Thoughts About the Second Solution to the Star of Bethlehem Problem

© 1997 by Robert C. Moler

At this month's meeting of the society I will present again the 2,000 year old search for the Star of Bethlehem. After studying and dismissing, for a variety of reasons, other phenomena, the quest centers on two rare sets of conjunctions of planets. The first, the favorite of the last 400 years, involves a rare triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn over 6 month's in 7 BC. It's 2,000th anniversary was in 1994.

The second solution involves the planets Jupiter and Venus, which had two nearly stellar conjunctions 10 month's apart in 3 and 2 BC, 2,000 years ago in 1998 and 1999.

If you're a bit confused about the mathematics of the 2,000 year subtraction, remember there was no year zero, 1 BC was the year prior to AD 1. Therefore the 3rd millennium will start in 2001, not the year 2000. However most millennial celebrations will take place on New Year's eve 1999, not December 31st, 2000. Once again, sadly, ignorance wins out.

Adding to the information on the second solution I talked about 2 years ago are more ideas that were graciously sent me by George Petritz. It was an issue of Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College. In the December 1996 issue was an article The Star of Bethlehem by Dr. Craig Chester.

It looks like the Star of Bethlehem was not the spectacular apparition we celebrate today in images and song. The importance of the apparition was definitely in the eye of the beholder. And the beholders were the Magi, astrologer priests of the Zoroasterian religion based in Persia. They has worked out the meaning of every planet, position and constellation in the visible heavens, and they were aware of the writings and religions of the nations that surrounded them.

So let's try to see what the Magi might have read into two planetary conjunctions occurring 10 months apart in 3 and 2 BC.

On August 11th of 3 BC. just before dawn. The two brightest planets Jupiter and Venus merge into a single dazzling star in the dawn twilight. This even occurred below the chin of the constellation of Leo the lion. In the twilight, on the lion's bright star Regulus was visible.

So here's the cast of characters. Jupiter then as now was the king of the gods. In Hebrew, it was Sedeq, which meant Righteousness. The Jews worshipped one God, the only God, who created everything, so they didn't need to see Jupiter as a god.. Venus was the fertility goddess to all except the Jews. To the Babylonians it was Ishtar. However the in Second Kings and Jeremiah the prophets were distresses to find many Jews were indeed worshipping Ishtar. The lion was the king of beasts, and in Genesis 49:9 Jacob associated his son Judah with a lion. King David was of the tribe of Judah, and so was to be the Messiah. The reference is again repeated in Revelation 5:5, which reveals the power of the association in the early Christian era. Regulus' name means little king star, an allusion to its location in heart of the king of beasts. The ancients thought that this star ruled the affairs of the heavens.

Beside the conjunctions of Jupiter and Venus, each planet has their own conjunctions of Regulus. Chester also suggests a solution to the problem of the verse in Matthew 2:9, where the star came to a standstill over place where the child was. This seems to be impossible for an astronomical object. Chester's explanation was that this is when Jupiter reached its stationary points at the beginning and end of its retrograde or westward motion. Well, let's see the chronology of all these events, as modeled with my Looking Up program:

The first conjunction, on August 11th, 3 BC., apparently set the Magi on their journey. This is the first appearance of the star as recorded in Matthew 2:2. I expect that the knowledge of planetary motions allowed the Magi to predict the second conjunction 10 months later. They may have timed their journey to arrive around that second conjunction.

The Magi expecting a king, went to the capitol city of Judea, Jerusalem. It is a reading from the scriptures that sends them to King David's birthplace, Bethlehem. As they left Jerusalem the Magi saw the star again. Was this the second conjunction? on June 17th, 2 BC.

The problem of the star standing still over where the child was is still there. If the stationary point of Jupiter is that phenomenon, Jupiter would have reached its stationary or standstill point for the last time a month before the Magi ever got to Jerusalem. The stationary position of Jupiter, will be lost on all but keen watchers of the heavens. Jupiter would still share the stars daily motion through the sky. Another point: Jupiter isn't the star but the combination of Jupiter and Venus is. I'm afraid the standstill problem is still unsolved.

Whether this is the Star, or not, we know it was the light of the star that drew the Magi. Today both Christians and Jews celebrate, in this season of darkness, holidays of light with Christmas and Hanukkah.

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Uploaded: 11/30/97