Wednesday, January 6, 2010

For Epiphany - some thoughts on the star of Bethlehem

Today is Epiphany Day. Originally January 6 was the date of Christmas in the Eastern Churches. The Emperor Constantine adopted December 25 in line with Western Church practice and gradually through the 4th century, it became the standard date for Christmas. The only exception was the Armenian Church. Armenia was an independent kingdom and had adopted Christianity a few years before Constantine made Christianity a licit religion in the Roman Empire. The Armenians kept to the older date and thus observe Christmas today.

But with the change of date something had to be done for today and so the feast of the Epiphany was invented to mark the end of the Christmas season. In the Eastern Church, Epiphany celebrates the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John the Baptist, the start of Jesus' public life. The Western Church applied the story of the wise men, only found in Matthew's gospel (Matt 2:1-12), to this date. The coming of the wise men from the east bearing gifts for the Christ-child is celebrated as the first revealing of the divine Jesus to the world, as represented by these foreign, Gentile figures. In much of Europe, they are celebrated as three kings named Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar (the Syrian and Ethiopian churches have different names for the three). The notion that they were kings is quite late and a rather romantic fancy not based on the Matthean account.

Here is Matthew's story from the NIV:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him. When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. In Bethlehem in Judea, they replied, for this is what the prophet has written: 'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.' Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him. After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Not kings, then, but Magi, and an unspecified number of them but bearing three gifts. The story then continues with Herod, realising the Magi are not going to return to him, ordering the slaughter of all male children in Bethlehem under the age of 2. Joseph is forewarned by an angel in a dream and together he and Mary escape with the infant Jesus to Egypt where they remain until Herod eventually dies.

It's quite a story and it's fair to say that it this tale of the Magi and the star and the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem that is the main popular image of Matthew's infancy narrative. This is the dominant spectacle in contrast to Luke's motifs of miraculous conception and birth framed dramatically by the Temple. In Mathew, Mary is silent all the way through and miraculous conception and birth happen pretty much offstage. Instead the Magi take centre stage accompanied by a strange star or some sort of heavenly spectacle, together with a ruthless and bloodthirsty king (and no Temple to be seen anywhere either).

So who are these Magi (or magoi as Matthew's text says using the Greek plural form)? The answer is simple, the Magi are the priestly caste of Persian Zoroastrianism. The word magi or magus (singular) is behind our word magic and the magi were renowned throughout the ancient world for their knowledge and wisdom including the secrets of the stars or what we might term astrology, which was the astronomy of the ancient world. Certainly the early church knew this, to the great embarrassment of some, and for many centuries the Magi were usually depicted in Persian dress, including the old Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (which reputedly saved the church from destruction when the Persians conquered Byzantine Palestine at the end of the 6th century CE).

It is the star however that has really gripped popular imagination. It is generally understood as a star that moves through the sky above guiding the Magi to Bethlehem. That popular image has prompted some to speculate that the star was some sort of comet (as in Giotto's painting of the Nativity). The only problem with the comet hypothesis is that they have traditionally been taken as portents of ill not good, so it's unlikely that a comet would be read as a sign of the good news of a royal birth. Others have suggested that the star was a supernova of which there is evidence from the time. But a supernova has to read as part of a detailed sky narrative to be applied in so specific a way that the narrative says the Magi did. On its own a supernova is a wonder in the sky but no more. Of course most scholars regard the whole story as a pious fiction and compare the story to similar portents said to accompany the births of Alexander or Augustus for example. Nevertheless , even if fictional it's important to remember that the art (or science) of augury was highly developed in the Greco-Roman world. In other words there were established conventions by which to read and interpret such. Even fictional portents would have to conform to established conventions.

So even if Matthew's account is a pious fiction written to enhance Jesus' Messianic status, like all fictions it must conform to a set of conventions to be able to work. It's pretty clear what sort of conventions might be applied to this story. It is a portent in the heavens that only the Magi can see and read (Herod does not seem to be able to see it). The Magi were renowned for their astrological abilities so consequently, it's argued, what we must look for is an astrological event. There have been a whole suite of astrological events suggested, often involving the planet Jupiter, the royal planet. Most recently, Michael Molnar has argued that the occultation of Jupiter by the Moon in 6 BCE (in Aries) is the astrological basis for the Star of Bethlehem. But, as my friend Rollan McCleary has said, any astrological event must conform to the conventions of astrology, especially ancient astrology. According to Rollan, Molnar's event definitely doesn't and nor do most of the other suggested candidates for the astrological 'star'.

Rollan is himself an astrologer of many years practice and knows something of ancient astrological conventions. Rollan lays claim to have discovered the actual birth chart for Jesus (long a holy grail for astrology). I'm not going to go into that in this post; if you want to know more you can read what Rollan has to say here and follow the other links. Rollan bases his case on the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in Pisces in the year 7 BCE. Now Rollan didn't make this up out of his own head. He's following the argument of British astronomer, David Hughes, who himself got the idea from Continental astronomer, Konradin D'Occhieppo. But he didn't come up with it first either. The idea has popped up from time to time over the last few centuries. In fact the first person to argue the significance of the 7BCE conjunction was the great astronomer, Johannes Kepler, back in 1603. But it turns out that even he didn't come to this idea off his own bat. Instead he found it in a Jewish text by Abravanel (1437 - 1508), a Jewish philosopher and biblical commentator of the Renaissance period. Abravanel cites a Jewish astrological tradition that the Messiah would be born when Saturn and Jupiter are conjunct in Pisces.

Not many people know but there's a rich tradition of Jewish astrology and that many of the great rabbinic sages of the past were astrologers. So I'm not surprised to find an astrological reference in a rabbinic text. In fact the biblical texts themselves are rich with astrological symbolism and allusions. But what could be the basis for this understanding of the Jupiter Saturn conjunction? I have to admit I got intrigued and cruised around the web to see what I could find.

First off, the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter is quite important astrologically, even more so in ancient astrology. I'll quote here from astrologer Richard Nolle (annoyingly, Nolle's site is best read in Internet Explorer so if you're using a different browser it might not open properly):

Jupiter's alignment with Saturn occurs at intervals of just under 20 years. The aspect is occasionally repeated due to a retrograde of one or both planets. Each successive conjunction (not counting retrograde repeats) occurs at a mean advance of approximately 243 degrees relative to its predecessor; although from one alignment to the next this arc can vary considerably. Every third conjunction - once every 60 years - brings the alignment back to its starting place, plus around 9 degrees: this 60 year cycle is termed the first order recurrence of the conjunction. Every 40th conjunction - roughly once every 800 years - brings the alignment back to within about 1 degree of its starting place: this approximate 800 year cycle is termed the second order recurrence, astrologically known as the Great Mutation cycle.

Jupiter and Saturn were the outermost known planets in ancient times, and were called the "Great Chronocrators" by astrologers of old. For millennia, the alignment of these two planets has been regarded as a significator of great social, economic and political watersheds - historic turning points, if you will.

Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions occur in signs of the same element for a mean period of a bit less than 200 years at a stretch, typically with some overlap at the beginning and end of the cycle. For example, the current cycle of conjunctions in the earth signs (Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn) was initiated on January 26, 1842 and concludes on May 28, 2000. This cycle was interrupted by the December 31, 1980 - July 24, 1981 triple conjunction in Libra. The previous Great Chronocrator cycle in the fire signs (Aries, Leo, Sagittarius) began with the 1663 alignment and ended with the one in 1821; having been interrupted by the 1802 conjunction in Virgo...

The next cycle of Jupiter-Saturn conjunction will be in signs of the air element (Gemini, Libra and Aquarius). It begins with the December 21, 2020 alignment and concludes with the 2199 conjunction; broken up by the 2159 conjunction in Scorpio. Following that comes the series in water signs (Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces), from 2219 to 2378 (interrupted by the 2338 alignment in the fire sign Sagittarius).

Jupiter is, of course, the royal planet named for the Roman king of the gods, equivalent to the Greek Zeus. Saturn is the old god Chronos and as the outermost planet for the ancients is the planet of boundaries. Saturn was also associated with the Jewish YHWH and regarded as ruler of the Sabbath; Shabbat is Saturday, Saturn's day. As Nolle says, the Saturn Jupiter conjunctions run in cycles by the four elements the 12 signs are grouped into. The 7BCE conjunction was the last in a roughly 200 hundred year cycle in water signs (Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces) which began around 225BCE. The first Pisces conjunction of the cycle occurred in 126 BCE.

That year is around the time the Hasmonean ruler of Judea, Alexander Jannaeus, is born. The Hasmoneans had been ruling since the successful Maccabee led revolt (165BCE) against the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (ruled 175-164BCE), who was responsible for the abomination of desolation in the Temple (i.e. dedicating it to Olympian Zeus) referred to in Daniel (9:27, 11:31, 12:11). The Hasmoneans ruled as High Priests in Jerusalem as a kind of ethnarchy over Judea. Under John Hyrcanus (ruled 134-104BCE), in the late 2nd century BCE, Hasmonean rule was extended to much of Palestine. Alexander Jannaeus was the second son of John Hyrcanus and became High Priest in 103BCE, following the death of his brother Aristobulus who ruled for only one year. Alexander ruled until his death in 76BCE. Like his father before him, Alexander campaigned to extend Hasmonean rule, conquering the Golan Heights in the north and areas of the coast including Gaza, as well as parts of Transjordan and south into the Negev.

Alexander Jannaeus is also the first Hasmonean ruler to proclaim himself king. Additionally he issued a coinage, that has become known as the Widow's Mites, that, as well carrying his royal title, also used the image of the 8 point star. It's the first known use of the star in such Jewish coinage. Some have suggested that the star is a reference to the Balaam 'prophecy' in Numbers (24:17-19). This verse was read as a messianic prophecy at the turn of the era and was an inspiration in the second Jewish War against Rome in 130s CE. The leader, Simon bar Kochba, was proclaimed Messiah and used the title Son of the Star, issuing coins carrying the image of a star. Many New Testament scholars argue that Matthew's account of the Star is a fiction that also refers to or even draws on Balaam motifs of the star.

By all accounts, Alexander was pretty nasty as rulers go, in many ways almost as nasty as Herod the Great several decades later. Most of his reign was spent in warfare, including civil war, including war with the declining Seleucid Empire to the north. He also appears to have had friendly relations with the rising Parthian kingdom in Persia. As Persia used to be part of the Seleucid Empire, no doubt Parthia and Alexander Jannaeus had mutual interests against an old enemy. So I can't help but wonder if this Jewish astrological tradition might even derive from the time of Alexander Jannaeus. I gather there are references to his reign in early rabbinic texts with even suggestions that Persian sages visited his court. Could the Balaam prophecy together with the Saturn Jupiter conjunction have been part of Alexander's propaganda push to support his royal claims?

If so, then 7BCE could well represent one of those ironic moments in history (and astrology). I'll quote again from Nolle:

The change of element in a Great Chronocrator series is known as the Trigonalis, from ancient times considered as the hallmark of epochal social and political change. (On average, this occurs only once every couple hundred years or so.) From this perspective, it would seem that we are now living in the twilight of an historical epoch stretching from the 1840s to 2020.

The conjunction on 7BCE was just such a Trigonalis. The next conjunction in 14CE is in Sagittarius beginning a fire sign series of conjunctions over the next two centuries. But there is yet more pertaining to the 7BCE Pisces conjunction. The Pisces conjunction around when Alexander Jannaeus was born only occurred once in April of that year. In contrast, the 7BCE conjunction occurred 3 times, in May, October and December of that year. Here's what Nolle has to say about the triple conjunction:

Triple conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn are rare enough to be regarded as indicators of major cultural change, much like the Trigonalis. It was just such a triple conjunction in Pisces – anciently regarded as the sign of the Jews - that led the Magi to search for "The King of the Jews" in 7 BCE. (Magi translates as 'astrologers'.) There have been only two triple conjunctions in the current earth sign series, that being the 1940-41 and 1980-81 trios – the latter being the 'interruptor' alignment in Libra that broke the all-earth sign series begun in 1842. There won't be another triple conjunction until the 2238-39 series in Cancer.

Nolle obviously accepts the Hughes-D'Occhieppo hypothesis and uses it here as the most recognisable indicator of the sort of epochal event associated with the triple conjunction. And, of course it doesn't matter whether the story of the Magi's journey is fact or fiction. What counts is the importance of the astrology.

But there is yet more not even touched upon by Nolle that makes the 7BCE conjunction important. I refer to the concept of the Great Year based on the precession of the equinoxes. the movement of the northern vernal (spring) equinox position of the sun 'backwards' (precession) through the signs of the zodiac. It's a process that takes some 25 to 26 thousand years to complete. It's where we get the notion of the Age of Aquarius. The Age of Aquarius is that 'month' of the Great Year in which the vernal equinox occurs in the sign of Aquarius. How one determines the boundaries of the zodiac signs determines when an Age/'month' begins and ends. So Aquarius is variously estimated to start from last century to the middle of this millennium. If we aren't yet in Aquarius we are, then, in the Age of Pisces which began roughly 2000 years ago. Before then was the Age of Aries which was drawing to its end when Alexander Jannaeus was alive.

Now the Great Year was known to the ancients. Indeed, the Greek astronomer, Hipparchus, is credited with the discovering the precession of the equinoxes and the Great Year back in the mid 2nd century BCE. Now like the Age of Aquarius we don't quite know when the Age of Pisces really began but the important thing about the Age of Pisces is that it marks the beginning of a new Great Year - a whole new era, not just an age. Some sense of that epochal turnaround is conveyed in this passage from Virgil's 4th Eclogue

Now comes the last age of the Cumaean song;

the great order of the ages arises anew.

Now the Virgin returns, and Saturn's reign returns;

now a new generation is sent down from high heaven.

Only, chaste Lucina, favour the child at his birth,

by whom, first of all, the iron age will end

and a golden race arise in all the world;

now your Apollo reigns.

Virgil wrote this poem around 41BCE and it seems to be celebrating a (short lived) period of peace in Rome through the marriage of Antony to Octavian's sister, Octavia. This new Pax Romana heralds the new age, the golden age returned and under Roman rule (many centuries later Christians read this poem as a pagan prophecy of Jesus and the new Christian age). And I wonder just how much the impending new Great Year might have played a part in the later Imperial propaganda of the Pax Romana under Augustus/Octavian. Over in the east, at the same time, in Palestine and beyond, there seems to be some sort of mood of expectation which in Palestine, especially, gives rise to all sorts of rebellions and religious movements that culminate in three Jewish wars against Rome in the first and second centuries in both Palestine and Egypt.

So the 7BCE conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in Pisces is not just a triple conjunction and a Trigonalis but it can also be seen as the era conjunction heralding the coming end of the Age of Aries and the start of the Age of Pisces and the new Great Year, a whole new epoch. If there's any sort of heavenly event that would make astrologers sit up and take notice this is surely it. This is also the sort of event that can be used to fuel expectations and awaken hopes especially if a similar event over a century prior had been used to likewise build up expectations around a dynasty. And whatever was happening 126BCE was nothing astrologically compared to 7BCE. In fact 7BCE was the last time a triple conjunction occurred in Pisces and from what I can make out there isn't going to be one in this new millennium either.

As I said earlier, it doesn't really matter if the story of the Magi is based on a real event or is a fiction but it's clear that Matthew's account is using a heavenly portent as a sign of Jesus' Messiahship, of his overall cosmic significance. Now, of course, it could be anything except for the presence of the Magi. The Magi attest to an astrological event, a significant astrological event, the sort of astrological event that could be seen as fulfilling the Balaam prophecy. As far as I can see, the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces is the only event that fits, and one possibly used previously in Jewish history as a signifier of a similar Messianic event, the birth of the first priest-king, Alexander Jannaeus. Was Jesus born in 7BCE? We don't know and can never know unless something concrete comes out of the earth in Palestine. My friend Rollan lays claim to having the horoscope of Jesus birth based on this triple conjunction but historians will not consider such material as valid historical data. Astrologers do and so Rollan's work should receive a lot more attention from the astrological guild.

Returning to Matthew and reading the story with the 7BCE triple conjunction in mind then it becomes not just a quaint and pious story of moving stars, wise men from the east and a tyrant king. Instead Matthew is claiming that Jesus' birth is the sign of the beginning of a whole new epoch when "the great order of the ages arises anew" to quote Virgil. And as witnesses to testify to this he calls the Magi from the east, the Magi renowned for their wisdom and knowledge and esoteric skill.

But there is a further implication arising from Matthew's summoning of the Magi to pay homage to the Christ child. As well as astrologers and sages, the Magi were also priests, pagan priests. But in Matthew's story they travel to Palestine, they met with Jewish sages, they bow before the infant Jesus, they converse with angels and then they return to their homeland, presumably to resume their religious duties. There's no trace of anxiety about pagan priests attending the birth of the Messiah, the child "from the Holy Spirit", Emmanuel 'God is with Us'. I said before that early Christians read Virgil's 4th Eclogue as a pagan prophecy of Christ. It seems that some early Christians accepted that there had been some sort of 'preparation for the Gospel' not only in Judaism but also in the pagan religious world as well. In other words, that as with Judaism, some sort of divine activity had been at work in the pagan religious worlds to make them ready for the Christ event too.

Is this why in time the Magi were turned into kings? There's a satisfaction in having kings come to bow down before the King of Kings whereas pagan priests are too troubling, particularly when Christianity is in a triumphalist mode vis a vis the old pagan order. But perhaps it's time, in these days of religious exclusivism and fundamentalism, to put the Magi, the pagan astrologer priests, back in the Nativity scenes in place of the kings of pious romance. And perhaps Virgil's 4th Eclogue should likewise be read at Christmas and Epiphany, together with the Christian Sybillines to recall the preparation for the gospel in the pagan world and to celebrate that Christianity draws on pagan as well as Jewish roots. It might also be time to again honour the astrology associated with the Nativity and restore images of fish and Pisces, even of the constellation Pisces, to our churches, as the early Christians did.

UPDATE There's a very interesting piece on the reception history of the Magi story over at the Biblical Archeology Review. It's by Robin Jensen, Witnessing the Divine: The Magi in Art and Literature. It's a very good and fascinating article. It would appear that from very early on, Christian writers had problems with the fact that the Magi were astrologer priests and so speculated that on seeing the Christ-child, they converted to Christianity and gave up their pagan ways. At least so Justin Martyr, Origen and others argued. It seems that they were first identified as kings (of Persia, India, and Arabia) in an Armenian infancy gospel c. 500 CE. I'm not certain about this but I think pre-Christian Armenia followed a form of Magian religion, thus possibly giving an added impetus to cloaking the true identity of the Wise Men.


  1. Fascinating! So they're distinctly queer, these "kings", aren't they? - pagans, astrologers, *Iranians*!

    I was thinking along queer lines earlier when I was putting away our Nativity set. Our household convention is that Mary, Joseph, the baby and the animals are in one area of the room, but the "kings" and their camel are somewhere else quite far away - because they're travelling, you understand. It used to be that we made the kings "arrive" on 6th January, but then a couple of years ago it occurred to us that since within the narrative they didn't arrive until anything up to two years after Jesus was born, the ones "arriving" on any given 6th January would actually be the ones who'd been "travelling" two Christmases ago! So now they don't arrive at all, but are perpetually journeying, travelling but never quite arriving - and it struck me I'd heard that sort of description somewhere before...

  2. Hey Susannah, yes they are queer in all sorts of ways. They sit most uncomfortably at the very start of the Christ event for anyone who wants to run an exclusivist/dualist line of Christianity = good, paganism = bad. They're boundary crossers of the first order. They also indicate thst early Christianity and ancient Judaism were not as exclusivist as often thought.

    The Magi are also queer in a sexual way too. Ancient Greek sources associate them with incest, especially mother son-incest. I remember in my undergrad days my New Testament lecturer suggested that the man Paul condemns in 1 Cor 5:1 for cohabiting with his father's wife might have been a Magian convert to Christianity.

    I like the image of the always travelling 'kings'. I keep saying that one day I'll get a Nativity scene. It'd be nice t have one with kings a-travelling and Magi arriving.

  3. This is a good wide ranging take on the epiphany/ star theme but omits one crucial fact re my claim it mentions to have discovered the secret of Christ’s birth. There’s only one way the matter could be proved – on its own terms as an astrological event at least – and that’s if the pattern “works”. What I am claiming is way beyond the speculative charts astrologers occasionally put out and is the only reason I have the right to propose the finding has real importance. The pattern works for Jesus issues to this day and also, as can be gathered from the article at the address Michael cites, a new micro-astrology can demonstrate, through ordinary names and words, such levels of statistically improbable coincidence the picture can’t possibly not be Jesus. So the main question is perhaps why isn’t this discovery at least being examined by people – even the astrologers Michael says should be dealing with it.

    Of course it would help to have the promotional and financial other of the likes of lawyer Rick Larson who puts out a film on his errant researches with the producer of The Passion of the Christ organizing the show. However matters run a bit deeper than that. Matthew tells us all Jerusalem was “troubled” at the Magi’s news. I suspect the problem, almost a psychological or spiritual one, is represented by an Australian astrologer of Catholic background who told me she just wasn’t able or prepared to deal with such material. It would bring the till now iconic Jesus too intimately close. Other astrologers not of Christian background but of New Age persuasion don’t want to or can’t deal with the necessary theological issues. I’m further undermined by one of the most academic and intellectual of astrologers, Nicholas Campion, who against all universal astrological practice won’t consider so-called rectified charts – charts made and tested against events for birthdays of time unknown.

    I’ve been very seriously undermined by what I’m sure is a kind of scientific snobbery which prevents such as astro-physicist, David Hughes, whose theories I’ve developed, from contacting me, not though the Society of Authors asked him, his publisher asked him, not though a former editor of mine, Philip Davies who knows him, mentioned me to him, not though I’ve written to his latest email. I by now have given up and realize Hughes is just totally opposed to looking at the astrology he himself used to trace the birth of Christ (on the basis the Magi believed in it so that we can use it even if their system was false and not to be employed today as I have done). If Hughes had ever supported or recommended me probably media and churches would have to have heard what they need to hear.

    The Christians whether conservative or liberal appear mostly just cowardly, bigoted or rude in this area, refusing to answer or dismissing you as dealing in some kind of forbidden abomination. Which in its odd way brings us back to the Magi portrayed here as “queer”, or at least misrepresented people dealing in the forbidden. You perhaps need to be some kind of revisionist gay theologian to persevere in dealing with this topic at all because it’s an area of research generating experience much akin to the gay one. But presently the Magi, who are reported to have been in danger in Jerusalem, like the Christ child they sought, suffer a no room at the inn situation where Christians and even astrologers are concerned.

  4. What a fabulous article and great comments! I just love it. Thank you writing outside the box!

  5. Intriguing and scholarly blog (naturally!). Thanks for the link to Jensen's article.

  6. Thank you both, Mario and Linda, for your appreciative comments. I hope to get back to more writing this year and definitely outside the box :-)