But you, O Bethlehem Eph′rathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel. [Micah 5:2a (RSV)]
In his gospel, Matthew writes of wise men from eastern lands who saw a ”star in the East.” This actually was a Greek term used in astrology at the time, en te Anatole, which meant “at the rising.” Now known as a heliacal rising, it describes a planet that rises above the eastern horizon shortly before dawn. Just moments after its appearance, it disappears in the sun’s glare. Better reflecting this astrological meaning, many Bibles translate the wise men seeing the star “as it rose.” While we’re not exactly sure what happened in the sky that drew the Magi to Judea, today’s astronomers have a pretty good idea.
To begin, we have to clarify a few of our misunderstandings about Christmas. While we think of Jesus’s birth as being in December, it probably occurred between March and October. Winters are cold and rainy in Judea; rather than sheep being in the fields in December, the shepherds would have sought shelter for their flocks. Moreover, the shepherds would have been keeping watch over their flocks at night only during lambing season (March and April). We also often think of Jesus’s birth as being the dividing line between B.C. and A.D. when, in fact, our calendar is about six years off.
Because there is nothing accidental or random about the universe, the movement patterns of the sun, moon, planets and stars can be observed and predicted. From what they’ve observed of these patterns, astronomers can also work backwards. Using a computer program to do just that, Rutgers University astronomer Michael Molnar found that, at twilight on March 20, 6 B.C., the moon eclipsed Jupiter. Then, on April 17, there was a heliacal rising of Jupiter and, at noon, the moon again eclipsed Jupiter. The heliacal rising continued until December 19 and, during that time, both Jupiter and Mars appeared in Aries, a constellation traditionally associated with Judea.
Picturing the magnificent star we often see depicted on Christmas cards, I’d wondered why the Magi were the only ones to take notice this stellar event. As Molnar explains it, these astronomical happenings were not spectacular because of their appearance but because of their rarity and would have had little significance to most people. The wise men, however, were not “most people.” Most likely astrologers from Babylon, they knew the prophecies that a king would be born to the house of David. Believing this king would be born when the moon eclipsed Jupiter, they probably had been searching the sky for years looking for signs like these.
While Molnar even offers a scientific explanation for the star appearing to stop, there also are other plausible explanations for this “star,” such as a close conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter. Whether it was an unexplainable miracle or an amazing natural phenomenon that miraculously coincided with Jesus’s birth, we know that these men saw something that made them believe a king had been born in Judea. Although we celebrate their visit to the Christ child on January 6 (often called Three Kings Day), they weren’t kings, we don’t know how many there were, and they probably arrived in Jerusalem anywhere from several months to two years after Jesus’s birth.
Although the events in the sky got them close to the new king, they had to stop and ask directions to actually find the child; it was only logical that they’d ask King Herod about this new king’s birth. Astrology was prohibited to the Jews and Herod had no astrologers but he did have priests and scribes. Knowing Micah’s prophecy, they directed the wise men to Bethlehem where they found Jesus.
Throughout Scripture we read that God speaks to us and reveals Himself in nature. It was through God’s amazing celestial creation that God revealed the birth of His son to these Gentile wise men. Yet, to find the king, nature wasn’t enough; they needed Scripture. The star told of His existence and got them close but it was the Word that got them there! Let us learn from these wise men. God reveals His power, majesty, and presence in nature but merely knowing that He exists is not enough. It is through Scripture that we actually will find and meet Him; it is though God’s word that we will come to know the King.