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Born under a wandering star

by
31 December 2020

Arnold Smith celebrates a rare celestial event — and draws out its biblical implications

Michele Cornelius/Alamy

Composite of the Christmas star conjuction of Saturn and Jupiter in Alaska with a partial moon

Composite of the Christmas star conjuction of Saturn and Jupiter in Alaska with a partial moon

APPROACHING Epiphany, we are still in the season of Christmas, celebrating the greatest wonder of all time, when God Almighty entered his own creation as a baby. And we fill the time, not just with feasting and merrymaking, but with futile fables (I wonder how long it will be before the season is officially named Santamas).

We have observed most of the Twelve Days, and collected our round dozen of partridges and pear trees. We have only the final Stripping of the Christmas Cards (and Malvolio’s yellow stockings) to endure to celebrate the coming of the Magi — which, surely, is quite a straightforward and unornamented story. Or is it?

Let us consider what Matthew actually says:

GL Archive/AlamyJohannes Kepler, 17th-century German mathematician, astronomer, and astrologer

In the days of Herod the King. . . This is clearly Herod the Great, the builder of the Temple and a great advocate for the position of Judaea — “Make Judaea great again” — a most forceful and rather self-centred character, perhaps even the Donald Trump of the first century. Herod’s death was in April of the year 4 BC. Matthew fixes his narrative in historic fact. This is no once-upon-a-time fable.

There came Wise Men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who is born King of the Jews?” The “Wise Men” are Magi, whom we should probably call astrologers or sorcerers. Men of some status in their own land, they could afford the cost of the journey and the princely gifts, as well as being able to take time out for a year’s travel; but it is most unlikely (though not impossible) that any of them were kings. It is also unlikely that they came from each of the three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa; this notion seems to be an anachronistic attempt to introduce democratic representation (Matthew later refers to their return to “their own country”, singular).

The Greek word for East is anatole, which also means “rising”, the direction of the sunrise. Even in English, the word has the same root: Easter is, literally, the Festival of Rising. Here, anatole occurs in the plural, signifying a region (like the Near East or the Middle East). There are almost as many theories about where exactly these Magi came from as there are scholars of the subject, but I would favour Babylonia. Astrology was practised there, and the Jews had been exiled there in the time of Nebuchadnezzar.

The nub of this tale is here. The Magi were in no wise uncertain: their occult knowledge led them to a definite conclusion — (i) royal birth, and (ii) Judaea — so they went straight to the capital city.

For we have seen his star in the east and are come to worship him. The Greek word translated as “worship” does not necessarily imply a deity; a better translation might be “to do him homage”. “East” here is singular, and we might render this, “We have seen his star at its rising.” In the first century, “star” did not have to possess its present-day meaning, but could be anything observed in the skies that was familiar to astrologers and whose meaning was well understood by them. Astrologers through the ages have interested themselves especially in the movements of the planets — the “wandering stars” — and their progression through the constellations, or the Twelve Houses of the Zodiac.

Herod inquired . . . and he sent them to Bethlehem . . . and lo, the star which they had seen . . . went before them and came and stood over the place. . . When they saw the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. We should note particularly that there is no mention of the star during their travel to Jerusalem. They saw it before starting out from Babylon, and again when they set out from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The journey from Babylon to Jerusalem would have taken four or five months (cf. Ezra 7 and Ezekiel 33), which rather rules out a supernova event (when a very faint and unobserved star suddenly bursts into light and becomes visible before fading back to invisibility over a few days or weeks).

An alternative explanation was favoured by Johannes Kepler, Imperial Astronomer to Emperor Rudolph of Bohemia, who, observing a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in 1603, was impressed with the idea (previously suggested by various experts) that a similar event was the origin of Matthew’s story.

 

ON A clear night, about 6000 stars are visible without telescopic aid. These are the “Fixed Stars”, which form groupings that we recognise and name as constellations: Cygnus (the Swan), Orion (the Hunter), etc. All appear to rise in the east, cross the sky, and set in the west (actually they circle around the earth, but we cannot see them when they are on the other side of the earth, or when their light is overwhelmed by the brightness of the sun). But these stars are very distant from Earth, and travel together in strict formation; the constellations do not change shape.

The far fewer “Wandering Stars”, which accompany the Fixed Stars in their nightly rising and setting, are members of our own solar system, which have superimposed on this motion another motion of their own against the background of the more distant ones. They travel not in strict formation, but independently of one another, from west to east. They all follow circular paths that lie in a band around the heavens, called the Zodiac. This path is marked out by a series of constellations, known to astrologers as the Houses of the Zodiac.

INTERFOTO/AlamyJupiter-Saturn conjunction, drawing by Johannes Kepler, Prague, December 1603

These “stars” all go the same way, but at differing speeds, like racing cars round a circular racetrack. There are no collisions, because (i) the track is wide, and (ii) the planets are at very different distances from us. But, because of the differing speeds, we sometimes see one overtaking another. As one planet passes close (as seen from Earth) to another, this is referred to as a “conjunction”. Jupiter is one of the slowest movers, with a lap time of about 12 years; Saturn is even slower with a time of 29½ years. So Jupiter overtakes Saturn and is “in conjunction” every 19.9 years.

 

BUT this is what we would see from the centre of the system — from the sun — whereas we are observing from Earth, which also circles the sun, with a lap time of only one year. So Earth overtakes each of the outer planets once a year. Have you ever been in a train that overtakes another train travelling on a parallel track in the same direction? The other train appears to be moving backwards.

In the same way, each of the outer planets seems, from time to time, to stop and then reverse for a while — to “retrograde”. If this happens at about the time of a conjunction, then we may observe a triple conjunction. Jupiter creeps up on Saturn and passes (first conjunction); then stops (first stationary point), retrogrades, and passes again, going the other way (second conjunction); reaches a second stationary point, reverses again, and passes again, going forward (third conjunction).

Triple conjunctions of any sort are rather uncommon. The one that Kepler observed in 1603 occurred in the zodiacal House of Pisces, the Constellation of the Fishes, associated by astrologers with the land of Judaea. Kepler reckoned that a similar triple conjunction in Pisces had occurred in 7-6 BC, and was what had been observed by the Magi. Triple conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces seem to occur about every 805 years, so are even rarer. The conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn at 2020’s winter solstice (this time in Capricorn) caused the two planets to appear to the naked eye as a single bright object, and was the closest they have been since 1623, when Galileo was alive; they won’t meet so closely again until 2080.

 

DAVID HUGHES (The Star of Bethlehem Mystery, J. M. Dent, 1979) has calculated the positions of these planets throughout the relevant period. The first conjunction occurs in late May of the year 7 BC, with the planets only one degree apart (twice the diameter of the full moon). They move to about three degrees apart, and, after about five months, come close again. The second conjunction, second stationary point, and third conjunction run close together over October and November.

This fits well with Matthew’s narrative. First, the Magi see the May event (conjunction of Jupiter with Saturn = royal birth; House of Pisces = Judaea). They decide to go, plan their journey, and set out. While the Magi are travelling, the two planets move apart. When the Magi arrive in October, they rejoice to see that the planets have come close together again. They complete their mission with the short journey to Bethlehem, noting that the second stationary point (which separates the remaining two conjunctions) occurs as they reach the stable. I guess that Matthew’s reference to the star’s “standing still” derives ultimately from what the Magi said of their travels.

 

SOME Christians will hold to the belief that the matter is supernatural: God can perform any miracle he may wish; so why should we look for merely naturalistic explanations? I would argue, first, that the behaviour of the Magi points to their having used their specialised astrological lore. If God chose to use signs that were wholly outside the accepted astrological canon, he would also have needed to reveal to the Magi how to interpret these unprecedented occurrences. Furthermore, why would he send them to Jerusalem, since this resulted in the deaths of innocent children?

But what is the benefit of replacing the story in the carols with a more factual account? What spiritual lessons are to be learned? We have, in any case, the example of notable scholars’ devoting a considerable effort in honouring the Lord. I think we now also have a further example of the heavens’ showing forth the glory of God: the very planets’ demonstrating incredible patience in fulfilling God’s purposes.

Perhaps, as we think of Jupiter circling trillions of times towards the one moment of glory, and of God saying “Not yet,” we may find a lesson in patience for ourselves. And perhaps we will be inspired to think of Jupiter — that stupendous mass of gases, a thousand times the size of Earth — as not just a stage in planetary evolution, but also a significant part of God’s plan for the whole of creation.

 

Dr Arnold J. Smith is a retired chemist and crystallographer living with family in New Zealand.

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