Penny: I’m a Sagittarius, which probably tells you way more than you need to know.
Sheldon: Yes, it tells us that you participate in the mass cultural delusion that the sun’s apparent position relative to arbitrarily defined constellations at the time of your birth somehow affects your personality. – The Big Bang Theory
As Sheldon states above, many people today still believe that the stars define our personalities and influence our lives. They will go so far as to claim that major events can be predicted. In a pinch, men and women can still resort to the tired cliché “what’s your sign?” pick up line. Some people are so deluded by astrology that they make sure that they will only date compatible star signs. Humans have been enamored by the stars ever since they gazed up in awe at them. You might notice today that many of the astrology readings have a disclaimer in small print which reads, “for entertainment purposes only.” Despite this disclaimer and all we know scientifically to refute astrology, people still believe. Imagine what the people living 2000 years ago thought. The Magi of the day did not come with any disclaimers. Any weird shit going on in the sky was divine and important. Period.
Myth #4: The Star of Bethlehem
In antiquity, their was only one word for comets, meteors, novas, supernovas, and planetary conjunctions. That word was ‘star.’ I want to get the actual star business out of the way before I go into why it matters.
We now know that many things can happen in the heavens to cause bright looking objects. So I do not question that throughout history many astronomical events have occurred and have been interpreted to mean something. So what could the event that allegedly happened at the birth of Jesus be?
We can rule out a fireball meteor since they last only seconds and the Magi had to follow it long enough to reach Bethlehem.
It could have been a comet. They are known to stick around long enough to attract attention. It wasn’t Haley’s Comet since that was around 11BC and would have been too early for the birth of Jesus. If it happened to be a similar comet that was large enough to attract attention, we should have a record of it outside of the bible. Since we do not, it is unlikely that a comet was the Star of Bethlehem. But the main reason we should rule out comets is that they were bad omens. A comet would have been a sign of something evil and not the birth of a god or king.
Our next suspect would be either a nova or supernova. These could surely be bright enough to attract attention. The problem is that we have no record of any occurring during the time the Magi took their walk.
Next we have planetary conjunctions, when 2 or more planets are close together and create that bright star look. The Magi would have known about the planets. They called them “wandering stars.” So it isn’t likely that the Magi would mistake the wandering stars for one new bright star. But if these Magi were bad at their job, perhaps they did. We do know that during the time period of Jesus’ alleged birth, a few planetary conjunctions did occur.
Our final possibility is that the star was supernatural. In fact, if you take the bible literally, it would have been supernatual. In 1967, Hubert J. Bernhard created a series of four LP record albums called “The Planetarium Lecture Series” in an attempt to educate and popularize astronomy. One of the topics dealt with the Star of Bethlehem.
“If you accept the story told in the Bible as the literal truth, then the Christmas Star could not have been a natural apparition. Its movement in the sky and its ability to stand above and mark a single building; these would indicate that it was not a normal phenomenon, but a supernatural sign. One given from on high and one that science will never be able to explain.”
I do not accept that it was a supernatural event. We have no evidence of anything that matches the description. In fact, I would believe the ancient astronaut theorists from the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens that it was a UFO before believing it was some star that god used to guide the Magi. Why would God need to do that anyway? Hasn’t he already proven in the bible that he can talk to people? Am I smarter than God? Why not just tell the Magi to “go to Bethlehem?” This would eliminate them going and alerting Herod and that would also save the lives of the children who were killed by Herod. God is ultimately responsible for the death of the babies 2 and under in and around Bethlehem because his communication skills suck. He is announcing the birth of his son, you would think he could speak up for this instead of using a star. In fact, in this story, God comes to the Magi in a dream to tell them to get the hell out of Bethlehem– warning that Herod was pissed at them. So why didn’t he use this form of communication initially? Dumbass!
But if God was to do that, the world would not know that Jesus is important and prophecy would not be fulfilled. This is why the star matters in the story. Throughout history, major events in the sky have told of the birth of great kings. This story of the Magi, the star and the gifts all point to one theme: A king has been born. That is the message of the Matthew nativity story. And he stole the story from so many previous birth stories from mythology. Any person who bothers to study mythology will recognize this birth narrative.
It’s like that time in 1987 when I saw the movie Fatal Attraction with Glenn Close in the theater. As the story unfolded, I said to myself, I saw this movie before but it was called Play Misty for Me (with Clint Eastwood). For those of you who are younger, you can replace this story with James Cameron’s Avatar which everyone instantly recognized as Dances with Wolves or Pocahontas.
If you don’t believe that Matthew was stealing, do the research yourself. Look at the birth narratives of great kings throughout antiquity. Did they have visitors? Were they kingly visitors? Was there an astronomical event? The author of Matthew isn’t doing anything new here. In fact, if the writers of the New Testament were around today they would all end up in court for ripping off other people’s stories.
As I stated in the 3 Wise Guys blog, the author of Matthew knew what he needed to be in his story. He also insists on connecting it to Jewish scripture to fulfill prophecy. The star fulfills the star prophecy in the book of Numbers:
I see Him, but not now;
I behold Him, but not near;
A Star shall come out of Jacob;
A Scepter shall rise out of Israel,
And batter the brow of Moab,
And destroy all the sons of tumult.
The author of Matthew had a road map based off of the prophecies he knew had to happen. He used that map to write his gospel. None of the Jewish people thought Jesus was fulfilling prophecy but I’ll save that topic for a future blog.
What I find very suspicious is that during the time the author of Matthew was writing his gospel, Haley’s Comet was in town. In 66 AD, Haley’s Comet makes an appearance. A delegation of Magi show up in Rome. This delegation was led by a king who came seeking confirmation of his title from Emperor Nero. This event was probably a big deal in Rome–maybe something like Woodstock for the Magi-inclined. The ancient historian Dio Cassius wrote that, “The King did not return by the route he had followed in coming.” This phrase is echoed in Matthew’s account of the Magi after visiting Jesus.
As a writer, I know that you tend to put things in the stories you write based on things that are happening around you. It would seem that this is what is happening here. Matthew’s author knows he needs a narrative worthy of a heavenly king, he knows the ingredients necessary to convince his readers; 3 cups of magi, 1 tbsp of gold, 1 tsp of frankincense, a drop of myrrh, and a pinch of stardust. One Star Child coming right up!