This season, the Nativity story of the birth of Christ will be retold in churches everywhere in words and in pageants. It is a story of a stressful journey to comply with a census decree and one of humble beginnings and an accommodating and sympathetic innkeeper. It is the most significant birth in all of Christendom. It was a humble birth, attended to by shepherds and three Magi (or Wise men) who came following an unusual guiding star – the star of Bethlehem.
The guiding star story is found only in the book of Mathew. It is also true that the study of astronomy was very earnest and learned even then. Any unusual astronomical event was certain to be noted and very likely ascribed to some unusual event. Although the Roman Historian Josephus was born shortly after Christ was crucified, he seems to have been well aware of the life and impact of Christ, and his accounts represent one of the earliest account of history in general, and the life of Christ in particular.
From all scholarly research, Christ was probably born between 6 and 4 BC. Christmas was not declared to be Dec. 25 until 529 AD by Emperor Justinian and further ratified by the Council of Tours in 567 AD, which also made Advent, the period of fasting preparation for Epiphany (the 12 days of Christmas). This would co-opt the pagan celebration (Saturnalia) of the Winter Solstice. Some of our Christmas traditions are reminiscent of those and other pagan traditions and celebrations. The actual birth month is more likely to be in the spring or fall due to the seasonal reference in the nativity narrative. Christ was crucified, probably on April 7, 30 AD or possibly April 3, 33 AD, although other days and years can be argued due to inconsistent textural references. Biblical and references made by Josephus to the reign of Herod and Tiberius argue for a birth date of about 4 BC making Christ about 33 years old when he was Crucified.
What can science add to this? We again turn to what was observed and referenced, particularly the star of Bethlehem. Ancient learned men (Wise Men) were well acquainted with the night sky and would note any irregularities. The Chinese also kept detailed records to any changes observed in the heavens and are another data source. There are several explanations given and dates ascribed to them. They are, in particular: A supernova (death of a giant start), conjunction of planets or a star, and a comet. The case against these is their implausibility at any time near the birth of Jesus. Specifically:
· Supernova – couldn’t be because we would still be able to see the remnants and there are none and the Chinese would have recorded it and no one noticed it.
· Conjunction of planets – various paring have been proposed but none fit well with the biblical narrative.
· Conjunction of planets with star (Regulus) – Not close to the correct year and the positioning would have been to the west, not the east
· Comet (Halley’s) passes in 12 BC, several years before Jesus’ birth. The Chinese observed a comet in 5 BC which still doesn’t fit the chronology of Jesus’s life.
But even given all that, how could a star guide anyone to a particular address? Further, the Chinese who also meticulously recorded all strange happening in the heavens report nothing unusual in the night sky around the possible dates.
Mica prophesied in about 720 BC that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Isaiah predicted that the Messiah would be born to a virgin. There are something like 30 or more Messianic prophecies which are fulfilled by Christ as reported in the scriptures including a reference to a star. There seemed to be a need in the early Christian church to report all the ancient prophecies of a coming Messiah were fulfilled, including the star prophecy.
So, with that, hold on and cherish your faith, whatever it is. And humbly remember what St. Augustine of Hippo said: “There are many wolves within and many sheep without”. And as St. Augustine further observed: “Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.”
Whatever your faith tradition is or isn’t, I wish you a wonderful holiday season, happiness and prosperous New Year. Merry Christmas.