Prophecy or poppycock?
Four RUG scientists and a slew of external experts tried to find out whether the story of the star of Bethlehem is fiction or not.
According to RUG astronomer Peter Barthel, the three Magi were certainly not literally following the star. It was because of the position of the planets and Greek astrology that the Magi ‘knew’ that a king had been born in the west, Barthel suspects.
The Magi would have known Greek astrology because they came from Parthia, according to New Testament scholar Geurt Henk van Kooten. Under the occupation of Alexander the Great, Greek ideas and culture spread throughout Parthia.
Van Kooten thinks the Magi were travelling to Antioch, the Syrian capital (which also includes Judea), when they saw the planets.
Matthew wrote his gospel (including the biblical text about the star of Bethlehem) in Antioch. Barthel thinks it was there that Matthew picked up the story about people traveling from the east, and then used that in his gospel.
Religious scientist Kocku von Stuckrad thinks the whole ‘star’ story was made up as Jewish propaganda against the Romans.
‘I believe that it’s based on the moment that Jupiter and Saturn were in the sky together, but the rest of it is plain fiction’, says Von Stuckrad.
Van Kooten has his doubts about this hypothesis. ‘Is it just a story, or does it have a basis in history?’
Reading time: 7 minutes (1118 words)
If you want to find out if ‘the star’ really existed, astronomy is the field you need. Using computer models, it is easy to find out what the sky looked like during any given year, so there are options there.
But you will need more than that. The story is chock-full of details, and they all have to match the theory. ‘A good example is the fact that the Magi weren’t even following a star’, says RUG astronomer Peter Barthel. ‘They saw something on the eastern horizon that indicated that a king had been born in the west.’ Barthel assumes that all the details in the story are true: ‘All the descriptions are so precise. You can’t make that up.’
But what could it have been? Barthel rules out a spectacular phenomenon such as a comet or a meteor shower: ‘When the Magi arrive at King Herod’s, he doesn’t know what’s going on. He would have seen something as large as a comet himself.’ It is more likely that the planets were aligned in the sky in a special way, and the models confirm this: on the morning of April 17 in the year 6 B.C. (Before Christ), there were several planets in the sky. Jupiter – the king of the planets – appears in the constellation Aries, along with Saturn and Venus.
In Greek astrology, this alignment of Jupiter and Saturn means that a king has been born somewhere. And the constellation Aries points to the place of birth. ‘According to this astrology, each constellation refers to a certain area’, Barthel explains. ‘Aries was the symbol for Greater Syria, which also includes Judea.’
History of the Middle East
Astronomy, then, provides an explanation for the star of Bethlehem. But did the Magi even know what these planets meant? After all, they lived in the east, far away from Greek civilisation. To answer this question, they called upon experts on the history of the Middle East.
‘We think the Magi were from the Parthian Empire’, says New Testament scholar Geurt Henk van Kooten. ‘That is at the same latitude where modern-day Iraq is.’ This premise would explain why the Magi would know Greek astronomy. Van Kooten: ‘Alexander the Great conquered that entire area and brought Greek ideas and culture along with him. That means that the Parthian Magi spoke Greek.’
However, in the last century before Christ, Alexander the Great’s empire was defeated by the Romans. And in the centuries that followed, tensions between the Roman and Parthian empires ran high. But in 20 B.C., the Roman emperor Augustus brokered a peace that lasted for 30 years. ‘During that time, the relationship between the Romans and the Parthians was good’, van Kooten says. ‘The Parthians even sent their sons to Rome to study.’
In this period, it would have been easy for the Parthian Magi to travel across Roman territory. ‘They were probably on their way to Syria for political reasons when they saw the planets and discovered that an important ruler had been born’, says van Kooten. It is therefore not unlikely that their travels ultimately took them to Jerusalem: the Magi knew that city because the Parthians had ruled it in 40 B.C.
Biblical text Matthew 2:1-4
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.
When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
And yet, Barthel does not think the planets actually led the Magi to Jesus: ‘They knew that something had happened in Syria, and so they went to Antioch, Syria’s capital. Matthew wrote his gospel in Antioch, so he probably picked up the story of travellers from the east and used it.’
Not all contributors to the book agree with this theory. Religious scientist Kocku von Stockrad actually thinks the story is literary propaganda: ‘In that time, the birth of a Roman king was often accompanied by the search for a sign in the sky. But rulers would also sometimes falsify or hide their date of birth if their horoscope was unfavourable.’
It was very easy, therefore, to manipulate these kinds of stories, and von Stuckrad says the Jews adopted this custom: ‘I believe that it’s based on the moment that Jupiter and Saturn were in the sky together, but the rest of it is plain fiction.’ The propaganda is most likely aimed at the Romans because the gospel was written in the interbellum between two Jewish wars against Rome and after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. Von Stuckrad: ‘At a time like that, heathens bowing down to the king of the Jews is obviously fantastic.’
Matthew might also have used a prophecy from the Old Testament. In Numbers 24:17, a heathen prophet predicts the coming of a Jewish king. ‘Everyone knew that text, so it would have been great if the prophecy was fulfilled’, von Stuckrad says. However, the prophecy does not in any way mention the Magi from the east. ‘There is nothing to indicate that the journey of the Magi was based on fact. It’s a fictional story written by Matthew.’
Van Kooten acknowledges that von Stuckrad might be right, but wonders if it is as easy as all that. ‘It’s true that every ruler wants to claim that there was a king who threatened his reign. But here’s my question: is it just a story or does it have a basis in history? In the rest of the gospel, Matthew explicitly states when a prophecy is fulfilled, but not in this case. And I think we’ve done a good job placing the Parthian Magi in history.’
Do you want more? Peter Barthel is giving a lecture on the star of Bethlehem for the Children’s University on Monday 21 December.
Last year, astronomer Peter Barthel and New Testament scholar Geurt Henk van Kooten gathered experts from several different fields at a conference about ‘the star’. The conference resulted in a great discussion and the men decided to bundle their findings in the book: The Star of Bethlehem and the Magi. ‘The book shows that opinions still differ’, says Van Kooten. ‘However, it is the first time that all these disciplines come together to consider the star of Bethlehem.’