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The Star of Bethlehem and the Christmas Story

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Title: The Star of Bethlehem and the Christmas Story


1
The Star of Bethlehem and the Christmas Story
  • Myth, Fact and Reality

2
Fact and fiction I
  • The New Testament is a mixture of history,
    hearsay and preaching written some 90 years after
    the Nativity.
  • Matthew about 80-100 AD
  • Luke about 80-130AD
  • It is not strictly a historical record, but it is
    undoubtedly based on something that was at least
    intended to be a more or less factual account.
  • We are not dealing with pure fantasy.
  • It cannot be taken too literally, but no one can
    argue that the Gospel narrative has no basis of
    historical fact.

3
Matthews Version of the Nativity
1 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, 2 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. 3 When
Herod the king had heard these things, he was
troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 And
when he had gathered all the chief priests and
scribes of the people together, he demanded of
them where Christ should be born. 5 And they
said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea for thus
it is written by the prophet, 6 And thou
Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least
among the princes of Juda for out of thee shall
come a Governor, that shall rule my people
Israel. 7 Then Herod, when he had privily
called the wise men, inquired of them diligently
what time the star appeared. 8 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. 9 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. 10 When
they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding
great joy. 11 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. 12 And being warned of God in a
dream that they should not return to Herod, they
departed into their own country another way. 13
And when they were departed, behold, the angel of
the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying,
Arise, and take the young child and his mother,
and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I
bring thee word for Herod will seek the young
child to destroy him. 14 When he arose, he took
the young child and his mother by night, and
departed into Egypt 15 And was there until the
death of Herod that it might be fulfilled which
was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying,
Out of Egypt have I called my son. 16 Then
Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise
men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and
slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and
in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and
under, according to the time which he had
diligently inquired of the wise men.
4
Lukes Version of the Nativity
1 And it came to pass in those days, that there
went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all
the world should be taxed. 2 (And this taxing
was first made when Cyrenius was governor of
Syria.) 3 And all went to be taxed, every one
into his own city. 4 And Joseph also went up
from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into
Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called
Bethlehem (because he was of the house and
lineage of David) 5 To be taxed with Mary his
espoused wife, being great with child. 6 And so
it was, that, while they were there, the days
were accomplished that she should be
delivered. 7 And she brought forth her
firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling
clothes, and laid him in a manger because there
was no room for them in the inn. 8 And there
were in the same country shepherds abiding in the
field, keeping watch over their flock by
night. 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came
upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round
about them and they were sore afraid. 10 And
the angel said unto them, Fear not for, behold,
I bring you good tidings of great joy, which
shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born
this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is
Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign
unto you Ye shall find the babe wrapped in
swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And
suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of
the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace,
good will toward men. 15 And it came to pass,
as the angels were gone away from them into
heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us
now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing
which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made
known unto us. 16 And they came with haste, and
found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a
manger.
5
Differences between Matthew and Luke
  • Matthew
  • The Star
  • The Magi
  • King Herod
  • A house
  • Luke
  • The census
  • Caesar Augustus
  • Quirinius (Cyrenius)
  • The inn
  • The shepherds
  • A cynic would say that it is hard to believe that
    Matthew and Luke are describing the same event.
  • However, it is likely that they were interested
    in different aspects of the Nativity and wrote
    for a different audience
  • Matthew… an evangelist.
  • Luke… probably a doctor and an amateur historian.

6
Differences between Matthew and Luke
  • Matthew
  • Jesus as a young child
  • A house permanent accommodation
  • Luke
  • Baby Jesus
  • The stable temporary emergency accommodation.

Luke seems to be describing events immediately
around the birth of Jesus. Matthew is talking of
events weeks or months later.
7
Matthews Version of the Star
1 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, 2 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. 3 When
Herod the king had heard these things, he was
troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 7 Then
Herod, when he had privily called the wise men,
inquired of them diligently what time the star
appeared. 8 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. 9
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. 10 When they saw the star,
they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 11 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. 16 Then
Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise
men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and
slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and
in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and
under, according to the time which he had
diligently inquired of the wise men.
8
Explaining the Star
  • There are three generic explanations
  • It was a miraculous event
  • Science plays no part in the explanation
  • It never existed
  • Matthew simply added the Star to his account. End
    of story.
  • It was a natural event of some kind.
  • Science can explain it.
  • Here explanation 3 is assumed. Otherwise this
    would be a very short talk.

9
The oldest mystery in astronomy?
  • What was the Star mentioned by Matthew?
  • We can only deal with probabilities, never
    certainty…
  • Sadly, it is vanishingly unlikely that any
    completely new information about the Star will
    ever come to light.
  • But absence of proof is not proof of absence!

Matthews Gospel French illuminated bible, c.
1250-1260
10
A Popular Misconception
  • It is not true that the Star is only mentioned in
    Matthew.
  • The Star is mentioned in other contemporary
    documents.
  • The Apocryphal Gospel of James (purportedly
    written as an eye-witness account) mentions the
    Star in somewhat more detail than Matthew, but
    this book was not incorporated into the
    official version of the Bible around the 3rd
    Century.
  • The Star was also mentioned in a letter by
    Ignatius to the Ephesians written after Matthew,
    but about 2 centuries before the New Testament
    was compiled.
  • Both Matthew and James apparently used an
    earlier, lost text Q as the source of their
    accounts.

11
Fact and fiction II
  • The New Testament has at least some basis of
    historical fact.
  • Many of the personalities and places associated
    with the Nativity genuinely existed at the time
    of the Nativity and are known about in some
    detail.
  • For example…

12
Known historical facts
  • Bethlehem shepherds still graze their flocks on
    the hills around the town (as in this photograph).

13
Known historical facts
  • King Herod was the last ruler of a united Judea
    under the Romans, before the Kingdom was divided
    in three on his death.

14
Known historical facts
  • Jerusalem much of Jerusalem is little changed.
    The sites of such monuments as the Temple and
    Herods Palace are well known.

15
Known historical facts
  • Emperor Caesar Augustus was emperor at the time
    of the Nativity and ordered global censuses in
    28BC, 8BC and 14AD.

16
Known historical facts
  • Quirinius
  • is thought to have spent two periods in the
    region and was charged by Caesar Augustus with
    carrying out a census.
  • The tablet shows the results for a census in
    Lebanon organised at an unknown date by Quirinius
    (described as Emperors Legate, not Governor).

17
The date problem
  • Lukes Gospel is problematic
  • Quirinius was Governor of Syria in 6-7AD.
  • Herod died 9 years earlier, so Quirinius could
    not have been Governor while Herod was alive.
  • There was no global census at the time that
    Quirinius was Governor.
  • Most experts believe that the census mentioned by
    Luke was that of 8BC.
  • But this creates even more problems Judea was a
    Protectorate, not part of the Empire. Joseph
    would not have been bound to participate in the
    census.
  • It was not until 14AD that Rome took over Judea.
    Only the 14AD census decree would have applied to
    Judea.

18
We three Kings?
  • Matthew does not state that the Magi were kings,
    nor does he state that there were three of them.
  • People associate the three (symbolic) gifts with
    three Magi.
  • Matthew simply uses the plural to describe them.
  • In the oldest representations sometimes they were
    two, sometimes four and, in the Orthodox
    tradition, twelve.

19
We three Kings?
  • The Magi were not always kings.
  • It was the church that elevated the Magi to
    royalty in the 6th Century AD.
  • It was a political decision.
  • The King of kings must have been visited by
    kings.

20
We three Kings?
  • The names Melchior, Baltasar and Gaspar are
    even more recent.
  • They date from the 8th Century, but were not
    commonly used until the 10th Century.
  • The names symbolise the three races of Earth
    African, Asian and European.

21
Who were the Magi?
  • Magi
  • A sect of Zoroastrian priests among the Medes in
    Persia were known as the Magi.
  • Zoroastrianism made Messianic prophesies similar
    to those of the Jews.
  • The Magi were most probably from northern Persia,
    close to the Caspian Sea.

22
The Magi and the Persian Horde
  • In 614AD the Persian armies invaded and sacked
    northern Italy.
  • In Ravenna, the church of San Vitale was spared
    because the Persian horde saw the images on the
    walls of the Magi in Persian dress and treated
    them as their own sacred religious symbols.
  • The oldest images of the Magi often depict them
    as Persians.

23
The real Magi?
  • In the 13th Century Marco Polo carried out his
    legendary voyage to Cathay...

24
The real Magi
  • In the small town of Saveh in northern Persia the
    natives assured him that this had been the home
    town of the Magi and from where they had seen the
    Star.

25
An odd coincidence?
  • Why should the 13th Century inhabitants of this
    tiny and unknown town, half way to China, regale
    Marco Polo with tales of events that never
    happened and, what is more, events in a country
    more than 1500km away, with which they had no
    obvious affinity?

26
When was the Nativity?
  • The date of the Nativity was set in 525AD by the
    Scythian monk Dionisius Exiguus.
  • His choice was not arbitrary, but we know that
    the date given by Dionisius was almost certainly
    not the correct one.

27
A historical fact
Herod family tomb
  • Historians and biblical scholars agree that King
    Herod died in late March or early April 4BC,
    shortly after a partial lunar eclipse observed
    from Jericho.
  • Thus the Nativity occurred before 4BC, probably
    not long before his death.

28
More odd coincidences
  • It is well known that when Dionysius Exiguus
    established the Christian calendar in the 6th
    Century, he committed two errors
  • He did not include a year zero (the Romans did
    not use the number zero!) the calendar jumps
    directly from 1BC to 1AD and the Nativity was on
    December 25th 1AD.
  • He forgot to factor in the 4 years during which
    Augustus Caesar ruled under his given name of
    Octavian.
  • In the corrected Dionysian calendar the Nativity
    happened in 5BC, one year before Herods
    unlamented death.

29
Coincidence or design?
  • Is it just a coincidence that the revised
    Dionisian calendar gives a year for the Nativity
    consistent with the known date of the death of
    Herod?
  • Critics suggest that maybe Dionisius committed
    more errors and that the Nativity really happened
    even earlier, perhaps in 6 or 7BC.
  • This has been used to support some theories of
    the Star of Bethlehem.
  • But, nobody has ever suggested what those errors
    may have been.

30
The First Christmas
  • Why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25th?
  • It is quite certain that the Nativity did not
    happen on December 25th.

31
The clue of the shepherds
  • Why would the shepherds be watching their flocks
    at night?
  • The hills around Bethlehem reach altitudes up to
    almost 800m.
  • In winter the animals would usually be under
    cover, especially in bad weather.

32
The clue of the shepherds
  • The weather in Bethlehem in December, January and
    February is cold and humid. Only a shepherd who
    wanted to risk pneumonia would sleep in the open.
  • It starts to improve in March when the shepherds
    would start to sleep out with their flocks.
  • At lambing time (March-April) they would have
    needed to keep watch intensely by night to help
    ewes in distress.
  • If there were large predators (e.g. wolves) they
    would sleep with their flocks, from March to
    September.

33
Why then December?
  • Sol Invictus was the most important festivity in
    Rome.
  • It marked the shortest day.
  • It had been celebrated by the Celts from at least
    1000BC.
  • Rather than abolish a popular holiday, the early
    Christian church adopted it and adapted it as
    their own second most important celebration.

34
Why then December?
  • The Roman celebrations of Sol Invictus were
    marked by
  • The most important public holiday of the year.
  • Parades in the streets.
  • Giving and receiving of gifts.
  • Special meals and feasts.
  • Decorating houses with green bows.
  • Does this sound familiar???

35
The true date of the Nativity
  • Other contextual clues (e.g. the inn being full)
    suggest that the Nativity occurred at a special
    time of year, with many people in transit.
  • Passover Like lambing time, in March or April
    according to the year fits the bill.

There are good contextual and historical reasons
to believe that the Nativity may have occurred in
March or April 5BC.
36
Consequences?
  • The entire basis of our western calendar is wrong
    (the millennium was not 2001 but, in fact, 1996).
  • Christmas should be around Easter.
  • If we are looking for a Star of Bethlehem it had
    to appear no later than 5BC.

37
Popular (wrong) theories
  • Venus
  • Visible low in the dawn sky this Christmas and in
    the evening sky in 2007.
  • The oldest known observations are of Venus.
  • If the Wise Men were fooled by Venus they could
    not have been very wise.

38
Popular (wrong) theories
  • Appeared in 12BC and was extensively observed by
    the Chinese.
  • If this was the Star of Bethlehem the Magi were
    obviously in no hurry to get to Bethlehem.

39
Popular (wrong) theories
  • A conjunction
  • There are about 10 conjunctions of bright planets
    each year.
  • The most spectacular around the Nativity was in
    2BC.
  • The Magi either used a time machine, or earned
    huge quantities of Frequent Camel-rider Miles.

40
Popular (wrong) theories
  • A meteor
  • Can be very bright, impressive and move in the
    sky.
  • But, typically only visible 1-2 seconds.
  • Did the Magi have rocket-propelled camels?

41
Popular (wrong) theories
  • Dont even THINK it!

42
Ancient chronicles Babylon
  • Ancient chronicles have been carefully
    scrutinised to see what celestial phenomena were
    recorded that may have been the Star.
  • However there are few known records.
  • Tablet BM014 in the British Museum is a
    Babylonian observing log from 7BC.
  • It describes, in the driest language, the triple
    conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7BC and the
    planetary massing of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in
    February 6BC.

43
  • This was not a spectacular event. The two planets
    barely got within 1º of each other.
  • Triple conjunctions are rare only 7 happened in
    the last millennium BC.
  • Like those of 980/979 861/860BC it took place
    in Pisces, a constellation often associated with
    the Jews.

44
Ancient chronicles China and Korea
  • Nor are there many oriental records from this
    epoch.
  • Between 20BC and 1BC there are just 4 catalogued
    events.
  • 12BC
  • 10BC
  • 5BC
  • 4BC

45
Ancient chronicles China and Korea
  • The 12BC event is known to be Halley.
  • The 10BC event is a ghost event another
    observation of Halley with the wrong year.
  • The 5 4BC events are interesting but, for
    years, caused confusion.

46
Oriental answers China
  • The Ch'ien-han-shu states 
  • "In the second year of the period of
    Ch'ien-p'ing, second month, a hui-hsing appeared
    in Ch'ien-niu for more than 70 days"
  • This can be translated as
  • During the interval between March 10th and April
    7th of 5 BC, a comet that was visible for more
    than 70 days appeared close to Alpha and Beta
    Capricornii
  • The chronicle gives a fixed position over two
    and a half months, not reasonable if the object
    really was a comet. The Chinese though often used
    hui-hsing to describe bright novae such as
    Tychos Star.
  • May is monsoon season in China so bad weather
    would almost certainly have curtailed further
    observations the Star was almost certainly
    visible for longer, hence the phrase more than
    70 days. 

47
  • It starts first and is worst in the south.
  • From May ?50 of days are rainy in Hong Kong.
  • Observations of the sky would have been almost
    impossible.

48
Oriental answers Korea
  • A second record is found in the Korean History
    of Three Kingdoms- the Chronicle of Silla (Samguk
    Sagi)
  • Year 54 of Hyokkose Wang, second month, (day)
    Chi-yu, a po-hsing appeared in Ho-Ku
  • As the date given was inexistent, like February
    30th, it is believed that "Chi-yu" really should
    be "I-yu", a character written in an almost
    identical fashion in Chinese and easily confused
    with it.
  • If so, this can be translated as
  • On March 31st of 4 BC a bushy star appeared
    close to Altair

49
Oriental answers?
Another remarkable coincidence Either two
separate, notable objects appeared at the same
time of the year to the south of Aquila in
consecutive years or, more probably, a single,
bright nova appeared to the north of the star ?
Capricornii in March 5BC. This is exactly the
most probable date of the Nativity.
50
Ho-Ku Chien-Nu
  • Ho-Ku is Altair and some fainter stars in
    southern Aquila.
  • Chien-Niu is an area of faint stars in northern
    Capricorn.
  • Some authors make much of this disagreement.

51
The Ho-Ku date clue
  • But, on the date given by the Koreans (March
    31st), the nova would have been in conjunction
    with the waning gibbous moon.
  • Only the brightest stars in the region, such as
    Altair, would have remained visible, hence the
    position given.
  • Probably the Koreans elected this reference date
    deliberately.

52
Ko-hsing confusion
  • The Chinese had a word Ko-hsing (Guest Star)
    for novae.
  • But it was not consistently used.
  • Bright novae and supernovae, including Tychos
    Star, were often described as comets.
  • European astronomers tended to do the same.
  • Tycho Brahe said, on first seeing the supernova
    I am sure that yesterday this comet was not in
    the sky.

53
Why a nova and not a comet?
  • A new star would symbolise a birth.
  • The Chinese star did not move in the sky.
  • It appeared in the Milky Way where almost all
    novae appear.
  • Comets have been almost universally regarded as
    bad omens.
  • Comets were associated with deaths, not with
    births.
  • An apparition of Halleys Comet was said
    (correctly!) to foretell the fall of Jerusalem.
  • The Jews thus had no reason to regard comets with
    other than fear.

54
The nova would have appeared low in the east in
the pre-dawn sky.
55
The Star went before them…
  • Modern translations of the Bible say that the
    Star was seen at its rising in other words
    its first appearance in the dawn sky.
  • This is exactly how the nova would have appeared
    in the sky.
  • But the Star went before the Magi on the road
    between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
  • The Star must have been in the south at that time
    to appear OVER Bethlehem.
  • Where would the nova have been after the ?8 weeks
    the Magi would have taken to arrive from Persia?

56
By then the nova would have been almost exactly
due south at dawn, leading the Magi to Bethlehem
from Jerusalem.
57
Why complicate things?
  • The Chinese nova of March 5BC offers a simple,
    plausible explanation of the Star.
  • It fits in with the Biblical and other
    contemporary accounts of the Star and with
    historical knowledge.
  • It would have appeared suddenly, unexpectedly,
    shining brightly in the dawn sky at just the
    right time.
  • What better sign of the birth of a new-born king
    than a bright (absolutely real), new star?

58
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