During a 2007 BBC radio interview, the archbishop of Canterbury deconstructed elements of the Nativity story. “Stars simply don’t behave like that,” Rowan Williams said. Asked about the existence of three wise men, he replied, “It works quite well as legend.”
But years ago Father Walter Brandmüller, president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, published an essay applying the historicalcritical method to the question of the Nativity story. (The essay is reprinted without cumbersome footnotes in Light and Shadows: Church History Amid Faith, Fact, and Legend [Ignatius].) He found that an unbiased examination of the historical evidence for the Nativity does not undermine, but corroborates, Christian Tradition.
Brandmüller comments: “The fact that the Gospels not only are based on eyewitness and hearsay reports but also were written for contemporaries made it impossible to include fictional accounts, which could have been exposed at any time as untrue by contemporaries who were still living.”
He then presents the documentary and monumental evidence for the census of Caesar Augustus and the archaeological traces of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. “The mere fact that Emperor Hadrian found it necessary to replace the most popular Christian shrines with pagan temples so as to eradicate all thoughts of Christian salvation history—he even had a grove in honor of Adonis planted over the Grotto of the Nativity—shows that the memory of Jesus’ birth was very much alive at the beginning of the second century.” Relying on the local tradition, Emperor Constantine had a church built over the grotto in the fourth century. “The Church of the Nativity is still standing there today.”
The birth of Christ is anchored in time and space at least as securely as most other events in antiquity. Nevertheless, many people still balk at the story of the Magi and the Star. Over the centuries Christian writers have produced a bewildering array of explanations, many of them extremely fanciful. But they do not discredit the Gospel account any more than antiquated theories about crystalline spheres and interstellar ether disprove Kepler’s laws of planetary motion.
To help sift through the interpretations of the Magi and the Star, let’s consult the commentary on the Gospel of Matthew by Cornelius À Lapide, S.J. (1567-1637), a Scripture scholar who taught and wrote in Rome. His encyclopedic work compiles opinions and excerpts from patristic, medieval, and contemporary commentators.
Who were the Magi? Father À Lapide notes that magi “is a common word among the Persians…meaning philosophers. The word seems to be Hebrew in origin…. The Chaldeans, following the Hebrews, were accustomed to call their philosophers Magi, according to Saint Jerome.” Pliny and Tertullian also testify that Near Eastern peoples generally applied the name magi to their wise men and astrologers. (Therefore, when Matthew writes magi he does not necessarily refer to the hereditary Zoroastrian priesthood.)
What was their country of origin? Some Church Fathers “think that they came from Persia…. But the distance would seem too great…. Others [Jerome included] with more probability think that the Magi were Chaldeans…because [they] were addicted to astrology.” Chaldea (Babylonia) was located along the Euphrates River, in the eastern third of the Fertile Crescent. À Lapide, however, deems it most probable that they were eastern Arabians. He cites Psalm 71:10 in the Vulgate, “the kings of the Arabians and of Saba shall bring gifts,” and Pliny’s observation, “Nowhere is there frankincense except in Arabia.”
But the arguments for Arabia are weak. Trade routes crisscrossed the ancient Near East, and frankincense (like champagne) can be selected as a gift regardless of one’s nationality. In many translations Psalm 72:10 is a generic prayer for prosperity, not a prophecy. It is “fulfilled” in Matthew 2 only if you assume what À Lapide is trying to prove.
Jerome’s opinion is weighty because he was a multilingual scholar who worked in Rome and Bethlehem. Moreover, the Chaldeans had been keeping astronomical almanacs for centuries before the birth of Christ.
What was the Star? À Lapide’s commentary lists the possibilities: a comet, “certain signs in the stars,” the Holy Ghost in visible form (as at Christ’s baptism), an angel, a nova, or “a new meteor formed by the angels out of air, and filled with an immense light…like the pillar of fire and cloud which guided the Hebrews through the desert.” In advocating the last-mentioned hypothesis, À Lapide relies on an Old Testament parallel instead of examining the text of Matthew’s Gospel.
The Magi were “from the east” (Matt. 2:1), a plural expression in Greek: literally, “from the eastern parts.” But when they say, “We have seen his star in the east” (v. 2), this expression is singular. In both Greek and Latin its primary meaning is “in the ascent” or “at its rising.” This is technical astronomical language. It’s time to consult the astronomers.
Again, there are many theories about the Star of Bethlehem. Here are three of the most recent.
Michael R. Molnar, citing Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos, argues that the constellation Aries governed the Herodian monarchy in Judea, and on April 17, 6 B.C., Jupiter rose “in the east” in that sign of the zodiac, along with the sun and Venus. Unfortunately, Ptolemy’s astrological work was written a century later than the Gospels.
Frederick A. Larson, an Evangelical Christian lawyer and founder of The STAR Project, has synthesized astronomical findings, historical records, and scriptural allusions in an impressive video presentation that can be accessed online. He helpfully rules out several celestial objects: comets don’t rise; the nova recorded in 5 B.C. by Chinese observers would have been visible in Jerusalem, too, whereas Herod had to inquire about the time of the star’s appearance.
Larson identifies the Star of Bethlehem with conjunctions of Jupiter and Venus in the constellation Leo as an intensified “Morning Star” and “Evening Star” in 3 and 2 B.C., respectively. Between those two events, as Jupiter traveled across the night sky, its retrograde wobble made it appear to pass Regulus (“ruler”), the brightest star in Leo, three times back and forth. “The Planet of Kings dance[d] out a halo above the Star of Kings.”
As spectacular as these coincidences are, when viewed with astronomy software, they are historically implausible. Pagan astronomers would not have associated Leo with “the lion of Judah” (Gen. 49:9). Even the expert Chaldeans charted the movements of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn only, since the proximity of Venus to the sun made methodical observations too difficult and imprecise.
Without computer simulations or sextants, the Magi could only observe the reappearance of a planet in the eastern sky, note its “stationary points” and its setting in the evening, record the dates, and then count the days between recurring events. Larson’s theory is just too sophisticated for their methods. It fails by a criterion that he does not mention: the Star of Bethlehem had to be predictable in order to be astrologically significant.
The late Austrian astronomer Konradin Ferrari d’Occhieppo collected and published much new evidence for the planetary conjunction hypothesis. The theory that the Star of Bethlehem was a foreseeable conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn goes way back: it is found in the writings of the medieval polymath Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly and the 17th-century astronomer Kepler (although they looked for it in the wrong years).
Ferrari studied the Babylonian calendar tablets for the year 7/6 B.C. At least four different original copies still exist—implying unusual interest in the celestial phenomena that they predicted: Jupiter and Saturn were to rise in the east on the same evening, September 15, 7 B.C., and have a triple conjunction in the sign of Pisces. “There is no doubt that the Babylonian astronomers of that time, from their knowledge of long planetary cycles, had a full understanding of the extraordinary rarity of the circumstances of that configuration.”
The Magi could have reasoned astrologically as follows: Jupiter was the planet of their highest deity, Marduk. From the eighth century B.C. onward Saturn was associated with the Jews, and central Pisces with Palestine. The appearance of the star thus signified the birth of a Messianic King in the West, about whom the Babylonians, too, had speculated for ages.
This would have been sufficient reason for the Magi to journey to Jerusalem, without any visual guidance. When Herod’s scribes told them to travel five miles to Bethlehem, they set out due south along the main road at dusk. Directly ahead of them Jupiter (with Saturn) shone brilliantly in the southern sky, standing at the top of the cone of zodiacal light (an oval haze caused by sunlight reflected from interplanetary dust). For three hours Bethlehem’s skyline was silhouetted against that glow, which appeared to pour down from “the star.” “And behold the star…went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was.”
Brandmüller recalls that the Old Syrian version of Matthew’s Gospel translates “star” with the usual name for Jupiter. “And seeing the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”
Magi or astrologers from the East are well documented figures in ancient history. There are several plausible astronomical candidates for the Star of Bethlehem. If you accept the planetary conjunction hypothesis elaborated by Ferrari d’Occhieppo, then cuneiform tablets recording data calculated years in advance confirm the Matthean account in minute detail.
The venerable Greek liturgy testifies to the importance of this event in the early Church. In an oft-repeated hymn, the Troparion for Christmas, the faithful sing: “Your Nativity, O Christ our God, has shown to the world the light of wisdom; for by it, those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star to adore You, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know You, the Orient [Rising] from on high. O Lord, glory be to You.”
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