It seems nearly every Christmas season is accompanied by news from astronomers that they’ve found the source for the story of the Christmas star. The star, you’ll recall, is reported in Matthew’s Gospel as an unusual heavenly occurrence that guided the Magi, wise men from the East, toward Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem:
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and are come to worship him.’” (Matt. 2:1-2).
This Christmas is no different, since CNN recently reported in tremulous tones, that “Jesus was born in June!” The story was based on Britain’s Daily Telegraph report of Dec. 9, 2008, that “Australian astronomer Dave Reneke used complex computer software” to discover that “Venus and Jupiter became very close in the year 2 BC and they would have appeared to be one bright beacon of light … This could well have been what the three wise men interpreted as a sign. They could easily have mistaken it for one bright star.” Reneke speculates Jesus was born on June 17, 2 B.C.
To begin with, let’s dispel the notion that Jesus was born on Dec. 25:
First, Mary and Joseph were on the road to fulfill a census call for taxing (Luke 2:1-6). A census would have been very impractical in winter.
Second, shepherds were pasturing their flocks in fields that night (Luke 2:8). December is way too cold for grazing in Bethlehem. The shepherds would be down by the Dead Sea at that time of year (I’ve camped in both places in winter — even a sheep would appreciate the difference in temperature.)
Third, no astrological event matches Dec. 25, and it does not correspond to John the Baptist’s birth in any way (see below).
Finally, Dec. 25 was established as Jesus’ birthday around 354 to usurp sun worship and the birth of the “Invincible Sun’ Mithras, a Roman holiday timed to celebrate the lengthening of daylight hours. (This is not the only time Christians have borrowed pagan festivals, or sacred sites, for our own advantage). The first Christ Mass was officiated by Pope Sixtus III in 435.
A Google search on Jesus’ birth date reveals this topic has been well chewed for many years.
Among the factors Mr. Reneke did not consider were the death date of Herod (4 BC), the birth date of John the Baptist (six months before Jesus, according to the Bible), and references in Luke to John’s father, Zechariah, a Temple priest, whose duties tied him to the Temple in December and June. (It was during his duties in the Temple that the angel Gabriel told him his wife would give birth to John.)
People with more patience than I have calculated from Zechariah’s work schedule that John must have been born in the spring or the fall, with a preference for April, placing Jesus’ birth date in September or October. The Jewish Feast of the Tabernacles (Sukkoth) is a symbolically favorite date for many faithful. There are even some lunar eclipses around those dates that many see as an acceptable heavenly sign — not to mention speculations about a one-time comet or a supernova, of which Mr. Reneke’s “complex software” would have no record.
But wait a minute, sez [sic] I. The most important factor in all this sky-speculation has been overlooked by most; that is, the Magi were wise men. And wise in what? Why, astrology, of course!
Astrology is a subject taboo to many Christians. They see it as superstition, or even as something evil. Never mind that the Magi read Jesus’ birth in the stars. On that point, the Bible confirms the wisdom of their astrology, even as they came to lay that wisdom at Jesus’ feet, and worship him. They probably traveled from Babylon, where there were more Jews in those days than in Palestine. The Magi even may have been Jewish rabbi astrologers. (I was not surprised to see mosaic depictions of the zodiac at some synagogue excavations in Israel.)
Now with all of this in mind, consider the speculations of Michael R. Molnar. In his book, “The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi,” Molnar provides an astrological answer to what actually put those wise men on the long road from Babylon to Bethlehem. They were no dummies, to be fooled by a conjunction of planets, or by comets or eclipses (generally considered ominous portents). The Magi read the astrological meaning of the particular movements of Jupiter in Aries, in close conjunctions with the moon.
Molnar writes: “There is confirmation from a Roman astrologer that the conditions of April 17, 6 B.C., were believed to herald the birth of a divine, immortal, and omnipotent person born under the sign of the Jews, which we now know was Aries the Ram. Furthermore, the coins of Antioch [depicting a bright star in Aries] and ancient astrological documents show that there was indeed a Star of Bethlehem as reported in the biblical account of Matthew.”
For Molnar, April 17, 6 B.C., fits as the birthday of Jesus, and it’s the best theory I’ve seen so far. For those who’d like to learn more, check out Molnar’s Web site, www.eclipse.net/~molnar/, where you can read some interesting Q’s and A’s, and order his book, if you want. And for those with satellite TV, tune in the Science Channel at 9 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 21, for a show titled “The Star of Bethlehem.”
Or don’t. None of this is necessary to your love of God or the spirit of Christmas. But you have to admit, it is fascinating to see how intelligent exploration of Bible truths can bring sudden, logical confirmation of their authenticity. Merry Christmas!
Lee Witting is pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.