Only two of the Biblical gospels, Matthew and Luke, carry the story of the birth of Jesus, and the tales which they recount, while having similarities, also reveal many differences. These variations do not necessarily present contradictions. They may in some cases be accounted for on the basis that the two writers chose different parts of the whole story. For example, the fact that Luke has shepherds visiting the infant Jesus and Matthew has wise men from the East taking on the same role does not in itself constitute a problem. Both visits may have taken place and each evangelist selected only one. Luke could have known about the Star of Bethlehem but chose not to mention it.
However, when full and generous allowance is made for this factor there nevertheless remains one massive contradiction which we have to face. The two writers differ by at least a decade in the date which they imply for the birth. We shall return to that topic later in this article, but I will begin by taking a hard look at a great favourite of Christmas card manufacturers, who usually depict it as an object of tremendous brilliance putting to shame the other stars. The object is, of course, the Star of Bethlehem, but I shall seek to demonstrate that, far from being a brilliant object, it cast only a weak light on the waiting Earth.
There has been a tendency lately by certain theologians to dismiss all the Biblical stories as symbolic rather than real and to minimise or eliminate the aspect of history. While I will be the first to accept that a symbolism attached itself to the tales, I am convinced that there is nevertheless a firm historical basis behind many of them. For instance, if the stories of the Risen Jesus of the post-crucifixion period are merely symbolic why on Earth should the writer invent the strange tale of Jesus not being recognised by his friends? There would be no point in such an invention and the very fact that it is included in the narratives when it is distinctly disadvantageous to the cause of the early church by raising doubts and possible alternative interpretations to the orthodox position argues voluably for its authenticity.
We may also ask whether a work of pure symbolism would have introduced a character so different in personality from Jesus of Nazareth to preside over the Passion Week activities. The writers would surely have continued to portray the personality of the Galilean in the coherant way that they do everywhere else in the records. The Star of Bethlehem also supplies evidence to the effect that the Gospel writer was describing, albeit at second hand, the visitation to the inner reaches of the Solar system of a comet. Matthew was unlikely to have the required technical knowledge of the behaviour of such objects to produce an early work of science fiction and therefore the realism of his description, at least in the first part, must be the result of accurate observations at the time which were passed on to him. Symbolism later became attached to the star, but I hold that it was very much an historical object.
What then was the Star of Bethlehem? Kepler argued that it was the close approach of three planets, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars in the constellation of Pisces which was known to have occured in the year 5 B.C. In those days astrology and astronomy had not parted company and gone their separate ways and the Magi, seeing the star, would work out its astrological meaning from its position in the heavens. The fact that the close approach of the planets occured in Pisces meant that for the astrologers it referred to Judea. This does not establish in any way that astrology has any validity, we are considering only what the ancients believed regarding it. I have an open mind on the subject of astrology, for never having studied it I am not in a position to comment either way. However, as the star’s position led the Magi to Jerusalem it must also have first been noted in Pisces which weighs in favour of Kepler’s theory. But it could have been a different object which by coincidence appeared in the same region of the sky as the conjunction of the planets, and that, I believe, is what the evidence suggests.
Incidentally, the Magi did not follow the star from the east in any literal sense. They followed the clue given to them by the point in the heavens where it was first observed. It is clear that shortly after its first sighting the star disappeared for a while, as we shall see later. For many years I was impressed by Kepler’s argument about the close approach of three major planets. However, with the passage of time doubts began to occur. The Magi did not mention planets but a star, and only one star. Clearly it was not one that was always visible but took of the nature of what the ancients called a “guest star,” gracing the heavens for a short period of time and then being seen no more. Have we any clues to lead to an informed guess regarding its nature? A few points set us off on our quest. First of all the star was not conspicuous. Herod was not familiar with it at all and had it been a bright object it would surely have been brought to his attention even if he did not spot it himself. However a faint object which was not part of the usual picture of the star region would be noted by the Magi whose job it was to survey the heavens. So we are considering something of naked eye visibility but also something which was inconspicuous enough to avoid the attention of non-astronomers. We are, I submit on this basis, dealing with an object between the magnitudes of +6 and +3 in astronomical parlance. +6 is just visible with the naked eye to someone with near perfect vision, and +3 would be an average sort of star. I suspect that the latter would have been noticed, especially if it had a tail, and +6 would be an unlikely sighting given that the Magi, would probably not have had perfect vision, so I tentatively put the star in the middle region of this range of brightness, +4 or +5.
There is something else which becomes clear from an analysis of the Biblical story. According to Matthew the Magi first saw the star in the east before dawn then lost it for a time, only to see it again as an evening object when they had arrived in Jerusalem. On what do I base this assertion? The Magi themselves stated that they had first noted the star in the eastern sky before daylight. They travel to Jerusalem and have an audience with King Herod. When they emerged from Herod’s presence they see the star and “rejoice with exceeding great joy.” Such a reaction would not be likely if the star had been in their sights every night, but is exactly what we might expect if they had lost sight of it for a while and possibly thought that they would not see it again. It is unlikely that Herod would have held court in the early morning so, as it was dark when the Magi came out from the interview, we can conclude that it was an evening encounter. So the star of the east, after a period of invisibility, reappears in the evening sky. Such behaviour is typical of a retrograde comet, that is a comet moving in the opposite direction to the normal traffic of the Solar System, going round the Sun in the opposite way from the planets. Comets are the mavericks of the Solar System and frequently take up a retrograde course. The most famous of all the comets, Comet Halley, has a retrograde motion. I would argue that the star must have had a feature or features which distinguished it from the normal sights of the night-time heavens, for if it did not then the Magi could not have known that it was their star in the evening sky rather than another which by chance was making an appearance.
A cometary tail would have been quite sufficient to set their minds at rest on that point. It is worth noting that it was dark when the Magi came out of the Palace, so it is a reasonable assumption that it must have been winter, otherwise even in the latitude of Judea it would have been light at the time when Herod would have been completing his day’s work. So late December may well have been the time of year when Jesus was born, but if our Christmas date of December 25th. is accurate then it is no more than a coincidence. I can find no record of a comet at the time to which the birth of Jesus is usually ascribed, but that is not surprising when we consider that it was a faint object likely to be noticed only by a few. Also the dating of the nativity as 5 B.C. or 6 B.C. contains a considerable element of doubt. The famous Halley’s Comet put in an appearance in 12 B.C, some six or seven years before the period which interests us but it is possible that Jesus was in fact born in 12 B.C, or even earlier.
It may seem strange that Matthew should mention the coming of the wise men from the east at all, considering the attitude taken by the Jews to astrology and all so-called mystic practices. These practices, and they included the work and beliefs of the Magi, were most strictly forbidden by the ancient Jewish Law. It may be that Matthew wished to emphasise in every way possible the way in which Jesus in later life welcomed and made friends with the rejected and outcasts of society, and saw the coming of forbidden people at the time of his birth as a precedent for the later history. After all, Matthew was himself one of the outcasts whom Jesus took to himself. Matthew as a Roman tax officer was considered by the Jews a traitor, a Quisling, a collaborator with the occupying power. To him was attached the hated name “Publican.” Yet the liberal prophet of Galilee made him a disciple. Matthew seems to imply in his record that the star guided the Magi to the birthplace. Such a story is not credible at all and this part of his narrative differs markedly from the realism of the earlier part. Look up at the night sky on a clear evening and try to work out which star is nearest to directly overhead. When you have made your choice check with the star charts. You will almost certainly discover that your chosen object is quite a long way from the zenith. To say that any object in space is directly over one building is preposterous. It would be hard enough to say with confidence that it was overhead in a particular country! In any case the star would have taken an apparent path across the sky each night, an illusion due to the rotation of the Earth. On this count as well a stationary star over a particular building becomes incredible. The Magi were astronomer-astrologers, for the time had not yet arrived when the two professions would go their separate ways. Incidentally there is no mention in the Bible of their being Kings. That idea was first introduced by Tertullian in the late second or early third century A.D, perhaps because the church found it embarrassing to have to admit that their leader had associated with magicians, however involuntary the meeting may have been on the part of the infant Jesus. Origen, at about the same time as the Tertullian statement, introduced the idea that there were three of them. Again the Biblical record has no mention of numbers.
Luke presents us with quite a problem when he mentions the census for his words mean in effect that the Matthean account is inaccurate as to date and that the tales of encounters with King Herod never took place. According to his record Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem, the city of Joseph’s birth, to be registered for taxation purposes. There WAS a taxation related-census, but it took place in 6 A.D, and Matthew claims that Jesus was born while Herod was still alive. In fairly recent years it has been discovered that P. Sulpicius Quirinius who is stated to have been the Governor at the time of the census, had served a period as Governor of Syria earlier on, in the days of Herod. We are indebted to Sir W.M. Ramsay for this discovery, but, valuable though it is, it still leaves us with a problem for there is no record of a census in his first term of office. There MAY have been an earlier one which has been lost in the passage of the years but we cannot say that it was so.
It should be mentioned at this point, as a means of clarification, that Judea came under the jurisdiction of the Syrian Governor and never had such an official of its own. The title of “Governor” given to Pilate was only an honorary one. His real status was that of Prefect and in that role he was a lieutenant to the Syrian overlord. The story of the census requiring every man to travel to the place of his birth is unlikely in the extreme. Caesar Augustus wanted the money from his subjects where they were. They would surely enrol at the local tax office. Think of the confusion which would ensue if a modern government decided to order that on a certain day everybody returned to the place where he or she was born. There would be total chaos. The hotels and guest houses would never cope and anyway their staff would in many cases be depleted by the necessity of many having to go to a distant town. It is not possible for both Matthew and Luke to be right on this point regarding the date of the birth of Jesus, but either one of them could have been correct.
If Jesus was born in 6 A. D. then he would have been thirty years old when Pilate ceased to be Prefect of Judea. However there is a record of some people saying to Jesus “Thou art not yet fifty years old and hast thou seen Abraham?” (Gospel according to John, chapter 8 verse 57.) You might say that to someone of forty but certainly not to a man approaching thirty. Also, I consider that Jesus was married and had a son who appears on the scene in the Passion Week as a grown man – possible if Jesus was forty one at the time of the crucifixion, for he could have had a son of around twenty. These considerations casts a serious doubt on the Lucan dating and thereby on the stories of the Holy family travelling to be enrolled at Bethlehem, and we must come down in favour of Matthew. For an expansion of my views with regard to this I refer the reader to the article “Duality in the Gospels” which can be found on this website.
A point which is often missed is the fact that while the death of Herod gives us a firm marker in the book of Matthew by fixing the birth of Jesus as occuring before that event, that is before March 4 B.C, the only upper limit is the accesion of Herod to the throne. This was in 37 B.C. There is no reason why Jesus should not have been born in 37 B.C. according to Matthew, so his possible ages at the crucifixion range from 30 to 67. Perhaps the most discussed aspect of the birth stories is the claim that Jesus was born of a virgin. If it was so, then it seems to me an example of a totally unnecessary miracle. Just as we speak of certain crimes having no victim, so we might speak here of certain miracles having no beneficiary. We may suspect that the story began its life a few years later when the Christian church was claiming that Jesus was divine. There are many stories of parthenogenesis in the ancient world, and most of the offspring of such pregnancies were held to be the sons of the Gods. So to give credibility to the claims of the church, it was necessary that Jesus enjoyed this particular form of conception. The church could then say in effect “Our God is as good as your God, so there.” In support of this concept we note a strange manifestation in the stories. Both Matthew and Luke claim that Jesus was born of a virgin, but BOTH PRESENT US WITH GENEALOGIES OF JOSEPH. This is pointless if Joseph was not his father. However, some modern theologians have detected evidence in the style and presentation of the genealogies that they were written by another hand and inserted. It is worth noting that the two geneologies in the New Testament are very contradictory. We can, however, note the important point that both lists are at pains to establish that Jesus was a son of David, that is a direct descendent of the ancient King and therefore one who had a claim on the throne of Israel. Jesus was in fact the Crown Prince, the first in line for the throne, and in those days when a natural reaction against the occupying Roman power led to a strong desire to re-establish the Monarchy, his position in the political events of the day was a significant one. On more than one occasion there were attempts to persuade him to take the Crown, but he was consistent in his refusal and chose to act as a prophet in the northern regions of Galilee, proclaiming a gospel of non-resistence, of turning the other cheek. (See John chapter 6 verse 15 as an example of the pressure on Jesus to take a political role.)
At this point it is perhaps worth noting the correct meaning of the title “Messiah.” The Church has used the word in the sense of a divine being who was a saviour. Frankly, this is a dishonest usage. The Messiah was the rightful King of Israel, or we might say Kings, for at times there were two Messiahs, a religious one with responsibility for things spiritual and a secular one who dealt with worldly affairs. By the time of Jesus the tendency was to link the two offices in one person and it was clearly the intention of the crowds to have Jesus as the sole Messiah. They were more interested in having a King who would fight with the Romans and get them out of the land than a spiritual figurehead. Another feature of the birth narratives is the tale of Herod’s slaying of all children in Bethlehem of two years old and under. The Magi, arriving at Jerusalem, went to the Royal Palace to find the new born King. They were clearly unfamiliar with the political state of affairs in the area. Herod was probably feeling rather safe on his throne at that time for it seemed likely that the Line of David would die out. Only two men, Zecharia and Joseph, could legitimately father a Messiah and there were problems in each case. Zechariah’s wife was barren and he was of advanced years; no danger to Herod from him apparently. The second contestant, Joseph, had recently become engaged. There is some evidence that he had been a partner in a childless marriage before he became betrothed to Mary. For instance he held the civil rank of Justus, (Matthew chapter 1 verse 19) and it is unlikely that he would have obtained such a status early in life. The Jews placed great emphasis on marriage and regarded a single man as something approaching an abomination, so it is not probable that he would have been honoured as a Justus unless he was married. With Joseph a wdower and Zechariah’s wife being infertile and apparently beyond the age of childbearing anyway, Herod was safe. Then suddenly his peaceful world was shattered and it took just one sentence to do it. When one of the Magi spoke those fatal words he unleashed a terrible disaster on the whole community. He acquainted Herod with the possibility that there was in existence an heir to the Messianic Line of David. If there was that child would have to be destroyed. Having found out from the travellers when the star had first appeared, and no doubt having added a bit on to make sure, Herod, it is said, ordered the slaying of every male child under the age of two years.
We cannot be sure how many children perished in that blood bath for we do not know what the popoulation was or what percentage of it consisted of one and two year olds, but we can say that if there were ten thousand people of all ages living in the area, and assuming an average life expectancy of fifty years, then there would be around four hundred children in the threatened zone, half of them males. This figure is little more than a guess, albeit a reasoned one. What is certain is that, assuming the massacre to have taken place and not to have the nature of a fiction, then there was a lot of human suffering involved. For a long time I doubted the authenticity of this story, feeling that such an outrage would not have been countenanced by the Roman authorities, but a deeper study of what is known of the history of the times reveals that Rome tended to let the Jews deal with their own affairs. Only if something conflicted with the interests of the Roman Empire did they intervene. They would have regarded the massacre of the children as being a purely Jewish affair and let Herod go his own way – and enough is known about that King of Blood to leave us in no doubt that he would have given the order without a moments hesitation. It is a matter of undisputed history that Herod had murdered his wife Mariamne and her brother, as well as her grandfather and her two sons. He would not have hesitated to exterminate the babies of Bethlehem. It is ironical that Herod was alerted to the possibility of a child being born to the Royal house of Israel when the Magi came enquiring where the new prince was. Consciously they brought gifts to the child Jesus, but their enquiry forced Mary and Joseph to flee into Egypt and led to the massacre of an unknown number of innocent children.
The terrrible thing about it was that with the simple words “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” the sincere Magi signed the death warrant of the unfortunate infants. The dedication and loyalty of the visitors did not prevent the fell hand of circumstance working against them. We celebrate the birth of Jesus with a festival of light and joy. The reality of the coming of the Master was quite different. He arrived in a world where a harsh and cruel occupying power had handed over authority to a sadistic and ruthless tyrant, and his family would soon be forced to flee for their lives to Egypt. Behind them as they went would be the despairing wails of the relatives of those infants who were put to the sword by Herod’s men. We can perhaps to an extent sympathise with this as the very same thing is going on in our world today. The system becomes of greater importance than the individual and whenever that occurs we should see danger lights flashing. Christmas itself has become a travesty of what Jesus stood for. The open commercialism, the creating of a market which all too often results in people getting themselves into debt for a great part of the ensuing year has nothing in common with the philosophy of the Nazarene. Pressures are placed upon people which have the undesirable effect of cramping the human spirit, pressures to conform with the Christmas mores of society. The whole thing has got quite out of hand and the cold touch of duty comes in the name of the Nazarene and bids us hear its voice. I would like to see the festive season simplified and made a spiritual occasion once again. Jesus was probably not born on the twenty fifth of December although as we have seen above, the date of his birth might well have been somewhere between the beginning of November and the end of January. If it was December 25th. then it is a case of a 364 to 1 bet coming up. We do not know which day of the year he was born on. The church took over the old Roman midwinter festival known as the Saturnalia and Christianised it. This was a not uncommon practice, it appears that as long as they could have their feasts the people did not particularly mind who was commemorated. Jesus as a young child would have no doubt observed the Roman soldiers keeping the week-long ordinance of the Saturnalia, celebrating the lengthening of the days once again after the passing of the very depth of winter, but in his wildest dreams he would hardly have imagined that this pagan feast would become the commemoration of his birthday. Not only are we out of line on the actual day of the year on which Jesus was born, but we also have the year wrong according to our calendar.
The evidence that Jesus was born in or before 5 B.C. is overwhelming, for it is certain that Herod finally lost his battle with cancer in March of 4 B.C. The present calendar is about half a decade out! The reason for this error is that when a monk named Dionysius Exiguus was commissioned by the Pope in the early sixth century to calculate what year it was assuming that the calendar was based on the birth of Christ, the worthy monk fell into error. We should not in any way blame him for that as the task which he had been alloted was a difficult one and he did not have the advantage of having at his disposal documents which have become well known in later years and which establish the correct date to within a year with comparative ease. Similar errors confused the issue of the Roman census mentioned above. When correction is made with the help of new knowledge then we realise that we are living in a year between 2006 and 2041. The millenium has either passed us by at a point in time unknown or will so pass by sometime in the next 35 years. While we are on the subject of days, it is totally inconsistent to have New Year’s Day on a different date from Christmas. If our calendar is based on the birth of Christ then a new year will always commence on the day of the celebration of his birth and not a week later.
As I write these words Christmas is coming round again, and as in all previous years I am not at all happy about it. The open commercialisition of Christmas, the way in which industry has created an atmosphere of duty which subtly pressurises all of us to spend more than we can afford and often run up debts which will hang around our shoulders for much of the coming year, these factors are totally contradictory to the spirit of Jesus. Hiw different it would be if we decided to live for the season of Advent according to the example of Jesus, to live a life of service and peace, of happiness and joy. It is not likely to be so this year, however, any more than it has been so in past years. As usual Jesus will not be invited to his own bitrthday party for he would be an unwelcome presence with an unpopular message. He would challenge our way of life, point our souls to higher things, and that is not the gospel which we want to hear. Once again no doubt drunken driving will take its toll on the roads, adding to the record of human misery brought about by Christmas. Once again the cry of “I want” will echo across the corridors of human experience as the mantra of a season which celebrates the birth of one who challenged people to say what they could give, not what they could get. No, let us not have the founder of the feast at the party. Let us go on making God in our own image, for that is a far more comfortable way.
This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons License.