As planets align, some see return of Jesus’ Star of Bethlehem
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Following yonder star(s)

As planets align, some see return of Jesus’ Star of Bethlehem

The rare convergence of Venus, Jupiter and Mars this week has some wondering if it's time to cue the magi

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Sandro Botticelli's 'Adoration of the Magi' c. 1475–1476, Tempera on panel (public domain)
Sandro Botticelli's 'Adoration of the Magi' c. 1475–1476, Tempera on panel (public domain)

Could the rare convergence of Venus, Jupiter and Mars seen on the horizon this week be a repeat of the biblical phenomenon, the Star of Bethlehem? As early bird stargazers enjoy this planetary trio through November 3, like everything else in religious tradition and astrology, what the skies portend is a matter of faith — and interpretation.

Coming on the heels of the October 8 Blood Moon, until the end of this week the three planets can be seen grouped together inside a five degree diameter circle, in an astral phenomenon known as a “planetary trio.” On Monday, the height of the grouping, Venus and Jupiter will pass within 1.1 degrees of each other. Bright stars Regulus and Procyon have also been visible this week, forming a line in the sky with the planets.

Best beheld before dawn, the relative brightness of Venus and Jupiter make the event easily seen by the naked eye or binoculars and is being labeled by some Internet-savvy astronomers as the same Star of Bethlehem phenomenon the magi saw some 2,000 years ago.

But could this type of rare astral grouping really have been what propelled the three oriental gift-bearing kings to traverse afar, field and fountain, moor and mountain, while following yonder star?

A NASA model of the convergence of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars as scene through common binoculars this week. (YouTube screenshot)
A NASA model of the convergence of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars as scene through common binoculars this week. (YouTube screenshot)

To answer this question, one must first ask, why would the three magi (astrologers) follow a star to Bethlehem in the first place?

And so we open our texts to the infamously opaque biblical “Star Prophecy” as poetically told by the gentile prophet Balaam in Numbers 24:17: “I shall see him, but not now, I will look at him, but not nigh. A star has stepped forward from Jacob, and a tribe (or scepter/staff) of Israel will rise and will crush the corners (or foreheads) of Moab and will smash the children of Seth.”

An illustrative photo of a student from an IDF air force school watching the stars through a telescope at a planetarium in Ma'ale Adumim, January 13, 2008. (Michal Fattal /FLASH90)
An illustrative photo of a student from an IDF air force school watching the stars through a telescope at a planetarium in Ma’ale Adumim, January 13, 2008. (Michal Fattal /Flash90)

In Jewish tradition, this prophecy has been used for millennia by those who wish to prove their own messianic candidate’s worthiness (i.e., Rabbi Akiva’s support of Simon bar Kochba — “son of the star” — who led a revolt against the Romans in 132 CE). Or, as in the case of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides), it is a poetic description of King David that also references some future “king Messiah.”

‘A star has stepped forward from Jacob’

Born out of Judaism, early Christian tradition was well acquainted with the biblical verse. In the Gospel of Matthew, the first book of the New Testament (composed in Semitic Greek between 70-110 CE), the author relates the story of Jesus’s birth as its fulfillment.

According to the King James Bible translation, Matthew writes: “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.'”

For centuries philosophers and astronomers have searched for the meaning behind this “star in the east,” and there are practically as many theories as stars. However, recent research has turned the “Star of Bethlehem” idea on its head — to the extent that one might more aptly label the celestial event as “Stars of Bethlehem.”

In October 2014, the Netherlands’ University of Groningen celebrated its 400th anniversary with a two-day colloquium on the Star of Bethlehem. There, 20 cross-departmental scholars presented papers discussing new theories, including that of Prof. Michael R. Molnar, the author of “The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi.”

In Molnar’s groundbreaking book (published in 1999, in paperback since 2013), the Rutgers astronomer cross-references the Matthew story with an image he found on an ancient coin he’d purchased to supplement his personal coin collection of Aries looking back at a star.

According to the Molnar book’s website, “He found that Aries was a symbol of Judea at the time, and that ancient astrologers believed that a new king would be born when the moon passed in front of Jupiter. Molnar wondered, could the coin have been issued as a response to the Great Messianic Portent, the Star of Bethlehem?”

The Matthew chronicle has historically presented difficulties for astronomers, in particular the idea of a star “in the east.” Molnar solves this problem in making the event more astrological than astronomical in nature. Meaning, it could be more of a matter of interpretation of some interesting astral events, rather than some objectively awesome celestial sight.

‘One can claim that Matthew’s words describe a miracle, something beyond the laws of physics. But Matthew chose his words carefully and wrote “star in the east” twice’

The Rutgers astronomer knew that to match the Matthew Star of Bethlehem story, Jupiter had to be in the east. So using computer modeling, he found an eclipse of Jupiter in Aries on April 17, 6 BCE, “a day when Jupiter was precisely ‘in the east,’ which confirmed his theory. Moreover, he found that a Roman astrologer described the conditions of that day as fitting the birth of a ‘divine and immortal’ person,” according to the book website.

In a Washington Post article written by Vanderbilt astronomer Prof. David Weintraub, he applauds Molnar’s solution to the textual problem which is difficult to prove scientifically.

“The astronomer in me knows that no star can do these things, nor can a comet, or Jupiter, or a supernova, or a conjunction of planets or any other actual bright object in the nighttime sky. One can claim that Matthew’s words describe a miracle, something beyond the laws of physics. But Matthew chose his words carefully and wrote ‘star in the east’ twice, which suggests that these words hold a specific importance for his readers.”

In his article, Weintraub writes that Molnar literally translated the Greek phrase “in the east” and found that it was used as a technical term in Greek mathematical astrology 2,000 years ago.

“It described, very specifically, a planet that would rise above the eastern horizon just before the sun would appear. Then, just moments after the planet rises, it disappears in the bright glare of the sun in the morning sky,” writes Weintraub. “In particular, the reappearance of a planet like Jupiter was thought by Greek astrologers to be symbolically significant for anyone born on that day.”

So could this week’s conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and Mars, which won’t be repeated until 2021, also be a portend foretelling some great birth or historical event?

Perhaps.

But perhaps equally possibly, as in the popularly shared William Shakespeare paraphrase, “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”

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