The Adoration of the Christmas Star

Notice the Christmas star above Mary’s head

I originally wrote this back in 2009, and have revised and updated it a bit.

It’s Christmas-time again, and I wanted to share this with you (again) because questions about the Christmas star continue. Just recently, Kepler College here in Seattle sponsored a webinar called “Christine Arens Presents The Star of Bethlehem,” in which she attempted to pinpoint a time and date for Jesus Christ’s birth. The DVD for that December 14th, 2013 discussion is available here.

vedder

Elihu Vedder (American, 1836–1923), Star of Bethlehem, 1879–80. Oil on canvas; 36 3/16 x 44 3/4 in. Milwaukee Art Museum.

I am skipping ahead in my analysis of the history of astrology, and I don’t want to upset you by this lack of linearity, but it’s Christmas here in the Western hemisphere (in case you hadn’t noticed), and I wanted to stop and take a look at the history of the Christmas star that was purported to have announced the birth of Christ.

There are so many misunderstandings and myths about the Christmas star. Most of them have been analyzed by scholars since 17th century German mathematician, astrologer and astronomer Johannes Kepler discussed the possibility of the Christmas star being a conjunction of three stars.

There is also speculation that for this star to have been influential enough, it would have to have been a comet, as is reflected below in Giotto‘s 14th century representation of the Adoration of the Magi.

The likelihood, apparently, is that there really were Magi. I don’t think that’s in dispute. As far as I can tell, the biggest dispute centers around whether there was really a star that was bright enough that the ‘wise men’ would have known about it, and further, the year in which this might have occurred.

There are various theories about the existence of a single star, or a conjunction of stars that might have occurred. If there was a conjunction, it would have included the two ‘kingly’ stars, Jupiter conjuncting Regulus, a sure sign that a king was about to be born.

The consensus seems to be that if this conjunction occurred, it would have happened in approximately 7 BC, most likely in the spring, when Christ is believed to have been born. None of this is known and certain; most of it is speculation, based on a combination of astronomical calculations and Biblical scholarship. Biblical scholars seem to care more than anyone else about the Christmas star, but I think the image is beautiful, and deserves to be discussed on Christmas day.

Below is a quote from The Star of Bethlehem website that I was glad to find, because even though I disagree with the idea that astrology “assumes that stars are the cause of earthly events,” it helps me articulate what I think astrology can and can’t do. From my perspective, astrology is a language based on signs, but it is not literally predictive. The heavens seem to work like a clock, pointing to a time when something is likely to happen, but certainly not making events occur. I think the fundamental misunderstanding about astrology lies here, in this distinction: the planets do not cause anything, they merely point to a possible event occurring. 

Here’s the quote: 

Astrology assumes that stars are causes of earthly events. The Bible assumes that they can be messages about earthly events. It may be useful to think of this as a thermometer distinction. A thermometer can tell you if it’s hot or cold, but it can’t make you hot or cold. There is a big difference between a sign and an active agent. This is the difference between “astrology” and what the Bible contends.

However, I would add that it’s also the difference between what astrology is, and what it is not. The philosophy of astrology is not settled, because as long as astrologers fall into three basic camps, the mess that has become astrology is going to confuse everyone, especially those who haven’t yet sorted out what their own philosophy is.

One camp insists that the movement of the planets affects us here on earth; another group believes that the stars represent divination and signs, but do not influence us, and the third group is a mishmash that doesn’t understand either position and believes some messy combination of both.

I believe it’s important to discuss the distinctions, because astrology has become a ‘god-term,’ which causes people’s heads to pop off from disgust or, alternatively, to gaze in rapt adoration at the stars that are then attributed with amazing abilities. Neither of these positions make much sense to me, and over time I intend to discuss the rationale behind these disparate beliefs.

Giotto is one of the few painters who incorporated a comet, rather than a star, into the Adoration story