THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM
By Bill Overn
PREFACE: This article was first published in The Lutheran Sentinal, a publication of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Bill Overn lives in Eagan, MN. He is a scientist and computer engineer, and lectures extensively on science and the Bible. The article on the Star of Bethlehem is a very short extract from his lecture on the same subject. He seeks churches and other groups willing to host the complete lecture, which contains fascinating insights as to why modern astronomy does not even acknowledge the greatest astronomical event in history, the star of Bethlehem.
A Disclaimer: ..Under no circumstances should anything in this article be interpreted as advocating that the practice of astrology was ever or is now sanctioned by God or used by God-fearing people. It has always been condemned by God in his Word, the Bible. There is probably no event since the great flood that gripped the attention of the entire world as completely. It was late summer in the Roman year 629 (125 B.C. by our reckoning). Was it a fragment that had broken away from the sun? Was it headed for earth? Was it getting nearer, or just bigger and brighter?
By mid-October it was a full thirty degrees ahead of the sun, rising at 4:00 A.M. and setting at supper time. As it rose earlier and earlier in the starry night sky, it became apparent that it occupied the site of the constellation named "The Desire of the Nations" or Coma, completely obliterating all the surrounding stars by its unimaginable brightness and beauty.
Since Coma was also known as the "Son of the Virgin", and since the unusual new star was located in the very head of the child, as it was generally drawn in the pictorial representations of the Zodiac, most God-fearing people considered it a divine sign that the Messiah was about to appear.
We now know this star as the "Star of Bethlehem". When Matthew wrote about it, perhaps 175 years after it first appeared, there was no need for explanation, as everybody knew about the day star -- it was simply there. The Christians also were all familiar with it as "His star". Matthew expected to be understood when he said the Magi had "seen His star in the East." Peter in his epistle describes Christian Faith as when "The day star arises in your heart."
The great astronomer Hiparchus observed the birth of the star and recorded it for us. The Chinese also recorded it. The Christian writer, Ignatious, described the star, called it the Bethlehem Star, and described its brightness "above all stars" about 110 A.D. Since we have the star's location pin-pointed by Hiparchus, we are able to calculate its position as directly over Bethlehem at midnight, at Easter time during the years of Jesus' ministry.
Ptolemey records The star's death, when he wrote in 150 A.D. "It can scarcely be seen." The star's life was similar to many super novas, in that it grew up in a few days' span, remained brilliant for a much longer time, then faded gradually. However, it lasted much longer than a modern astronomer considers possible, and was, of course, unexplainably brighter.
Astronomy was the "queen of the sciences" in those days. Excellent sextants and other instruments had been devised. These instruments were calibrated and augmented by noting the reflections of stars and the sun in a deep well, which showed that the star was directly overhead. The tilt of the earth's axis was regularly measured and tracked by many, including Pythagoras, in 515 B.C. The earth's circumference was measured with an error no larger than 25 miles by Eratosthenes and others. The distance to the moon still had an error of 8%, and, unfortunately, the distance to the sun awaited some hundreds of years for a measurement to be devised. Particularly active in these activities were the Magi caste of northern Persia. The myth that the ancients thought the earth to be flat is a deliberate fabrication of the secular humanists.
Astronomers were often also astrologers in those days. Since the ancient believers illustrated the story of salvation by drawing figures around the star constellations, now known as the "signs of the Zodiac", it is not surprising that unbelievers would ascribe magical revelations to these same signs, nor that Satan would distort them for his own purposes, just as he is presently attacking the inerrancy and authority of the Scriptures. God says in Genesis that He made the stars for signs as well as for days and years. We have seen what an impressive sign the star was.
Among the lore of the astrologers was the prophesy, which appears genuine, that the great King of the Jews would be born when a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn should occur in the "House of the Hebrews" (Pisces). This happened when Moses was born, and again when Cyrus was born. Prophecy or not, in both cases the conjunction occurred, the man was born, and the Hebrew slaves were freed. Josephus states that it was when the Egyptian priests warned Pharaoh of the conjunction that he started having the Hebrew boys killed, although Moses escaped by being hid in a floating basket.
In 7 B.C. the same conjunction occurred again, but no less than three times in the same year. No wonder the Magi, who studied these matters, decided that a King of the Jews three times greater than either Moses or Cyrus must be the promised Savior from God and ought to be worshipped. But His star, up to the time of the last conjunction in December, was out primarily during the day. By March, at the spring equinox, the time when all the signs were thought to have their primary meaning, the time when all devout Hebrews celebrated their birthdays (as contrasted to the heathen, who marked the actual day of their birth) -- the star would be overhead at midnight somewhere in Palestine. So they gathered their gifts and their astronomical instruments, assembled a caravan and started out. Along the way they observed the star, which remained "before them" at each midnight* sighting, until they arrived at Jerusalem, when it was essentially overhead.
When they related their mission to Herod, imagine his consternation. He inquired about the time of the "star". In ancient language and literature "star" is often used to mean "conjunction". He certainly was aware of the day star.
"Pharaoh killed all the baby boys. Can you do less, Oh King?" was undoubtedly the gist of the advice that Herod received from his advisers. If Herod had not been constrained by Roman control, the slaughter in Bethlehem would have been more extensive.
The Magi used their sextants. Standing at the Jerusalem gates they were skillful enough to measure that the star was "before them" as contrasted to overhead or "behind them". If you read Matthew with this understanding of the shooting of a star in the navigational sense, the language is plain. At Bethlehem, according to tradition, they used a deep well at midnight and "rejoiced" to find the star directly overhead (King James: "stood over"). They went into the house and worshipped Jesus.
The conjunction occurred again in 1482. The Jewish theologian Isaac Abrabanel predicted that the Messiah was now to be born. Martin Luther was actually born the following year. The great Lutheran astronomer Johannes Kepler invented the mathematical formulas used to determine the planets' courses. He was the first to give scientific verification of the conjunctions associated with the births of Moses, Cyrus, Christ, and Luther.
Why did the Holy Spirit record these events through Matthew? It shows us the planning that God put into our salvation. The Bethlehem holocaust was prophesied by Jeremiah. Jesus was not born to die at Herod's hand. Hosea prophesied that God should call Him back from Egypt. How could the poor and unemployed Joseph and Mary get to Egypt and provide for the Baby for three years? Through the gold and precious gifts of the Magi.
Let us rejoice with the Magi of old over the wonderful plan of salvation which God has provided to sinful man, purely because of His unconditional and totally undeserved love and mercy. Soli Deo Gloria!
*"Midnight" had to be corrected to the March 21 equinox. Thus if their reading were being made on Feb. 19 (30 days before March 21), it would have been made at 2:00 A.M.
Bullinger, E. W. Witness of the Stars. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1893, 1967.
Fleming, K. C. God's Voice in the Stars. Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux, 1981
Josephus Ant. ii. 9: 2, 7
Rolleston, Frances. Mazzaroth. Keswick, England: 1863
Seiss, J. A. The Gospel in the Stars. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1882, 1979
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