Precession and the Star of Bethlehem?


While I have been doing my research on the Star of Bethlehem, I had to look into a lot of different, contradictory theories of what astronomical/astrological circumstance could have been at the root of the story. Comets, meteors, planetary conjunctions, etc. That’s the common stuff. But there have been some stranger ones as well. In my list of the various theories of the Star that I had in my paper on its history of interpretation, perhaps the two strangest or most outlandish proposals were the flying saucer/UFO and the precession of the equinoxes.

Now, in a way the UFO hypothesis can make sense. An advanced space ship could move around the sky in the way described by the Gospel of Matthew, in ways that no planet, nova, or comet ever could. It just has the problems of the lack of evidence that aliens actually have ever visited Earth (or even exist and have such space crafts), and one has to wonder what the motivation is for aliens to point eastern mystics to a new-born Palestinian. But that is the idea first proposed by Barry Downing back in 1970, inspired by Erich von Daniken and company. It’s also in one episode of Ancient Aliens which I also show to be problematic in my talk about such beliefs.

But at the very least a UFO can fit the basics of the description of Matthew’s Star. On the other hand, the strangest hypothesis to me is the idea that the Star is the precession of the equinoxes. Where does this idea come from? How is it supposed to fit the description in Matthew?

The only place that has published this idea is the journal used by planetarium workers (which also has inspired the various planetarium shows including on the Star), The Planetarian (their website and some articles are online here). The article in question “The Star of Bethlehem Reconsidered: A Mythological Approach” by Garry Stasiuk is from 1980 when there was much discussion about what should planetarium works show in regard to the Star of Bethlehem; it was around this time that the Jupiter-Venus conjunctions of 3/2 BCE became more dominant in Christmas shows. But here with the “mythological approach” one would think that the historicity of the object was in question. But what seems to be in mind is that there is a mythical archetype in play, one that makes the Star historical.

What the author is relying on is the thesis from Hamlet’s Mill (1969), a book that argued for an advanced yet unknown civilization that had discovered the precession of the equinoxes thousands of years before the Greeks did (and more accurately as well). This idea is widely unpopular amongst academics, with some of the reasons as to why it is considered bollocks given recently by Jason Colavito. The premises the thesis relies on are not sound, and the evidenced used are most tenuous. Of course, that makes it perfect for “alternative” historians (i.e. bad ones).

So this is what Stasiuk relies on as the underpinning of his thesis: that the location of the vernal equinox was all-important. And because the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn take place in Pisces which is close to the actual constellation the vernal equinox was in (Aries), that made this conjunction so important. But how does this explain the movement of the Star? All Stasiuk does is quote Matt 2:9 ends his article. How does the vernal equinox “go before” anyone, let alone stand over “where the child was”?

*crickets*

But suppose you don’t care that the thesis the vernal equinox Star of Bethlehem rests upon is a foundation of sand, or that the vernal equinox doesn’t fit the movement description (or the apparent disappearance of the Star), let’s also consider a few other points. Stasiuk thinks it’s good enough that the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn was in a constellation adjacent to where the the vernal equinox was. So we have to stretch things to even begin to have things work. But even ignoring that (how can we?), there is another problem: there was a Jupiter-Saturn conjunction in Pisces back in 66 BCE (a list of these conjunctions can be found here). So why no Wise Men coming to Judea sixty years earlier looking for the King of the Jews? [EDIT: There was a better conjunction by far in 54 CE, only about 2 degrees from the vernal equinox, while the best of the 7 BCE conjunctions was 10 degrees off. I misread the 66 BCE conjunction as closer, but in fact it was farther off than any of the 7 BCE conjunctions.]

Now, it would seem I am just picking on an obscure thesis that no one else believes. But in reviewing my sources, there is another, more scholarly book that does include a connection between the Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions and the vernal equinox. This is given space in the work of August Strobel (1) and Kocku von Stuckrad (2), the former being a New Testament professor, the latter has similar qualifications and even more related to the history of astrology. To be fair, neither rely on the Hamlet’s Mill thesis or precession but instead a historical analysis; they note rather the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in a constellation and how that connected to some important even in Jewish history, including the birth of Alexander Jannaeus and the Bar Kochba revolt. They rather suppose how Jews would have interpreted these conjunctions given their association with Jewish history, and thus the triple conjunction in 7 BCE would have inspired some to search for the Messiah, or simply that the story was made up around this astrologically significant set of conjunctions. Obviously not as off-balance as the prior thesis, but it’s also based on coincidence more than ancient testimonies. There aren’t any Talmudic passages, for example, noting the importance of these conjunctions, and given that there are lots of events in Jewish history, of course something is going to line up. Also, some of those triple conjunctions didn’t actually happen, including the ones for the Bar Kochba revolt in 134 CE. I plan a fuller consideration of this idea in a future publication.

So, overall the talk of using the vernal equinox and its movements to explain the Star of Bethlehem is probably the strangest suggestion I have thus-far discovered that was published. I’m sure the Internet has some other crazy ideas, but I’ll have to come to those another time.

(1) Strobel, “Weltenjahr, Große Konjunktion und Messiasstern”, ANRW II.20.2 (1987): 988-1190.
(2) von Stuckrad, “Jewish and Christian Astrology in Late Antiquity: A New Approach”, Numen 47, 1 (2000): 29-31; Das Ringen um die Astrologie, pp. 860-1.

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3 thoughts on “Precession and the Star of Bethlehem?

  1. COMET ISON may be the return of the STAR OF BETHLEHEM

    the orbit of COMET ISON brings it back every 333 years,
    so it can be established that the comet was here in 15 a.d.
    considering that an exact year has never been established
    for the birth of christ,
    is it more than coincidence that
    there was a census in 14 a.d. called by Caesar Augustus?

    you heard it here first !
    http://www.facebook.com/events/371628202915203/

  2. Pingback: The Star of Bethlehem in Alternative “Scholarship” | Fleeing Nergal, Seeking Stars

  3. Pingback: The Star of Bethlehem in Alternative “Scholarship” | A Tippling Philosopher

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