In the world of American television, ancient mysteries inevitable descend into efforts to prove that the Bible is literally true. You could choose to read this as pandering to the audience, or you might see it as part of a society-wide convulsion over the decline of traditional Christian religion (which often embraced symbolic, or at least nuanced, interpretations) and the rise of secularism and biblical literalism in oppositional tandem. The underlying theme of all the documentaries that explore such topics is the same: If we can prove the small details of the Bible true, then the larger narrative must be true, and you are warranted in planning for life everlasting. “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14).
The Universe: Ancient Mysteries Solved S04 “Star of Bethlehem” is about what you’d expect from a documentary that wants to combine astronomy with the most famous appearance of a star in ancient literature. The documentary opens by asking if the Star is “faith, fable, or fact,” which already puts it a cut above most H2 documentaries. Nevertheless, the promised question of whether the Star of Bethlehem “will return” makes me a bit uneasy. This gets into some strange theological territory that seems a bit beyond an astronomy documentary. In time, the show will debunk this claim, but it will go on to endorse another that is not without its problems so that it, too, can conclude that the Bible is true not just spiritually but factually and historically.
In a famous line, it is often said that the atheist merely believes in one fewer god than the monotheist; otherwise, they are in complete agreement on the fictitiousness of the gods. Here, I simply accept one fewer explanation for the Star of Bethlehem than The Universe, which admirably enough debunks most of the most popular explanations.
The expert on the Star of Bethlehem is Aaron Adair, who wrote the superb book on the subject, The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View (Onus Books, 2013). Adair’s book informs my review below, but you should of course read his book, which is much richer and more detailed on the sources and science behind each potential explanation.
After the credits, the narrator explains that most of us only think we know the Nativity story, but then drops the line before explaining why the tale of the Three Wise Men differs from its scriptural origin. Instead, astronomer John Mosley, author of The Christmas Star, tells us that the ancients used the word “star” to refer to stars, planets, comets, and meteors, prompting the narrator to ask whether the Star of Bethlehem was “faith-based fiction” or an astronomical fact that science can discover. Mosley says that by using “ancient texts” to discover the date of Jesus’ birth, we can examine the ancient sky to find the Star of Bethlehem. This will be a neat trick for a star whose sum total description is that it rose in the east (Matthew 2:2) and that after the magi met with King Herod, “they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was” (Matthew 2:9).
A description of the Biblical narrative of the arrival of the wise men from the East from the Gospel of Matthew (2:2-8) follows, and the complication that this gospel was written at least 80 years after the events is discussed. Oddly, the show uses astronomer Tyler Nordgren rather than a biblical scholar to read the biblical passages from an electronic pocket Bible and comment on them. Frankly, he sounds a little flippant in reading the text, which might have better been placed in the narrator’s mouth. The narrator tells us that the wise men were magi, or astrologers, and the remainder of Matthew’s narrative of the magi (Matthew 2:9-12) is presented, including the confusing passage that the Star of Bethlehem moves in the sky and stands still over the spot where Jesus lay. The narrator notes that to be literally true, the Star cannot be a star as we think of it since stars don’t move in the sky.
The first potential solution to the Star of Bethlehem the show wants to investigate is a pair meteors, one to lead the magi and the other to stand over Bethlehem. This cannot be tested, it is noted, and meteors don’t last long enough for magi to travel by camel from Babylon (which they give as Baghdad) to Jerusalem.
After dismissing the meteors, we go to Padua to look at a 1305 fresco by Giotto in which a comet stands in for the Star of Bethlehem, likely Halley’s Comet, seen by Giotto in 1301. Although this was the model for the fresco, to connect it back to facts, we cite Origen’s claim (Contra Celsum 1.59) that the Star of Bethlehem was a comet, like the comets that inaugurated Roman dynasties. However, Halley’s Comet passed in 12 BCE, too early for Jesus according to most accounts. This leads to a discussion of the Anno Domini dating system, which contains errors that even the pope acknowledge mean that Jesus was likely born between 7 and 2 BCE.
Turning to 66 CE, we listen to Nero’s encounter with the magi (often given as Suetonius, Life of Nero, 13:1, but actually Pliny, Natural History 30.6) during Halley’s Comet. Nordgren suggests that Matthew remembered this at least 14 years later and transferred the visit of the magi to Nero to Herod instead. Offering nothing to back this up, the show speeds ahead to discuss a Chinese record of a comet visible around 5 BCE. A comet visible in the night sky in 2012, Comet Ison, may have been that same comet, and the narrator seems happy about the idea that Jesus’ star has returned. But the comet broke up, and Michael Mischna, a planetary scientist, debunks the claim, noting that Ison was not periodic, had never been, and would never return even had it not returned. The narrator and Mosley note that comets were considered bad omens, and unfit for announcing the Messiah.
After the break, we talk about the possibility that the Star was a nova, but this is dismissed in favor of discussing Kepler’s idea that in 7 BC a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn was the Star of Bethlehem because he thought that when planets came together they gave birth to stars as a nova. Thus, the show asks whether the Chinese comet of 5 BCE was an exploding star entangled with a white dwarf. But astronomy finds that this event was too dim to be observed by the naked eye.
After another break, the show decides that looking for bright lights in the sky is fruitless, so it instead suggests that the magi had a unique insight into something that wasn’t bright or shiny but rather subtle. Turning to Matthew’s gospel, the show suggests that the heliacal rising of a certain star in the east was the signal the magi saw. In this reading, the magi saw an astrological omen that lasted for two years since Herod kills all male children up to two years of age (Matthew 2:16). Between May and December 7 BCE, Jupiter and Saturn made a triple conjunction, which might have astrologically symbolized a change in the kingship (Jupiter, king of planets) of the Jews (identified with Saturn). In 6 BCE, Jupiter enters Aries, a constellation associated with the Jews. Jupiter also vanishes behind and then emerges from the Moon that same year, suggesting the birth of a new king in Judea. (As Adair notes, in the East this was a bad omen, not a good one, which makes it inappropriate for heralding the birth of God’s son.)
Of course, this doesn’t line up with the narrative saying that that the star paused over Bethlehem, so this means that we are returning to the idea that the Star is a semi-fictional literary description. Either you are taking the Star literally or you aren’t. Having it both ways opens us to any interpretation—why do we accept this but reject comets because comets don’t stand still? Neither do conjunctions. It doesn’t make logical sense.
The show recognizes this and offers us yet another astrological event.
In 3-2 BCE, there was a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in Leo, near the king star Regulus, yet another conjunction about a king of Judah (the lion) in triple conjunction. Jupiter crowns Regulus and heralds the birth of a king. Yet another conjunction of these planets occurs in June over Judea relative to the magi’s position in Babylon. According to astrological calculations, the show says, Jupiter’s retrograde motion would have allowed the magi to follow it straight to Jerusalem, arriving when the planet leaves retrograde, appearing to stand still for a day on December 25, 2 BCE, the day that the magi visited the young child. Therefore, they ask, could the Church have chosen December 25 as Jesus’ birthday in memory of the magi’s arrival? Well, no; they chose it to coincide with the Roman festival of Sol Invictus, but nice try. Also: The star supposedly traveled before the magi during the trip of six miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and then stopped; but planetary apparent motion doesn’t go that fast—it is a process of days, not hours. The text doesn’t match the sky. Again, as Adair notes, in Eastern astrology this was another ill omen, not a good one.
Unfortunately, most believe that Herod the Great was dead for two years when this conjunction occurred, which the show notes disqualifies this conjunction. However, the show engages in revisionist history and tells us that we should ignore the evidence for Herod’s death established by most historians since the nineteenth century and instead read the statement of Flavius Josephus (Antiquities 17.6.4) that Herod died at a lunar eclipse as talking of the total lunar eclipse of 1 BCE rather than the partial eclipse of 4 BCE. This revision is based entirely on trying to match a lunar eclipse to a preferred date for Jesus, but it does not account for the fact that Herod’s sons, who succeeded him (though not as kings due to Roman policy), dated the start of their reigns to 4 BCE.
In neither conjunction does the show explain the contradiction between the singular star in Matthew and the plural stars forming these conjunctions. Why should we read the motion literally but not the number of stars? It’s very confusing when we are supposed to take the text as a literally true report and when we are supposed to assume it is symbolic—it’s almost as though it were at the convenience of the claimant!
The show concludes definitively that the Star of Bethlehem was a conjunction of Jupiter, though which precise one they do not say. I don’t buy it, and I think that the Star of Bethlehem was a literary device, along with the magi, who otherwise ought not to be expected to care much for the dynastic politics of a client state of their empire’s (the Parthians’) greatest enemy, Rome, much less to do homage to a prince of such a state.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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