Some two thousand years ago, a group of wise men from an eastern land journeyed to the Roman province of Palestine. The men followed a star that led them to Bethlehem where they found a young child who was to be King of the Jews.
In the years since the journey of the wise men, readers of the Bible have wondered what kind of star would have led them east to Jerusalem and then stopped over the home of the young Jesus. Now, thanks to modern technology, a law professor from Texas A&M University may have found the answer.
On his website, www.bethlehemstar.net, and in a companion video, Frederick Larson details his search to find the meaning of the Christmas star. Using computer software that incorporates the mathematic equations representing Johannes Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. This software can rewind the motion of the stars and planets so that we can view the same night sky that the ancients saw.
From a close reading of Matthew chapter 2, Larson lists nine points that must be satisfied by any legitimate candidate for the Christmas star. The star signified both birth and kingship. The star symbolized the Jewish nation. The star rose in the east and appeared at a precise time, yet Herod did not know about it. The star also endured over a period long enough for the wise men to travel to Bethlehem. Finally, it was ahead of the wise men when they traveled from Jerusalem, Herod’s capitol, south to Bethlehem, and then stopped. Most theories about the Christmas star fall short in one or more of these categories.
One candidate for the star would be the planet Jupiter, which represented kings to the ancients. When Larson looked more closely at Jupiter, he found that in 3-2 BC, the King Planet began to exhibit the characteristics of the Christmas star. At that time, an earthly observer would have seen another heavenly object move so close to Jupiter that they appear as one. To astronomers, this is known as a “conjunction.”
In September 3 BC, Jupiter moved close to the star Regulus, which is known as the star of kings. The Babylonians called the star “Sharu” and the Romans called it “Rex.” Both words mean “king.” Jupiter and Regulus normally come into conjunction every twelve years, but the one in 3 BC was unusually close. This, in itself, was not unusual enough to warrant an expedition to Jerusalem.
Additionally, in the 3 BC conjunction, Jupiter exhibited what astronomers refer to as retrograde motion. This means that, because of the earth’s motion through space, Jupiter appeared to move backward in the night sky. According to Larson’s observations, Jupiter entered a conjunction with Regulus, and then went into retrograde. At this point, it reversed course again for another conjunction. Jupiter then went into retrograde again for a third conjunction with Regulus. Larson refers to this as having the “Planet of the Kings dance out a halo above the Star of Kings. A coronation.”
The symbolism of Jupiter and Regulus goes even further. In Revelation 12:1-5, John describes the birth of Jesus. The mother is clothed in the sun with the moon at her feet. In September 3 BC, the constellation that rose behind Leo was Virgo, the virgin, representing, in this case, the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. At the time of the first conjunction, Virgo rose, clothed in the sun. A new moon was at her feet. These symbols indicate a birth. Taken together with Regulus and Jupiter, they indicate the birth of a king.
Jupiter’s conjunction with Regulus also provided a link to the Jews. Larson discovered that Jupiter’s triple conjunction occurred within the constellation Leo, the lion. The lion is the symbol of the Jewish tribe of Judah. Judah is also the tribe that from which the Messiah was prophesied to come (Genesis 49:9-10).
Larson takes his stargazing a step further. He reasons that if conception is the true beginning of life, then maybe there would be additional signs in the sky nine months later. To find out, he looked at the night sky of June 2 BC.
In June 2 BC, Jupiter and Venus, the Mother Planet, formed a conjunction. The two planets passed so closely to each other that they appeared as one, although in reality one sat atop the other forming an eight. The two planets formed the most brilliant “star” that man had ever seen in the night sky. A wise man from the east, such as Babylon, would have viewed this spectacle while facing Jerusalem to the east. The two planets then moved apart, as if one had given birth to the other.
Larson believes that the wise men started their journey after viewing this Jupiter – Venus conjunction. The journey from Babylon to Jerusalem would have taken several months in ancient times. If Jupiter and its consorts were truly the Christmas star, then, several months later, it would have to be in the southern sky when viewed from Jerusalem. As Larson “fast forwarded” the celestial motion, he found that in December 2 BC, if you looked south from Jerusalem, the star was there.
By this point, most of Matthew’s requirements for the star had been met. It signified birth and kingship. It was linked with the Jews through the constellation Leo. Jupiter rises in the east and the conjunctions were identifiable at precise times. Herod was unaware of these signs in the sky because they would have been noticed only by expert astronomers. The time period of the events allowed the wise men to travel to Jerusalem, and the star would have been before them as they traveled to Bethlehem.
The biggest question that remained was how Jupiter, a planet in constant motion, could stop over Bethlehem. What Larson found as he looked further astounded him. On December 25, 2 BC, Jupiter again entered retrograde. To an earthly observer in Jerusalem, it appeared to stop in the sky above Bethlehem. In a shocking coincidence, the wise men may have viewed the Christmas star over Bethlehem on the exact date of the modern Christmas celebration.
That is not the end of the story, however. Larson examined clues in the Bible to determine the exact date of Jesus’ crucifixion. All four Gospels tell that Jesus was executed on a Friday, the preparation day before the Jewish Sabbath (Matt. 27:62, Mark 15:42, Luke 23:54, John 19:14). John also tells us that it was the day before the Passover (John 13:1). The Passover begins at dark on Nisan 14. Larson looked at the Jewish calendar to see in which years during the reign of Pontius Pilate (AD 26-36) Nisan 14 fell on a Friday. It happened twice: April 7, AD 30 and April 3, AD 33.
Larson believes that the key lies with a Roman official named Aelius Sejanus. Sejanus was a regent under Tiberius Caesar. Sejanus ruled much of the Roman Empire and made many political appointments, including that of Pontius Pilate as Procurator of Judea. When Caesar discovered that Sejanus was plotting against him, Sejanus was executed on October 18, AD 31.
Larson notes that early in Pilate’s career, he had dealt harshly with the Jews. Historians of the day write that he placed images of Caesar in the Jewish Temple as well as killing Jewish worshipers (Luke 13:1). Something happened to change his attitude to one of conciliation with Jewish leaders who wanted him to have Jesus killed. Larson believes that after Sejanus’ death, Pilate began to fear for his life as Caesar ordered the execution of many of Sejanus’ appointees. At the same time, Caesar also issued a directive countermanding Sejanus’ anti-Semitic orders. The statement of the Jews in John 19:12 that sparing Jesus’ life would mean that Pilate was “no friend of Caesar” is life-threatening in this context.
In Daniel 9:25, an angel told Daniel that the Messiah would be cut off after “seven weeks and sixty-two sevens.” The “sevens” are seven-year periods, which render a total of 483 years. The timeline begins with the command to rebuild Jerusalem. Nehemiah received this order in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes, 444 BC on the modern calendar. When we apply conversions to account for differences in old and new calendars, the year the Messiah is cut off is revealed to be AD 33. Thus, Larson believes that Jesus’ crucifixion can be conclusively dated to April 3, AD 33.
Larson then goes to Pentecost, shortly after Jesus’ death and resurrection. First Peter quotes the prophet Joel (Acts 2:17-21) speaking of “wonders in heaven… blood and fire and billows of smoke” and the moon turning to “blood.” Then Peter says that the people present know themselves of these things, as if they have already come to pass.
When Larson looked at the sky of April 3, AD 33, he found a blood moon. The term “blood moon’ means a lunar eclipse. The moon is in the shadow of the Earth and receives no direct sunlight, causing it to appear a dull red. According to Larson’s research, the only lunar eclipse viewed from Jerusalem on a Passover during Pilate’s reign occurred on April 3, AD 33.
Mark wrote that Jesus was crucified at the third hour (Mark 15:25). At that time, the clock started at 6 am. The third hour would have been 9 am on our clock. Matthew 27:46 tells us that Jesus died at the ninth hour, 3 pm. During the six hours that He suffered on the cross, the sky turned black for three hours, there was an earthquake, the Temple veil was torn, tombs were opened and people rose from the dead (Matt. 27:45-54). As the moon rose, it turned to blood around 3 pm (below the horizon and invisible to people in Jerusalem), the precise time that Jesus died. Larson says, “the moon had returned to the foot of the virgin. But now it was a full moon. A life fully lived, blotted out in blood.”
Larson’s discovery shows the intricate detail of God’s handiwork. He set the stars and planets in motion in the very first verse of the Bible. These celestial bodies moved with mathematic precision for thousands of years. Their appointed journeys through the sky record the celebration of the heavens at the conception and birth of Jesus, then weep at His death on the cross. As you celebrate the birth of Christ this year, remember that the God who set the stars in motion, the same God who sent Jesus to take our place, still sits on the throne of Heaven. The God who is capable of such a masterpiece is certainly deserving of our trust and worship.
For a limited time, copies of the DVD version of The Star of Bethlehem are available without charge at http://atlaspiers.com/dvd/index.html
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