“Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
Thus was the question posed by the Magi upon arrival in Jerusalem, presumably to Herod, the king in situ at the time.
What had they seen? Why did they come to Jerusalem? It makes sense that, if they were looking for the King of the Jews, they would go to Jerusalem. But how did they know that a king had been born? A King who would be “King of the Jews?” What did they see?
Fred Larson got interested in that question after setting up Christmas decorations on the lawn with his daughter, Marian. She’d wanted three wise men in the yard and then said, “Daddy, make a star!” What’s a dad to do? He made a star.
But that got him thinking. Well …what was the star? When he came across a science article by a Ph.D. astronomer who took the position that the Bethlehem star had been a real astronomical event, he set out to investigate this puzzle.
He went to the book of Matthew, specifically chapter two, and, paying careful attention to every word, noted nine data points about the star, according to what Matthew had recorded:
- It indicated a birth.
- It had to do with the Jewish nation.
- It had to do with kingship.
- The magi saw the star in the east.
- They had come to worship the king.
- Herod asked the magi when the star appeared. This indicates that he hadn’t seen it or otherwise been made aware of it, implying that the star was not overly striking in the sky. It did not command attention, except to those who were looking with a certain wisdom and knew what to look for.
- It appeared at a specific time.
- It went ahead of the magi as they traveled to Bethlehem from Jerusalem.
- It stopped over Bethlehem.
This was a considerable amount of data to work with, but it presented quite a puzzle. He bought an astronomy software package and started studying the sky. Because of the extreme precision of planetary motion, modern software allows us to see not just snapshots but simulated animations of the night sky from any point on the globe at any time in history.
He quickly ruled out a shooting star, a comet, and an exploding star or nova as explanations for the Bethlehem star because they didn’t fit the data recorded by Matthew. That still left another class of stars, however: the planets, which at that time were called “wandering stars.” The word “planet” comes from the Greek verb for “to wander,” and the planets were called that because they “wandered around” in the sky against a backdrop of apparently fixed stars.
Might one of the planets have something to do with the star? Larson, an attorney skilled in analytical thinking, proceeded with this as his working hypothesis.
He zeroed in quickly on Jupiter, the largest planet, named after the highest god in the Roman pantheon, which has been known as the “King Planet” from ancient times. Magi watching the night sky from Babylon would have seen Jupiter rise in the east and then form a conjunction with a star called Regulus (which also means “king”) maybe 2-3 times in their lifetime. It would be a notable occurrence, but not an exceedingly rare event.
Larson pressed on. As planets wander across the sky, he discovered, they will at times go into what astronomers call retrograde motion. They will make what appears to be an about-face loop and then continue on their way. They aren’t really reversing or looping, but viewed from Earth this is what the path looks like; this is because from Earth we view it from a moving platform. He looked at Jupiter’s retrograde motion with respect to Regulus and discovered that on very rare occasions, Jupiter does what appears to be a triple loop around Regulus. One of those conjunctions occurred in September of 3 BC on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
Now this is something to sit up and take notice of – the King planet forming a conjunction with the King star, even drawing a celestial “halo” around it. This event would have been exceedingly rare and would certainly have captured the attention of watchful stargazers. But would it really move them to mount their camels and take a 700-mile journey across the desert to Jerusalem?
Probably not, but there was still more going on. Babylonian astronomers were well familiar with the constellations of the zodiac – the same ones by which astrologers today make inane predictions. Larson “turned on” the constellations (meaning he had the software draw them out and label them on the screen), and he watched the September, 3 BC retrograde pattern Jupiter displayed with respect to Regulus against the backdrop of the constellations.
What he discovered was a remarkable display involving the constellations Virgo – the virgin – and Leo – the Lion (the lion symbolizing the kingly Jewish tribe of Judah, from which the Messiah was to come). For someone studied in Jewish history and Messianic prophecies, the symbolism would have been stunning.
Larson asked still another question. What if this Rosh Hashanah celestial display was the announcement in the stars, not of the birth of the Messiah, but of his conception? He ran the software forward nine months to see what the sky looked like then. What he found pretty much rocked his world, and I can’t do it justice in an ordinary written blog post. You’ll have to watch the presentation (and I highly recommend you do, you can get it from his website or Netflix) to see it all play out.
But I will leave you with this: Never be afraid to press the Scriptures and investigate the universe. You will find that the heavens indeed declare the glory of God, and all the Earth sings his praises.
And these: according to Starry Night astronomy software here are three astronomical occurrences that took place during the years 3-2 BC:
- In September, 3 BC, during Rosh Hashanna, Jupiter “crowned” Regulus in the constellation Leo.
- In June, 2 BC, the king planet, Jupiter, and the mother planet, Venus, formed a conjunction, creating the brightest star anyone on earth would ever see.
- In December, 2 BC, Jupiter went into a small retrograde loop in the southern sky, meaning it would appear to be stopped over Bethlehem if you were looking at it from Jerusalem.