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Star in the East

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(άστὴρ ἐν τῆ ἀνατολῇ, Matthew 2:1). The evangelist in the passage cited (Matthew 2:1-12) relates that at the time of the birth of our Lord there came wise men (magi) from the East to Jerusalem to inquire after the newly born King of the Jews in order that, they might, offer him presents and worship him. A star which they had seen in the East guided them to the house where, the infant Messiah was having come into his presence, they presented unto him gifts gold and frankincense and myrrh. (See MESSIAH).

1. Until the last few years the interpretation of this phenomenon by theologians in general coincided in the main with that which would be given to it by any person of ordinary intelligence who read the account with due attention. Some supernatural light resembling a star (perhaps a comet, Origen, Cels. 1, 58; see Heyn, Sendschreib. etc. [Brandenb. 1742]; opposed by Semler, Beschreib. etc. [Halle, 1743]; replied to by Heyn, Broschuren, etc. [Berl. 1743]) had appeared in some country (possibly Persia) far to the east of Jerusalem to men who were versed in the study of celestial phenomena, conveying to their minds a supernatural impulse to repair to Jerusalem, where they would find a new born king. It supposed them to be followers, and possibly priests, of the Zend religion, whereby they were led to expect a Redeemer in the person of the Jewish infant. At all events, these wise men were Chaldaean magi. During many centuries, the magi had been given to the study of astronomy and had corrupted and disfigured their scientific knowledge by astrological speculations and dreams. A conviction had long been spread throughout the East that about the commencement of our era a great and victorious prince, or the Messiah, was to be born (Lucan, 1,529; Sueton. Coes. 88; Seneca, Nat. Quoest. 1, 1; Josephus, War, 6, 5, 3; . Servius, Ad Virg. Ed. 9, 47; Justin, 37, 2; Lamprid. Alex. Sev. 12). His birth was, in consequence, of words of Sacred Scripture (Numbers 24:17), connected with the appearance of a star. Calculations seem to have led the astrological astronomers of Mesopotamia to fix the time for the advent of this king in the latter days of Herod, and the place in the land of Judaea (see Tacit. list. 5, 13; Sueton. Vesp. 4). On arriving at Jerusalem, after diligent inquiry and consultation with the priests and learned men who could naturally best inform them, they were directed to proceed to Bethlehem. The star which they had seen in the East reappeared to them and preceded them (προῆγεν αὐτούς ), until it took up its station over the place where the young child was (ἕως ἔλθων ἐστάθη ἐπάνω ου ην τὸ παιδίον ). The whole matter, that is, was supernatural; forming a portion of that divine pre-arrangement whereby, in his deep humiliation among men, the child Jesus was honored and acknowledged by the Father as his beloved Son in whom he was well pleased. Thus the lowly shepherds who kept their nightly watch on the plains near Bethlehem, together with all that remained of the highest and best philosophy of the East, are alike the partakers and the witnesses of the glory of him who was "born in the city of David, a Savior which is Christ the Lord." Such is substantially the account which, until the earlier part of the present century, would have been given by orthodox divines of the star of the magi. The solid learning and free conjecture of Christian divines have combined with the unfriendly daring of infidelity to cast difficulties on the particulars involved in this passage of Holy Writ. Much has been written by friends and enemies on the subject. The extreme rationalistic view is given by Strauss (Leben Jesu, 1, 249). (See JESUS CHRIST).

2. Latterly, however, a very different opinion has gradually become prevalent upon the subject. The star has been displaced from the category of the supernatural, and has been referred to the ordinary astronomical phenomenon of a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. The idea originated with Kepler, who, among many other brilliant but untenable fancies, supposed that if he could identify a conjunction of the above- named planets with the Star of Bethlehem he would thereby be able to determine, on the basis of certainty, the very difficult and obscure point of the Annus Domini. Kepler's suggestion was worked out by Dr. Ideler of Berlin, and the results of his calculations certainly do, on the first impression, seem to show a very specious accordance with the phenomena of the star in question. We purpose, then, in the first place, to state what celestial phenomena did occur with reference to the planets Jupiter and Saturn at a date assuredly not very distant from the time of our Savior's birth, and then to examine how far they fulfill, or fail to fulfill, the conditions required by the narrative in Matthew. (In this discussion we freely use the materials afforded in Smith's Dict. of the Bible, with additions from other sources.)

In the month of May B.C. 7, a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn occurred not far from the first point of Aries, the planets rising in Chaldaea about three and a half hours before the sun. Kepler made his calculations and found that Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction in the constellation Pisces (a fish is the astrological symbol of Judaea) in the latter half of the year of Rome 747, and were joined by Mars in 748. It appears that Jupiter and Saturn came together for the first time on May 20 in the twentieth degree of the constellation of the Fishes. Jupiter then passed by Saturn towards the north. About the middle of September they were, near midnight, both in opposition to the sun Saturn in the thirteenth, Jupiter in the fifteenth degree being distant from each other about a degree and a half. They then drew nearer. On Oct. 27 there was a second conjunction in the sixteenth degree, and on Nov. 12 there took place a third conjunction in the fifteenth degree of the same constellation. In the two last conjunctions the interval between the planets amounted to no more than a degree, so that to the unassisted eye the rays of the one planet were absorbed in those of the other, and the two bodies would appear as one. The two planets went past each other three times, came very near together, and showed themselves all night long for months in conjunction with each other, as if they would never separate again.

It is said that on astrological grounds such a conjunction could not fail to excite the attention of men like the magi, and that in consequence partly of their knowledge of Balaam's prophecy, and partly from the uneasy persuasion then said to be prevalent that some great one was to be born in the East, these magi commenced their journey to Jerusalem. Supposing them to have set out at the end of May B.C. 7, upon a journey for which the circumstances will be seen to require at least seven months, the planets were observed to separate slowly until the end of July, when, their motions becoming retrograde, they again came into conjunction by the end of September. At that time there can be no doubt Jupiter would present to astronomers, especially in so clear an atmosphere, a magnificent spectacle. It was then at its most brilliant apparition, for it was at its nearest approach both to the sun and to the earth. Not far from it would be seen its duller and much less conspicuous companion Saturn. This glorious spectacle continued almost unaltered for several days, when the planets again slowly separated, then came to a halt, when, by reassuming a direct motion, Jupiter again approached to a conjunction for the third time with Saturn just as the magi may be supposed to have entered the holy city. To complete the fascination of the tale, about an hour and a half after sunset the two planets might be seen from Jerusalem, hanging, as it were, in the meridian, and suspended over Bethlehem in the distance. These celestial phenomena thus described are, it will be seen, beyond the reach of question, and at the first impression they assuredly appear to fulfill the conditions of the star of the magi.

The first circumstance which created a suspicion to the contrary arose from an exaggeration, unaccountable for any man having a claim to be ranked among astronomers, on the part of Dr. Ideler himself, who described the two planets as wearing the appearance of one bright but diffused light to persons having weak eyes (2, 407). Not only is this imperfect eyesight inflicted upon the magi, but it is quite certain that had they possessed any remains of eyesight at all they could not have failed to see, not a single star, but two planets at the very considerable distance of double the moon's apparent diameter. Had they been even twenty times closer, the duplicity of the two stars must have been apparent; Saturn, moreover, rather confusing than adding to the brilliance of his companion. This forced blending of the two lights into one by Dr. Ideler was still further improved by dean Alford in the first edition of his very valuable and suggestive Greek Testament, who, indeed restores ordinary sight to the magi, but represents the planets as forming a single star of surpassing brightness, although they were certainly at more than double the distance of the sun's apparent diameter. Exaggerations of this description induced the Rev. Charles Pritchard, honorable secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society (in the Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society, vol. 25), to undertake the very formidable labor of calculating afresh an ephemeris of the planets Jupiter and Saturn and of the sun from May to December, B.C. 7. The result was to confirm the fact of there being three conjunctions during the above period, though somewhat to modify the dates assigned to them by Dr. Ideler. Similar results, also, have been obtained by Encke, and a December conjunction has been confirmed by the astronomer royal. No celestial phenomena, therefore, of ancient date are so certainly ascertained as the conjunctions in question.

We will now proceed to examine to what extent, or, as it will be seen, to how slight an extent, the December conjunction fulfils the conditions of the narrative of Matthew. We can hardly avoid a feeling of regret at the dissipation of so fascinating an illusion; but we are in quest of the truth rather than of a picture, however beautiful.

(a.) We are profoundly ignorant of any system of astrology as held by the magi in question; but supposing that some system did exist, it nevertheless is inconceivable that solely on the ground of astrological reasons men would be induced to undertake a seven months' journey. As to the widely spread and prevalent expectation of some powerful personage about to show himself in the East, the fact of its existence depends on the testimony of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Josephus. But it ought to be very carefully observed that all these writers speak of this expectation as applying to Vespasian, in A.D. 69, which date was seventy-five years, or two generations, after the conjunctions in question! The well-known and often- quoted words of Tacitus are, "eo ipso tempore; " of Suetonius, "eo tempore; " of Josephus, "κατὰ τὸν καιρὸν ἐκεῖνον ; " all pointing to A.D. 69, and not to B.C. 7. Seeing, then, that these writers refer to no general uneasy expectation as prevailing in B.C. 7, it can have formed no reason for the departure of the magi. Furthermore, it is quite certain that in the February of B.C. 66 (Pritchard, in Transactions of the Royal Astronomical Society, vol. 25), a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn occurred in the constellation of Pisces, closer than the one on Dec. 4, B.C. 7. If, therefore, astrological reasons alone impelled the magi to journey to Jerusalem in the latter instance, similar considerations would have impelled their fathers to take the same journey fifty-nine years before.

(b.) But even supposing the magi did undertake the journey at the time in question, it seems impossible that the conjunction of December, B.C. 7, can on any reasonable grounds be considered as fulfilling the conditions in Matthew 2:9. The circumstances are as follows: On Dec. 4 the sun set at Jerusalem at 5 p. M. Supposing the magi to have then commenced their journey to Bethlehem, they would first see Jupiter and his dull and somewhat distant companion one and a half hour distant from the meridian in a southeast direction, and decidedly to the east of Bethlehem. By the time they came to Rachel's tomb (see Robinson, Bibl. Res. 2, 568) the planets would be due south of them on the meridian, and no longer over the hill of Bethlehem (see the maps of Van de Velde and of Tobler), for that village (see Robinson, as above) bears from Rachel's tomb S. 5° E. + 8º declension = S. 13° E. The road then takes a turn to the east, and ascends the hill near to its western extremity; the planets, therefore, would now be on their right hands, and a little behind them the "star," therefore, ceased altogether to go "before them" as a guide. Arrived on the hill and in the village, it became physically impossible for the star to stand over any house whatever close to them, seeing that it was now visible far away beyond the hill to the west, and far off in the heavens at an altitude of 57°. As they advanced, the star would of necessity recede, and under no circumstances could it be said to stand "over" (ἐπάνω ) any house, unless at the distance of miles from the place where they were. Thus the two heavenly bodies altogether fail to fulfill either of the conditions implied in the words προῆγεν αὐτούς or ἐστάθη ἐπάνω . A star, if vertical, would appear to stand over any house or object to which a spectator might chance to be near; but a star at an altitude of 57° could appear to stand over no house or object in the immediate neighborhood of the observer. It is scarcely necessary to add that if the magi had left the Jaffa Gate before sunset, they would not have seen the planets at the outset; and if they had left Jerusalem later, the "star" would have been a more useless guide than before. Thus the beautiful phantasm of Kepler and Ideler which has fascinated so many writers vanishes before the more perfect daylight of investigation, so far as it is proposed, for an explanation of the guidance to Bethlehem. The astronomical phenomena, however, may have incited them in part to their visit to Judaea.

Kepler's ideas may be found in the essay De Jesu Christi Servatoris Nostri Vero Anno Naialitio, and more fully in De Vero Anno quo AEternus Dei Filius Humanam Naturam Assumpsit (Frankf. 1614). His view was taken up and presented with approbation to the literary world by a learned prelate of the Lutheran Church, bishop Munter (Der Stern der Weisen [Copenh. 1827]). It also gained approval from the celebrated astronomer Schubert; of Petersburg (Vermischte Schriften [Stuttg. 1823). The learned and accurate Ideler (Handb. der Chronologie, 2, 399 sq.) reviewed the entire subject and signified his agreement. Hase and De Wette, however, have stated objections. A recent writer of considerable merit, Wieseler (Chronolog. Synop. der Evangelien [Hamb. 1843]), has applied this theory of Kepler's in conjunction with a discovery that he has made from some Chinese astronomical tables, which show that in the year of Rome 750 a comet appeared in the heavens and was visible for seventy days. Wieseler's opinion is that the conjunction of the planets excited and fixed the attention of the magi, but that their guiding star was the comet. A modern writer of great ability (Dr. Wordsworth) has suggested the antithesis to Kepler's speculation regarding the star of the magi, viz. that the star was visible to the magi alone. It is difficult to see what is gained or explained by the hypothesis. The song of the multitude of the heavenly host was published abroad in Bethlehem, the journey of the magi thither was no secret whispered in a corner. Why, then, should the heavenly light, standing as a beacon of glory over the place where the young child was, be concealed from all eyes but theirs, and form no part in that series of wonders which the Virgin Mother kept and pondered in her heart? A writer in the Journ. of Sac. Lit. April 1857, argues that the magi found the infant Christ at Nazareth, not at Bethlehem; but this is opposed to the indications of the narrative. (See BETHLEHEM).

The works which have been written on the subject are referred to by Walch, Biblioth. Theol. 2, 422 sq.; Thiess, Krit. Comment. 2, 350 sq.; Volbeding, Index Programmatum, p. 14; Elsner, in the Symb. Liter. Bren. 1, 2, 42 sq. Additional monographs to those there or above cited are the following: Reccard, De Stella que Magis Apparuit (Regiom. 1766); Kepler, Die Weisen aus d. Orient, in the Rintelsch. Anzeiq. 1770, p. 4; Sommel, De Stella Nati Regis Judeor. (Lond. 1771); Velthusen, Der Stern d. Weisen (Hamb. 1783); Thiess, Die Magier und ihr Stern (ibid. 1790); Anger, Der Stern d. Weisen (Leips. 1847); Trench, Star of the Wise Men (Lond. 1850). (See MAGI).


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Star in the East'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/s/star-in-the-east.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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