In our modern and digitally connected world, billions of voices speak simultaneously and seek the attention of and adoration from an anonymous audience. It is hard to imagine a self-absorbed society like this would care about a story that is more than 2000 years old and by all appearances, culturally irrelevant. Despite this, more than two millennia after it happened, the story of the Star of Bethlehem is still guiding the curious to a deeper appreciation of long-known truths for some, and newfound ones for others. For me, the investigation and analysis of the Star of Bethlehem led to the discovery of a hidden road to a deeper truth.  

In my former life, I worked in a once great museum. Under a giant white dome, the museum had a fully digital planetarium that was state of the art then, and I was the manager of that technological marvel. It was my job to run all the daily shows and give lectures on astronomical topics. The museum was staffed largely by secular folks. Both myself and the director of the planetarium were atheists. We were both very well versed in astronomical and astrophysical sciences and we both looked scornfully at faith-based interpretations of scientific subjects. Nearing Christmas in 2010, I was asked by the director of the planetarium if I would be willing to create a show about the Star of Bethlehem.



For me, I was more intrigued by the challenge of making and presenting the show than I was by the content itself. I accepted the director’s request and started my research on the “star” and what it logically could have been. 


The first challenge I faced nearly broke the show. In my research, I had learned about a series of interesting conjunctions between planets and stars that occurred between 7 and 2 BC. When I entered the dates of the events, the sky in my planetarium revealed nothing unusual or interesting. Every date I entered revealed the same uninteresting arrangements of celestial bodies. Then I realized that the Gregorian calendar does not acknowledge a year zero, but astronomical calculations of time do. So, when adjustments were made, the fascinating conjunctions that I failed to see before finally showed up. Impressively too, once you understand how rare they are. 



Realizing that there really was an incredible confluence of astronomical events occurring in the skies between 7 and 2 BC, I sought a deeper understanding of those who witnessed the events and what they meant to them. What I discovered was a fascinating convergence of astronomy, history and Biblical prophecy that made not only a fascinating show but offered a curiously accurate explanation for something that was considered an unprovable myth by the public.  


To make the show, my goal was to forensically gather relevant data and provide the most probable explanation of what happened in the sky and how it was interpreted by the educated contemporaries of the day. This meant that I was going to exclude the usual explanations, or the parade of unlikely celestial suspects that are offered in traditional planetarium shows about the Star of Bethlehem, i.e., exploding stars, comets, or other unrelated astronomical phenomena.  


The show I created ended up becoming wildly successful. The accurate portrayal of the astronomical data, built upon a historical understanding of the ancient people making the observations allowed me to walk a very thin line between science and faith. The faith-based audiences that filled the sold out shows year after year, had no idea that the guy giving the show, the guy they were giving a standing ovation to, was an atheist.  


Interestingly, secular planetariums are where most people of faith get their understanding of the Star of Bethlehem. That is because the planetarium’s nature and purpose is to accurately show the sky and many of the objects seen in it, at any given time in recent history, and 15 years ago a planetarium was the only place anyone could see it. It is no wonder then that most people do not have a clear understanding of what happened 2000 years ago in the skies above ancient Babylon. Today, with modern software that is freely available, anyone can replicate an accurate view of the sky from the Earth throughout human history, from their own computer, sans the immersive experience that a planetarium can provide. 


To comprehend the significance of celestial events on the minds of the ancient observers requires us to “un-know” things we know as truth today. For instance, today we know Jupiter is a gas giant planet, the largest planet in the solar system, or that Saturn is a ringed world, etc. The astrologers of the ancient world, who had no telescopes at their disposal, would only have known that the sky was full of stars, and the brightest of these stars moved across the sky, back and forth in a seemingly unpredictable way.


Those moving or wandering bright stars were called planetes, or “wanderers” in Greek. Those celestial wanderers traversed the sky like the arms of a clock, passing by 12 familiar constellations instead of the 12 numerals on the face of a clock. Their unique quality of motion and the places where they passed earned them names that would become associated with gods, kings, empires, and the fate of humankind. As they danced through the constellations, astrologers used the planets’ actions to foretell the fate of kings and empires.


Sometimes these wandering stars would pass remarkably close to each other in events called conjunctions. These close interactions and the frequency of them would determine meaning in the interpretations of the astrologers. To the astrological observers of the ancient world, the skies between 7 and 2 BC revealed an incredible collection of extremely rare celestial events that undoubtedly led to profound interpretations by those who paid attention to them.  


In the 43rd year of the Julian calendar, the ancient world was experiencing the pinnacle of one of the last great empires. In 2 BC, the Roman empire was having its 750th anniversary. This anniversary also coincided with the silver jubilee, or the 25th year of Augustus Caesar, Rome’s first Emperor and Pax Romana, or the golden age of Roman power. It was in February of 2 BC that Augustus Caesar was awarded the title of Pater Patriae, or ‘Father of the Country.’  



Rome’s empire extended from western Europe to the Arabian Peninsula and the Caspian Sea. Astrologers across the entire Roman empire would have seen the stunning celestial events that occurred between 7 and 2 BC and would have been unable to conclude anything other than that the heavens appeared to be affirming Roman power.  


Far to the east and out of the reach of Roman influence was Babylon. It is here that the best astrologers in the world were known to be. These eastern astrologers were called the Magi. These Magi were from the Chaldean order that once served the Babylonian kings. They were made up of the most educated and knowledgeable people. Among them were astrologers who studied, observed and interpreted the motion of the planets amongst the stars and constellations. Why would these eastern astrologers look at the same stars and planets between 7 and 2 BC and see Jewish Messianic prophecy instead of the more obvious connection to Roman power? 




Nearly 600 years earlier when Rome was barely a blip on the map, the fledgling neo-Babylonian empire led by Nebuchadnezzar sacked and destroyed Jerusalem and its temple, leaving it a pile of rubble. Nebuchadnezzar also took the last king of Judah, along with the entire city’s population as hostages back to Babylon, ending the Jewish kingdom and beginning the Babylonian Exile. One of those Jewish hostages was very well educated and thus found himself serving as one of Nebuchadnezzar’s advisors. His name was Daniel. 




While still in training at the Chaldean academies, Daniel proves his worth to Nebuchadnezzar who had just condemned his Magi to death for failing to interpret his dreams. By interpreting the king’s dream, Daniel’s prophetic skills not only earn him the undying devotion of his fellow Magi after Nebuchadnezzar spares them, but Nebuchadnezzar also appoints Daniel to the head of the Magi Order. A Jewish prophet was now leading the Chaldean order of the Magi and influencing their prophetic philosophy.  


In 7 BC, after 546 years of waiting, the Magi were seeing the signs in the sky that foretold of the Messianic arrival. 



It begins in 7 BC, with a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces. To the Magi, Jupiter is seen as the Planet of Kings, and Saturn is known as the Protector of the Jews. Pisces represents the constellation of the fish. Fish in ancient culture represented fertility. Three times during the year, Jupiter appeared to move towards Saturn, get close and then move away, only to return. A triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces happens once every 900 years. For the Magi, they saw three meetings of the Planet of Kings with the Protector of the Jews, in the constellation associated with fertility. This could be a sign to the Magi that a Jewish King is coming.  


In 6 BC, there was a massing of the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, where the planets are all seen as a small tight group. This would reveal itself to astrologers as a heavenly agreement of purpose. The Planet of Kings, The Protector of the Jews, and Mars come together. Mars was known in the Babylonian world as Nergal, or the god of inflicted death. One can imagine the “purpose” that this might represent to the Magi.  


While those celestial sights would have been significant, the real fireworks occur between 3 and 2 BC.  


In May of 3 BC, Saturn the Protector of the Jews, and Mercury, or Nabu the heavenly scribe who writes down the destiny of man, come together in a close conjunction in the constellation of Taurus, also known as the Bull of Heaven.  

The next month in the early morning sky of June of 3 BC, Saturn and Venus come together in a remarkably close conjunction. To the Magi, after meeting with Nabu in May, the Protector of the Jews is now meeting Venus, or Inanna, the Babylonian goddess of reproductive love and fertility, in the Bull of Heaven.  



Two months later, a spectacular pairing of Jupiter and Venus light up the early morning sky in August of 3 BC. The Magi see the Planet of Kings and the Goddess of Fertility come together in an extremely close conjunction in the royal constellation of Leo, also known as the Lion of Judah, the fallen kingdom of the Jews. This is the “star” that is mentioned in Matthew 2:2, “Where Is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the east at its rising and have come to worship Him.”  



The next month in September of 3 BC, the Planet of Kings meets with the brightest star in the Lion of Judah, Regulus in the 1st of 3 close conjunctions. The 2nd and 3rd conjunctions occur in February and May of 2 BC. Regulus’ name in Latin means “little king” or “prince.” To the Babylonian Magi, it was the “royal star” in the Lion of Judah. Now it appeared to the Magi that the Planet of Kings was circling around and drawing attention to the Royal Star. Like a bell ringing, this was a celestial birth announcement to the Chaldean astrologers that the Jewish Messiah has been born. 



To punctuate this announcement in a truly spectacular way, after the 3rd conjunction of Planet of Kings and Regulus, Venus appears to rise out of the western sky at sunset. In the early evening sky of June 17, 2 BC, The Planet of Kings and the Planet of Love and Fertility meet in a second and even more spectacular conjunction that creates for one brief night, the brightest object seen in the sky, outside of the Sun or the Moon. This dazzlingly bright object is seen in the Lion of Judah, affirming for the Magi that the King of Jews is born. This astonishing object is a momentary “Star” that spoke to the Magi and revealed the birth of a King.  



After seeing these signs in the sky, the Magi, believing prophecy was being fulfilled, were compelled to make their way to Judea to honor the newborn King. Before the Magi can follow His star, they witness another massing of the planets. This time, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, and Mars gather in a tight group low in the eastern morning sky. To the Magi- Kings, Love, Destiny, and Danger meet to finalize the arrangement.  


From August through to winter, Jupiter continued west across the sky, leading the Magi westward. In December of 2 BC, Jupiter even stood still for 6 days, adding legitimacy to another hard to validate claim. Matthew 2:9, “After they heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” If one were standing in Jerusalem on a chilly and early winter morning and looking south towards Bethlehem, Jupiter would have been in the southern sky, and for 6 days in December, beginning on the 25th, Jupiter was in retrograde motion and would have appeared to stand still.  



The Magi waited hundreds of years to play their small but essential role. Despite the power and might of the Roman empire, more than 2000 years later, the celestial events of 7 to 2 BC are remembered for a much greater gift to humanity than concrete and calendars. The Magi were the heralds that announced to the world and to history, that the King had arrived.  



I am no longer an atheist. If spirituality and faith were a continent like North America, then the story of the Star of Bethlehem has been my Route 66, taking me from one side to the other, meandering from one truth to another, connecting me with my Creator in an authentic way I never imagined.  


Howard Hochhalter

December 23, 2022

To see an interactive timeline of history, astronomy and Biblical events, click here.

Star of Bethlehem Timeline – Timeline

Eyes On The Sky

For most of us the all encompassing sky is like a neighbor. The neighbor we see every day of our lives and yet barely know. The neighbor some of us may gesture to or speak of indifferently. The words that are spoken are dependent upon our momentary perception of the neighbor, usually with kind and beautiful words when we are pleased with their appearance or not so pleasant words when we are not. The Sky is a neighbor who is clock-work in their behavior, revealing themselves in predictable but changing cycles with their choice of very well known (but occasionally surprising) and colorful clothes. We feel comfortable to the point of near apathy with our seemingly benign and eccentric neighbor because they haven’t thrown any significant rocks at us in 66 million years, or so. For reference, that last significant rock thrown was Mt Everest sized and became our long term invitation into the Planetary HOA for us as a species, but that is another story.



The real sky and its contents above our heads, like that neighbor, is both known and unknown. For those of us who wish to know more about our neighbor beyond the cursory, all we have to do is look. And stare. And stare some more. At some point you realize the sky is not our neighbor at all but rather our window into the neighborhood itself. As we stare into the vast sea of stars and swirling clouds of nebulous gases that make up our Milky Way galaxy and beyond even that into our intergalactic neighborhood, it is apparent to us that we are the eccentric neighbor in a seemingly endless void of nothing which is garnished here and there with discreet and very shiny gatherings of somethings, as far as we can see and measure in every direction. It is the very shiny gatherings of somethings that we are most interested in as observers. This 412 year old practice is called astronomy and it has been my passion for nearly two decades. Encouraging people to be curious about the Universe and our place in it has been my raison d’etre since 2005. My name is Howard Hochhalter and I am the Director of the Venice Planetarium at the Hollow in Venice, Florida and I hope to use the next few paragraphs as well as many others in future posts to convince experienced and inexperienced observers alike to spend more time looking into and thinking deeply about their solar, stellar and galactic neighborhood and hopefully derive a meaningful understanding about their place in it.


Thankfully the sky and it’s denizens do not mind our habit of staring at it, unlike a real neighbor perhaps.


While the sky touches all of us no matter where we are on the Earth, we are limited in what direction of the sky we can see because the Earth blocks most of the view.  Our location on the planet relative to the rotational axis, i.e., northern vs southern hemispheres, also defines and limits what parts of the sky we see as well. The annual orbit of the Earth around the Sun will also dictate what parts of the sky you can see, e.g. the constellation of Orion is seen in the winter and the constellation of Scorpius is seen in the summer. On top of those limitations, what we can see locally is affected by weather and light pollution conditions as well. For myself and other observers in the deep southeastern United States, the summer weather has been atrocious for observing the night sky. In spite of some of the most beautiful parts of the Milky Way, bright stars and planets being present, the cloudy weather simply makes amateur astronomy too challenging and unrewarding to attempt the effort. Those few amateur astronomers who are willing to brave the potential for bad weather and disappointment to get a momentary view under cloudy skies will find themselves rapidly slewing their telescopes, chasing holes in the clouds for quick glimpses of celestial treats. These momentary and shifting gaps in the clouds are appropriately called ‘sucker holes’. All but the most ardent amateur astronomers in the southern US pack up their telescopes for the summer months as the rains and cloudy weather wreak havoc not only on the observational spirit but the telescopes and other equipment used to observe as well. Mosquitoes just add insult to injury.


Well, those wet and cloudy months are coming to an end. The summer curtain on the stars and planets are now finally being pulled back. Experienced amateur astronomers that are familiar with Florida know the time to blow the dust off telescope covers and grease the worm gears is approaching. While Autumn officially began on September 1st, the rains and cloud cover typically continue well into October. By November the sky and weather patterns in Florida have shifted to their familiar and almost Heaven-like quality that so many around the world migrate seasonly to the sunshine state for.


As we head into the autumn months, sunsets are going to be beautiful segues into the most spectacular place in the celestial neighborhood to see from our tiny Earthly window; the central region of the Milky Way galaxy with its multitude of stars. After the Sun sets, look to the south and the brighter stars will come into view. Straddled on both sides of the central region is the bright pattern of stars of Scorpius and Sagittarius.  If you can watch the sky from somewhere dark and unpolluted by man-made lights, you will see the most distant and awe-inspiring collection of stellar points, star clusters as well as bright and dark nebula the sky can yield. At approximately 9:30 pm this glowing band of the galaxy stretches from low in the SSW all the way across the zenith of the sky into the NNE.


Closer to us in space and significantly brighter than these most distant stellar objects are the bright sunlight reflecting planetary bodies in our own solar system. The two largest of our planetary neighbors, Saturn and Jupiter are both visible by 9 pm. The relatively bright Saturn will be gaining apparent height in the southern sky as it rises out of the south east, followed by the much brighter Jupiter just above the tree tops low in the south east. Both of these bright planets will be to the east, or left of the Milky Way’s band of light jutting out of the southern sky, as you face south at 9:30 pm.


If your sky is not dark enough to see the Milky Way, but you can see stars, then you will be able to see the familiar patterns that make up Scorpius and Sagittarius. Sagittarius is home to the famous asterism known as the ‘teapot’ while Scorpius is known for the asterism called the ‘fishhook.’ These easy-to-see familiar shapes and patterns made up of the brighter stars, or asterisms, not only reveal something about human nature but make finding the star-filled central region of the Milky Way galaxy fairly straight forward. The ‘teapot’ is roughly to the east or left of the center of the galaxy and the ‘fishhook’ is just west or right of the center. I could fill volumes with descriptions of the bright stars, clusters, nebulas and other galactic treats found in this region of the sky, but that is the stuff of future content.


If your night skies are light-polluted you should still be able to see the brightest stars and most prominent constellations as well as the soft butterscotch glow of Saturn and certainly Jupiter, the 4th brightest natural object in the sky, without any optical aid. Sadly, even with the aid of telescopes the faint whisper of light from distant star clusters and nebulas will likely be lost in the haze of nearby streetlights and brightly lit populated areas.


As we look forward to the cooler months of autumn, we also anticipate greater views into our universe. With the arrival of the James Webb Space Telescope, the most sensitive telescope ever pointed towards the stars, it is certain we will have plenty to discuss. With our curiosity armed with telescopes, binoculars or just plain old eyeballs, we will reveal the sky, the tools used to reveal it, and what it all may mean for us as inhabitants of an enormous and potentially infinitely large neighborhood.

The Phoenix of Florida

The mythical phoenix is a bird that finds immortality through resurrection from the very ashes of its own destruction into a renewed existence. Over the last several thousand years of human culture the phoenix has been portrayed in many different bird forms and varieties of plumage, but the common theme is always renewal. A renewal that is only possible after it prepares for and realizes its own destruction.
Floridians know and prepare for destruction. Since 1900, there have been 187 Atlantic tropical cyclones that have struck Florida making it the most pummeled state in the US. As we look into history, the first recorded tropical cyclone to affect Florida occurred in 1523 off the west coast where “Two ships and their crews were lost.”
The most powerful tropical cyclone to hit Florida happened in 1935. The “Labor Day” hurricane hit the state with wind speeds of 185 mph and storm surge of 18 – 20 feet, leaving 409 people dead, mostly veterans who were building the roadways connecting the Florida Keys. 
The deadliest tropical cyclone to hit Florida occurred in 1928 where storm surge caused Lake Okeechobee to overflow the southern edge of the lake and flooded hundreds of square miles under nearly 20 feet of water, killing over 2500 people. 
Of the top 10 strongest tropical cyclones to hit Florida, 4 of them have occurred in the last 18 years. Many of us reading this have been here for all 4 of those and more.
Hurricane Ian is among those 4. Not only one of the strongest, but Ian was also the deadliest storm to savage the state since 1935. The current number of fatalities attributed to the storm is listed at 126 within the state of Florida. Ft Myers and Cape Coral were especially devasted. The death toll in Lee County, where both cities are located, is listed at 57.
If you were to take a drive just days after the storm through the most devasted parts of the state, it is clear that nature’s wrath was felt. In a surreal scene under clear blue skies, boats and cars are intermingled in areas where neither belong. Familiar avenues lined with businesses where tourists once walked look more like landfills. Countless century old oaks lay on their sides, sometimes on buildings.  The remnants of roofing materials lie strewn across fields and on fences. Livestock and those who tend to them are among those that were hardest hit. The numbers of cattle, horses and other livestock that were lost may never be known. 
In spite of this destruction, the effort to get back up begins almost immediately. Anyone who is familiar with Florida culture knows that recovery begins as soon as the wind begins to slow down. As Ian thrashed its way across the peninsula, in its wake the sound of generators became apparent before the gusts of wind had subsided in the dark early morning hours. As the sun rose, the whine of chainsaws and the thumping of heavy equipment joined the orchestra of sound as neighbors started to help each other clear a path back to one another. Dead oaks and pines are rapidly becoming neat piles of firewood on the sides of the roads they once blocked. Linemen from all over the country converged on Florida following the storm to help restore downed power lines, bringing power back to 98% of affected areas. The full story of incredible courage and tragedy experienced by those who endured the storm will take years to reveal and tell.
Here in Venice, Florida there was no immunity to Ian’s destruction. At the Hollow in Venice, just a few hundred meters from the Myakka River, the destruction was heartbreaking. The wind damage was extensive. Mighty oaks and tall palms were bent over and tossed about, and the trees stripped of their leaves. Before any recovery could happen, the Myakka River overflowed with the water that Ian dumped on the state and massive flooding occurred. The Hollow is a community cultural center on private land with a 5-acre lake filled with islands and bridges, but it became a 27-acre lake that stretched across multiple properties and left the islands and their bridges invisible under water and stayed that way for more than a week. As the director of the Venice Planetarium at the Hollow, I am thankful for serendipitous timing. Our future astronomical observatory that will house our 14.5 RCOS telescope was able to avoid the flood due to a long build time, preventing its construction in what became flooded ground. The future observatory will certainly move forward, once recovery efforts at the Hollow have been completed. 
As we begin the effort to rebuild the Hollow, we also continue to help our community recover, distributing the essentials of living to those who cannot get them. This journey to recovery and renewal is a long and difficult one. It was said that the damage done from hurricane Ian would take a generation to rebuild. Perhaps it will take that long, but the challenge of recovery allows for the greatness of our humanity to reveal itself. Only in its destruction can the greatness that is the phoenix be reborn.
As if to reinforce this, the phoenix is visible in our October sky. If you were to look up in the southern sky on a clear and dark night from anywhere in Florida, rising just 20° above the southern horizon is the constellation of the Phoenix.  Between 11 pm and midnight, the brightest star in the Phoenix, Ankaa (meaning the Phoenix) an orange giant star, is visible to the naked eye as it crosses the meridian. Only because of our deep southerly position in the northern hemisphere can we even see this constellation. This celestial sentinel has been passing over Florida’s skies certainly as long as hurricanes have been blowing across the Atlantic, reminding us of the constant cycle of ends that lead to new beginnings. 

My name is Howard Hochhalter, and I am the director of the Venice Planetarium and future observatory at the Hollow. As we all continue our efforts to recover from Hurricane Ian, I hope to bring more astronomical news concerning our nighttime sky and how to engage with it at your own home, here with us at the Hollow, or anywhere you can see it. 

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