This is Part 4 of a critical examination of the MMEL hypothesis of the Star of Bethlehem. Go to the index here.
In Part 3 of this critique, the symbolism of the constellation Leo was shown to not give any support for the idea that seeing certain celestial events in that collection of stars would indicate something to do with the Jews, the Holy Land, or anything connected. However, I left the actual movements of the planets out of consideration. Even if we are unsure about what constellation would have been significant to the Magi when it comes to Hebrew matters, perhaps there is something in how the planets danced about the night sky that would have, at least, caught their attention.
Here are the details of the movements of the planets Jupiter and Venus that, according to the MMEL hypothesis, would have been so significant to the Magi. In August of 3 BCE, the planets Jupiter and Venus come into a very close conjunction* in front of Leo on the eastern horizon, seen just before sunrise (hence the Magi saw the Star “in the east”). After this close encounter Venus disappears from the sky for a while as it does in its cycle about the Sun as seen from Earth, while Jupiter remains up in the night sky and moves back and fourth about Regulus (the king planet is moving back and forth about the king star). Finally, in June of 2 BCE Venus and Jupiter are seen again together with an even closer conjunction, still in Leo. Finally, on the day we generally celebrate Christmas (Dec 25), Jupiter has come to an apparent stop with respect to the stars in the sky (called a stationary point) and can then be in the direction of Bethlehem from Jerusalem, thus the Star “went before” the Magi and “stood over” the town where Jesus’ family was.
So, there are two major avenues to consider: the astrological significance of these stellar motions to the Magi, and how well it matches the description of the Star in Matt 2. I will look at those in that order.
Let’s first consider what a conjunction of this sort would have meant to the Magi. Let us consider what ancient records Ernest Martin and Rick Larson look to which tells them that this was an auspicious sign. Oh, wait. They don’t cite any astrological or astronomical text from antiquity. They only have the speculation that it would have been spectacular and important to the eastern sky-watchers. While indeed the conjunction of the planets was remarkably close, we have to consider what records we have that describes the meaning of this to the Wise Men.
Now, even though much of the written record from the ancient Middle Eastern empires has not done well in weathering the tide of history, we do have many pieces of literature to examine, including letters between various scholars in Babylonia and Assyria. In a couple of those, they talk about conjunctions between Jupiter and Venus, but what they say is this was a sign of war and hostilities toward the king (Hunger, Astrological Reports to Assyrian Kings §§ 212, 448). There isn’t anything about the birth of kings at all.
Then again, Jupiter and Venus conjunctions are fairly common, so perhaps a more rare event in combination could have another meaning. However, the same sources tell us what the meaning was when Jupiter made retrograde loops around Regulus as the MMEL hypothesis suggests: this was a sign that the king would be overthrown (Hunger, Astrological Reports § 279). And when these records are talking about kings, they are talking about their own king, not a foreign one whose offing would have been profitable for Assyria. So, if we look at the only records we have from the Ancient Near East about what these stellar events could have meant to the Magi, we are left with the opposite impression we need to get them interesting in searching for a new-born king. Instead of finding an infant to worship, they would have been worrying about a civil war.
With that, let us consider how well the movement of the planets fit the description in Matthew. We should first note that Matthew 2 refers to a singular Star, not a plurality. On the MMEL hypothesis, the planets are so close that they appear as one star. However, the sky watchers knew that there wasn’t a singular object there, and no records that I can find from antiquity show anyone calling a conjunction of planets a single object. Perhaps better understood, the focus is on one of the planets, and Jupiter is considered the best candidate–it is the king planet.
When it comes to the movement of the planet, there are details that I will be considering in my upcoming book on the Star of Bethlehem, but we can see a few points somewhat obviously without getting into the details of the Greek words used by Matthew. On Martin’s reading, Jupiter is seen south from Jerusalem when the Magi begin to leave for Bethlehem, so the Star is in front of them; however, even in English it says “went before”, implying motion. Moreover, the act of going is in the direction of the path the Magi take (goes before them). That is motion from north to south, not standing towards the south. The same issue comes up when the Star stands still; while relative to the stars in the sky Jupiter will be motionless, relative to the town of Bethlehem and the Magi Jupiter is moving with the stars because of the rotation of the Earth from east to west; no star in the sky can stand still, let alone over a particular town or place.
There are some other subtleties that can be noted in the English translation. Matt 2:9 says the Star “went before”, and then it stopped “over where the child was”. But for Martin, Jupiter is both going before and stopped over Bethlehem at the same time. There is a temporal sequence, and one ends before the other begins (the Star goes ahead “until” it stops). The stopping alone is not going to fit either because the stationary point is something that cannot be noted as happening in an instant or even a day; for naked-eye observers, the motion of the planet is undetectable for several days before and after the instant it stops. In other words, the Magi could not have seen that the Star had stopped; it would have appeared stopped in the sky before they even met with King Herod.
As such, the key descriptions of the movement of the Star do not even come close to fitting what the MMEL hypothesis describes, and this is without even looking into the details of the original language of the Gospel. Again, I will go into those details in my upcoming book, but needless to say it only makes the situation worse. Much, much worse.
At this juncture, it is worth reviewing what has been concluded. The time frame of events cannot fit into the chronology established by Matthew, the astrological symbolism is worse than not established but is in fact contradicted by ancient records, and the movement of the planets does not come anywhere near what Matthew describes. Any one of those points is fatal to the hypothesis. The combination makes the project already a complete failure, and the MMEL hypothesis must be rejected.
* Note: a conjunction is not the same thing as being close. It means that two planets or a planet and a star have the same line of longitude (often the system of right ascension is used) in the sky. In the case of planets, it is usually the case that they are close to each other in the night sky during a conjunction because the visible planets are all about in the same plane as they revolve about the Sun. This is why the two concepts can become confused. Nonetheless. there can be conjunctions where the planets occult each other (very rarely) and other times they are a notable distance apart.