Following the Star
We think we know Christmas. Bed-sheeted children reenact the details every year, so it’s shocking to go back to the gospels and see how little is there and how much is merely tradition. All we know about Jesus’ birth from Luke is that he was wrapped in cloths and laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn. All we get from Matthew is the story of Herod and the magi, wise men from the east following a star.
Reading closely, there weren’t three wise men, and they weren’t kings. With some word study, there was no inn—the word refers to the living space of a first century Judean home. And historically, Jesus couldn’t have been born December 25th—Judean shepherds did not keep their flocks out at night during cold winter months—or in year 1 CE, since Herod died in 4 BCE. Most likely date was either in spring or summer between 7 and 5 BCE.
And what about that star?
Matthew tells us magi saw the star in the east, that it went before them, guiding them west, then stood over the place of Jesus’ birth. No star could do this. Are we looking for a miraculous star with non-physical properties? Scholars have offered comets, supernovas, planetary conjunctions as explanation, but none of these fit Matthew’s details, and there’s no astronomical evidence either. But in the ancient world, astronomy and astrology were one and the same, and amazingly, there is astrological evidence for the magi’s star. From April 17 to December 19, 6 BCE, Jupiter obeyed all Matthew’s details in its apparent motion, astrologically speaking…making Jesus’ birthday April 17, 6 BCE.
Is this true? Can’t know. Important? Only in considering the magi. Probably descendants of Jewish exiles searching the stars across centuries, longing for signs of their promised king. The devotion and discipline, willingness to risk life and reputation following a star only they could see, humility to surrender their treasures to an impoverished child. What is the temperature of our desire? Hot enough to persevere? To search the stars, risk following the star we find, surrender preconceptions blinding us to the truth our star reveals? That’s important.