December 24, 1975

What Did The Wise Men See?

Of all the Christmas miracles - historical and, legendary - the Star of Bethlehem has been one of the most intriguing to theologians and astronomers.

What did the Three Wise Men see in the sky that led them to a stable and a Holy Babe?

Certainly it was a "star" of some sort for the Magi of old were such keen observers of astronomical phenomena that their name survives in the word "magic."

It is just as certain, however, that the star did not literally move ahead of the Persian Magi to hover like some heavenly plumb-bob over a particular stable within a small village.  The distance traveled by the Wise Men was approximately 800 miles.  An arc proscribed by that tiny distance proportionate to the nearest planet or star is difficult to measure with modern instruments.

The precise date of Jesus' birth is not known.  The date of 1 A.D., fixed by the Roman monk Dionysius Exiguus in the sixth century, was based on a miscalculation.  Thus, scholars must look to internal evidence of the Gospels for the true birthday of Christ.

The Gospel of Matthew tells us that the birth took place "in the days of Herod the king."  Historians are generally agreed that Herod died after a lunar eclipse of March 13 in the year 4 B.0 by our present calendar.

From the Gospel of Luke we learn that "a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed" caused the parents of Jesus to journey to Bethlehem where He was born.

Records have been found of such a decree in the year 8 B.C.  Considering that communication was slow, and the administrative machinery for taxing far flung villages cumbersome, it is reasonable to suppose that the probable date of Jesus' birth was sometime between 7 and 4 B.C.

The time of year it took place probably was not December.  The 25th of that month was not celebrated as Christmas until the fourth century when Christians were persecuted.  In the days of the Romans, the shortest day of the year, and the beginning of the new year, fell on December 25 instead of the 21st as it does now.  This was the first of a series of festivals called the Saturnalia in tribute to Saturn for the crops just harvested and the new crops to come.  It was a convenient time for Christians to celebrate because it drew no public notice.

Luke's story of the shepherds "keeping watch over the flock by night" places the season of Jesus' birth in the summer of the year when sheep are grazed at night to avoid intense midday heat.  At other times of the year the sheep are gathered in corrals for safe keeping.

Astronomers have examined carefully what spectacular celestial event might have taken place between January of 7 B.C. and Mar. of 4 B.C. to account for the star seen by the Three Wise Men.  Their statement, "We have seen his star in the east," means they saw it while they were in the east.  The star was probably in the western or southwestern sky and it led them from Persia to Jerusalem.

It has been suggested that a comet was the star of the Magi, but no orbit of the presently known comets can be retraced to the probable time period.  A meteor is seen only for an instant so it could not have persisted long enough to inspire a long and difficult journey.

A nova, or exploding star, would be a prominent new landmark in the sky.  Several times each century bright stars are discovered.  They are so unusual that the ancient astrologers noted them carefully.  Such stars brighten noticeably for months or years but eventually fade.  Though novae were observed before and after the probable period of Jesus' birth, none have been recorded from 8 B.C. to 4 B.C.

This leaves one other source of unusual sky phenomena - planetary conjunctions.  In 1604 a German astronomer named Kepler observed a triple conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn.  This rare event, in which the planets appear to pass each other three times within a few weeks occurs no oftener than once in 125 years.  During the conjunctions, the two stars appear to draw close together and glow with combined brightness.

Kepler noted that the great conjunction of 1604 had as its star background the constellation of Pisces, the fishes, and this could happen only about every 805 years.  He retraced the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn and found there had been great conjunctions in Pisces in 799 A.D.  and in 7 B.C.  The latter passages took place between May 29 and December 4.

The zodiacal constellation Pisces was known to ancient astrologers as a symbol of the "House of the Hebrews," just as other constellations were considered favorable to other nations of the time.  Any unusual change of star patterns in the Pisces constellation would be considered significant to the fortunes of the Hebrews.

The Wise Men undoubtedly were familiar with the Holy Book of the Hebrews - our Old Testament - in which it was prophesied that a Messiah for the Jews would be born in Bethlehem.  It would be natural for the learned astrologers to connect the new phenomena in the Hebrew Constellation with the widely believed prophecy.

Perhaps the Three Wise Men saw a vision visible only to them.  If so, it was a true miracle which they shared with a waiting world.

While we contemplate the selfless life of Jesus, we also could emulate the Magi and follow our own vision of love.

 

1980 REWRITE

December 25, 1980

What Did The Wise Men See?

Of all the Christmas miracles - historical and legendary - the Star of Bethlehem has been one of the most intriguing to theologians and astronomers.  

What did the Three Wise Men see in the sky that led them to a stable and Holy Babe?

Certainly it was a "star" of some sort for the Magi of the old were such keen observers and forecasters of astronomical phenomena that their name survives in the word "magic."

It is just as certain, however, that the star did not literally move ahead of the Persian Magi to hover like some heavenly plumb-bob over a particular stable within a small village.  The distance traveled by the Wise Men was approximately 800 miles (Babylon to Bethlehem).  An arc proscribed by that tiny Earth distance, proportionate to the nearest star or planet, is difficult to measure with modern instruments.  

The precise date of Jesus' birth is not known.  The date of 1 A.D., fixed by the Roman Monk Fionysuis Exiguus in the sixth century, was based on a miscalculation.  Thus, scholars must look to internal evidence of the Gospels for the true birthday of Christ.  

The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus was born "in the days of Hrod the King."  Historians are generally agreed that Herod died after a lunar eclipse of March 13 in the year 4 B.C. by our present calendar.  

From the Gospel of Luke we learn that "decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed" caused the parents of Jesus to journey to Bethlehem where the Christ was born.  

Records have been found of such a decree in the year 8 B.C. Considering that communication was slow, and the administrative machinery for taxing far flung villages cumbersome, it is reasonable to suppose that the probable date of Jesus' birth was sometime between 7 and 4 B.C.  

The time of year it took place probably was not December.  The 25th of that month was not celebrated as Christmas until the fourth century A.D. when Christians were persecuted.  In the days of the Romans, the shortest date of the year, and the beginning of the new year, fell on December 25 instead of the 21st as it does now.  This was the first of a series of festivals called the Saturnalia in tribute to Saturn for resurrecting the sun.  it was a convenient time for Christmas to celebrate because it drew no public notice.  

Luke's story of shepherds "keeping watch over the flock by night" places the season of Jesus' birth in the summer when sheep in the Mideast are grazed at night to avoid the mid-day heat.  At other times of the year the sheep are gathered at night in corrals for safe keeping.  

Astronomers have examined carefully what spectacular celestial event might have taken place between January of 7 B.C. and March 13 of 4 B.C. to account for the star seen by the Three Wise Men.  Their statement, "Wee have seen his star in the East," means they saw it while they were in the east.  The star probably was in the western or south-western sky in order to lead them from Persia to Jerusalem.  

It has been suggested that a comet was the star of the Magi, but no orbit of the presently known comets can be retraced to the probable time period.  A meteor is seen only for an instant so it could not have persisted long enough to inspire a long and difficult journey.  

A nova, or exploding star, would be a prominent new landmark in the sky.  Several times each century bright stars are discovered.  They are so unusual that ancient astrologers noted them carefully.  Such novas brighten noticeably for months or years but eventually fade.  Though such stars were observed before and after the probable period of Jesus' birth, none have been recorded from 8 B.C. to 4 B.C.

This leaves one other source of unusual sky phenomena - planetary conjunctions.  In 1604, a German astronomer named Kepler observed a triple conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn.  This rare event, in which the planets appear to merge and pass each other three times within a few weeks, occurs no oftener than once in 125 years.  During the conjunctions, the two planets appear to draw close together and glow with combined brightness.  

Kepler noted that the great conjunction of 1604 had as its star background the constellation of Pisces, the fishes, and this could happen only about every 805 years.  He retraced the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn and found there had been great conjunctions in Pisces in 799 A.D. and 7 B.C.  The latter passages took place between May 29 and December 4.  

The zodiacal constellation Pisces was known to ancient astrologers as a symbol of the "House of the Hebrews," just as other constellations were considered favorable to other nations of the time.  Any unusual changes of star patterns in the Pisces constellation would be considered significant to the fortunes of the Hebrews.

The Magi undoubtedly were familiar with the Holy Book of the Hebrews - our Old Testament - in which it was prophesied that a Messiah for the Jews would be born in Bethlehem.  It would be natural for the learned astrologers to connect the new phenomena in the Hebrew constellation with the widely believed prophecy.  

Perhaps the Three Wise Men saw a vision visible only to them.  If so, it was a true miracle which they shared with a waiting world.  

While we contemplate the selfless life of Jesus, we also could emulate the Magi and follow our own vision of brotherhood.  

Author: Lindsey Williams

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