Part I Star of Bethlehem fascinates

For millennia, believers, scoffers and the curious have wondered at the Biblical account of the Star. The Bible recounts unusual, or even impossible astronomical events at Christ’s birth. For many doubters, the account of the Star is easily dismissed as myth. For many believers, it’s a mystery accepted on faith. But what happens if we combine current historical scholarship, astronomical fact and an open mind? Judge for yourself…

Dating Christ’s birth. The great majority of ancient chronographers held that Christ was born in 3 or 2 BC, and none held that Jesus was born before 4 BC. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), one of the great mathematical minds of human history, disagreed. Kepler and his contemporaries concluded (as have many present day historians) that Christ was born before 4 BC. In fact, the ancients were correct as we shall see, but by Kepler’s day that earlier and better understanding had been laid aside. The reasons for that misunderstanding are complex and fascinating, but a major factor was their interpretation of the writings of the ancient Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus (AD37 to 95 AD).

Extensive histories

Josephus wrote extensive histories of the Jewish people and ancient times. These histories offer important clues in the search for the Star. In one of his works, Antiquities, Josephus mentions Jesus, John the Baptist and other New Testament characters, including the murderous King Herod of the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2. The Bible recounts that Herod learned of the Messiah’s birth from astronomers who had seen the Star of Bethlehem. He tried to kill the child, so, obviously, the Bible records that Herod was alive at Jesus’ birth. Remember that this mattered to Kepler, because historians of his time apparently inferred from Josephus’ history that Herod died in 4 BC. Necessarily, Kepler assumed Christ was born before that date, perhaps 5 BC or earlier. So, those are the years for which he scanned the skies for the Star. Even with the power of his newly discovered laws of planetary motion, he didn’t find the phenomena we will examine here. He searched the skies of the wrong years.

But modern scholarship has deepened our understanding of Josephus’ manuscripts. A recent study was made of the earliest manuscripts of Josephus’ writings held by the British Library in London, and the American Library of Congress. It revealed a surprise that allows us to target our mathematical telescopes better than could Kepler. It turns out that a copying error was a primary cause of the confusion about the date of Herod’s death. A printer typesetting the manuscript of Josephus’ Antiquities messed up in the year 1544. Every single Josephus manuscript in these libraries dating from before 1544 supports the inference that Herod passed in 1 BC. Strong recent scholarship confirms that date. Knowing this, and since Herod died shortly after Christ’s birth, our investigation turns to the skies of 3 and 2 BC.

Check out Part 2 in next Friday’s Weekender where Peter explores some of the theories about what the Star of Bethlehem could have been.