e-mail us

Cover story

Star of wonder


There is an ancient mystery in the “star of wonder” that led the wise men to Bethlehem. Gazing heavenward on a winter’s night, one can only wonder what made the magi go.

Childhood visions conjure up a miraculous, glowing ball of light, like a holy Tinkerbell leading the Lost Boys. But these weren’t lost boys; they were wise men, and the Bible rarely calls anyone wise. Was the Christmas star an actual astral phenomenon? In the 1600s, famed German astronomer Johannes Kepler tried to satisfy both beliefs, suggesting both an astral phenomenon and a miracle star.

Modern astronomers and a few ministers have individually developed a confusing array of possible explanations since then. Catholicism emphasizes the symbolic meanings of the star and magi. The star represents the light of Christ, calling all to turn to him. That the light takes the form of a star is something the church addresses mainly in poetic terms. But early church fathers debated the form in which the star appeared. Trying to sort through the competing theories, both before and after Kepler, can really make a person wonder.

The magi didn’t have to wonder. The biblical account indicates they saw their sign and followed it, bearing gifts for the king of divine destiny they fully expected to find. After a journey of nearly 1,200 miles, probably from Persia, they found the king they sought, apparently not at the scene of his birth in a stable, but later, as a little child in a house.

They were not dissuaded from paying homage when they found the king was born a commoner. They had seen his star on the rise; he was born to the gold, frankincense and myrrh. The certainty of the magi shines undiminished throughout the infancy narrative of Matthew’s Gospel.

But no one else in the story of the magi’s journey seems to have noticed any sign in the heavens, nor the birth of a king. Arriving in Jerusalem from the East, the magi caused consternation among the people with their talk of a star and “the newborn king of the Jews,” and Herod summoned them to explain. “We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage,” they said. Why would the star go unnoticed except by magi?

The meaning of magi

Recent research, reflected in the Catholic New American Bible, sheds new light. The magi were expert astrologers. They followed the planets long before they followed the star of Bethlehem into the Christmas story. It was their job -- and quite likely they felt it was their divine calling -- to know the stars, to predict and confirm their changing positions, and to believe the destinies they saw written there. At some point, they read there, “Newborn king of the Jews.” The question is, what would say that to them?

“The answer lies not in modern astrology, or astronomy, but in ancient Greek astrology,” said Michael Molnar, a computer professional with a doctorate in astrophysics. Most historians agree King Herod died in 4 B.C. -- a death pinpointed in time partly by its association with an eclipse that occurred that year. The star of Bethlehem must have beckoned the magi before then.

To crack the magi’s code and follow it to a date of stellar symbolism in 6 B.C., Molnar undertook a detailed study of their system of astrology. He related his findings in his 1999 book, The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi. By studying roughly contemporaneous documents and other evidence, Molnar arrived at a magi’s-eye view of the star. He also found that the gospel account of the magi’s visit is sprinkled with phrases of specific astronomical meaning, the translation of which is key to understanding what the magi saw.

The magi almost certainly were not three kings. But magi of the time were highly respected as healers, diviners of dreams and astral experts, Molnar said. The fields of astronomy and astrology had not yet diverged. The Babylonian, Persian and Egyptian understandings of star movements and meanings had coalesced under Greek influence into a standardized body of knowledge. That intricate system allowed magi to predict and chart the movements and mathematical relationships of the sun, moon and planets against the backdrop of the fixed stars and constellations of the zodiac.

Astrologers had gathered centuries’ worth of observations and correlations of planetary movements and synchronous events on Earth. From charts and tables, magi could interpret the celestial omens. The kings they advised liked to hear about their own births, and magi obliged by developing individual birth charts called nativities, with emphasis on identifying patterns that indicated legendary reigns.

If magi visited the Christ child, they almost certainly described the star that prompted their visit in the context of their specialized knowledge, Molnar said. The gospel writer, not sharing their expertise, got it down as well as he could.

There is nothing to tell us how many magi made the journey. Their probable origin in Persia (then part of the Parthian empire and now Iran) persists in the accounts of early church fathers and in the earliest representations of the magi in Christian art, which show them in Parthian garb.

Artwork of Persian magi is even credited with saving the Church of the Nativity, built on the presumed site of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. According to church staff, Persian invaders in 614 were surprised to discover a mosaic of Persian magi on the building’s facade. “So out of reverence and respect for their ancestors, they decided to honor these sages by sparing the church.”

The title magi originated in Persia as a term for a caste of Zoroastrian priests. An essentially monotheistic faith, the Zoroastrian philosophy included the expectation of a Messiah born of a virgin. History shows significant interaction between the Jewish and Persian cultures over the years, including Esther’s role as the secretly Jewish queen of Persia, followed up by Persian help in the Jews’ construction of the second Temple in Jerusalem.

Whether such cultural connections predisposed the magi to seek the Christ child isn’t clear. The Zoroastrian connotation in the term magi had eroded by the time of Jesus’ birth. But the magi may well have been watching for the signs of the birth of a king to fulfill messianic prophecies.

Astrology and the church

Associating astrology with the Bible is not something the church has encouraged the faithful to pursue. On the contrary, the widespread belief in astrology, across lands within the vast reaches of Greco-Roman influence, was avoided as pagan idolatry by the Jews and by the Christian evangelists of the early church.

The view that the star was a miraculous phenomenon -- quite distinct from the usual fixed stars, constellations and wandering planets -- was firmly entrenched in the faith by the fourth century. The miracle view couldn’t be disproved, and it negated the need for an astronomical explanation in a time when star studies were heavily linked with the pantheon of astrological deities of Greco-Roman culture.

Certainly the star’s behavior is consistent with the miracle view. The biblical account implies that the star is hiding when the magi reach Jerusalem. When the authorities assembled by Herod relate the magi’s sign of a “newborn king of the Jews” to scriptural prophecies naming Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah. The star seems to reappear, and to move strangely, after the magi leave Herod.

“After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage.”

This strangely moving star was a supernatural manifestation, the early church fathers concluded. “That this star was not of the common sort -- or rather not a star at all, as it seems at least to me, but some invisible power transformed into this appearance -- is in the first place evident from its very course. For there is not any star that moves by this way,” St. John Chrysostom said in the fourth century in his Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew.

Origen, a priest of Alexandria, Egypt, writing in the early third century, clues us into the swarming theological and cultural controversies about the stars that preceded -- and no doubt influenced -- Chrysostom’s conclusions. The early Christians introduced their faith into many cultures where star worship was common and astrology was highly respected.

Origen denied the Greek contention that the stars were gods, but he longed to know whether the stars were rational beings with free will, perhaps a class of beings between angels and men. At one point, he wrote of the star of Bethlehem as a sort of messenger or prophet of God.

But Origen also gave the view of a Stoic scholar credence, saying the star could have been a comet. “It has been observed that, on the occurrence of great events, and of mighty changes in terrestrial things, such stars are wont to appear, indicating either the removal of dynasties or the breaking out of wars, or the happening of such circumstances as may cause commotions upon the earth.”

But then, Origen was soft on star worshipers. Having begun his career running a catechetical school frequented by pagans and neophytes in the new Christian faith, he wrote in an accommodating manner about the followers of stars.

Chrysostom was having none of it. In his anti-Origenist writings, he specifically condemned the astrology of the pagans.

On a symbolic level, Chrysostom’s miraculous star of wonder has maintained its appeal for Catholics into the present day. Pope John Paul II got to the heart of the spiritual matter in a homily on the Solemnity of the Epiphany in 2002. “Who does not feel the need for a ‘star’ to guide him on his earthly journey?” The church strives to fulfill the role of the star, as a reference point leading people to Christ, he said.

But that’s a different mystery. The church of Peter is probably not what the magi saw that made them rise and go. The pope cast the star as the light of Christ. “To the magi, coming from the East to adore him, the light of the one ‘who has been born king of the Jews’ appears in the form of a heavenly body, so bright as to attract their attention and guide them to Jerusalem.”

A prophetic crossroad

That sounds a lot like Chrysostom’s star of wonder, with Christ’s light filling the role of the invisible power. But the pope doesn’t give voice to the part of the fourth-century thinking that seems a bit silly today. Chrysostom’s supernaturally moving object, which proceeds like a televised sing-along, in which “We Three Kings” simply follow the bouncing ball that stops and hovers above the Word, doesn’t make it into the homily.

Rather, the pope suggests that Christ shines his light and guidance to get the magi’s attention and then “he sets them on the trail of the ancient messianic prophecies: ‘a star shall come forth from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise from Israel.’ ”

At that prophetic crossroad, the church’s symbolism and the magi’s might be said to meet. In the church’s terms, “a star coming forth from Jacob” foretold Jesus’ birth from the chosen people. In the magi’s terms, “a scepter arising from Israel” may well have meant a regal planetary configuration arising in the astrological sign of the Jews.

Molnar has attempted to steer clear of any theological issues or speculations. Different people and institutions have had different things to prove or justify by the star, and it has gotten in the way of a historically accurate approach to the phenomenon, he said.

In Molnar’s theory, the magi, in their charting of the planets across the sky, saw a day overflowing with astrological omens for the birth of a great king. The formation was centered in the part of the sky known as the sign of Aries. When astrologers of the day related the geography of their world to the map of the space as marked off by the zodiac, Aries was the sign for Judea and adjoining lands in Herod’s kingdom. With that information, the magi knew what they were looking for and, generally, where. Molnar believes that star chart, accurately representing the positions of the planets in the heavens, is what made the magi go.

Owen Gingerich, professor of astronomy and the history of science at Harvard University, calls Molnar’s work the most important contribution of the 20th-century in terms of interpreting the star the magi’s way. “It makes good sense in the cultural context of its time, and it lends credibility to the historical authenticity of the magi coming to Jerusalem in search of a newborn king,” he said.

According to Molnar, an ideal set of astrological conditions, heralding the birth of a king of the Jews of divine destiny, appeared in the skies on April 17 of 6 B.C. That day, the beneficent king planet, Jupiter, rose as the morning star, in its position of greatest power, reborn of the power of the sun.

The biblical phrase describing where the Magi originally saw the star, whether translated “in the East” or “at its rising,” means both of those and more in the magi’s ancient astrological language. The magi were speaking of a star in its “heliacal rising,” in the morning, in the East, a fairly precise distance ahead of the sun at dawn. In its simplest form, Molnar’s theory identifies the star of Bethlehem as the planet Jupiter in its heliacal rise.

The sun rose in Aries that day, in Jupiter’s wake, creating a combination that makes “most powerful emperors, just and fortunate,” according to an ancient astrological text of the pagan-turned-Christian Julius Firmicus Maternus.

In the chart of that day, all seven of the known planets, a count including the sun and moon and the inner planets out through Saturn, were grouped around Jupiter like a celestial royal family, gathered with attendants and spear-bearers for a portrait in the throne room. Lesser planets were arrayed in specific attendant relationships around the greater planets, an arrangement providing a third sign of a great ruler.

The magi also would have calculated that the moon was in exact conjunction with, and in fact technically occluding Jupiter that day. In their symbolism, the moon’s exact conjunction was a regal symbol in its most ideal manifestation. Firmicus called this conjunction a sign of an “almost divine and immortal nature.”

Moreover, all the planets appeared within zodiac signs in which their energies were believed to be strong and beneficent. Even the malefic and warlike planets, Saturn and Mars, were happy in their houses in the heavens that day. Their energies were kept beneficial by the planets attending them and by their own attendance on the central formation.

A star that ‘went before’

During the magi’s journey, Jupiter, the central star of the formation they had charted, made a noteworthy zigzag across the sky. Molnar says the biblical account describes that planetary movement in words that contain astronomical meanings.

It is not that the star “preceded them,” but that it “went before.” If that seems a hairsplitting distinction, consider that the Greek term used in some translations is the term the magi used to describe a planet’s retrograde motion. Sometimes a planet, as seen from Earth, appears to go backwards in its orbit for many days or weeks at a time. Then it stops, or “stations,” and resumes its normal course. Jupiter “went before,” on a retrograde course, in the latter half of 6 B.C. At the end of the retrograde, it stood still in the sky, or one might say it stopped to mark the place, on Dec. 19.

By the time it stopped, that retrograde motion had brought Jupiter back into the sign of Aries, where it originally had been when the Magi saw it in April at its rising in the East. Jupiter’s retrograde motion, its reappearance in Aries and its stationing in December could explain the biblical description of the star’s movement, Molnar said.

There is a fascinating fit between Molnar’s findings and the biblical account. The available astrological writings of the ancients support the theory, with additional confirmation provided by coins of first-century Antioch. Molnar, formerly manager of the astrophysics labs at Rutgers University, was researching the coins when their astrological symbolism hooked him into the search for the star.

Molnar calls his book “a historical analysis,” and he takes care to distinguish it from both modern astrology and religion. “In fact, I was reluctant to touch this subject because it bordered on religion,” he said. “However, my approach to present the information and not make any judgments has led people to recognize my work.”

At the very least, it makes you wonder.

Mary Barron is a free-lance writer living in Cripple Creek, Colo., and a former reporter for the Omaha World Herald and other papers.

National Catholic Reporter, December 27, 2002