The Christmas Star is one of the holiday season’s most fascinating and enduring stories. Yet even today, astronomers remain uncertain as to the precise nature of the heavenly event that inspired it.
In a series of blog posts, I’ll be reviewing some key pieces of evidence supporting several of the most likely contenders along with some traditional and not so traditional interpretations.
A few days ago, we investigated the messianic biblical prophecy of Balaam (Numbers 24.17) and how it may be connected, through the Magi, to one of the strongest contenders, a triple Saturn/Jupiter conjunction in Pisces in 06/07 BC.
Yet, because such conjunctions are not really all that rare, the question then became whether or not something else might have been going on. There was and it had to do with how the Magi referred to only as an amorphous group became three. Not only that, but these three magi, or wise men brought gifts. They also saved the baby Jesus from the clutches of blood-thirsty Kind Herod.
But just when the political machinations of this story found in the Gospel of Matthew reached its peak, we had to consider a completely different version, that found in the Gospel of Luke. Gone now is all reference to the magi, their gifts, Herod, and even our Christmas Star. We are instead presented with shepherds, an angel, and a ‘concerned’ Mary and Joseph.
Veering away from astrological interpretations, early Christian writers steered followers toward seeing the Christmas star as a miracle, free from any heavenly signs and accompanying ideas of fate or destiny. This naturally led to the suggestion that the heavenly event in question was a comet, for which there seemed sufficient historical and biblical evidence.
Yet this interpretation created its own set of problems, not the least of which involved the symbol of the virgin Mary giving birth with the crescent moon under her feet (as described in Revelations). Add to that no one had yet managed to fit the pericope of Luke, with the shepherds and an angel rather than Magi and a star into the picture, and everything seems a right muddle.
Although tempting, it would be a mistake to view this through a modern lens.
There is significant evidence that along with the rest of the New Testament, both the Gospel of Matthew and Luke were originally penned in Greek. This suggests that Hellenistic thinking, including Hellenistic astrology, itself laden with anthropomorphic Mesopotamian sky narratives, probably influenced these biblical texts.
This is important.
Not only were the constellations comprising the Mesopotamian zodiac different from those of our modern zodiac, but celestial prophecy regarding that zodiac was not only prevalent, but also taken seriously.
In his book, Astrological Reports to Assyrian Kings, Hermann Hunger, an Austrian authority on Babylonian astrology and celestial omens, provides several relevant examples:
Could it be that in some sense, both the apparently conflicting bible versions (Luke and Matthew) of the birth of could be true, as sky narratives, recording through visual celestial symbolism the story of the birth of the Christ and the attendant Christmas Star?
Better yet, should any or all of this be considered as having fulfilled the prophecy of Balaam:
…a star shall come for out of Jacob and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel…Numbers 24:17 (RSV)
Interesting, the word ‘sceptre’ originally meant a rod or staff. In the Old Testament, it was thus specifically applied to the shepherd’s crook, which was considered an insignia of supreme power:
And all the tithe of herds and flocks, every tenth animal of all that pass under the herdsman’s staff, shall be holy to the Lord.Leviticus 27:32 (RSV)
Shepherd thy people with thy staff, the flock of thy inheritance…Micah 7:14 (RSV)
The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.Genesis 49:10 (RSV)
As it is impossible to reach any definitive inclusions about the real nature of the Christmas Star, I invite you to consider what has been presented over this four-part series of posts and make up your own minds as how best to interpret all the possibilities and the evidence. Also, when you next sing about shepherds who watch their flocks or three kings bearing gifts, I invite you to consider the cultural role that such celestial symbolism still plays 2,000 years after the historical event that it depicts.