Was Christ actually born on Dec. 25?
WAYNE D. COWEY
For many centuries people have asked what the "Wise Men" saw to came hundreds of miles to a small village to pay homage to a baby. For that matter, just exactly who were they?
Now, in modern times, we are finally getting real answers to those questions, and others, such as the real birth date of Jesus. But those statements first raise their own question.
If those questions have been being asked for almost 2,000 years, why are we only now getting answers?
The reason is only now do we have high capacity home computers and the internet. Now home researchers have available computers that would shame the huge mainframes of a couple of decades ago, and professional quality astronomy software. We can see the ancient sky, put it in motion, and see for themselves what the ancients saw.
The internet makes available, to the home researcher, enormous amounts of information.
Previously a researcher could make an important discovery, write a paper on it, and the paper would gather dust in a university library, because nobody outside of a small circle would be aware of the paper.
Now it will be on the Web, available instantly to the world. Discoveries no longer stay hidden by obscurity.
Before we start looking at the ancient skies, let us make a distinction between astronomy, astrology, and sign-watching. Astronomy is the science of the study of the everything that is out there, but makes no attempts to find meanings.
The sign watcher looks to the heavens to see if anything special or unusual is happening that may contain a message from God.
The astrologer looks to the skies to learn his daily fortune. The Bible clearly states that the heavens are for signs, and that they speak the message of God. But the Bible also forbids astrology. Sign watching appears to have been something for Old Testament times that ceased operation after the death of Christ, until the last days. The believer has the Holy Spirit and no long needs signs in the sky.
The meanings of the signs would be fairly clear to those who watched, and not deeply hidden.
So the Wise Men were godly sign-watchers and not astrologers. Even in their day logical minds were rejecting astrology. Cicero, the Roman statesman, wrote a logical criticism of astrology a few dozen years before Jesus was born. In a particular battle, tens of thousands died on the same day.
Did they all have the same horoscopes?
WHO WERE THE "WISE MEN"?
Matthew uses the Greek word Magi for those who came from the East to see Jesus as a baby. From the Bible, in Daniel, we learn that Daniel was given the title of Rab-Magi, meaning Chief Magi. We know that Daniel did not return to Jerusalem, but stayed in Babylon. We know that Daniel taught others. In other words, Daniel started a college.
From Josephus, Strabo, and other writings we know that at the time of Jesus, the school of the East was considered the best in the world.
But they weren’t just college eggheads. They were also high government officials in the Parthian Empire. (Modern day Iraq plus Iran) Magi formed the upper house of the Megistanes council, whose duties included the election of the king of the Parthian empire.
It is from megistanes that we get our word "magistrate" to mean a government official. One may think of them as something like U.S. Senators with the power to elect the President.
A LITTLE ASTRONOMY
To the ancients there were stars, and five of those stars were in motion. And sometimes those moving stars, planets, appeared to move backwards. That is because the earth, on its smaller orbit, is passing inside of the outer planets. On a freeway, when you pass another car, momentarily it appears as if the other car is moving backwards.
The ancients didn’t know about orbits, so to them it looked as if one of the moving stars were indeed stopping, backing up, and then stopping again to resume their forward motion. They had timed these retrograde motions and knew that Mars did it every year and a half, Jupiter every thirteen months, and Saturn every year plus two weeks.
Often one planet will pass close to another planet or a star on the starry path, and these are called a conjunction. Sometimes, they will be so close that for a few hours they seemed to actually be one very bright star. Sometimes three or more planets will be very close to each other.
Along that road are twelve sections, which we call the zodiac. Astronomy does not concern itself with the meaning of the constellations, but does use them as handy divisions of the sky. Each was considered a sign, but we will concern ourselves with only Leo – The Lion, Pisces – The Fish, Aires – The Ram, and Virgo – The Virgin.
AN ATTITUDE OF EXPECTANCY
Not only in Judea, but in all the Jewish communities of the time, there was an expectation of the coming of the Messiah. The Daniel school of Magi, being Jewish, would have certainly been looking for the Messiah, and they would have been watching the skies too.
In looking at the skies for those times, one sees not so much one sign, but numerous signs in the space of a few years. It is like driving on an interstate with billboards announcing that you are approaching something important. If you have a computer and a good astronomy program, you may wish to follow.
The announcements can be said to start in 27 BC. Saturn, the star of the Jews entered the sign Leo (Judah), passed very close to Regulus (King Star), then after passing Saturn reversed course, passed Regulus again, and then shifted into forward gear to pass Regulus for the third time.
At the same time, Jupiter (King Planet) approached and almost touched Regulus, then it reversed course and backed away from Regulus. Later, after Saturn has finished, Jupiter then goes forward past Regulus. This had never been seen before by the Magi. It is fairly rare and was not repeated until 770 AD.
Three close passes of the Jewish star, in the Judah sign constellation, very close to the King star, could easily be seen as meaning that big news was coming up about a king in Judah. The King planets approaching but reversing and not passing until later seems to say, "Not yet, but coming soon."
A few months later, in June of 26 BC, Venus (Motherhood), Jupiter (King Planet) and Saturn (Jewish Planet) gathered close to Regulus (King Star), all within about two degree of each other. One finger, at arm’s length is about one degree. All of the planets and star involved could have been hidden by two fingers at arm’s length.
This does not repeat until 1742. It is too speculative to attempt to place a specific interpretation on this event, but it would have certainly caught the attention of the Magi.
In late 15 BC, Jupiter made a triple conjunction with Regulus. That is, Jupiter passed Regulus, stopped, reversed to pass Regulus again, and then stopped, shifted to forward and passed Regulus for the third time. However, this happens, frequently enough that Babylonian records would have had several occurrences. It usually happens in sets of two, separated by about twelve years. Still, the King Planet paying such attention to the King Star in Judah, after all the activity of eleven and twelve years previous may well have served to alert them that news of a great king was about to break.
7 BC saw a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces. Jupiter passed Saturn, both went into reverse, Jupiter passed Saturn while in reverse, and then both got out of reverse and Jupiter again passed Saturn going forward. The Magi had anticipated that and had send clay tablets by c-mail (Caravan mail) to each other. Four of those tablets have been found. The King Planet making a three pass dance with the Jewish Planet in the Israeli constellation could be seen as indicating something big about a Jewish king. The closest point of the middle conjunction was on September 29. We will see this date again.
In 3 BC, the signs begin to climax. On August 12, 3BC Jupiter (King Planet) and Venus (Motherhood) had a conjunction so close that they appear as one star. It happened in the sign Leo (Judah sign) Even the sharpest eyes would not have been able to tell them apart. This happened as the planets were in rising higher in their daily positions in the sky. This corresponds with the Magi saying that they had seen his star rising. One can easily see how once can understand the King and the Mother becoming one for a few hours as signifying a birth of a king of the Jews.
Sept. 14, 3 BC is the date of Jupiter’s (King Planet) first of three conjunctions with Regulus (King Star) in Leo (Jewish sign). As happened in 15 BC, Jupiter is going to make a close fly-by of Regulus, reverse course, fly-by, and then reverse again for the third fly-by. But this time it happens only a month after Jupiter and Venus briefly became one. Feb.17, 2 BC is the second fly-by, May 8, 2 BC is the third and final fly-by. It is as if the King Planet and the King Star are emphasizing the idea of Jewish King only a few months after the King Planet became one with the Mother Planet.
On June 17, 2 BC, Jupiter (King Planet) has moved away from Regulus but is still in the sign of Leo (Judah) when it again joins with Venus (Mother) to have a conjunction so close that they again appear as a single star. Conjunctions that close are rare. My software shows that since then, there have been only thirteen conjunctions that are that close, so they happen less than once a century. But here, they happened only months apart, and between the two conjunction Jupiter made a triple conjunction with Regulus.
To the Magi, it must have seemed that the heavens were shouting, "The Great King of the Jews has been conceived. That was enough for them. It was time to saddle up and get on the move. We will look at their trip more closely later. For now, let’s continue with the signs.
Revelations 12 contains a description of a sign in the heavens at the time of the birth of Jesus. It describes a woman, clothed in the sun, moon beneath her feet, and a red dragon standing in front of the woman. A tail is described that is huge and sweeps a third of the stars from the sky. On Sept 29, 2 BC, we find the Sun in Virgo (It is there every September.) and the new moon is beneath the feet of the sign, and at the side of the Virgin is the planet Mars. At that time, to the Babylonians, Mars was associated with Satan and had a red dragon as its symbol. We will look closer at this date a bit later.
The Bible states the Magi came first to Jerusalem, and then traveled at night to Bethlehem, and stopped in the sky, over the house where Jesus was. This fits with the movement of Jupiter in December of 2 BC. Bethlehem is only five miles south of Jerusalem.
The Magi left at night to be able to observe the sky. Jupiter, at its highest, would have had an elevation of 68 degrees, and would have been very bright. For a trained observer, who is watching the planets against a field of stars, even small changes in the position of a planet can be seen. The Magi would not have had to deal with air and light pollution to hinder their vision of the stars.
It was even a moonless night. They would have quickly noticed that Jupiter, the King Planet, had stopped, on December 25, 2 BC. At maximum elevation, it could easily have been in line with the house that Jesus was in. It would have appeared to have stopped above the house.
JOSEPH AND MARY
We all know the Bible story of the angel appearing to Mary. We all know she accepts the news. But there is no promise to Mary of how God will take care of her.
She had become pregnant in a society that will punish her with stoning. She was scared, and needed someone to talk to.
She left town to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was also a righteous woman, married to a righteous man. After three months, she returned home and married Joseph. The loose clothing of the times would have hid the beginning of her baby bulge.
Joseph had been told by an angel that Mary’s baby was from God, but the neighbors had not been given the same word. They could hide the pregnancy with loose clothing and keeping Mary indoors, but that would have a real problem with hiding the baby when it would be born. The neighbors would count the months, and come up three short.
Mary would not be stoned, but the good women of the town would have shunned her. The special taxation saved her. It gave them a legitimate reason to leave town.
The distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is about 90 miles, straight line distance. But the terrain is very rugged, and traveling by foot would have been much more than 90 miles. It would have taken almost a week for Joseph and Mary and at a late stage in Mary’s pregnancy.
For the birth, they appear to have found emergency shelter, with makeshift substitutes for needed items. For example, an animal feed trough was used for a crib. After Jesus was born, Joseph must have found a job and rented a house to stay. He was a righteous man and that was the thing for him to do.
These were not quite ordinary shepherds. Many people came to the temple to make sacrifices, and instead of bring their sacrifice with them. They would buy a sheep at the temple to sacrifice. The temple wasn’t in the sheep raising business.
They bought their sheep from local shepherds. So the shepherds that the angles made the announcement to were tending sheep that were destined to be sacrificed in the temple. Those shepherds who tended such sheep were invited to the birth of the Ultimate Sacrificial Lamb. Such is the magnificent poetry of God’s work.
MEANWHILE, BACK IN BABLYON
We have observed that the Magi were the upper house of the Megistanes of the Parthian Empire, roughly comparable to U.S. Senators today. Since many Jews had stated behind when Nehemiah brought many Jews back to Jerusalem, the Babylonians in general and the Magi in particular knew of the prophesies of a Messiah and believed them.
Like everybody else, they expected the Messiah to be an earthly king who would conquer every kingdom and would rule in wisdom and righteous. Since His conquest could not be resisted, and since He would be a good emperor anyway, they wanted to make peace with him right away.
Of course, since He was still an infant, they couldn’t make a peace treaty with Him, but they could lay the groundwork by paying Him honor and such a visit would be recorded by the Royal scribes.
Naturally, for a delegation of that importance, one would not send the Junior Under sectary of camel breeding. There would have been some internal politicking to be on that diplomatic mission. The most likely number for the mission would have been about 10 to 15.
Each Magi would have gone with his entourage of servants and staff. This would have been a significant portion of the leadership of the Parthian government, and would not have made the journey without a military escort. Caravans were sometimes attacked by bandit tribes that numbered in the hundreds. The Parthian escort would have been about a thousand cavalry.
At that time, the Parthians had the best cavalry of any nation in the world. They were so skilled they had a special technique called the "Parthian Shot" no other cavalry has done since.
If they had to retreat, the rider would ride backwards on this horse and shoot arrows at his pursuers. Such a feat required a horse and rider so attuned to each other they were like one entity. For such an important guard, the men of the escort would have been the absolute best of the Parthian Empire’s cavalry.
The horses would have been the finest of Arabian War Horses. The Magi and staff would have been riding such horses too. Camels were for baggage.
If the Magi had been only three old geezers on camels, it is very doubtful that Herod’s staff would have brought it to his attention. There was an expectation of the Messiah in Jerusalem too, so some ole guys asking about him would have been normal.
Instead what arrived at Jerusalem was an official diplomatic mission from the Parthian Empire, with a military escort of a thousand of the Parthian Empire’s finest cavalry. In the last few decades they had beaten the Roman Empire in several wars. And they were there to pay homage to Herod’s replacement.
One can imagine Herod’s face when one of his staff came to him with the news that such a delegation and escort was at the gates. He may have sprayed his wine all over his paperwork.
However, the Magi would have been expecting the Messiah to be at the palace, with servants joyfully attending to Him. They were thinking they the palace would greet them with welcome and joy that the Parthian Empire would join with them when the Messiah was ready to announce Himself. But Herod saw it as a delayed action declaration of war by an Empire as strong as the Roman Empire. He saw it as the Parthians declaring their support for a rebellion, as soon as the leader of the rebellion was old enough. The Bible says that Herod was troubled, and so was Jerusalem.
The Bible states Herod resorted to political intrigue, and in that he met his match. The Magi were themselves very experienced politicians, and the Magi would have had members of their staffs making discrete inquiries around town. By the time they left for Bethlehem, they would have been strongly suspicious of Herod.
Daniel was in interpreter of dreams and the Magi were students of the same school as Daniel, and were righteous men. They were receptive to dreams and responded readily when God sent them a warning about Herod in a dream. They had expected a friendly reception, but now realized they were in a hostile situation, hundreds of miles deep in Roman territory. A thousand cavalry would be no match for the Roman forces that could quickly be mustered. It was time to head for the border, fast.
JOSEPH AND MARY
Like any Jew, both Joseph and Mary would be well aware of the danger from Herod. Certainly they would have talked with the Magi, and would have been told all that happened and the Magi’s suspicions.
Joseph, having once listened to a dream from God, would have been especially receptive to a dream telling him to leave. Returning to Nazareth was out of the question. Jesus was too young and people would know that Mary had to have been pregnant at the marriage.
With the presents from the Magi, they would have the money to go to Egypt and live while Joseph again found work. Then, when the danger was over, Jesus was old enough so that nosey neighbors in Nazareth would believe that they had been rapidly blessed with a child.
There would be no need to tell them otherwise. And the remainder of the Magi’s gifts would get them home to Nazareth and set them up with a home and start Joseph’s carpenter shop.
Herod wanted that baby dead. If he was dead, then the Parthian Empire could not support his revolution when he came of age. The first conjunction was August 12, the previous year, which was a year and four months previous.
To give himself a margin, Herod ordered the death of all male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem who were under two years old. Bethlehem was tiny, and it would have been likely that word would have leaked and many of he children would have been hidden. Still, some would have died. Due to the tiny size of Bethlehem, the number slain would have been small, but each one was a sorrow.
SO WHEN WAS JESUS BORN?
Several different lines of reasoning support a date of September 29, 2 BC. It is impossible, at this time, to be totally certain of that date, but it has the best evidence.
Herod’s death now actually appears to have been in 1 BC, instead of 4 BC as has been believed. Herod died a few weeks after a total eclipse of the moon. The eclipse of 4 BC was a partial and happened about midnight in Jerusalem. Not many would have seen it. The lunar eclipse of 1 BC was a total eclipse and happened early in the evening. Further, the 1 BC eclipse has enough time between the eclipse and Passover for Herod to do the things that Josephus records him as doing.
Reasoning from the timelines of Jesus death, (April 3, 33 AD), and other Scriptures yields a birth date of Sept. 29, 2 BC. Jesus was 33 Â½ years old at his crucifixion. Subtracting that from the date of his crucifixion yields an approximate date of late Sept.r, 2 BC. There was no year zero. From 1 AD to 2 BC is two years.
Reasoning from the timeline of John the Baptist, starting with the dates of his father Zechariah’s temple service, yields a birth date of Sept.29, 2 BC.
Reasoning from the positions of the Sun, Moon, and Mars also yields Sept 29, 2 BC. Revelation 12 records the position of the Sun and Moon. The sun is in Virgo and the Moon is below the feet of Virgo. A red dragon is in front of her her. The dragon is identified as Satan. At the time of Jesus birth, the Babylonians connected Mars as symbolic of Satan.
There is also an ancient Christian tradition that Jesus was born on Sept. 29. Some of the early churches celebrated Sept. 29, until in AD 354 Pope Liberius had the Roman churches adopt Dec. 25. Gradually that became the accepted date.
Other ancient historians support 2 BC, but do not pin the date down to a specific day.
So that’s the real story. We have Sept. 29 instead of Dec. 25. We now know what the Magi were seeing. We know they were a diplomatic delegation with a strong military escort instead of three old guys on camels.
Herod was severely overmatched when he tried to outwit the Magi with his posturing and political intrigue. With a final nudge from a dream, they took off. Josephus was protecting Mary by taking her to Bethlehem, and got straight to work to get her and the baby into a house.
God provided Mary a way of escape from being stoned, and then provided them with the finances to escape to Egypt and return. God’s plan, that would lead to our Redemption, was in motion.