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.
Matthew 2:2 (KJV)

When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
Matthew 2:9-10 (KJV)

The primary point of confusion is over the Greek word aster which is used by Matthew as shown above and is translated into English as 'star'). This translation is partially correct, however, the Greeks called anything in the sky a 'star'. Different things in the sky where different types of stars.
  • aster - star
  • astron - star (plural), a constellation
  • planes aster - wandering star, a planet
So, why didn't Matthew say what was in the sky if it wasn't just a simple star? To answer that question, it is important to look at the audience of the gospels. The book of Mark is an abridged version of Matthew, Luke was written for the common people and emphasizes benevolence, and John was written for various philosophers. Matthew emphasizes the fulfillment of the prophecies in the Old Testament. Here, we encounter some translation problems - Hebrew to Greek to English.
I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.
Numbers 24:17
The word here is kowkab and means 'Star' (I would welcome any further explanation and connotations from those familiar with Hebrew). Matthew used the same count (singular) and does not elaborate upon 'Star' instead trying to relate this aster to the kowkab found in the Old Testament.

So, what could the Aster of Bethlehem be?

Before going too far down this path, it is important to pin down what the time of the birth of Jesus was. It was not December 25, 1 A.D.

The year '1 A.D.' was set down by in 535 A.D. by a Scythian monk named Dionysius Exiguus. He did this by working backwards through the Roman emperors. Unfortunately, he made some mistakes (including the ommission of the year '0' that haunts time keepers to this day). While Dionysius goes down in history with these mistakes, scholars in the first and second century A.D. had better access to documentation and a few hundred years closer to the actual event placed the birth of Jesus to be between 6-4 B.C..

What about the tax mentioned in Luke? Certainly that is recorded.

The 'tax' mentioned in Luke appears to have occurred at 8 B.C., however this another poor translation - 'tax' as we know it is the Greek word apotimesis, while the word used in Luke is apographe which is more along the lines of census. The other census taken were in 28 B.C and 14 A.D. And while this is about the right time there are some difficulties with this.

  • The census decreed by Caesar Augustus was for Roman Citizens only who lived within the empire.
  • Joseph and Mary were not Roman citizens and thus were not part of the census at all.
  • Herod's kingdom was somewhat sovereign and not incorporated as part of the Roman Empire until 6 A.D. - any tax or census from Herod was from his own rule and not part of a Roman decree.
What then was the 'tax' or 'census' mentioned then? The best guess (Dr. Ernest Martin) suggests that this was an oath of allegiance made in 2 B.C. that corresponds to the celebration of the 750th anniversary of the legendary foundation of Rome and the 25th year of rule by Caesar Augustus. Augustus wrote:
While I was administering my 13th consulship the senate and the equestrian order and the entire Roman people gave me the title Father of My County.
As part of this, Augustus ordered a census be taken of "each providence everywhere and that all men be enrolled" (Josephus - 5th century historian). Furthermore, Josephus tells us that "therfore the while Jewish nation took an oath to be faithful to Caesar and the interests of king (Herod)". The key point here is that this oath of allegiance is of all people - citizen and non-citizen alike, in all the empire and provinces.

The date of December 25 was chosen to replace pagan holidays rather than actually represent the literal day of the birth of Jesus. Looking about we see that the birth of Jesus was announced to shepherds in fields who were keeping watch over their flock. This likely coincides with lambing season in the spring (late March and early April) when the ewes have given birth to lambs and the flock would need the extra attention and protection of the shepherds near by. While this hints at spring, it is not necessarily the case - some shepherds stayed with their flocks year round.

So, now we return to the question: what could the Aster of Bethlehem be?


With the discovery and predictive ability set forth by Edmond Halley with Halley's Comet many astronomers calculated back and proposed that the Aster of Bethlehem was Halley's Comet. A rough calculation shows that it would appear somewhere around 1 A.D. and would certainly be a significant celestial omen. Closer investigation shows that Comet Halley would have been in the sky in 12 B.C. - a few years too early.

While this only rules out Halley's Comment, what about other comets? Several other comments were seen in the years 5-4 B.C., these comets where rarely seen as a good omen - most often there where signs of a death of a king rather than the herald of a birth of a messiah.


*BOOM* - suddenly a small speck of light shines real bright. There are two types
  • A nova which shines with 50,000 times the power of the sun and would be visible with the naked eye as a bright star in the night sky that can last up to a year.
  • A supernova which shines with 100 billion times the power of the sun (thats 100,000,000,000) and lasts up to two years. A supernova within the Milky Way galaxy would have been brighter than the full moon, visible during the day, and last for up to two years.
So, could it have been a (super)nova? Once again, consulting the Chinese records there is no mention of supernovas around 5 B.C.. There is indication of a new star in Capricorn between March 10th and April 27th of 5 B.C. which may have been a nova (it may also have been a comet, the records aren't the most clear on this).


This is believed the most likely aster. In the year 7 B.C., there was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that occurred three times within the constellation of Pisces. The first of these conjunctions was in late May, the second in September, and the third in December.
  • Jupiter - the planet of Kings
  • Saturn - the protector of the Jewish people
  • Pisces - associated with the kingdom of Israel
These could certainly be seen as heralding the coming of a King of the Jews and Messiah.

Then, four years later (3-2 B.C.), astrology got rather interesting:

  1. May 19, 3 B.C. - Saturn and Mercury were in conjunction with less than a degree of a separation.
  2. June 12, 3 B.C. - Saturn moved to east meet with Venus and only 7.2' (thats is less than 1/6th of a degree)
  3. August 12, 3 B.C. - A conjunction between Jupiter and Venus separated by only 4.2' (1/12th of a degree) within the constellation of Cancer.
  4. June 17th, 2 B.C. - Another conjunction between Venus and Jupiter, this time in Leo and coming within 6" (thats six seconds, or 1/600th of a degree)
  5. August 27, 2 B.C. - Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Mercury all grouped in the constellation of Leo.
Leo is often seen as the 'head' of the Zodiac and ruled by the Sun. As such it is seen as the "Royal Constellation", and dominated by the star Regulus (from the Latin "King Star"). Leo denotes royalty and power to any planets found within it. To an astrologer, this looks as if the King Planet (Jupiter) was homing in on the King Star (Regulus) within the royal constellation.

So, within Rome this occurred about the same time as the festivals mentioned above (the 750th year of Rome and 25th year of Augustus). Meanwhile, in the east this may have looked like the birth of a king. So, when the Magi showed up in Jerusalem and asked King Herod if there was a new son he was quite alarmed: "When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him." -- Matthew 2:3. Picture it, here you are celebrating Rome and some wise men show up and ask "Where is the new king of the Jews?" To someone versed in astrology, and the history of Judah (who's symbol was the lion - Leo) this was a very different symbol.

The Magi stopped at Jerusalem for several reasons. First, as emissaries of royalty themselves, there were bound by tradition and properness to pay respects to royalty in the towns and cities they passed through. Furthermore, they didn't exactly know where Bethlehem was (6 miles south of Jerusalem) and so they stopped to ask for directions and just to make certain that it wasn't a child of Herod's they were looking for.

The Magi arrived about 3 years after the birth of Jesus (he wasn't an infant anymore) and likely arrived sometime in the range of early September to late December of 2 B.C.. It is likely the Magi came from several places rather than all from one spot - Babylon, Persia and Arabia. It should be noted that in 614 A.D. when armies of Persia invaded the area and destroyed many Christian churches they refused to destroy the Basilica in Bethlehem because of the mosaic within that showed the adoration of the Magi - in traditional Persian clothing of Royalty.

One should note that this is not proof for or against the nature of Jesus as Christ and Messiah or the existence of God. This is rather intended as a study into the time and circumstances surrounding one of the most influential individuals in the history of the world. It can be argued that Jesus became who he was through the influence of his childhood or that he was born when he was through an act of God to coincide with the astrological events of the time. This writeup does not intend to explore that aspect of the life of Jesus and theology.

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