Wednesday, August 29, 2012

“A Star … out of Jacob”

For full article, see:

Chapter Three: “A Star … out of Jacob”

Let us now turn again to the method of inferences from harmonies, that we have used in the last two chapters, in order to determine, with greater precision than has been attained do far, the date of Our Lord’s Nativity. Despite Scaliger, who said that God alone, not man, can determine the true day of the Nativity (Scaliger, as quoted by Hales, Chron., Vol. 1, p. 199), we are prepared to accept a result arising clearly and consistently from the method of harmonies – should such a result be achieved – provided, of course, that the result does not clash with, or contradict, any well–established fact of history. And we can look upon this further application of the method of inferences from harmonies as being a further test of the reliability of this method of inference.

We shall investigate historical methods later on. [Actually the needed revision of late BC-early AD history, not yet effected, may be far more radical than earlier writers, like Mackinlay, could possibly have imagined. See other AMAIC articles on the revision of history and chronology, including now the beginnings of a revision of early Roman Imperial history]. As Mackinlay saw it, it was universally accepted that Our Lord’s Nativity could not have been earlier than the beginning of BC 10, or later than the end of BC 5. The date is today generally given as being somewhere between BC 7-6. In pursuing these new inferences now for the earlier part of Our Lord’s life, we once again follow our reliable guide Mackinlay who commences by establishing “the greater probability” of the following two facts:

(a) That the Nativity of Our Lord was at least five months after the beginning of a period of shining of the morning star, and,

(b) That the Nativity was at a Feast of Tabernacles (p. 140).

Firstly, we investigate Mackinlay’s reason for believing that our Lord’s Nativity was:

(a) Five months after a period of shining.

To begin with, we must consider what reason there is for supposing that the morning star was shining at all when Our Lord was born. In Malachi 3:1, as we have seen already, St. John the Baptist is referred to under the figure of the morning star, as the forerunner of the Christ. But the morning star itself may be called “My messenger who shall prepare the way before Me”. It is not unusual for inanimate objects thus to be spoken of in Scripture, for instance in Psalm 88:38 we have “the faithful witness in the sky”, and in Psalm 148:3 the sun, moon and stars of light are exhorted to praise God. Consequently, as Mackinlay has explained it (p. 141), “we can reasonably suppose that the Morning Star was shining at the Nativity”. Furthermore, he adds, if the morning star were the herald of the coming One, it is fitting to imagine that a somewhat prolonged notice should be given; for “it would be more dignified and stately for the one to precede the other by a considerable interval, than that both should come almost together”.

We shall find Mackinlay’s supposition of a prolonged heralding by the morning star borne out by the following inference. According to the principle of metaphors being taken from things present, we could infer that the morning star was actually shining when Our Lord (in Matthew 11:10), quoting Malachi 3:1, spoke of the Baptist as “My messenger … before My face”. Consistently following the same line of thought, we may reasonably infer that the morning star was also shining more than thirty years earlier when Zechariah quoted the same scriptural verse – i.e. Malachi 3:1 – at the circumcision of his son, John (Luke 1:76). Even had this appropriate passage not been quoted at the time, Mackinlay suggests (p. 142), “we might have inferred that the herald in the sky would harmoniously have been shining at the birth of the human herald”.

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Mackinlay further suggests from his inference that both Our Lord and St. Johnwere born when the morning star was shining, that “both must have been born during the same period of its shining”. [He shows this in his charts]. The Annunciation to Mary was made by the angel Gabriel in the sixth month after the announcement to Zechariah (Luke1:13, 24, 26); and so it follows that the Baptist was born five to six months before Our Lord. Since Mackinlay’s charts indicate that the periods of shining are separated from each other by intervals of time greater than six months, then both Our Lord and his herald must have been born during the same period of shining.

Consequently Our Lord was born at least five months after the beginning of a period of shining of the morning star.

It will be noticed that some years in Mackinlay’s charts are omitted – this is due simply to lack of space – but no events recorded in the Gospels took place in these omitted years, nor were any of them enrolment (see below) or Sabbath years.

The chart contain both the time scales of seven and eight years as previously discussed – viz. the weeks of years and the octave of years of the cycle of the periods when the morning star was shining. For the sake of simplicity, the periods of the shinings of the evening star are omitted. Also, Mackinlay has inserted the cycle of the enrolments every fourteen years that were enforced by the Roman government throughout the settled areas of its empire. These enrolment years are indicated by ovals marking the years BC 8-7 (tentatively), and also AD 7-8, and AD 21-22. As the first of these enrolments, BC 8-7, was carried out in modified form inPalestine, the outline of the oval is lighter than are those of later years; these years began at about the vernal equinox.

(a) At a Feast of Tabernacles

The Law, we are told by St. Paul, has “a shadow of the good things to come” (Hebrews 10:1). The various ordinances and feasts of the Old Testament, if properly understood, are found, according to Mackinlay, “to refer to and foreshadow many events and doctrines of the New Testament” (p. 143). Again, A. Gordon remarks that: “Many speak slightingly of the types, but they are as accurate as mathematics; they fix the sequence of events in redemption as rigidly as the order of sunrise and noontide is fixed in the heavens” (The Ministry of the Spirit, p. 28). The deductions drawn from Gospel harmonies attest the truth of his statement.

We have already observed that the Sabbath Year began at the Feast of Tabernacles; the great feasts of Passover and Weeks following in due course. Our Lord’s death took place at the Passover (Matthew 27:50), probably, Mackinlay believes, “at the very hour when the paschal lambs were killed”. “Our Passover … has been sacrificed, even Christ” (1 Corinthians 5:7); the great Victim foretold during so many ages by the yearly shedding of blood at that feast. The first Passover at the Exodus was held on the anniversary of the day when the promise – accompanied by sacrifice – was given to Abraham, that his seed would inherit thelandofCanaan(Exodus12:41; Genesis 15:8-18).

Our Lord rose from the dead on the day after the Sabbath after the Passover (John 20:1); the day on which the sheaf of first fruits, promise of the future harvest, was waved before God (Leviticus 23:10, 11). Hence we are told bySt. Paulthat as “Christ the first-fruits” (1 Corinthians 15:20. 23) rose, so those who believe in him will also rise afterwards. This day was the anniversary of Israel’s crossing through the Red Sea or “Sea of Reeds’ (Exodus 12-14), and, as in the case of the Passover, it was also a date memorable in early history, being the day when the Ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat (Genesis 8:4). The month Nisan, which had been the seventh month, became the first at the Exodus (Exodus 12:2). Thus Our Lord’s Resurrection was heralded by two most beautiful and fitting types, occurring almost – possibly exactly – on the same day of the year; by the renewed earth emerging from the waters of the Flood, and by the redeemed people emerging from the waters of the “Sea of Reeds”.

The next great event of the Christian dispensation, the Descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1, 2), occurred at the Feast of Weeks – or Harvest – or Pentecost (Leviticus23:15, 16). It was during this season that the Law had been given to Moses onMount Sinai(Exodus 19:1, 10, 11). It is noteworthy, therefore, that the inauguration of the New Covenant took place on the anniversary of the establishment of the Old Covenant; showing that the dispensation of Law was superseded by that of the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 8:7; 2 Corinthians 3:6).

Accordingly, “since there is such manifest deign in the timing of Our Lord’s Death and Resurrection and of the descent of the Holy Spirit”, Mackinlay suggests that “the Nativity may well have occurred at the remaining great Feast of the Lord – at that of Tabernacles, which began the Sabbath Year” (p. 145). Having said this, Mackinlay proceeds to search for any harmonies that there may be between the characteristics of this Feast of Tabernacles and the events recorded in connection with the Nativity. As we have noticed previously, he says (p. 146), there were two great characteristics of the Feast of Tabernacles: 1. Great joy and 2. Living in booths (tents).

1. Great joy.

The Israelites were told at this feast, “You shall rejoice before the Lord your God” (Leviticus23:40), and “You shall rejoice in your feast … you shall be altogether joyful” (Deuteronomy16:14, 15). King Solomon dedicated hisTempleon a Feast of Tabernacles, and the people afterwards were sent away “joyful and glad of heart” (1 Kings 8:2, 66; 2 Chronicles7:10).

There was no public rejoicing at the Nativity of Our Lord, however; on the contrary, as Mackinlay notes, “shortly afterwards Herod was troubled and allJerusalemwith him” (Matthew 2:3)”. But though Our Lord was rejected by the majority, we find the characteristic joy of Tabernacles reflected in the expectant and spiritually-minded souls. Before the Nativity both the Virgin Mary and Elizabeth rejoiced in anticipation of it (Luke1:38, 42, 44, 46, 47). At the Nativity an angel appeared to the shepherds and brought them good tidings of great joy; and then “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest’.” The shepherds then came to the infant Saviour and returned “glorifying and praising God” (Luke 2:9-20).

Forty days after the Nativity, at the Purification, Simeon, who had been waiting a long time for the consolation of Israel, and the venerable Anna who was a constant worshipper, joined in with their notes of praise and gladness (Luke 2:22-38). And lastly the wise men from the East “rejoiced with exceeding great joy” when they saw the star indicating where the Saviour was, and they came into the house, saw the young Child with his Mother, and presented the gifts that they had brought (Matthew 2:9-11).

2. Living in Booths.

The command given to the Israelites concerning the observance of the Feast of Tabernacles was: “You shall dwell in booths for seven days” (Leviticus23:42). We also read, “In the feast of the seventh month … all the congregation … made booths, and dwelt in the booths” (Nehemiah8:14, 17).

According to Mackinlay (pp. 147-148), the living in booths finds a parallel in the language of the Apostle John, when he wrote concerning the Birth of Our Lord, “The Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us” (John 1:14); and Our Lord himself used a somewhat similar figure when he spoke of his body thus “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I shall raise it up” (John 2:19) – words misunderstood by his enemies and afterwards quoted against him (Matthew 26:61; 27:40).

It was at the Feast of Tabernacles that the glory of God filled the Temple that King Solomon had prepared for Him (2 Chronicles 5:3, 13, 14), and it would seem to have been at the beginning or first day of the feast, the fifteenth day of the month. Consequently, in Mackinlay’s opinion (p. 148) “it would appear to be harmonious that the Advent of the Lord Jesus in the body divinely prepared for him (Hebrews 10:5) should also take place at the same feast and most suitably on the first day of its celebration”.

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It will be noticed that the glory of God did not cover the tent of meeting when the Israelites were in the wilderness, and did not fill the tabernacle, at the Feast of Tabernacles. But it did so on the first day of the first month of the second year after the departure fromEgypt(Exodus 40:17, 34, 35). We must remember that there was no Feast of Tabernacles in the wilderness, nor was the Sabbath Year kept at this stage; but both of these ordinances were to be observed when the Israelites entered into the Promised Land (Exodus 34:22). No agricultural operations were carried out during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness.

As the Feast of Tabernacles inaugurated the Sabbath Year, Mackinlay judged (p. 149) that the glory of God filled the temple on the first day of the feast, “as that would be in harmony with what happened in the tabernacle in the wilderness when the glory of the Lord filled it on the first day of the only style of year then observed”. A. Edersheim, writing about the Feast of Tabernacles, says (The Temple, note on p. 272): “It is remarkable how many allusions to this feast occur in the writings of the prophets, as if its types were the goal of all their desires”.

Having come thus far, we are able - within Mackinlay’s context - to arrive at a still tentative, but very reasonable, conclusion: and this conclusion will later be strengthened very greatly, particularly when we look at the historical facts. Mackinlay at this stage analyses those years, BC 10-5, which are universally accepted as being the only possible ones for the date of Our Lord’s birth, to determine which of them fits the best (p. 150). Since it has been inferred that the Nativity occurred at a Feast of Tabernacles – probably on the first day – and that the morning star had been shining by then for at least five months, a glance at Mackinlay’s chart informs us that the only year within the possible historical limits that satisfies these conditions, in his context, is BC 8.

For we will notice that at the Feast of Tabernacles – say the autumnal equinox – of:

BC 10, the morning star was only just beginning its period.

BC 9, there was no morning star at all.

BC 8, the conditions are satisfied completely.

BC 7, there was no morning star at all.

BC 6, there was no morning star at all.

BC 5, the morning star had been shining only for about four months previously.

According to Mackinlay, the Feast of Tabernacles, BC 8, presents the further harmony that it was specially suited to the occasion, “as it was the first after a Sabbath year, and consequently a specially joyful one”. Thus, he says (pp. 150-151), even if we neglect the consideration of the Morning Star, we still have the Feast of Tabernacles BC 8 indicated for the date of the Nativity by the method of Gospel harmonies with the Sabbath year”.

The Identification of the “Star in the East”

We now come to the difficult and intricate matter of identifying the star that the Magi saw in the East, and that ultimately led them to the place where Christ, his Mother and Joseph were (Matthew 2:1-12). Much has been written about this famous incident, and there have been proposed many varying identifications for the star. It has at various times been identified as a comet; a new star; a conjunction of planets; a supernova. St. Augustinesometimes argued that it was a regular star of the heavens (e.g. in Serm. Epiph.), at other times that it was a new star appearing, for instance in the constellation Virgo (Contra Faustum, Bk. 2, ch. 5 a med.). St. Thomas Aquinas, following Chrysostom, was more inclined to the view that the star of the Nativity was not a regular part of the heavenly system; but was a newly-created star (Summ. Theol. IIIa, q. 36, a. 7). But he did allow for other opinions: viz. that it was an angel or a visible manifestation of the Holy Spirit. He also quoted Pope St. Leo (Serm. de Epiph, 31), who wrote that the star must have been more bright and beautiful than the other stars, for its appearance instantly convinced the Magi that it had an urgent and important meaning.

We know from Scripture that the heavenly bodies were invested by God with a fourfold function: “… for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years” (Genesis 1:14). The point of the “days and years” is obvious. The Hebrew word ‘moed’, translated as “seasons”, is used to indicate something fixed or appointed. When it is used of time, according to Ben Adam (Astrology, p. 49), “it is always a predetermined time – a time in which something predetermined is to happen”. It is never used in Scripture to denote any of the four seasons of the year. Already we have seen how God uses the various heavenly bodies for seasons in this sense, and for signs or symbols.

An understanding and study of God’s purpose and meaning in relation to the lights of the firmament is true astrology, as opposed to the divinely forbidden and foolish astrology that is fatalistic. Dr. E. Bullinger (Witness of the Stars, 1893) has shown that the constellations of the zodiac, when read in the correct (not popular) order, and with their original (not corrupted and later) designations, give us a condensed history of the fulfilment of the divine promise made in the Garden of the coming Deliverer, the seed of the Woman, and the crushing of the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). According to Bullinger, this truth of the witness of the stars is told in Psalm 19:1-4: “The heavens are proclaiming the glory of God; and the firmament shows forth the work of his hands .… No speech, no voice, no word is heard, yet their message goes out through all the earth, and their words to the utmost bounds of the habitable world”.

In the sign Virgo, where the true beginning lies for reading the circular zodiac (not in Aries, according modern belief) is the commencement of all prophecy in Genesis 3:15: “I will put enmity between you and the Woman, and between your seed and her seed. She shall crush your head, and you shall lie in wait for her heel”. Later prophecy identifies this Woman as being of the stock of Israel, the seed of Abraham, the line of David; and, further, She is to be a virgin: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Matthew’s inspired adaptation, in 1:23, of Isaiah 7:14).

The first constellation in Virgo is Coma, represented by a woman and child, and meaning “the desired”, or “the longed for”. We have the word used by the Holy Spirit in this very connection, in Haggai 2:7: “The DESIRE of all nations shall come”. Bullinger and others have suggested that it was in all probability the constellation of Coma in which “the Star of Bethlehem” appeared (op. cit., p. 36). He also recalls a traditional prophecy, well-known in the East, “carefully preserved and handed down, that a new star would appear in this sign [i.e. of Coma] when He whom it foretold should be born” (ibid., pp. 36-37).

This, he thought (ibid., p. 37), was doubtless referred to in the prophecy of Balaam the sorcerer, just prior to the entry of the Israelite host into the Promised Land; a prophecy “which would thus receive a double fulfilment, first of the literal “Star”, and also of the person to whom it referred”. Thus God spoke through Balaam (Numbers 24:17):

There shall come forth a star out of Jacob

And a sceptre shall rise out ofIsrael.

This two-fold repletion of an idea – where the two nouns in the first verse correspond effectively to the two nouns in the second verse (thus ‘star’ to ‘sceptre’, and ‘Jacob’ to ‘Israel’) – so characteristic of Hebrew and Canaanite literature, also points in this case to a two-fold fulfilment of the prophecy. These words were fulfilled in a minimised sense a millennium before Christ, during the reign of David, the sceptre ofIsrael, and descendant of Jacob. But the prophecy would not be properly and completely fulfilled until the time of the Incarnation and the Birth of the true Messiah, who would be known as the “Son of David”.

But, as Bullinger says (ibid., p. 31), “It is difficult to separate the Virgin and her Seed” in the prophecies. Therefore, the genius of Hebrew expression in allowing for a two-fold interpretation of this particular prophecy, opens the door for the fullest possible meaning to be deduced from these words. As the following words by Pope Pius XII (spoken to the crowds ofFatima on May 13, 1946) would imply, the words of the above prophecy, applicable to Our Lord, also have relationship to his Mother as Co-Redemptrix:

“Jesus is King throughout all eternity by nature and by right of conquest: through Him, with him, and subordinate to him, Mary is Queen by grace, by divine relationship, by right of conquest and by singular election”. (As quoted by Fr. Wm. Most, Mary in Our Life, p. 25).

Matthew (2:1-12) is the only Evangelist to narrate the incident of the star seen by the Magi, leading them to the Christ with his Mother, Mary, in David’s city ofBethlehem. What does Matthew tell us about this star? That the Magi had seen it in the East, calling it “His star”, and that it indicated that He was to be worshipped as King of the Jews (2:2). And, later, that Herod determined from the time when the star first appeared how old the Child was (2:7). Finally, Matthew narrates that the Magi were filled with joy when they saw the star, after their meeting with Herod, and that they followed the star which “went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the Child was” (2:10-11).

Two things are to be noted here. Contrary to popular belief, nowhere at all does Matthew say that the Magi followed the star from their own country toJudaea! He simply says that they saw the star in their own country, “in the East”, and that they came toJerusalemto worship the King of the Jews. Once there inJerusalem, they see the star and are filled with joy, and fromJerusalemthey follow the star toBethlehem, and to the very place where the Child is to be found. There the star comes to rest. From this last attestation some Bible-believing astronomers will assert that the star ofBethlehemwas entirely miraculous, and was not a known heavenly body (star, planet, comet, nova, or conjunction).

Others have suggested that, because the Magi referred to the star as “His star”, it must have been a new star, created especially for the time of the Nativity. But before we propose our own suggested identification, certain conclusions by way of elimination can be reached already:

1. The star ofBethlehemcould not have been a meteor or a meteorite; the life of one is too short.

2. Likewise, the star could not have been a comet or a nova without having attracted world-wide attention. Neither seems to have been present at the time of Our Lord’s Birth; although, according to J. Bjornstad and S. Johnson (Star Signs and Salvation in the Age of Aquarius, p. 60), “there may be an indication from Chinese records that a nova did appear around this time”. Nevertheless, while a comet would appear to move, a nova would not.

3. Perhaps the most popular identification of the star of Bethlehem– because this identification fits the dates proposed today as being most likely for the event of the Nativity – is that it was in fact a conjunction of two or more planets. Kepler (1571-1631) was the first astronomer to point out that three times in BC 7 there were conjunctions of the planets Jupiter and Saturn (now estimated at May 29, September 29, and December 4). These conjunctions occurred in the sign of Pisces (Bullinger, op, cit, p. 39). An event such as this is comparatively rare, happening only about once every one hundred and twenty-five years. A major objection to this particular conjunction, however, is that the two planets never seem to approach one another closer than twice the distance of the moon’s diameter; “therefore they could never have been viewed as a single star” (Bjornstad et al, ibid.). Obviously, then, the difficulty of the ‘star’s’ appearing to be standing overBethlehem while the Magi were looking on, is a major obstacle to accepting this interpretation.

4. Similarly, early in BC 6, another conjunction – even more unusual – occurred: the conjunction of three planets. This phenomenon happens only about once every eight centuries. At this time Mars, Jupiter and Saturn appeared to approach one another very closely. (Some of the objections mentioned in no. 3 apply here also.

None of these conjunctions, however, occurred in the year BC 8 (Mackinlay’s tentative date for the Birth of Christ). Nor have we found any evidence to support Bullinger’s belief that “His star” - the “Sign of His coming forth from Bethlehem” (op. cit., p. 39) – was “a new star” that appeared in the constellation of Coma (in Virgo). Let us then return to our reliable guide, Mackinlay, to see if he has arrived at a more satisfactory identification of this “star” which would arise “out of Jacob”.

Mackinlay has rightly noted that “it appears to be a principle in miracles to use existing agents in a miraculous way, rather than to create fresh ones” (p. 151). This statement is borne out throughout the Scriptures; for instance, when Joshua wanted light, another sun was not created, but the light of the existing one was employed to the necessary effect (Joshua 10:12); and when Our Lord fed the multitudes, he did not specially create bread, but miraculously multiplied the existing stock. Also, atFatimain 1917, God worked a miracle of the sun that already shone in the sky; it was not a miraculous new sun that danced above the crowds.

Mackinlay (quoting Alford’s Commentary on the New Testament) remarks that “the expression of the Magi, ‘we have seen his star’, does not seem to point to any miraculous appearance, but to something observed in the course of their watching of the heavens”. This seems natural and probable. Further, as we are told (according to Mackinlay) of a subsequent miraculous change in the star seen by the Magi, and after that again of divine information given to the Magi in a dream, it seems natural to suppose that no miracle at all had happened to the wise men prior to their arrival at Jerusalem, because we are not told of any divine interposition before that time.

Mackinlay also dismisses the suggestion that, because the Magi referred to ‘His star’, it must have been one specially sent for the occasion. This suggestion, he says (p. 152), “can have no weight, because when Christ was speaking of God the Father in the Sermon on the Mount He said, “He maketh His Sun to rise on the evil and the good” (Matthew 5:45). As the ordinary great luminary is certainly intended in this passage, it must follow that the expression “His Star” may refer to one of the well-now orbs of heaven”.

With reference to the suggestion by Kepler and other astronomers that the star of Bethlehemwas a conjunction of planets, Mackinlay notes that “the appearances at conjunctions depend on the positions of two or more stars, and they are changing from night to night”. We have no account of “stars”, he adds (p. 153), “nor of any special alteration until the marvellous change when the single Star moved in front of the Magi and led them on their way from Jerusalemto Bethlehem, and no appearance at a conjunction of planets could explain that wondrous movement”.

What were the characteristics of the star seen by the Magi?

(1) Twice it was mentioned specially as being seen “in the East” (Matthew 2:2, 9), inferentially it was not also to be seen in the South and West as are the other stars.

(2) It had been visible for some considerable period; the wise men doubtlessly had seen it in their own country, from which the journey might involve weeks, possibly months, of travel. That it had appeared for some considerable time is inferred also from Herod’s question, as to “what time the star appeared” (Matthew 2:7), and from his subsequent action in fixing on the maximum age of the infants to be murdered “from two years old and under, according to the time which he had carefully learned of the wise men” (Matthew 2:16).

“What ordinary celestial body bears the characteristics we have just referred to”?, Mackinlay asks (p. 154). “Surely the reply must be the Morning Star, which is only seen in the East, and which shines continuously at the end of each night for a period of about nine lunar months in the latitude ofPalestine, an object which the Magi must have observed over and over again in the course of their watching of the heavens”.

Modern writers, he adds, have failed to make this identification, most probably because of the very small importance that is now attached to the morning star. But, as we saw in Chapter One, the herald of dawn was a very familiar object indeed to the Easterners in biblical times. By imagining oneself in the position of an ancient Jew, it seems highly probable that any mention of a star in the East would suggest to the mind the most familiar of all stars, so often watched for before dawn, and seen only in the eastern quarter of the heavens.

Early Christian writers speak of this star’s “surpassing brightness” (see Bullinger , op. cit., p. 39). St. Ignatius of Antioch, of the C1st AD, says that “at the appearance of the Lord a star shone forth brighter than all the other stars”. Even these descriptions admirably fit the planet Venus. Professor A. Roy notes that “Venus, in fact, at its brightest, is very much brighter than Sirius. Apart from the Sun and Moon, there is no brighter object in the heavens. Of course, there are times when it is invisible – when it goes behind the Sun, for example – but Venus can be so bright at night that it can actually cause an object to throw a shadow. It can also be seen with the unaided eye during daylight. But of course, it is always a morning or an evening object. Because it is never seen far, angularwise, from the Sun” (“The Astronomical Basis of Egyptian Chronology”, SIS Review, Vol. VI, #’s 1-3, p. 55).

It is said that the morning star, or any other star for that matter, could not have moved from the East so as to go before the Magi toBethlehem, until it came to rest over the place where the Child was. Firstly, nowhere does St. Matthew say that the star came from the East. As we shall discover further on, the Magi left their eastern home at a time when the morning star had – or was about to have – come to the end of its period of shining. What we should like to suggest is the following reconstruction:

The Magi had seen the morning star shining for its full period during that year of the Nativity, in the East. But they had to delay their trip toJerusalemuntil the appropriate season for travelling arose, and after the necessary preparations had been made (more on this later).

They travelled westwards, in faith, leaving the diminishing morning star behind them.

They did not see the planet Venus again until after their interview with Herod. Since Herod “summoned the wise men secretly” (Matthew 2:7), it is fairly safe to say that it was night time. The star re-appeared now as the evening star, in the western sky.

This is all very appropriate. Our Lord’s Birth in the stable, heralded by the shining of the bright morning star, was a time of great joy. But by the time of the Magi’s arrival, when the Holy Family was by then dwelling in a “house” (Matthew 2:11) in Bethlehem, a sinister element had entered in. Herod and all Jerusalem with him were troubled at the news of the Magi, and soon Herod would order the murder of all the male children up to two years of age – according to Greswell (Dissertations Upon a Harmony of the Gospels Vol. 2, p. 36), the Jews reckoned that a child who had completed one month of his second year would be reckoned as being two years old. Though the Magi “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10) when they saw the star again, not aware of Herod’s treachery, its brightness appropriately by now was enshrouded by the darkness of night.

It was only then, at the re-appearance of the star this time in the western sky – as we think – that God may have effected a miracle upon it; causing it to go before the Magi. We have a modern C20th example of the Miracle of the Sun atFatima(October 13, 1917). The sun began to spin and to hurtle towards the earth. In the case of the Magi, the evening star may also have appeared to have left its normal place in the sky, and to descend near to the earth (unless it was just simply a case of the Magi’s heading towards the Star and providentially coming upon the house where the Holy Family was now dwelling). In both cases, the miracle may have been seen only locally, not world-wide.

It would not be so surprising that the planet Venus should bow down in homage above the infant Saviour. Even the Patriarch Joseph dreamed that the sun, moon and stars bowed down before him; how much more for Jesus Christ!

If we accept Mackinlay’s conclusion arrived at from Gospel harmonies that the morning star was actually shining at the time of the Nativity, the probability that it was identical with the star in the East seen by the Magi is evidently increased greatly. It seems that we can no longer escape this identification of the star ofBethlehemwith the planet Venus.

As before, we are taking it for granted that we need only to investigate (according to Mackinlay’s context) the period BC 10-5. We now accept that the star in the East and the planet Venus were the same. How shall we be helped in finding the date of the Nativity?

Whether we consider that the maximum age of the murdered infants was thirteen months or twenty-four months, each considerably exceeds the nine months’ period of shining of the morning star. But this is not surprising as, according to one commentator (“The Speaker’s Commentary on Matthew”, 2:16), “it is at least certain that a man of his [Herod’s] ferocious disposition would not hesitate to take the widest possible range of time, in order to accomplish his purpose more thoroughly”. Something of Herod’s savage, warped nature can be seen from the provisions that he made when his death drew near. W. Barclay tells (The Daily Study Bible, “Matthew”, p. 29) that Herod, when he was seventy, knew that he must die. He retired to Jericho, giving orders that a collection of the most distinguished citizens of Jerusalem should be arrested on trumped-up charges and imprisoned. And he ordered that the moment he died, they should all be killed. He said grimly that he as well aware that no one would mourn for his death, and that he was determined that some tears should be shed when he died.

Barclay goes on to say that it is clear how such a man would feel when news reached him that a child was born who was destined to be king. Herod was troubled, and Jerusalem was troubled, too, for Jerusalem well knew the steps that Herod would take to pin down this story and to eliminate this child. “Jerusalem knew Herod, and Jerusalem shivered as it waited for his inevitable reaction”.

There was in the world at this time a strange feeling of expectation of the coming of a king. Even the Roman historians (supposedly, and at least according to a conventional view of things) knew about this, it seems. Not so very much later than this, Suetonius could write, “There has spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judaea to rule the world” (Life of Vespasian, 4:5). Tacitus tells of the same belief that “there was a firm persuasion … that at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers coming from Judaea were to acquire a universal empire” (Histories, 5:13). The Jews themselves had the belief that “about that time one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 6:5, 4). Later we shall advance some reasons as to why the King of the Jews was expected by various peoples precisely at this time.

Since the maximum age fixed by Herod was very high, we may conclude that the morning star had been shining for its full period, and that, by the time the Magi had reached Jerusalem it had well and truly disappeared from the eastern sky, and was shining as the evening star in the western sky.

The Magi would not travel in hot weather

Mackinlay provides another chart at this point.

The atmospheric conditions and the keenness of the observer’s vision would prevent one from giving the precise day in each month of the appearance and the disappearance of the morning star, but the chart is sufficiently exact for Mackinlay’s purposes.

A couple of months seems to be a reasonable estimate for the time occupied by the wise men on their journey, so Mackinlay thinks (p. 158), and it is probable that they would not travel in hot weather, “as caravan journeys to Palestine were not made at that season of the year”. Hence, in order to select the particular period of the shining of the morning star which contained the Nativity, he says, “we must select one whose termination fell between the end of December and April, in order to allow of a previous two months’ journey in cool weather”. Evidently (according to his chart), the periods of the morning star ending May, (his BC 9) and July (his BC 6), must be rejected, because the termination of the period of shining of the morning star is not contained in the period December to April – the cool season in the northern hemisphere – in either year. Also, the years BC 10, 7 and 5 must be rejected, because none of them contains a termination of a period of the morning star.

As Mackinlay concludes from this: “The period of shining ending December, BC 8, satisfies the conditions perfectly” (p. 159).

The Magi came only a few months after the Nativity

We may reason perhaps that the Magi could have arrived in May, BC 9 for that would have involved heat only at the very end of the journey, which could have been borne. We find, however, other reasons which negative this time for their arrival.

Lewin (as quoted by Mackinlay, ibid.) has shown that the Nativity must have been in hot weather, which ends in Palestine during October. Sheep are folded securely in winter at night for protection, as they will feed during the day at that season of the year; but in the summer and early autumn, sheep will not eat during the heat of the day, so they have to be left to graze in the open at night guarded by shepherds (Luke 2:8). Thus the Rev. Thomas Maddock, whom we met in our Introduction, was right insofar as he described as “really too much to believe” the assertion that the shepherds were sitting “on the cold, frozen ground – in mid-winter - watching their sheep”. But he was quite wrong in attributing this ridiculous image to St. Luke, and in casting aspersion on the reliability of St. Luke’s narrative of the Nativity of Our Lord.

If the Magi arrived in May (Mackinlay’s BC 9), the Nativity could not have been later than the middle of April, because the Purification – which was forty days after birth – (Leviticus 12:2-4; Luke 2:22) – came before the visit of the Magi, as the Holy Family fled to Egypt immediately after the wise men had seen them (Matthew 2:13, 14).

Spring weather in the uplands of Judaea is somewhat uncertain, but it is not hot before May, for Dr. Jessup of Beirut states (as quoted by Mackinlay, p. 160) that his son was snowed up for two days in Bethel on the 10th of April, in 1886. Hence the Nativity could not have occurred in the year BC 9, but if the Magi paid their visit in May of that year, the Nativity must have been sometime in the hot weather of the previous year, BC 10 (Mackinlay’s estimate), when the morning star was shining, i.e. between August and October.

Supposing then the Nativity to have been in October, BC 10, we have an interval of seven months between the Nativity and the Magi’s visit. This long period is most unlikely, according to Mackinlay (pp. 160-161), “as the wise men would doubtless come as soon as they could, and they would not have allowed the cold months suitable for travel to slip away”. Also if the Nativity were in BC 10, the heralding given by the morning star could not have been much more than two months, “which is not so stately or so suitable as the seven months possible, if the Nativity were in BC 8” (p. 161).

Hence Mackinlay concludes that this line of investigation indicates the autumn of BC 8 for the Nativity, for we have seen that it took place in hot weather; the Magi most probably made their journey in cool weather, and it is not unlikely that the Nativity and the arrival of the Magi were more than a very few months apart.


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