That’s So Second Millennium

Episode 039 - Star of Bethlehem

December 24, 2018

In this episode we try to give a little workshop on thinking for yourself about a thorny passage in the Bible, specifically what we are to make of this star that supposedly influenced the Magi (wizards? astrologers?) from "the east" to come to Jerusalem looking for Jesus.


Skype had some audio problems for the first few minutes, but it corrected itself after that. Sorry for the poor sound quality there at the beginning.


Our first step is to engage in a little exploration of a common English translation of the Bible, the RSV, specifically its text of Matthew 2:1-12 where the story of the Magi is told, versus the Vulgate Latin text. This is a toy exploration... obviously, if you wanted to come to the best possible answers, you would bone up on koine Greek and read the best critical treatments of the text of Matthew directly. Still, even just comparing the English to another ancient language, Latin, that had a great deal more in common with ancient Greek, is I think very instructive.


The star makes its first appearance in verse 2:


vidimus enim stellam ejus in oriente

we have seen his star in the East


Immediately we already have an ambiguity. The Latin "in oriente" will bear the translation "in the East" but also "in [its] rising". Whether or not ancient Greek has the same ambiguity, I don't know, but I'd bet on it. And, of course, it's ambiguous for a very good reason. The Sun, the Moon, and the individual stars (which formed a far larger share of humanity's entertainment in ancient times) all rise in the east. In verse 1, the magi came "ab oriente," and of course this cannot be ambiguous: they came from east of Jerusalem, so somewhere in what is now Jordan, northern Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Iran, or etc. (At that time those regions were called Arabia, Mesopotamia, or Persia.) The saw the star while they were in the East, but the passage likely means that they saw the star rise for the first time.


Stars (the fixed stars, in ancient parlance) rise all night, on a fixed schedule, based on the time of year, that was already known in Mesopotamia centuries before the birth of Christ. That begs the question why the rising of this particular star was considered significant. (The further question of how someone in one of those countries could link this particular significant star specifically to Judea is also begged in this passage, but we are going to run out of time and material to work with before we can even start on that one, alas.) Presumably it was a star "out of place," not part of the constant yearly pattern.


The planets (which means "wanderers") shamble about the sky at different rates. They are in nearly the same place relative to the fixed stars from one night to the next and can therefore be tracked, but their differential rates of motion, and the fact that they all stick to the same track across the sky that the Sun and the Moon use, means that from time to time pairs, and occasionally even triplets, of them draw very close to one another to form a conjunction. These are rare enough events that they have been used for millennia in astrology to predict supposed significant events. It's conceivable that a conjunction of planets was what the magi saw and interpreted as meaning the birth of a king was imminent. The text doesn't really suggest that, but ancient writers could be so maddeningly vague (certainly to our minds) that it's not out of the question.


Still, we might consider other options. If we take "stella" to mean a single light in the sky, we can consider it to have been in one of three places:

In the atmosphere

In the Solar System

Outside the Solar System

That should exhaust the possibilities.


If the light were in the atmosphere, it would not rise in the east like stars do unless it was being rather tricky indeed. We will drop that possibility for this exercise.


In the Solar System, we do have occasional bodies that get bright enough to see: comets. (The asteroid Vesta is also bright enough to see on rare occasions with the naked eye, and in fact was this past summer. I am not aware of ancient astronomers making records of it or Uranus either for that matter, so a brief sighting would be unexpected.) Comets do not always have long visible tails; sometimes they are just points of light. Some comet--one we know about, like Halley's Comet, or one we don't--could have approached the Sun, become visible, and been noted by the magi. A comet moves as the planets do, shifting just a bit from night to night relative to the fixed stars.


Outside the Solar System, there are dozens or hundreds of transient phenomena that could have produced an unusual star in the sky for a while and been noted by the magi. Star explosions, novae and supernovae, are perhaps the most common reasons why a star might temporarily appear to our eyes in the night sky. In any case, whatever the source of the light, a source outside the Solar System would move in lockstep with the other fixed stars. Its sudden appearance would be the only distinguishing feature.


To have any hope of distinguishing the likelihood of these various possibilities, we will need to sift the text for any additional clues.


The text of Matthew does not actually mention the star very much. There is a longish interlude where the magi hang about Jerusalem waiting for the local experts to tell them where to expect a king of the Jews to be born--one important enough to have his own special star, and therefore probably the Messiah. Matthew reports that the words of the prophet Micah were used to direct them to David's home of Bethlehem. Thus, we see that the star was not somehow leading the magi around, not on their journey from the East to Jerusalem. They noticed a distinctive star rise, linked it to Judea somehow, and went to Judea to investigate. It's only when they follow the Jewish sages' advice and leave on the *extremely short* journey to the little village of Bethlehem that the star does anything all that strange:


abierunt et ecce stella quam viderant in oriente antecedebat eos usque dum veniens staret supra ubi erat puer


they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was


I stuck "usque dum veniens staret supra" into a translator app and got back "until it stopped over," but that leaves two words out. Dum--usque dum seems more wordy than needed to convey "until," but I struggle with conjunctions, so I won't say more about that. Veniens--this is the word that seems completely left out of the translation. It means "coming," and it's singular, so the star is what's coming or approaching, not the magi. The RSV translation does seem to contain this word: "came" to rest, but I wouldn't translate the Latin that way. I would render this line


they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen at its rising was in motion in front of them until, as it was coming on, it stood over the place where the child was


Here I have stuck in "as" to translate "dum", put in an understood "esset" to get "veniens esset = it was coming on" (and yes, dropping a form of "to be" or "is" or "was" is something Latin writers did), and switched to the other meaning of "staret," not "to stop" but "to stand."


Obviously, this is the strange part. Stars and planets and comets never, or almost never, move that fast so as to be able to say "it went before them" (antecedebat) or it "stopped" or "came to rest" over a specific place. How would anything above Earth's atmosphere appear to do that? It would have to be very nearby. Something too far away would have to be moving faster than the speed of light (a common constraint when interpreting motions of heavenly bodies). I have sat and puzzled over what these words might mean, and I think that my alternative translation of the Latin (which I did on the grounds of what seemed to make better sense of the words, in my own admittedly very limited grasp of Latin usage) is actually a little easier to envision as an astronomical phenomenon.


Planets and comets move across the sky at different rates given their position relative to Earth. Further, comets move at different rates in the absolute sense because, as they approach the Sun, gravity accelerates them. A comet near the Sun is at its brightest and also at its fastest. A comet that happened to pass rather close to Earth, traveling in the right direction, might be moving fast enough to note a difference in its position over the course of the few hours' walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and be visibly close to the zenith as they reached their destination. I softened "antecedebat" even further to "was in motion in front of them" in order to reach a final picture of a comet near perihelion and near Earth that happened to be moving north in the sky so that it "came" toward them as they walked south, and just happened to be straight overhead when, probably after asking at a few houses, they found the one with the boy child born near the night they first noted the comet (or whatever other criterion they had in mind). The comet didn't stop, and would have kept right on moving as the night progressed.


This would be even easier to envision if the magi were traveling eastward and the star, migrating westward with the perpetual motion of the night sky, were simply coming toward the zenith according to its ordinary motion. Then again, there would have been nothing unusual about that, and it would have been considerably less likely to have registered with them as an event worthy of the great rejoicing they do in v. 10.


The star, a comet on this interpretation, was very possibly not all that bright. To my knowledge it is not mentioned in secular history (although I think Fr. Longenecker alludes to possible records of it in China or India). It would have been these magi's little secret, almost; they were among the few, or were the only, people to notice its passing.


It goes without saying that this is not an authoritative treatment of the question in any way. It was meant just as a demonstration of how cautious we ought to be before decided we know what the Bible (or any other ancient text, for that matter) says about event X and either take it on faith in despite of science or use it as a stick with which to beat the text in question and decry it as unreliable.


Credit is due to Jimmy Akin at his blog on the National Catholic Register (in particular for providing the text of the RSV for the passage in question). Fr. Dwight Longenecker has written a book, Mystery of the Magi, dealing with these issues and Bill forwarded me a five minute extract of an interview dealing with the issues around the star and how it would have been interpreted in the ancient Near East.

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