December 26, 2008

Which Star of Bethlehem?

Do a blog search on Star of Bethlehem around this time of year and you’ll find lots of amateurs with lots of theories. Like this one. *Ahem* Jack Finegan cataloged no less than six distinct “star candidates”, at least one in every year from 7 to 2 BC. Naturally, each constellation, comet or convergence comes with a leading interpretation to explain why IT could be the one that drew foreign, gentile Astrologers to see baby Jesus some time after his birth. Since I believe God almighty isn’t heavily into astrology, I say He would have been equally pleased to use any of these “stars” as his means of nudging those Astrologers all the way to Jerusalem. After Jerusalem, of course, the star seemed to turn south and stop at one house (!) – a supernatural event that has no satisfactory explanation among *any* of the leading “star” candidates. So it does seem God was still directly involved. :)

Of course the astronomy matters, but the gaggle of interpretative possibilities is precisely what tells us it *could* have been any of them. How, then, should we choose? My money’s on the triple convergence in 7 BC, but I didn’t pick that one because I liked its interpretative scenario better than other ones. I settled on the triple convergence only after I was convinced that a lot of significant historical data strongly suggests a census and birth in 7 BC. Without building arguments in this post, here are the key points of that data:

1) Herod the Great died after an eclipse on a festival day, Purim, in 4 BC
2) Tertullian cited Saturninus as the census taker at Christ's birth
3) Saturninus was Governor of Syria from 9 to 6 BC
4) Herod got in major trouble with Augustus late in 9 BC
5) Event planning for the bizarre logistics of this unusual census must have required significant lead time with advance notification given for local scheduling
6) This special registration did not evaluate property (unlike in 6 AD)
7) Joseph’s fear of Archelaus in 4 BC was irrational, centered on protecting Jesus, and thus unlikely to abate while the Ethnarch was in Judea
8) Any birth date between April 7 BC and March 6 BC makes Jesus 12 at the first Passover after Archelaus was exiled, 7 AD, allowing Joseph to feel safe taking Jesus into Jerusalem

Note: From these points we may conclude that Caesar must have told Saturninus to count Herod’s people, but not to value their property. To preserve the integrity of scripture, we must then also conclude that Luke 2:1 refers to Augustus' provincial registration decree in 27 BC; and that Luke 2:2 should be translated, “this was the census before [the one in which] Quirinius was governor”; and finally that Luke 2:3 refers only to this unique and isolated event, as opposed to all Roman censuses since 27 BC. (See Hoehner and Finegan for more on the greek text of Luke 2:2.)

If the historical data was more in favor of another year I’d have no problem changing my pick on the "star”, but we have to start with history. Herod’s deathday is the movst vital issue, though I’ve made the case that Archelaus’ exile is actually the best starting point. From those two points, the most important task is to identify specific evidence for the contextual details of a Roman-Herodian census. Historically speaking, the question of how, when and why hundreds or thousands of Roman soldiers were mobilized in Herod’s territory is infinitely more significant than the question of what esoteric particulars inspired the mobilization of a few wealthy, knowledge obsessed individuals.

In short, if we get the history right, the proper “star” should present itself. So this year, my Christmas Wish is that well meaning amateurs (and certain scholars) would spend less time going on about astronomy & astrology, and work a bit harder to learn classical history & geography. On these issues, we definitely need all the help we can get!


Jason said...

Hi there,

I like your blog, its very helpful. I was wondering if you wanted to exchange links. If yes, you can find my information below. Be sure to send me your information so we can properly swap links. Thank you and Happy Holidays!

Paranormal Knowledge


Bill said...

Hi, Jason. Thanks for the compliments, but I'm not really interested in ghosts or ufo's. Are you really comparing Bible History to stuff like that? I'll try not to be offended if you will. ;)

Happy New Year...

Anonymous said...

It's my contention that the wise men saw the star moving while they were in the east, not the star in the east. Moving is confirmed by the Greek of Matt 2.9. Then it stopped, and when it stopped they were in Bethlehem. Stopped is confirmed by the Greek of Matt 2.9 also.

Interesting things in NASB (GNT Morph Greek text): The family was in Bethlehem, not Nazareth, until the wise men came. Then they fled to Egypt. When Herod died, they came back, they were told to return to Israel (not "Judea") in 2.20, and returned to Israel in 2.21. Also interesting is that in Shem Tob's Matthew text in his polemical Even Bohan, it has the family stopping in Gilgal before heading to Galilee.

Rick Carpenter

Bill said...

Hey, Rick. Mt.2:9 only speaks of what the star did after their meeting with Herod. Yes, there was moving and stopping, a supernatural event which must have been different from whatever normal stargazing these astrologers were used to.

On your other observations, it's important to note that Matthew never says Nazareth OR Galilee until that point. There's a more recent post on that topic in general: here.

I wasn't aware of the polemical variant. That's interesting but very odd, since of course Gilgal isn't even hardly on the way to Galilee. If it's true, Joseph must have been going around the long way, steering clear of Judea entirely, and Jerusalem/Caesarea in particular. I have no reason to argue for this, but I wouldn't put it past Joseph to have done so, assuming their provisions would last the extra weeks it must have taken to go around the Dead Sea.

Wow - we are waaaay off topic, but isn't this fun?

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