13th 4 BC, or January 9th, 1 BC. And remember that King Herod had all boys age 2 or under slaughtered. That adds a couple of years to our date for Jesus’ birth.
So, Jesus was born in the spring between the years of 6 BC-3 BC and could have been a toddler when visited by the Wise Men.
The “time machine” planetarium program will look at the skies from 10 to 1 BC to find prime targets for the “Star of Bethlehem.” And there are plenty of starry suspects in the early evening involving the two brightest planets, Jupiter and Venus. In fact, some of the planetary positions displayed in the skies during this timeframe are extremely rare and have yet to be repeated in night skies 2,000 years later.
Start out with the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 11 BC. Then in 7 BC, Jupiter and Venus, the two brightest planets, were grouped in Pisces, a constellation that controlled the destiny of the Hebrews.
Jupiter was associated with royalty and their affairs in business and life. Venus’ pure while light was a symbol of purity and fertility of life. The 12 Houses of the Zodiac, where the planets, Moon and Sun were always found, were founded by ancient stargazers to imply significant meaning to Earth.
Then, in 6 BC, for the first time in 800 years, Jupiter, Saturn and reddish Mars—a conquering warrior—were clustered near each other in Pisces, a constellation symbolic with water and life. In 5 BC, the Chinese recorded a small comet, but whether it was observed from the Shinar Plains is not known.
From 3-2 BC, the big celestial climax begins. The most amazing alignment of planets occurred that has not been repeated since.
In May 3 BC, Saturn and Mercury were in the morning sky, and Venus soon joined them in the star pattern Cancer the Crab. The close conjunction of the three planets was obviously watched by Priest-Astrologers everywhere.
In August 3 BC, Saturn and Mercury left the scene, but Jupiter was closing in on Venus in the morning sky. Months later, they dipped together below the morning horizon, only to reappear together in the evening sky.
In June 1 BC, Venus and Jupiter—simply brilliant by themselves in today’s skies—moved even closer together in the constellation of Leo the Lion, always associated with the fate of empires. The bright star of Leo, named Regulus, was nearby when a miracle seemed to happen in the western sky of early summer evenings.
Venus and Jupiter continued moving closer, which would have drawn attention from anyone looking at the twilight horizon, and then actually merged as one! The exact date is June 17th 1 BC. There would have been a spectacular, super bright “star” seen by all who looked up in the evening sky. It was probably visible daytime for those knowing where to look. But the interpreted was reserved for the Priest/Stargazers of the time.
The incredible fusing of Jupiter and Venus as one—merely an illusion as they were hundreds of millions of miles apart—would have lasted a few hours and was visible from only the ancient Plains of Shinar. Other parts of the world saw the two planets come close to each other, but not merge as one. (Such a “conjunction” of Venus and Jupiter occurred in July 2016, but the modern world took little notice).
The ancient sky show wasn’t done yet. In August of 1 BC, the evening twilight was filled with four planets—Mercury and Mars popped over the western horizon to join Venus and Jupiter. And Leo’s mighty star, Regulus, made five bright “stars” hovering over the twilight horizon.
Such a quadruple conjunction of planets in Leo is a 5-8,000-year event, and the Zoroastrian Priest-Astrologers of Persia would have been beyond interested in the celestial events. To them, the Hebrew prophecy of a Messiah might be happening.
And so is the story of the starry skies during the birth of the Christian savoir, Jesus Christ. It’s a long, complicated story that just a few lines of the Bible treating as a passing thought.
Maybe mankind will never know exactly the true nature of the Star of Bethlehem, unless some book of hidden Biblical knowledge is discovered with all the answers.
But that doesn’t matter. The fact that God used the stars and planets He created to orchestrate a celestial sign to humans, heralding the Messiah, is the undisputed fact.
The science behind the Star of Bethlehem doesn’t matter for Christian believers. The saving grace of Jesus Christ is the message that is important to the world.
The light of this special astronomical event—the Star of Bethlehem—has a meaning for humanity that will shine forever.