Have you ever wondered if Jesus was really born on the 25th December?
Would shepherds and their sheep be outdoors in the fields in the middle of winter? And what are we supposed to make of the cynics who say that the Christmas birth story is just a variation of the ancient myth of the god of wine, Dionysus (also known as Bacchus, or Iacchus) supposedly born of a virgin mother on that day? Perhaps we, like the ancient Magi of the Christmas story, should look to the heavens for the answers.
The autumn equinox in the northern hemisphere is on the 22nd September, and this month is a far more likely candidate for the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ than is December, here’s why: Interestingly, on the 22nd September 3 BC the planet Mercury was in the constellation of Virgo at sunrise (as seen from Bethlehem). Above Mercury stood Venus, in almost perfect alignment, and above that, in the constellation of Leo, stood Jupiter in conjunction with the star Regulus. This would have been a significant astronomical event to the ancient wise men, the Magi, who would probably have attributed great religious significance to it. One week earlier, the planets Venus and Mercury were in perfect conjunction at dawn, and this would also have attracted the attention of ancient astronomers. So, if we are looking for a suitable date for the birth of Jesus Christ, the 22nd September 3 BC would fit nicely.
There has been a lot of speculation about the nature of the Star of Bethlehem. Some think it was a comet, others that it was a supernova, and yet others that it was a specially created miraculous stellar phenomenon. I have read several articles on this subject, but none of the explanations given satisfies me.
The biblical data is as follows. The wise men reported to King Herod that they were searching for the recently born Jewish Messiah because they had seen ‘his star rising in the east…’ (Matthew 2:2). The account in Matthew’s Gospel goes on to say that Herod inquired of these Magi the ‘exact time the star had appeared.’ On the advice of his scholars, he then directed the Magi to Bethlehem, and the star ‘went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.’ The wise men then entered the house where Mary was. Note the use of the word ‘house’ and not ‘stable’. The account tells us that the Magi saw a ‘child’, not a ‘baby’, and bowed down and worshipped him. The wise men then did not tell Herod where the child was living, and so the evil king ordered the slaughter of all boys of two years old or under living in or around Bethlehem.
What we can glean from this data is firstly, that the star was observed ‘rising in the east’. The Magi most probably came from Babylonia, where the priestly class of scientists studied astronomy. Their practice was to observe the heavenly bodies at dawn each morning. They noted and interpreted the meaning of the constellation and planets which appeared on the eastern horizon as the sun rose. To them, each star sign signified a nation, and each planet and first order star had a special significance. The ancients regarded the planets as ‘wandering stars’ because they did not know the scientific differences between stars and planets, and merely observed that the planets appeared to wander across the night sky while other stars stood still in the heavens.
I used a computerised astronomy programme called Skyglobe (No longer easily available but Stellarium is an excellent current equivalent – http://www.stellarium.org/), and came up with the following interesting findings. At dawn on the 12th August 3 BC, the Magi would have observed Jupiter and Venus rising over the eastern horizon in conjunction with each other in the constellation of Leo. When planets are in conjunction, it means they appear to overlap as one bright object in the night sky. The Babylonian Magi knew Leo as the Royal Constellation. These ancient astronomer–priests assigned different star signs to different nations and Leo represented the nation of Israel. The conjunction of the two planets was just above the star Regulus, known to the ancients as the ‘king’s star’. These observations could have indicated to the Magi that a king was to be born in Israel.
It is unlikely, however, that the Babylonian wise men would have embarked on the long journey to Israel on that information alone. Then something very unusual happened. Jupiter has an elliptical orbit of long duration and sometimes appears, from our earthly vantage point, to pause in the heavens and then to retrace its path. In the sixteen months between 12th September 3 BC and 25th December 2 BC, it did more than just pause in the heavens.
On the 12th September 3 BC Jupiter (1) came into conjunction with the star Regulus in the constellation of Leo. Mercury and Venus were also in Leo on that day, close together and between the horizon and Jupiter. To an observer in Babylon, the three planets would have appeared as three lights, each one above the other, between the horizon and Regulus. Jupiter then appeared to continue on its westward journey through the heavens. Then on the 1st December 3 BC (2) it appeared to stop. Within a few days, it started to retrace its path through the night sky, heading in a roughly easterly direction. On the 17th February 2 BC (3) it was once again in conjunction with Regulus in the constellation of Leo. It continued on, heading east, until on the 27th March 2 BC (4) it once again stopped. Jupiter then appeared to head back west until on the 3rd of May 2 BC (5) it came into an extraordinary third conjunction with Regulus. It must have appeared to the Magi that Jupiter had circled Regulus, like Phoenix, the mythical celestial bird, before heading off once again towards the west. Surely this would have been the sign to them that a great king had been born in Israel.
Jesus was most likely born just ten days after the first conjunction of Jupiter with Regulus, the King’s Star. The Magi waited for the confirmation of the third conjunction before setting off for the land of Israel, to their West. They would have arrived in Jerusalem in late December of the year 2 BC because on the 25th December 2 BC (6) the planet Jupiter appeared to come to a stop in the night sky for an amazing third time.
The 25th December may not be Jesus’ birthday, but it is nevertheless a significant day. On that day the Magi, representing the wisdom, wealth, and power of the world, came and bowed before the Lord. This still happens in our day.