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The quarterly of the University of Helsinki
Wise Men Guided by a Star
Did the Star of Bethlehem, shining brightly, really lead the three wise men to baby Jesus on the first Christmas, as Christians believe? According to Simo Parpola, Professor of Assyriology at the University of Helsinki, the existence of the so-called Star of Bethlehem can, at least, be proved scientifically. Babylonian almanacs written in cuneiform and preserved in four copies tell the story.
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Let us imagine it is 8 BC. Babylon is the centre of astronomy and astrology, that is where the most skilled astrologers work. Astrology was originally created to serve the needs of the king’s court. According to local astrologers, every heavenly body has its own meaning and future events can be predicted on the basis of their movements. Because the astrologers can see the future, they enjoy great respect and esteem. Their learning is passed from father to son and their knowledge is a closely guarded secret. Most of them work in temples, and competing cliques have formed among them, cautious of revealing their knowledge or calculation methods to each other. However, the greatest dream of every astrologer working in the temples is to enter the court in the king’s service. Such opportunities are rare, and only those who succeed in catching the king’s attention and proving their skill with, for instance, a prediction that comes true, find favour in the court.
From the astrologers’ point of view, an interesting power vacuum exists in the Middle East, as the Roman Empire has not managed to consolidate its power in the region. Many locals see the Roman power as illegal and await a new saviour king.
In these circumstances, three Babylonian astrologers, Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspar, make a thrilling discovery while drawing up the almanac for 7 BC. They write their almanac in cuneiform, and because the event is so significant, they make an exceptional four copies of it.
Triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn
Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspar notice that something unusual can be expected in the night sky: Jupiter and Saturn can be seen in the constellation Pisces for eleven months. It is a rare and astrologically significant event.
“The conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in itself is relatively rare, it takes place every twenty years or so. In 7 BC, however, these planets approached each other in the same constellation an amazing three times in a row, and that is very rare, it occurs approximately only every 800 years. Since 7 BC, the phenomenon has been witnessed only in 786 and 1583,” Professor Parpola explains. “Babylonian astrologers could not yet calculate the precise time for the conjunction, but they managed to find out that the conjunction takes place in the constellation Pisces.”
According to Babylonian astrology, Jupiter is the star of the highest deity, Marduk. The deity’s representative on earth is the king, and his star is Saturn. Mars, the star of the war god, also seemed to join the conjunction towards its end. All these planets met in the constellation Pisces, which is associated with the god of wisdom, life and creation.
One can imagine that Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspar reasoned that the old world order was ending and a new king, chosen by the god, was about to be born. Because Mars, too, is associated with the constellation, it must mean that the new king comes from the region of Syria and Palestine, because, after all, Mars was precisely that region’s star. The birth of a new king meant a new court, and a new court was in need of skilful astrologers.
The prediction, however, is only based on calculations at this point. To be sure of the details of the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, the astrologers had to wait for 7 BC and verify the accuracy of their theory by seeing for themselves.
The wise men embark on a long journey
In 7 BC, our astrologers discover they were right: Jupiter and Saturn meet for the first time on 27 May and for the second time on 6 October. The stars shine very close to each other, but not as a single star. At its closest, the distance between them appears approximately twice the diameter of the Moon. “Perhaps the astrologers, after having seen two conjunctions, decided to go and look for the new king, and possible new employment in the court in the Syria-Palestine region,” Parpola theorises.
So Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspar acquire donkeys or camels and embark on a long – approximately 1,200 km – journey to Palestine. The journey takes about three weeks.
“According to the Gospel of Matthew, three wise men from the East came to King Herod after the birth of Jesus to ask where was the new king, whose birth they had been able to predict from the stars. It is quite possible that the wise men really had turned to Herod, because at the time he was a very well known and powerful ruler. It could also be that the wise men had visited other rulers, but had not received any answer from them. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Herod had, by that time, become paranoid and had, among other things, had his own son killed for fear of a coup,” Parpola explains.
So Herod is alarmed when he hears that a new king has been born and turns to his own priests to ask where the birth could have taken place. He is told ‘Bethlehem’, and that is where he directs his Babylonian guests. Furthermore, he asks the astrologers to return immediately after finding the new king to tell him about it, so that he can also pay his respects to the new king.
No place in the court
“We cannot prove scientifically that the wise men in the end visited the new-born Jesus. For instance, the Gospel of Matthew is no historical report, it was written approximately 70 years after the birth of Jesus, and it may contain quite a lot of hindsight. Its aim was to prove that Jesus was the Son of God, and the story about the three wise men is indeed suitable for this purpose. An event such as a visit to Bethlehem by three wise men from a faraway land cannot but have attracted attention at the time. Therefore, Matthew cannot have entirely made up the story, because at the time he wrote his Gospel, there were people still alive who would have wondered what Matthew was talking about, if no visit had really taken place,” Parpola says.
We cannot know whether our wise men found just Jesus or somebody else, or whether they really took gifts to the baby. However, we may imagine that if they believed they were going to find a new king, they would have equipped themselves with valuable gifts when they set out on their journey.
The first text based on Christian tradition to mention the wise men by name is from c. 200 AD. “The conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn is perhaps the best candidate for explaining the Star of Bethlehem. It is true these two stars did not shine as one single star, but what is more significant is the fact that almanacs for 7 BC, telling about the occurrence, have been discovered in as many as four copies. You see, usually no more than one copy of an almanac was made for the astrologers’ own use. The fact that in this case there are four copies tells that the event was considered highly significant. The fact that the almanacs in question were kept although cuneiform was already falling into disuse also speaks of their significance. On top of all this, the almanacs were discovered in exactly the area where the wise men were thought to have come from. The discrepancy of seven years from the point in time thought to have been Jesus’ date of birth, the year 0, is explained by the fact that in the 6th century an abbot called Dionysius Exiguus miscalculated when he placed the beginning of our calendar where it is now,” Parpola argues for his theory.
The astrologers of our story, Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspar apparently had to return to Babylon empty-handed. According to the Gospel of Matthew, the wise men had a dream after visiting the baby. In it, God warned them against going back to Herod. Perhaps they were also ordered to leave the country. The person they had regarded as a new king could not offer them a secure job in his court. On the contrary, according to the Gospel of Matthew, he, too, had to flee the country to Egypt, because after hearing about the new king, Herod wanted to kill all new-born baby boys in the region. However, the three wise men got their names in the chronicles. ß
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