Thursday, December 6, 2012

First Impressions: The Star that Astonished the World

Since Humbug comes but once a year, we thought that we would take another excurses from our regularly scheduled programming to review a fascinating book providing the actual date and time of the birth of Jesus. The results may surprise you.

We suspect that most folks believe that December 25th is a surrogate for the real birth date of Jesus, whose actual birthday is lost in the sinking sands of time. However, that date has been rescued from obscurity by the indefatigable work of the late Dr Earnest Martin, a Biblical scholar of the first rank.
Martin uses a number of evidentiary sources to inform his conclusion that Jesus was born on September 11, 3 BC. In addition to the Biblical account, he relies upon secular histories, and most significantly, astronomy to reverse engineer the time of Jesus’ birth.
The Magi of the East, who provide the pomp and circumstance in modern religious interpretations of Christmas, were important persons who visited the future Jewish king in Bethlehem. They also point the modern scholar to the key to unlock the details of the birth of Christ.
While the popular imagination supposes three wise men, their actual number is unknown, although early sources suggest as many as 12 magi, in addition to their substantial entourages. These men were indeed important figures in the ancient world whose craft as star gazers was the right one – as we shall soon see - to anticipate the arrival of the new born king.
The importance of the wise men stems from the prestige they commanded in ancient times as counsellors to kings, and sometimes as king makers. Not only were they convinced that a king was to be born, but that he was so important as to justify a long, arduous journey from Parthia to Bethlehem  - the very definition of Podunk.
The Magi – from which we get magician – were powerful counselors to royalty whose stock in trade was soothsaying, a vocation which had a strong crossover to astronomy as astrology depends heavily upon celestial interpretations.
If one surveys the historical and religious literature,  one can find Jesus born in every month of the year and a wide span of years at least 10 wide. Most modern critical scholarship insists that Jesus was born prior to 4 BC due to a brief reference by Josephus concerning his birth. Given this plethora of opinion and material, one would think it nearly impossible to determine the year, let alone date and time of his birth.
With odds stacked so against the historian, December 25 seems as good a date as any other. What Martin discovers in his studies about the Magi is that they observed a star rising in the east which they eventually followed to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem. From there, many of the other astronomical evidences fall into place.
Their arrival in Bethlehem occurred around the winter solstice whereupon they presented their costly gifts to Jesus on December 25. But Jesus had long left the manger and was no longer a babe – something deduced from Matthew’s account of the birth where the term used is παίδία – denoting a toddler or someone who passed the stage of babyhood.
Martin concludes December 25th as the meeting of the king and Magi from historical astronomy where he determines that Jupiter – the king planet – is at a relative point of inflexion where it appears to stand still due to the reversal from proper motion to retrogression consequent to the relative motions of the earth and Jupiter. Hence the “star” appears to be stationary to those of us on earth much as Matthew described.
The Magi, with their interest in celestial phenomena, are an excellent point of departure for the heavy lifting Martin does with the astronomical sign given by John in the book of Revelation, specifically 12:1-5.
And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:
2 And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.
3 And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.
4 And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.
5 And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.

Although theologians are frequently found interpreting this passage as a reference to Mary, or allegorically to Israel, Martin sees it as a reference to the constellation Virgo, who assumed the persona of Ruth in the Hebrew zodiac. She later became the reference for Mary as the virgin mother of Jesus.
More intriguingly, he interprets the covering by the sun as a reference to its position in the middle of Virgo, and the moon under her feet as the position of the new moon relative to the constellation. Given the positions of the planets and stars, and working backward with historical astronomies provided by world class astronomers, Martin deduces that Jesus was born on September 11, 3 BC between the time of 6:15p and 7:45p.
More surprising is the discovery that this day was Rosh Hashanah, the commencement of the Jewish secular new year – also known biblically as the Feast of Trumpets. Martin proceeds to explain the significance of this date  - a fascinating subject we leave to the interested reader.
But astronomy is not the only tool in Martin’s bag. He relies upon secular and religious histories to help box the time of the divine birth. The reign year of Tiberius given in the gospels coincides with Jesus’ age given by Luke as does the story of the census about which Martin spends considerable time.
The census is well attested historically as occurring in 3 BC due to the once recent discoveries about it. The census was proclaimed in advance of Augustus' proclamation as Pater Patriae – a supreme dignity bestowed by the Senate. The census also entailed an oath of obedience to Ceasar.
Other events framing the time of birth include Herod’s death – a subject of considerable dispute which can now be resolved conclusively. In addition, Martin uses the schedule of Jewish priestly courses, the conception of John the Baptist, and the dumbfounding of his father Zechariah the priest by the angel who admonished him for his unbelief in the birth of his son.
Finally, Martin is not remiss in acknowledging the scholarly legacy by many of the early church fathers who are nearly unamimous in their views that Jesus was born between 3 – 1 BC.
We have only skimmed the surface of material covered by Martin, and so urge our dear readers to read the book online if so intrigued. There is material for both the religiously and historically minded student.
Reference, Earnest Martin, c. 1996
Copyright 2012 Tony Bonn. All rights reserved.

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