This is Part 3 of a critical examination of the MMEL hypothesis of the Star of Bethlehem. Go to the index here.
So far in this critical appraisal of the MMEL hypothesis, there has not been much attention paid to the actual theory of what the Star of Bethlehem was other than to say it deals with conjunctions of Jupiter and Venus in the years 3 and 2 BCE. While already it is falsified as an explanation of Matthew’s account since it takes place after the death of Herod the Great (see Part 1 & Part 2), I shall not ignore what possible astronomical or astrological explanations are here. Perhaps they can explain the Star in another way (including helping create the narrative based on a back-calculation rather than an authentic historical tradition), or the conjunctions of another type can be related to what the Magi were interested in.
Now, the primary things that Rick Larson presents in this sequence of events are a set of conjunctions of the planets Jupiter and Venus that take place in the constellation of Leo. They are also very close encounters of the planets, so close that they could have appeared as a singular beacon of light. The movement of the planets also have the potential to match the description of how the Star “went before” and “stood over” as seen in Matt 2:9.
The movements of the Star will not be dealt with here, but instead I will focus on the importance to the constellation of Leo and is most notable star, α Leonis, better known as Regulus. Leo is claimed by Larson, dependent on Ernest Martin, to have been considered the constellation that represented Judea; moreover, Regulus was the king star. With the planet Jupiter moving back and forth around Regulus it seemed to indicate something important, and the final, supreme conjunction of Jupiter and Venus then took place after this in 2 BCE. Now only is this a key part of the film, there are many planetariums around the USA that at the holidays present this dance of the planets and stars (including the planetarium I used to work at).
So a lot is hinging on how important Leo and Regulus are to kingship and the Jews. That means we need to look at what is the evidence that Leo was connected to the Holy Land and God’s chosen people. Moreover, we need to compare this to other candidates that have been proposed.
As is known by most star-gazers, Leo is the constellation of the lion. As such, Martin and Larson have looked for passages in the Bible that relates Judea or the Jews to lions. There are two such passages, one from the Old Testament (Gen 49:9), one from the New (Rev 5:5).
You are a lion’s cub, O Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
What should be noted that in neither of these cases is the lion placed in either an astronomical or astrological context. Lion imagery is associated with Judah, but then again that is true for just about every civilization in the area. The lion was a regal animal, signifying power. Given a choice, who wants to associate their nation with the all-mighty shrew? We also have an issue not considered by Martin: why were the Magi using the Bible to figure out how they associated nations or peoples to constellations? Martin is not basing his argument on eastern records at all but instead speculations of what the Magi would have done.
But let’s consider if the Bible would even give clear reason to connect the “king of the jungle” to the Jews. If it was the case, then it is interesting that the prophet Ezekiel says that the pharaoh of Egypt is a lion among nations (Ezek 32:1-2). If Judah was represented by a lion so clearly, what is the symbolism when Sampson rips one in twain (Judges 14)? King David is also said to be a hunter of bears and lions (1 Sam 17). What is the poor exegete to do?
Could we not look to other passages and come to different conclusions. How about in Rev 5:6, just after the Lion of Judah is mentioned, it refers to the same figure as the Lamb, and of course the lamb imagery is associated with Jesus as Messiah many times (John 1, 1 Cor 5:7, 1 Pet 1:19). In that case, should we not look to the best connection to the lamb in the sky, Aries the ram? Or how about Libra, the scales, a sign of judgement? Or how about Virgo as representing the prophecy of the virgin birth?
It is far too easy to speculation about how any given constellation would have meant something to someone. Instead of this fruitless imagination exercise, we should look at actual historical records to see how people actually interpreted the matter. If we look to rabbis of later years, we see no consistency in their interpretations. The most famous example when it comes to the Star is how rabbi Don Isaac Abrabanel believed that it was Pisces, the two fish, which represented the Jews, a pointed repeated in many books on the Star of Bethlehem. Less famously, a rabbi with astronomical knowledge, Levi ben Gerson, said that Aquarius was the appropriate constellation (Goldstein & Pingree, Levi ben Gerson’s Prognostication, pp. 31, 7). In a later source, the Jewish scholar Azariah dei Rossi demonstrated how poor were the attempts by his fellow Jews to predict the coming of the Messiah and how much they contradicted each other. He notes how some claimed that Taurus, Virgo, or Capricorn as contenders for the title of astrological sign of the Jews, along with the others noted above (dei Rossi & Weinberg, The Light of the Eyes, pp. 548-50). In other words, in the medieval period, Jewish scholars could come to any number of conclusions about constellations and God’s chosen people, though no one suggested Leo.
Now, one can complain how these are all medieval or Renaissance sources, not ancient. On that front, the best we can do is look to the early rabbinic literature, namely the Talmud. And in fact, it has some things to say about astrology and the signs for the Jewish people. According to Rabbi Johannan, there was not mazal (meaning astrological influence) for Israel (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 156a). This seems to be, if anything, a denial of any association between astrological signs and the Jewish people. And no one in all the other references we have in antiquity otherwise support the idea that Leo is the appropriate constellation of the Jews. In other words, Martin’s hypothesis rests only on his personal speculations and not on anything considered a proper historical method.
If we increase the sources we wish to consider, the best place to look and find out what astrologers in antiquity would have actually associated with ancient Palestine and its people. From around the same time as Jesus and in the centuries after, we have numerous lists of associations of regions or peoples with certain constellations, called astrological geographies. Unfortunately, only one explicitly refers to Palestine, and that is the 2nd century astronomer and astrologer Ptolemy. And unfortunately for Martin and his followers, it is Aries that is connected to the Jews and their land (Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos 2.3). Retired astronomer Michael Molnar has been the biggest proponent of the constellation of Aries as the place to look for the Star of Bethlehem, and he relies on Ptolemy for his arguments. But if we look at other sources, we find contradiction. For example, in the early first century, the Roman astrologer Marcus Manilius said that it was Aquarius that presided over the Holy Land (Manilius, Astronomica 4.797-8; cf. 4.620-7). Other sources disagree even further, a point that has been noted by historians of astrology for over a century (i.e. Bouché-Leclercq, L’Astrologie grecque, pp. 332ff). This undercuts other arguments for what constellation would represent Judea, but I will leave that for another place and time.
As can be seen, Martin’s contention that Leo would be considered the constellation of the Jews is based on no actual evidence at all, and the evidence we do have actually contradicts him. Of all the astrological geographies we have from antiquity (see here for a table), not one connects Leo to Israel.
So you can clearly see Martin’s thesis is based on worse than nothing. As I discussed in an old post, there is not even a majority opinion on what constellation was fitted to Judea/Israel/Palestine. In fact, it may be the case that most people didn’t care enough about the region to give it its own sign. Overall, it makes this point of the MMEL hypothesis without foundation. And since it was based solely on the association of Leo with the Jews that the hypothesis proposed the Magi knew to look for a king of the Jews, the hypothesis collapses before we even consider the conjunctions (which I will do in Part 4).