If the Star was a real historical event, why are we learning of the evidence only now? Why isn’t it common knowledge? A few minutes considering these things will intensify your experience and understanding of what you will learn on this site. We’ll look at three of the most important factors leading to modern rediscovery of the Star: Johannes Kepler’s discovery of how the solar system works, improvements in our knowledge of first century history and the spread of computers.
Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was one of the great mathematical minds of human history (1). As Arthur Koestler wrote in The Sleepwalkers, “Kepler and Galileo were the two giants on whose shoulders Newton stood.”
A German by birth, Kepler began his professional career in Graz, Austria teaching mathematics. His views in the Protestant/Catholic contest then raging got him banished from Graz after only a few years, but this actually worked for his good.
The reason is that about the time of his ouster, the earnest, middle-class, 28 year-old Kepler had attracted the attention of one Tycho Brahe (1546-1601). Apart from their advanced math skills, the two men had little in common. Brahe was a wealthy, eccentric, aristocratic, overbearing, hard-partying Danish nobleman who served in Prague as Imperial Mathematician. He was also the acknowledged “prince of astronomers” due to the unprecedented accuracy of his vast collection of astronomical observations. And he could be a wildman. When Brahe lost his nose in a college-years duel, he did better than our modern fashion of piercing noses. He had a complete replacement nose molded of gold with silver. This he wore the rest of his life.
Brahe invited the expelled Kepler to Prague to collaborate in study of the solar system, which at the time was still poorly understood. Many still thought of planets as “wandering stars.” Both men were brilliant and keen to unravel the mystery of planetary motion, but their temperaments were so different that they mixed about like cats and dogs. The professional relationship was decorated with verbal warfare and walk outs. The personality conflict was heightened by Brahe’s intent to remain the top dog astronomer—he would not allow Kepler full access to his library of observations. Instead, he dribbled out the data to maintain personal control. But when Brahe died suddenly of a urinary tract problem in 1601, Kepler found himself promoted to his master’s position. Kepler himself became Imperial Mathematician with full access to Brahe’s library. That changed everything.
Kepler set out to prove that the planets travel in perfect circular solar orbits. This presented a kind of mathematical beauty which particularly attracted him. But try as he might, he could not force the mathematics of circular orbits to align with what he saw in the sky each night. And Brahe’s meticulous records proved inconsistent with the theory of circles. In an inspirational flash, Kepler saw that the planets might travel in elliptical orbits and finally found the perfect mathematical fit. In 1609, he published the First and Second Laws of Planetary Motion and ten years later, the Third Law (2). These are still used by astronomers, NASA, the European Space Agency and everyone else studying the stars today. These laws do not change.
With his brand new mathematical tools, Kepler held keys to the heavens and time. He could do things no astronomer had ever done. With enough pens, ink and time he could calculate sky maps showing the exact positions of all of the stars and planets in the night sky. Not just for that evening’s observations, but for any day in history, as viewed from any place on the surface of the Earth. Being a religious man, Kepler soon set his equations grinding on the mystery of the Star of Bethlehem. It’s almost tragic that he didn’t find the phenomena discussed on this web site, because he pushed very hard in his search for the Star and even published on the topic (3). He would have been delighted to see what you will see. But Kepler was working from a flawed understanding of first century history, and that threw him off the track.
So the first piece of the Star puzzle is that, thanks to Kepler, we now have the ability to locate celestial objects with great precision at any point in history and from any viewing point. For example, we can calculate what the sky looked like over Jerusalem 2000 years ago. But that raises the question of dates. For what years should we be scanning the sky?
Dating Christ’s birth
The great majority of ancient chronographers held that Christ was born in 3 or 2 BC (4), and none held that Jesus was born before 4 BC. The ancients were correct, as we shall see, but by Kepler’s day that earlier and better understanding had been laid aside. Kepler and his contemporaries concluded (as have many present day historians (5)) that Christ was born before 4 BC. The reasons for that misunderstanding are complex and fascinating, but a major factor was their interpretation of the writings of the ancient Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus (37 AD-95 AD) (6).
Josephus’ life was a wild ride worth a little detour here. (Don’t worry, we’re getting where we’re going). Josephus was born just a few years after Christ’s execution. A member of the Jewish Pharisee sect, he rose to political prominence in Judea by the time he was in his late twenties. In 66 AD the Romans, who occupied Judea at that time, were thrown into a war rage by what they saw as growing Jewish arrogance and treachery. Josephus martialed Jewish forces to defend against an enemy that soon grew to the proportions of a tidal wave. Roman troops, horses and siege engines poured into the region in simply overwhelming numbers.
Resistance proved futile. Josephus and a fighting unit of 40 men were cornered by Roman forces and retreated to a cave where they made a suicide pact to avoid capture (7). 38 men died in that cave, but Josephus and one other had second thoughts and were taken prisoners. That’s a twist, but here’s a tighter one: Josephus wound up winning the favor of Vespasian (9 AD-79 AD), who was then commander of the Roman expedition in Judea. He was drafted into the Roman war effort against his own Jewish people, and ultimately served as the interpreter for Vespasian’s son, Titus (39 AD-81 AD). Titus had orders to besiege Jerusalem and destroy the Jewish temple. This he did in 70 AD, in apparent fulfillment of a 500 year-old vision recorded by the Jewish prophet Daniel (8).
After the war, Josephus could not remain in Judea. He would have been assassinated on sight. So he was taken to live in Rome. There, his attentions appear to have turned to regaining the acceptance of his Jewish countrymen. Perhaps to achieve this reinstatement, he wrote extensive histories of the Jewish people and ancient times. These histories offer important clues in the search for the Star. In one of his works, Antiquities, Josephus mentions Jesus, John the Baptist and other New Testament characters, including the murderous King Herod of the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2.
The Bible recounts that Herod learned of the Messiah’s birth from astronomers who had seen the Star of Bethlehem. He tried to kill the child, so, obviously, the Bible records that Herod was alive at Jesus’ birth. Remember that this mattered to Kepler, because historians of his time apparently inferred from Josephus’ history that Herod died in 4 BC (9). Necessarily, Kepler assumed Christ was born before that date, perhaps 5 BC or earlier. So, those are the years for which he scanned the skies for the Star. Even with the power of his newly discovered laws of planetary motion, he didn’t find the phenomena we will examine here. He searched the skies of the wrong years.
But modern scholarship has deepened our understanding of Josephus’ manuscripts. A recent study was made of the earliest manuscripts of Josephus’ writings held by the British Library in London, and the American Library of Congress. It revealed a surprise that allows us to target our mathematical telescopes better than could Kepler (10). It turns out that a copying error was a primary cause of the confusion about the date of Herod’s death. A printer typesetting the manuscript of Josephus’ Antiquities messed up in the year 1544. Every single Josephus manuscript in these libraries dating from before 1544 supports the inference that Herod passed in 1 BC. Strong recent scholarship confirms that date (11). Knowing this, and since Herod died shortly after Christ’s birth, our investigation turns to the skies of 3 and 2 BC.
So, we have the second factor allowing us to “find” the Star today. We newly know for which years we should examine the skies.
Enter the power of computers
One more factor accounts for your hearing about the Star now instead of long ago: computers. When Kepler calculated a sky map, it was laborious. Plenty of pens and ink. And when the calculations were complete, he had a picture of the sky at a single moment of time. If he had selected the wrong day to search for the Star, he might find nothing. More pens and ink. But Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion are playthings for a computer. The equations are solved almost instantaneously by modern astronomy software available to anyone for about $50 (12).
With software which incorporates Kepler’s equations, we can create a computer model of the universe. In minutes we can produce thousands of the sky maps which were a great labor before computers. We can animate the universe in real time at any speed we choose, make months pass in moments or wind back the clock. We can view the sky precisely as it moved over Jerusalem 2000 years ago.
And when we look up, examining the correct years, we find remarkable things.
- The definitive biography is: Max Caspar, Kepler (trans. C. Doris Hellman; reprint, New York: Dover, 1993) ISBN 0-486-67605-6
- They are: (1) All planets move about the Sun in elliptical orbits, having the Sun as one of the foci. (2) A radius vector joining any planet to the Sun sweeps out equal areas in equal lengths of time. (3) The squares of the sidereal periods (of revolution) of the planets are directly proportional to the cubes of their mean distances from the Sun.
- De stella nova, 1606, and De anno natali Christi, 1614
- The ancients did not use our modern calendar system, of course, but the years they identified are in our system 3/2 BC. That is the dating of Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Africanus, Hippolytus of Rome, Hippolytus of Thebes, Origen, Eusebius, Epiphanius, Cassiodorus, Orosius and others.
See, Jack Finegan, The Handbook of Biblical Chronology (Revised Edition; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998) ISBN 1-56563-143-9. Just before his death, Finegan revised this standard 1964 Princeton University Press chronological work. His final revision is based on the latest scholarship and supports the chronology used on this web site.
- A typical statement from a reference work, perhaps uninformed by recent scholarship on this issue: “…Jesus’ birth happened before Herod the Great’s death, which was no later than March or April in 4 BC”, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1995) ISBN 0-8407-2071-8.
- An interesting historical novel first published in 1887 and in which Josephus is a central figure is: G. A. Henty, For the Temple (Reprint; Mill Hall, Penna.: Preston/Speed Publications, 1996) ISBN 1-887159-00-2.
- In this same war, the entire population of the Jewish fortress-city of Masada commited suicide to avoid capture.
Josephus tells that tale in The Wars of the Jews Book VII, Chapter 9. When most of the terrible work was done, “they then chose ten men by lot out of them to slay all the rest; every one of whom laid himself down by his wife and children on the ground, and threw his arms about them, and they offered their necks to the stroke of those who by lot executed that melancholy office… and he who was the last of all… with the great force of his hand ran his sword entirely through himself, and fell down dead near to his own relations. So these people died with this intention, that they would not leave so much as one soul among them all alive to be subject to the Romans.”
- Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, Chapter VI: “Daniel’s Seventy Weeks and the New Testament Chronology” (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1977) ISBN 0-310-26211-9.
- Josephus does not state the date of Herod’s death as we would today with our modern calendar system. Deriving the date of death from his writings necessarily involves inference. The primary bases for the inference are the date of a lunar eclipse mentioned by Josephus as closely preceding Herod’s death, the duration of his term in office, and the term of office of his son and successor, Philip. For thorough treatments of the date of Herod’s death as being 1 BC, see Finegan, at footnote 4 and Martin, at footnote 11. See also, Beyer, at footnote 10.
- David W. Beyer, “Josephus Re-Examined: Unraveling the Twenty-Second Year of Tiberius”, in Chronos, Kairos, Christos II, edited by E. Jerry Vardaman (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1998) ISBN 0-86554-582-0.
- Andrew Steinmann, “When Did Herod the Great Reign?” Novum Testamentum Volume 51, Number 1, 2009 , pp. 1-29
Ernest L. Martin, The Star That Astonished the World (Second Edition; Portland, Oregon: ASK Publications, 1996) ISBN 0-94-5657-87-0. This book is a “must have” reference work if you would like to study the Star. It contains a wealth of material corroborating the date of Herod’s death as 1 BC.
- For example: Starry Night, the program used for the present investigation, is available at www.space.com