What was the Christmas star? Rick Larson in his DVD Star of Bethlehem gives some very compelling evidence to what the star likely could have been. It could not have been something that would draw much attention to it because no one seemed to know about the star until the Magi came to Jerusalem and started asking questions. However, the star did do some unusual things for a star. Larson takes the scientific approach and does explain many of these occurrences. Some, however, state that only a unique event designed by God could explain the occurrence of it being over the house where Jesus was in Bethlehem (Mt 2:9). However, does it have to be all or none: i.e., does it have to be all scientific in explanation or all miraculous in design? Could it not be some of both? Let’s look more closely.
Larson gives compelling evidence to the date of Christ’s conception. At the time of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, in September of 3 BC, the planet Jupiter (known as the king planet) made a very close conjunction with the star Regulus (known as the king star), and over the next couple of months Jupiter actually made three conjunctions with Regulus. Not only that, but this occurred in the constellation of Leo, which is the constellation representing a lion, both a symbol of Judah as well as of the coming conquering Messiah and would fulfill the prophecy of Isaac to Judah (Gn 49:9) as these three conjunctions would be occurring around the feet of Leo within this constellation. In addition, the constellation Virgo at the time of Rosh Hashanah in 3 BC would occur during the daytime, i.e., clothed in the sun, as described in Revelation, with the new moon at her feet (Rv 12:1-5). Rosh Hashanah was also known as the Feast of Trumpets (Lv 23:24-25) which was a memorial feast of the blowing of trumpets to ask God to remember His covenant with Israel. Therefore, the conception of the Messiah would indeed represent God remembering His people after the 400 years of prophetic silence.
Before Jesus was born, Joseph, who currently lived in Nazareth, which was around the Galilee region of Israel, found that he had to return to Bethlehem for a census since that was the birthplace of his ancestors (Mt 1:1-17; Lk 2:1-4). Bethlehem was approximately 5 miles south of Jerusalem. The prophet Micah had prophesied some 700 years prior that the birth of the Messiah would occur in Bethlehem (Mi 5:2).
Again, the stars told the story. After the triple conjunction of Jupiter with Regulus, Jupiter continued its journey for a rendezvous with Venus, the Mother planet. With the naked eye, they would appear as one star– one very bright star. This would have occurred in June and would coincide with Christ’s birth.
Just because a star is bright doesn’t mean it would draw much attention by people in and of itself. Actually, not too long ago (12-Mar-2012) we had a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus which was made Venus brighter than ever. However, not many really paid attention except to perhaps think, “Wow, Venus is awfully bright tonight.” Only those watching and understanding the planetary movements understood the significance and rarity of the event.
Therefore, if Larsen is correct, then someone who would know and understand these movements of the planets would be needed. Who would that be? The Magi, of course. These were scientists and priests of their day who would have a knowledge of the stars, their movements, and astronomical events.
The Magi, or wise men, who came to visit Jesus brought gifts (Mt 2:1-11), were likely of Parthian descent. Parthian kings were elected by the Megistanes which was composed of two houses: the “Royal House,” or Arsacids, which consisted of the male members of the royal line – called the “Magi,” and “the Senate” which consisted of the prominent secular leaders – called the “Wise Men.” Kings did not have to succeed from father to son but those selected for kingship did have to be a member of the Royal House and were elected by a concurrent vote between the two houses. It is possible that these were actual descendants from Northern Israel and similar in function to the Levites in Judah. It was known by the Jews that many of the northern ten tribes of Israel still lived beyond the Euphrates, i.e., Parthian territory.
It is likely the Magi had their beginnings with Daniel as he became the chief of the Magi (wise men) during Nebuchadnezzar’s day (Dn 2:48) and was highly regarded by the reigning kings up through the reign of Cyrus (Dn 6:28). It is also very likely that Daniel would have influence on the house of Jehoiachin when brought to Babylon (2Ki 24:15; 2Ch 36:9-10) and when released (2Ki 25:27-30) and could have had influence on how to maintain the kingly succession when outside Jerusalem. He also had insight when the promised Messiah would be born (Dn 9:25). All of this could have started the watch for the proper king to return and the maintenance of the proper bloodline so the prophecy could be fulfilled and documented.
The Magi who came were likely more than three and were likely a very large delegation and likely had an armed escort. Their arrival caused all of Jerusalem to be concerned (Mt 2:3). These were tenuous times between Rome and Parthia, so for such a large delegation to cross the Euphrates River into Judea – Roman territory – could likely have sparked another war if heads were not kept cool. Herod could have taken insult to their question of “Where is he that is born king of the Jews?” (Mt 2:2) as that was the title Rome had given to him. Although Herod plotted (Mt 2:8), the scribes told the Magi that scripture had predicted the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem and the Magi continued their journey toward Bethlehem (Mt 2:5-9).
No one knows exactly when the Magi began their journey. They apparently arrived in Bethlehem as Jupiter entered retrograde motion on December 25, 2 BC over the town of Bethlehem. This would have given them at least 6 months to make their journey, likely from Persia. Jesus would have been of Arsacid descent and would explain the reason for the trip of the Magi as well as the elaborate gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh which they brought to give to this one they recognized as a king (Mt. 2:11). They likely also understood his prophetic significance as these gifts pointed to Jesus being prophet [myrrh], priest [frankincense] and king [gold] (again, likely from the teachings of Daniel and understanding Old Testament Scripture). Jesus would have been six months old at this time. It is likely that Herod’s decree of killing all children in Bethlehem up to the age of two was to be certain that the “correct” child was killed. After all, although the child was only 6 months, the signs in the stars occurred 9 months earlier which would make the total time to be slightly under two years. Herod, and the wise men, may have been unsure if the initial signs were of conception or of birth. Herod was making sure of either in case it was the later.
So the signs in the heavens got the Magi to Israel and they stopped by the capital city to find out where this king was living. The Jewish scribes repeated the prophecy of Micah stating that he was prophesied to be born in Bethlehem (Mi 5:2). Therefore, when they were leaving Jerusalem, they again saw the star and it led them to the house where Jesus was living (Mt 2:9-10). This is where some have a problem with Larsen’s scientific approach as this is hard to explain. However, I think this is where the Shekinah glory of God could have played a part (like it did in the Old Testament when it led the Israelites to their Promised Land [Ex 13:21]). It could have appeared in the form of the star the Magi had been seeing and could have hovered over the exact house where Jesus was living. That would be consistent with scripture, not be out of scope for God to do, and would have been rational in the Magi’s mind as it would form a continuity of their trek following the star and then pointing them to their final destination.
God revealed to the Magi that they should not return to Herod so they went back to their homeland via a different route (Mt 2:12). However, this is likely not the end of the incident. Herod, and Rome, would not have known of the Magi’s true intentions. After all, less than 40 years earlier, the Parthian king Antigonus had captured Palestine and ruled as “king of the Jews” for 3 years (40-37 BC) causing Herod to have to flee. Parthian rule had been popular with the Jews. Mark Antony was later able to defeat Antigonus, have him beheaded, and pushed the Parthians back to beyond the Euphrates River. However, further wins were not successful and Rome was unable to subdue Parthian territory east of the Euphrates River. Since that time détente had ruled, but now was the question of whether Parthia was trying to regain Palestine by looking for another Jewish king. History tells of a great summit conference between Rome and Parthia that occurred in 1 BC on an island in the Euphrates River (neutral territory). Therefore, the visit of the Magi may have been the spark or a contributing factor to this unrest that ended peacefully.
Therefore, we see consistency between scripture and history, between scripture and science and still being consistent with how God works.