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.
December 23, 2022
To see an interactive timeline of history, astronomy and Biblical events, click here.