The Star of Bethlehem: when was it? Planets or star?


Table of Contents for: The Star of Bethlehem: when was it? Planets or star?

Info on the Magi, Star of Bethlehem and Jesus’ birth

The Magi probably came from Babylon who were star gazers.
Here is the possible route they took shown on Google Maps:

The distance is approximately 715 miles from Babylon to Bethlehem and based on the real world a camel can walk about 20 miles a day through the harsh desert climate. [xii]
Therefore the journey was nearly 40 days of travelling with rest days.

The diagram below assumes that Jesus was born in 4 BC and the yellow part shows the possible arrival time for the Magi and therefore when the Star of Bethlehem would have been seen.
The reason for this is, that Herod killed the children up to two years old because he reasoned that was when Jesus must have been born.

Magi timescale

So if we said the Star of Bethlehem appeared in 2 BC then Jesus could have been born in 4 BC, 3 BC or 2 BC.

Some planetary information for the period 7 BC to 2 BC

The Bethlehem star, a star of Wonder

There is a lot of star and planet information for that period in history, could any of it indicate a star or planets that lead the Magi (Wise Men) to Bethlehem?

What do we know about the Star of Bethlehem, the Star of Wonder?
Could any of these known star movements have been the Star of Bethlehem?

— 7 BC —

7 BC late May: First of 3 conjunctions (coming together) of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces (occurs only once every approximately 900 years other two in September and December).
So Jesus could have been born in 9 BC, 8 BC or 7 BC.

— 6 BC —

6 BC February: a coming together of Jupiter, Mars and Saturn again in Pisces, (approx. every 800 years).
So Jesus could have been born in 8 BC, 7 BC or 6 BC.

— 5 BC —

5 BC March-April: Chinese astronomers recorded a nova in the constellation Capricorn visible for over 70 days.
So Jesus could have been born in 7 BC, 6 BC or 5 BC.

— 3 BC —

3 BC May 19th: Saturn and Mercury came together.


3 BC June 12th: Saturn met with Venus.


3 BC August 12th: Jupiter and Venus came together just before sunrise, appearing as a very bright morning star.


3 BC Sept 14th: Jupiter came close to Regulus (meaning ‘king’) which is the chief star in Leo, the Royal Constellation.


3 BC late summer or early autumn: The Roman five yearly census. Was this the census that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem? This is probably the year that Jesus was born (but not the 25th December).


3 BC December 1st: Jupiter stopped its motion through the fixed stars and began its annual retrograde motion.
(See below for it’s continuation)
So Jesus could have been born in 5 BC, 4 BC or 3 BC.

— 2 BC —

2 BC February 17th: Jupiter had continued its motion and was reunited with Regulus (king), and continued its retrograde motion another 40 days and then it reverted to its normal motion through the stars.

2 BC May 8th: Jupiter’s motion continued and remarkably placed itself into a third conjunction with Regulus. To observers, it appeared as though Jupiter (representing the highest God) was circling over and around Regulus, the King Star.

2 BC June 17th: Venus and Jupiter joined together again (in the constellation Leo) during the evening and would have appeared as one very bright star.


2 BC August 27th: conjunction Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury in the constellation Leo, another rare astronomical event. This was seen by astrologers as ‘common agreement of purpose’. It probably also signalled to the Romans a new and powerful beginning for Rome.


2 BC Rome celebrated its 750th year since it was founded.


2 BC 25th jubilee year of the reign of Caesar Augustus as Emperor.

Wisemen following a star

Jupiter continued its apparent motion westward each morning. If the Magi wanted to ‘follow’ this star, it would have had a westward motion which agrees with the Biblical account.


2 BC Between early September and late December Magi arrive in Bethlehem?
Jupiter then, due to retrograde motion, appeared to ‘stop’ in the sky, as viewed from Jerusalem, directly to the south, over Bethlehem.
It came to its normal stationary position at dawn on December 25th, 2 BC. Not only that, but the planet came to a stop in the constellation Virgo. It remained there for nearly six days.
So Jesus could have been born in 4 BC, 3 BC or 2 BC.


Dating Jesus’ birth in relation to Herod’s death

For more detail on this see this article: ‘When was Jesus born?’

  • c. 4 B.C. (uncertain) king Herod died. The kingdom is split between 3 of his sons: Antipas, Archelaus and Philip.
    So if Herod died in 4 B.C. then Jesus could have been born in 5-6 B.C.
    Emil Schürer, was a German Protestant theologian known mainly for his study of the history of the Jews around the time of Jesus’ ministry, died in1910, he suggested that the date for king Herod’s death was in or around 4 BC [i]
    According to Harold Hoehner, died 2009, Philip’s reign would last for 37 years, until his death in the 20th year of Tiberius (34 CE), which implies his accession as 4 BC [v] and therefore Herod probably died in that same year.
    Josephus wrote that both of Herod’s sons, Archelaus and Philip the Tetrarch, dated their rule from 4 BC [iii]
    Though Josephus put that Archelaus apparently held royal authority during Herod’s lifetime.[iv]
  • Another theory is that Herod’s death was later, which is the traditional date [ii]:
    1 BC eclipses occurred in January, July and December. [viii]
    If Herod died in 1 B.C. Jesus could have been born in 2-4 B.C.
    Filmer and Steinmann propose that Herod died in 1 BCE, and that his heirs backdated their reigns to 4 or 3 BC to assert an overlapping with Herod’s rule, and bolster their own legitimacy.

One problem in dating Herod’s death has been the dates given in Josephus’ Antiquities. It has now been found that the date has changed over the years:

In 1995 David W. Beyer reported to the Society of Biblical Literature his personal examination in the British Museum of forty-six editions of Josephus’ Antiquities published before 1700 among which twenty-seven texts, all but three published before 1544 read ‘twenty-second year of Tiberius,’ while not a single edition published prior to
1544 read ‘twentieth year of Tiberius.’
Likewise in the Library of Congress five more editions read the ‘twenty-second year,’ while none prior to 1544 records the ‘twentieth year.’
It was also found that the oldest versions of the text give variant lengths of the reign for Philip of 32 and 36 years. But if we allow for a full thirty-seven-year reign, then ‘the twenty-second year of Tiberius’ (A.D. 35/36) points to 1 B.C. (1 year B.C. + 36 years A.D. = 37 years) as the year of the death of Herod.
Therefore, it now appears as if Filmer’s conjecture was correct.
Philip reigned from 1 B.C. until his death in A.D. 36
Since Philip received the tetrarchy upon the death of his father, it would appear that Herod died no earlier than 1 B.C.”

‘When Did Herod the Great Reign?’ by Andrew E. Steinmann [xiii]

So this points to Herod’s death being about 1 B.C. and Jesus could have been born in 2-4 B.C.

A lunar eclipse near Herod’s death

In Josephus’ account, Herod’s death was preceded by a lunar eclipse and followed by Passover. [vi]

A partial eclipse best observed from the west coast of Africa, took place on March 13, 4 BC, about 29 days before Passover. [vii]
Other eclipses during this period, with proponents of 5 BC and the two eclipses of 1 BC occurring January 10, being the most spectacular total lunar eclipse and December 29, another only partial eclipse. [viii]

John P. Pratt makes a very good observation about the lunar eclipse, he asks:

So why did Josephus include Herod’s eclipse but no others?
An obvious answer is that the eclipse was widely observed and then associated with the executions.
If so, then the eclipse occurred in the early evening.
…the eclipse of December 29, 1 B.C. fits this criterion very well. The full moon was nearly half eclipsed when it could first be seen rising in the east above the distant mountains about twenty minutes after sunset.
It would not have been seen much before that time, even without the mountains, due to sky brightness.
At first the eclipsed half of the full moon would have been invisible, then it would have appeared dimly lit, and finally the characteristic reddening of the eclipsed portion would have become noticeable.
The umbral phase continued for about an hour after first visibility.
Note that a partial eclipse is more easily seen at moonrise than a total because totality delays first visibility (the entire moon is in the ‘invisible’ portion) and the shape of the missing portion would have made it obvious that it was an eclipse, especially to the Judeans who used the moon to indicate the day of the month and who expected a full moon.
Of the candidates to be Herod’s eclipse, the December 29, 1 B.C. eclipse was the most likely to have been widely observed.
If December 29, 1 B.C. is correct, then Herod died in early A.D. 1 rather than early 1 B.C.
In the next section, this paper discusses how an A.D. 1 death date for Herod might explain all of the historical evidence…
It allows Christ to have been born during the census begun in Judea in 2 B.C. and hence to be about 30 in A.D. 29, both in agreement with Luke’s account.
It also allows an ample three months for all the events that would not fit into one month in 4 B.C.”

‘Yet another eclipse for Herod’ The Planetarian, vol. 19, no. 4, Dec. 1990, pp. 8–14. [xi]

Some more thoughts and questions:

Could Jesus have been born in the late summer/early autumn in 3 BC?

Was it the joining of Venus and Jupiter that made the Magi (Wise Men) go to Jerusalem?

1 BC January 10th there was a total lunar eclipse: The works of Flavius Josephus states that Herod died after a lunar eclipse and was buried before Passover. (That is the Herod who tried to kill the baby Jesus).

Other theories is that the Star of Bethlehem was in 5 BC or 1 BC:

All the known aspects of the observations of the Star of Bethlehem can be understood in a simple fashion if it was a simple bright nova observed in northern Capricorn or southern Aquila in mid-March 5 BC and chronicled by the Chinese and Koreans.
Oriental and biblical references are consistent with each other and the Star described in Matthew and in other early documents can be explained in a perfectly natural way.”

‘Some Notes on the Visibility of the 5 BC Chinese Star’ by Mark Kidger`s Comet and Asteroid Observing Home Page [ix]

If this theory is true they would have seen these events over the time of their journey, see ‘Following the Steps of the Magi’. [x]

John P. Pratt proposes December 29, 1 B.C. which means that Christ was born at the Passover season of 1 B.C. and discusses compatibility with traditional Christmas dates. [xi]

References:
[i] Schürer, Emil. A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, Vol. I, Herod the Great pp. 400-467, New York, Scribner’s, 1896.
[ii] ‘Herod the Great and Jesus: Chronological, Historical and Archaeological Evidence’ by Gerard Gertoux
[iii] Josephus, Wars, 1.631–632.
[iv] Josephus, Wars, 2.26.
[v] Hoehner, Harold. Herod Antipas, (Zondervan, 1980) p.251.
[vi] Josephus, Antiquities, 17.6.4
[vii] “Lunar eclipse of March 13, 4 BCE”.
[viii] “Catalog of Lunar Eclipses: -0099 to 0000”. eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov.
[ix] ‘Some Notes on the Visibility of the 5BC Chinese Star’
[x] ‘Following the Steps of the Magi’
[xi] ‘Yet another eclipse for Herod’ The Planetarian, vol. 19, no. 4, Dec. 1990, pp. 8–14.
[xii] ‘Camel Fact Sheet’ by PBS Nature
[Sorry I have lost the different references for the main text – main computer mother board has broken, backup computer’s hard drive went a few days later…]
[xiii] ‘When Did Herod the Great Reign?’ by Andrew E. Steinmann

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