Only rarely do my interests in history, software modeling, Biblical interpretation and astronomy come together, so when I read a modern hypothesis of what the Magi (aka wise men) saw that brought them from “the East” to King Herod in Jerusalem, I was intrigued. Many of the events recorded in the Bible are so long ago, and recorded in such a way that it is difficult or impossible to understand what was written in its historical context. I had long considered “the Star” that brought the Magi from “the East” to be an example of such a mystery. However, use of astronomical modeling software makes trivial calculations that were excessively laborious for Kepler, who used his laws of planetary motion to attempt to understand the mystery of “the Star in the East” soon after discovering the laws.
Unfortunately, Kepler relied on a copy of the works of Josephus printed after 1544, which contained an error that caused Kepler to believe Herod had died in 4 BC, and so Kepler searched the skies for the two years prior to Herod’s death. Subsequent scholarship has identified an error in the 1544 printing of the works of Josephus and 1 BC is now believed to be the year Herod died, so the hypothesis of interest focuses on 2/3 BC. In September of 3 BC at the time of the Jewish New Year, the planet Jupiter came into conjunction with the star Regulus. The Babylonians called Regulus “Sharu” and the Romans called Regulus “Rex”, both of which mean king, so the Magi observed the King Planet come into conjunction with the King Star, which happens every 12 years. However, due to retrograde motion, a triple conjunction occurred due to a wobble in Jupiter’s orbit, which is much less common.This triple conjunction occurred within the constellation Leo. The expected Messiah would be from the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10), which was represented by a lion (Leo). Leo is followed by the constellation Virgo and the expected Messiah would be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14), so it seems possible that the Magi (some of whom may have been Jews whose ancestors were left behind in Babylon) would associate kingship, Leo and Virgo with the expected Messiah.
Regardless of whether this hypothesis regarding the astronomical event that brought the Magi from “the East” (probably Babylon or Persia) is correct, some event caused the Magi to travel an extraordinary distance, to inquire of King Herod and to set off a slaughter of male infants in Bethlehem, a slaughter that was recorded by the historian Josephus and the apostle Matthew. It seems apparent that the Magi were priest-astronomers and had no idea their inquiry would result in infant slaughter. Philo the Elder of Alexandria wrote about Magi from the East with great respect for their knowledge of the natural world. The response of Herod and the priests in Jerusalem suggests that they respected the Magi as well. It is possible that Magi gained awareness of Jewish culture during the Babylonian captivity, when the Jewish elite including Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego became officials in the Babylonian Empire and Nebuchadnezzar made Daniel a Chief Magus. Even though we don’t know how the Magi gained knowledge of Jewish culture and writings, a few hundred years after the Babylonian captivity, the Magi had sufficient interest in the birth of a Jewish king to travel to Jerusalem and to inquire of Herod.
After being informed by Herod and the chief priests that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, the Magi proceeded from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and did not return to Jerusalem in order to inform Herod about what they had found, a situation which made Jesus’ birth one of if not the best-documented birth in ancient history. His death is, if the hypothesis is correct, equally well-documented. Passover begins on the 14th day of the Jewish lunar month of Nisan. Jesus must have died in a year on which that 14th day was a Friday, and Pilate was Roman procurator from 26 to 36 AD, so inquiry should focus on that date range. In 30 AD, Passover began on the equivalent of Friday April 7 and in 33 AD, Passover began on the equivalent of Friday April 3. The latter date is likely correct for a couple of reasons. First, Pilate seems reluctant to crucify Jesus. Sejanus, a notorious anti-Semite and regent for Emperor Tiberius, was killed in 31 AD for being a traitor and official Roman policy became to let the Jews alone. In 33 AD, Pilate would have every desire not to upset the Jews. Second, there was a lunar eclipse from noon to three on April 3, 33 AD, and an earthquake centered in Bithynia. A lunar eclipse resulted in a “blood moon”, which had particularly dark significance to ancient people. The lunar eclipse and earthquake just before the beginning of Passover (which began at sundown) made that Passover particularly memorable.
I found this hypothesis so convincing that I believe Jesus died at age 35 and not age 33, as has long been thought. Can you think of any other situations where astronomical information allows us to re-interpret ancient literature? Does any information in this summary surprise, frustrate or intrigue you, or change your thoughts about Epiphany, the traditional Christian feast to celebrate the visit of the Magi, held on January 6? (That’s just after the 12 days of Christmas.)
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judea, art not the least among the princes of Judea: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. [WCE comment: A reference to Micah 5:2]
Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. Matthew 2:1-12, King James Version
Kepler Reference:De Stella Nova (1606); De vero anno (1614)