“For we have seen his star in the east…”
Have you ever tried to puzzle out what this part of the Christmas story means? If so, you’re one of many over the centuries, children and bearded scholars, kings and shepherds. So let me join the crowd. The first of many points that I think need to be acknowledged are some confusions in this simple statement:
1. Who were the “we?" Were they astrologers, or astronomers, or both? 2. Was this an actual, unusual astronomical event, or was this a figure of speech, the introduction to an allegory? What kind of a “star” were they following? 3. Does this event identify a specific date? 4. Where was “the east” in relation to the speakers? 1. The men speaking (it’s unlikely that a wise woman would have talked to King Herod about stars) were called “wise men from the east.” In another translation they are “magi” or priests from Chaldea—the fertile basin stretching north and south between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers. These priests were considered wise because they studied the earth and the sky so that they could interpret the relationships between humans and the divine and thus save people from harm. Considering the tools that they had two thousand years ago, and the care they exercised, I’m willing to accept that magi were first-class scientists. 2. Historians have taken it for granted that only an unusual event would have started magi on their journey which was presumably a long one. So, it wouldn’t have been the yearly rising of a bright star like Sirius or Vega. Less usual events might have been the appearance of a nova, or a comet, or a big meteorite, or an asteroid. Astronomers have considered each of these, among them Johannes Kepler in the 17th century who was pretty sure that it had been a nova. However, nothing has been found in either contemporary records or in leftover evidence to support any of these. No dust clouds from a nova, no huge holes in the earth from an asteroid collision, no comet that might have visited the Sun in the possible years. And a meteorite lasts too short a time to excite wise men. This seems to leave the most likely unusual— although natural—event to have been the appearance of a bright planet. We know from this summer that a planet such as Mars can attract a lot of attention. Two thousand years ago planets were called wandering stars; they were associated with specific qualities: The “Day Star” probably was Venus; the reddish color of Mars linked it to wars; and Saturn was related to the ideas of a desert or the underworld. Above all of these, Jupiter was kingly.
3. That brings up the question of the date of the birth of Jesus, a date not pinpointed yet. The bible says in several places that he was born during the reign of King Herod the Great. But historians aren’t certain when Herod died. The best calculation so far puts his death about 4 BCE. The other problem is that the first Christians weren’t concerned with Roman dates. It wasn’t until the 6th century that Dionysius Exiguus tried to figure back, not realizing among other things that he needed to account for Year 0 between 1 BCE and 1 CE. It happens that there was an unusual natural astronomical event in the year 6 BCE that should have attracted astrologer/astronomers’ attention. The kingly planet Jupiter entered the constellation of Aries the Ram as the morning star. Aries for the magi was the zodiacal sign of the Jews; therefore this could have said to them that a new king was being born to the Jews. Could this have been Jesus? The event became even more significant to the magi because Jupiter was in conjunction with the Moon—its power was multiplied by that association. On April 17 in 6 BCE Jupiter not only rose in the east, it was occulted by the Moon, an event serious enough to stir wise men to action. If that wasn’t enough, because of its retrograde motion, Jupiter stayed in Aries most of the year—and “stood still” twice!!!—long enough for men to make their preparations and travel to Jerusalem. (A recent PBS program about this was based on the book, The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Wise Men, by Professor Michael R. Molnar of the University of Indiana,)
4. One of my puzzles about the literal interpretation of Matthew is deciding where “the east” was for the wise men, and where it was for the star. If I were to start out to follow a star that I saw at its rising with the Sun in the east, I would travel east, at least at first. But if the homeland of the wise men was Chaldea, people going east would have ended up in India or Cathay. No wonder they had to ask for directions when they got to Jerusalem. (Maybe the magi traveled only at night, by which time Jupiter would have pulled them around westward.) My other questions, which are more serious, are of how much importance to the essential meaning of the account, or allegory, are the identities of the star and of the actual date. Are the questions appropriate for scientists to consider? Astronomers certainly are expected to give serious answers around Christmas every year.
Perhaps in the long run it helps to remember that St. Matthew wasn’t trying to be an astrologer/astronomer;
he was writing about an event that he considered miraculous. Maybe that’s enough.