The star of bethlehem and the christmas story
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The Star of Bethlehem and the Christmas Story. Myth, Fact and Reality. Sources differ widely about the exact dates. Fact and fiction I. The New Testament is a mixture of history, hearsay and preaching written some 90 years after the Nativity . Matthew about 80-100 AD Luke about 80-130AD

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The Star of Bethlehem and the Christmas Story

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The star of bethlehem and the christmas story

The Star of Bethlehem and the Christmas Story

Myth, Fact and Reality


Fact and fiction i

Sources differ widely about the exact dates.

Fact and fiction I

  • The New Testament is a mixture of history, hearsay and preaching written some 90 years after the Nativity.

    • Matthew about 80-100 AD

    • Luke about 80-130AD

  • It is not strictly a historical record, but it is undoubtedly based on something that was at least intended to be a more or less factual account.

    • We are not dealing with pure fantasy.

    • It cannot be taken too literally, but no one can argue that the Gospel narrative has no basis of historical fact.


Matthew s version of the nativity

Matthew’s Version of the Nativity

[1] Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,[2] Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.[3] When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.[4] And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.[5] And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,[6] And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.[7] Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.[8] And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.[9] When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.[10] When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.[11] And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.[12] And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.[13] And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.[14] When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:[15] And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.[16] Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.


Luke s version of the nativity

Luke’s Version of the Nativity

[1] And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.[2] (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)[3] And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.[4] And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)[5] To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.[6] And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.[7] And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.[8] And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.[9] And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.[10] And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.[11] For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.[12] And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.[13] And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,[14] Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.[15] And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.[16] And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.


Differences between matthew and luke

Matthew:

The Star

The Magi

King Herod

A house

Luke:

The census

Caesar Augustus

Quirinius (Cyrenius)

The inn

The shepherds

Differences between Matthew and Luke

  • A cynic would say that it is hard to believe that Matthew and Luke are describing the same event.

  • However, it is likely that they were interested in different aspects of the Nativity and wrote for a different audience:

  • Matthew… an evangelist.

  • Luke… probably a doctor and an amateur historian.


Differences between matthew and luke1

Matthew:

Jesus as a young child

A house: permanent accommodation

Luke:

Baby Jesus

The stable: temporary emergency accommodation.

Differences between Matthew and Luke

Luke seems to be describing events immediately around the birth of Jesus.

Matthew is talking of events weeks or months later.


Matthew s version of the star

Matthew’s Version of the Star

[1] Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,[2] Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.[3] When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

[7] Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.[8] And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.[9] When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.[10] When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.[11] And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

[16] Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.


Explaining the star

Explaining the Star

  • There are three generic explanations

  • It was a miraculous event

    • Science plays no part in the explanation

  • It never existed

    • Matthew simply added the Star to his account. End of story.

  • It was a natural event of some kind.

    • Science can explain it.

      Here explanation “3” is assumed. Otherwise this would be a very short talk.


The oldest mystery in astronomy

The oldest mystery in astronomy?

  • What was the Star mentioned by Matthew?

    • We can only deal with probabilities, never certainty…

    • Sadly, it is vanishingly unlikely that any completely new information about the Star will ever come to light.

    • But absence of proof is not proof of absence!

Matthew’s Gospel – French illuminated bible, c. 1250-1260


A popular misconception

A Popular Misconception

  • It is not true that the Star is only mentioned in Matthew.

    • The Star is mentioned in other contemporary documents.

    • The Apocryphal Gospel of James (purportedly written as an eye-witness account) mentions the Star in somewhat more detail than Matthew, but this book was not incorporated into the “official” version of the Bible around the 3rd Century.

    • The Star was also mentioned in a letter by Ignatius to the Ephesians written after Matthew, but about 2 centuries before the New Testament was compiled.

  • Both Matthew and James apparently used an earlier, lost text “Q” as the source of their accounts.


Fact and fiction ii

Fact and fiction II

  • The New Testament has at least some basis of historical fact.

  • Many of the personalities and places associated with the Nativity genuinely existed at the time of the Nativity and are known about in some detail.

  • For example…


Known historical facts

Known historical facts

  • Bethlehem – shepherds still graze their flocks on the hills around the town (as in this photograph).


Known historical facts1

Known historical facts

  • King Herod – was the last ruler of a united Judea under the Romans, before the Kingdom was divided in three on his death.


Known historical facts2

Known historical facts

  • Jerusalem – much of Jerusalem is little changed. The sites of such monuments as the Temple and Herod’s Palace are well known.


Known historical facts3

Known historical facts

  • Emperor Caesar Augustus – was emperor at the time of the Nativity and ordered global censuses in 28BC, 8BC and 14AD.


Known historical facts4

Known historical facts

  • Quirinius

    • is thought to have spent two periods in the region and was charged by Caesar Augustus with carrying out a census.

    • The tablet shows the results for a census in Lebanon organised at an unknown date by Quirinius (described as “Emperor’s Legate”, not “Governor”).


The date problem

The date problem

  • Luke’s Gospel is problematic:

    • Quirinius was Governor of Syria in 6-7AD.

    • Herod died 9 years earlier, so Quirinius could not have been Governor while Herod was alive.

    • There was no global census at the time that Quirinius was Governor.

      • Most experts believe that the census mentioned by Luke was that of 8BC.

      • But this creates even more problems: Judea was a Protectorate, not part of the Empire. Joseph would not have been bound to participate in the census.

      • It was not until 14AD that Rome took over Judea. Only the 14AD census decree would have applied to Judea.


We three kings

We three Kings?

  • Matthew does not state that the Magi were kings, nor does he state that there were three of them.

    • People associate the three (symbolic) gifts with three Magi.

    • Matthew simply uses the plural to describe them.

    • In the oldest representations sometimes they were two, sometimes four and, in the Orthodox tradition, twelve.


We three kings1

We three Kings?

  • The Magi were not always kings.

  • It was the church that elevated the Magi to royalty in the 6th Century AD.

    • It was a political decision.

    • The “King of kings” must have been visited by kings.


We three kings2

We three Kings?

  • The names – Melchior, Baltasar and Gaspar – are even more recent.

  • They date from the 8th Century, but were not commonly used until the 10th Century.

  • The names symbolise the three races of Earth – African, Asian and European.


Who were the magi

Who were the Magi?

  • Magi

    • A sect of Zoroastrian priests among the Medes in Persia were known as the Magi.

    • Zoroastrianism made Messianic prophesies similar to those of the Jews.

    • The Magi were most probably from northern Persia, close to the Caspian Sea.


The magi and the persian horde

The Magi and the Persian Horde

  • In 614AD the Persian armies invaded and sacked northern Italy.

  • In Ravenna, the church of San Vitale was spared because the Persian horde saw the images on the walls of the Magi in Persian dress and treated them as their own sacred religious symbols.

  • The oldest images of the Magi often depict them as Persians.


The real magi

The real Magi?

  • In the 13th Century Marco Polo carried out his legendary voyage to Cathay...


The real magi1

The real Magi

  • In the small town of Saveh in northern Persia the natives assured him that this had been the home town of the Magi and from where they had seen the Star.


An odd coincidence

An odd “coincidence”?

  • Why should the 13th Century inhabitants of this tiny and unknown town, half way to China, regale Marco Polo with tales of events that never happened and, what is more, events in a country more than 1500km away, with which they had no obvious affinity?


When was the nativity

When was the Nativity?

  • The date of the Nativity was set in 525AD by the Scythian monk Dionisius Exiguus.

  • His choice was not arbitrary, but we know that the date given by Dionisius was almost certainly not the correct one.


A historical fact

Herod family tomb

A historical fact

  • Historians and biblical scholars agree that KingHerod died in late March or early April 4BC, shortly after a partial lunar eclipse observed from Jericho.

  • Thus the Nativity occurred before 4BC, probably not long before his death.


More odd coincidences

More odd “coincidences”

  • It is well known that when Dionysius Exiguus established the Christian calendar in the 6th Century, he committed two “errors”:

    • He did not include a year zero (the Romans did not use the number zero!); the calendar jumps directly from 1BC to 1AD and the Nativity was on December 25th 1AD.

    • He forgot to factor in the 4 years during which Augustus Caesar ruled under his given name of Octavian.

  • In the corrected Dionysian calendar the Nativity happened in 5BC, one year before Herod’s unlamented death.


Coincidence or design

Coincidence or design?

  • Is it just a coincidence that the revised Dionisian calendar gives a year for the Nativity consistent with the known date of the death of Herod?

  • Critics suggest that maybe Dionisius committed more errors and that the Nativity really happened even earlier, perhaps in 6 or 7BC.

    • This has been used to support some theories of the Star of Bethlehem.

    • But, nobody has ever suggested what those errors may have been.


The first christmas

The First Christmas

  • Why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25th?

  • It is quite certain that the Nativity did not happen on December 25th.


The clue of the shepherds

The clue of the shepherds

  • Why would the shepherds be watching their flocks at night?

    • The hills around Bethlehem reach altitudes up to almost 800m.

    • In winter the animals would usually be under cover, especially in bad weather.


The clue of the shepherds1

The clue of the shepherds

  • The weather in Bethlehem in December, January and February is cold and humid. Only a shepherd who wanted to risk pneumonia would sleep in the open.

    • It starts to improve in March when the shepherds would start to sleep out with their flocks.

    • At lambing time (March-April) they would have needed to keep watch intensely by night to help ewes in distress.

    • If there were large predators (e.g. wolves) they would sleep with their flocks, from March to September.


Why then december

Why then December?

  • Sol Invictus was the most important festivity in Rome.

  • It marked the shortest day.

  • It had been celebrated by the Celts from at least 1000BC.

  • Rather than abolish a popular holiday, the early Christian church adopted it and adapted it as their own second most important celebration.


Why then december1

Why then December?

  • The Roman celebrations of Sol Invictus were marked by:

    • The most important public holiday of the year.

    • Parades in the streets.

    • Giving and receiving of gifts.

    • Special meals and feasts.

    • Decorating houses with green bows.

  • Does this sound familiar???


The true date of the nativity

The true date of the Nativity

  • Other contextual clues (e.g. the inn being full) suggest that the Nativity occurred at a “special” time of year, with many people in transit.

  • Passover – Like lambing time, in March or April according to the year – fits the bill.

There are good contextual and historical reasons to believe that the Nativity may have occurred in March or April 5BC.


Consequences

Where did I go wrong???

Consequences?

  • The entire basis of our western calendar is wrong (the millennium was not 2001 but, in fact, 1996).

  • Christmas should be around Easter.

  • If we are looking for a Star of Bethlehem it had to appear no later than 5BC.


Popular wrong theories

Popular (wrong) theories

  • Venus

    • Visible low in the dawn sky this Christmas and in the evening sky in 2007.

    • The oldest known observations are of Venus.

    • If the Wise Men were fooled by Venus they could not have been very wise.


Popular wrong theories1

Popular (wrong) theories

  • Appeared in 12BC and was extensively observed by the Chinese.

  • If this was the Star of Bethlehem the Magi were obviously in no hurry to get to Bethlehem.


Popular wrong theories2

Popular (wrong) theories

  • A conjunction

    • There are about 10 conjunctions of bright planets each year.

    • The most spectacular around the Nativity was in 2BC.

    • The Magi either used a time machine, or earned huge quantities of “Frequent Camel-rider Miles”.


Popular wrong theories3

Popular (wrong) theories

  • A meteor

    • Can be very bright, impressive and move in the sky.

    • But, typically only visible 1-2 seconds.

    • Did the Magi have rocket-propelled camels?


Popular wrong theories4

Popular (wrong) theories

  • Don’t even THINK it!


Ancient chronicles babylon

Ancient chronicles: Babylon

  • Ancient chronicles have been carefully scrutinised to see what celestial phenomena were recorded that may have been the Star.

  • However there are few known records.

  • Tablet BM014 in the British Museum is a Babylonian observing log from 7BC.

  • It describes, in the driest language, the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7BC and the planetary massing of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in February 6BC.


The star of bethlehem and the christmas story

  • This was not a spectacular event. The two planets barely got within 1º of each other.

  • Triple conjunctions are rare: only 7 happened in the last millennium BC.

  • Like those of 980/979 & 861/860BC it took place in Pisces, a constellation often associated with the Jews.


Ancient chronicles china and korea

Ancient chronicles: China and Korea

  • Nor are there many oriental records from this epoch.

  • Between 20BC and 1BC there are just 4 catalogued events.

    • 12BC

    • 10BC

    • 5BC

    • 4BC


Ancient chronicles china and korea1

Ancient chronicles: China and Korea

  • The 12BC event is known to be Halley.

  • The 10BC event is a “ghost event” – another observation of Halley with the wrong year.

  • The 5 & 4BC events are interesting but, for years, caused confusion.


Oriental answers china

Oriental answers: China

  • The “Ch'ien-han-shu” states: 

  • "In the second year of the period of Ch'ien-p'ing, second month, a hui-hsing appeared in Ch'ien-niu for more than 70 days"

  • This can be translated as:

  • “During the interval between March 10th and April 7th of 5 BC, a comet that was visible for more than 70 days appeared close to Alpha and Beta Capricornii”

  • The chronicle gives a fixed position over two and a half months, not reasonable if the object really was a comet. The Chinese though often used “hui-hsing” to describe bright novae such as Tycho’s Star.

  • May is monsoon season in China so bad weather would almost certainly have curtailed further observations – the Star was almost certainly visible for longer, hence the phrase “more than 70 days”. 


The star of bethlehem and the christmas story

  • It starts first and is worst in the south.

  • From May 50% of days are rainy in Hong Kong.

  • Observations of the sky would have been almost impossible.


Oriental answers korea

Oriental answers: Korea

A second record is found in the Korean “History of Three Kingdoms- the Chronicle of Silla (Samguk Sagi)”

“Year 54 of Hyokkose Wang, second month, (day) Chi-yu, a po-hsing appeared in Ho-Ku”

As the date given was inexistent, like February 30th,it is believed that "Chi-yu" really should be "I-yu", a character written in an almost identical fashion in Chinese and easily confused with it.

If so, this can be translated as:

“On March 31st of 4 BC a bushy star appeared close to Altair”


Oriental answers

Oriental answers?

Another remarkable “coincidence”:

Either two separate, notable objects appeared at the same time of the year to the south of Aquila in consecutive years or, more probably, a single, bright nova appeared to the north of the star  Capricornii in March 5BC.

This is exactly the most probable date of the Nativity.


Ho ku ch ien nu

Ho-Ku & Ch’ien-Nu

  • Ho-Ku is Altair and some fainter stars in southern Aquila.

  • Ch’ien-Niu is an area of faint stars in northern Capricorn.

  • Some authors make much of this disagreement.


The ho ku date clue

The Ho-Ku date clue

  • But, on the date given by the Koreans (March 31st), the nova would have been in conjunction with the waning gibbous moon.

  • Only the brightest stars in the region, such as Altair, would have remained visible, hence the position given.

  • Probably the Koreans elected this reference date deliberately.


Ko hsing confusion

Ko-hsing confusion

  • The Chinese had a word “Ko-hsing” (Guest Star) for novae.

  • But it was not consistently used.

    • Bright novae and supernovae, including Tycho’s Star, were often described as comets.

  • European astronomers tended to do the same.

    • Tycho Brahe said, on first seeing the supernova “I am sure that yesterday this comet was not in the sky”.


Why a nova and not a comet

Why a nova and not a comet?

  • A “new star” would symbolise a birth.

    • The Chinese star did not move in the sky.

    • It appeared in the Milky Way where almost all novae appear.

  • Comets have been almost universally regarded as bad omens.

    • Comets were associated with deaths, not with births.

    • An apparition of Halley’s Comet was said (correctly!) to foretell the fall of Jerusalem.

      • The Jews thus had no reason to regard comets with other than fear.


The star of bethlehem and the christmas story

The nova would have appeared low in the east in the pre-dawn sky.


The star went before them

The Star went before them…

  • Modern translations of the Bible say that the Star was seen “at its rising” – in other words its first appearance in the dawn sky.

  • This is exactly how the nova would have appeared in the sky.

  • But the Star “went before the Magi” on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

    • The Star must have been in the south at that time to appear OVER Bethlehem.

    • Where would the nova have been after the 8 weeks the Magi would have taken to arrive from Persia?


The star of bethlehem and the christmas story

By then the nova would have been almost exactly due south at dawn, leading the Magi to Bethlehem from Jerusalem.


Why complicate things

Why complicate things?

  • The Chinese nova of March 5BC offers a simple, plausible explanation of the Star.

  • It fits in with the Biblical and other contemporary accounts of the Star and with historical knowledge.

  • It would have appeared suddenly, unexpectedly, shining brightly in the dawn sky at just the right time.

  • What better sign of the birth of a new-born king than a bright (absolutely real), new star?


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