The Star of Bethlehem

Last night at church, I watched The Star of Bethlehem.  On this DVD, a lawyer named Frederick A. Larson talks about the star of Bethlehem in Matthew 2, seeking to account for it in light of astronomical phenomena.

For details and documentation about his argument, you can visit his overview on his web-site (see here).  My summary will be general in some areas but specific in others, so visiting his web-site may be your best bet to get the true substance of his argument.  Larson maintains that, using the laws of Johannes Kepler as well as computer software, we can determine the location of the stars and the planets throughout history.  For Larson, something spectacular occurred in the heavens in 3-2 B.C.E., the time-frame in which Jesus was conceived and born, and also when the Magi visited him as a child.  But is this not problematic, since Josephus documents that Herod the Great died in 4 B.C.E., and Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great?  Larson says that this is due to a copy error that was made in Josephus’ works in 1544, and Larson cites scholarly articles on his web site to document this.

So what occurred in the heavens in 3-2 B.C.E.?  In September, 3 B.C.E., Jupiter (the largest planet in our solar system) had three conjunctions with the star of Regulus, which means “king” and was associated with kingship by the Babylonians and the Romans.  According to Larson, Jupiter gliding past Regulus was not unusual, for it occurred every twelve years, but what occurred in September of 3 B.C.E. was unusual and caught the attention of the Magi because Jupiter had three such conjunctions.  Larson notes that this was occurring within the constellation of Leo (a lion), which was closely followed by Virgo (a woman).  Larson thinks that Leo is significant because Jesus is from the tribe of Judah, which is likened to a lion in Genesis 49:9.  Larson interprets Virgo (a woman) in light of Revelation 12, where there is a woman standing on a moon when a child is endangered, and Larson connects Revelation 12 with Herod’s attempt to slaughter the child Jesus in Matthew 2.  Larson states that these factors in the heavens led the Magi to conclude that a Jewish king would be born, and so they embarked on their journey to Jerusalem.

In June of 2 B.C.E., Larson narrates, Jupiter came into close conjunction with Venus, creating brightness.  That, for Larson, was the star of Bethlehem.  Matthew 2:9’s statement that the star stopped over where the child was is interpreted by Larson in light of the stop that Jupiter made in December 25, 2 B.C.E., as Jupiter entered into retrograde motion.  At that time, Jesus was a child living in a house (Matthew 2:11).

But Larson does not stop there, for he goes on to argue that there were also significant signs in the heavens at the time of Jesus’ death.  Larson dates Jesus’ death to April 3, 33 C.E., for that was when the Passover fell on a Friday, the Day of Preparation, and the Gospels say that Jesus died on what was a Passover and also a Day of Preparation for a Sabbath (which Larson interprets as the weekly Sabbath, or Saturday).  On his web-site, Larson also brings into the discussion things that weren’t covered as extensively on the DVD, such as why 33 C.E. would be a better date for Jesus’ death on account of Pilate’s behavior in the Gospels and the political situation at that specific time.  Larson goes into this because April 7, 30 C.E. was another time when the Passover fell on a Friday, and Larson’s belief is that April 3, 33 C.E. works much better.

What heavenly signs occurred on the day of Jesus’ death, according to Larson?  Larson interprets Acts 2:14-22 to mean that people saw the sun become darkened and the moon become blood-red on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion.  The synoptic Gospels say that there was darkness when Jesus was being crucified (Matthew 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44), and Larson believes that there is extra-biblical confirmation of this in the second-century C.E. work, Olympiades, in which Plegon talks about darkness and earthquakes in the fourth year of the two-hundred-and-second Olympiad (which, according to Larson, dates to 33-32 B.C.E.).  While the Olympiades is largely lost to us, Larson refers to ancient historians who refer to the part of Phlegon’s work about the darkness and the earthquake.  (The vast majority of them were Christians, but I am not sure about Maximus and Malelus, for there was more than one Maximus who turned up in my search, and I could not find Malelus.)  On his web-site, Larson also discusses Julius Africanus’ (third century C.E.) interactions with the now lost work of the first century historian Thallus, who attributed the darkness to a solar eclipse.  Larson agrees with Julius Africanus that a solar eclipse cannot occur when the moon is full, which was the case during the Passover, and so Larson attributes the darkness to volcanism. (See my post on this topic here.)

Larson believes that the moon was blood-red when Jesus was being crucified, and Larson affirms that this was due to a lunar eclipse, for, during a lunar eclipse, part of the moon appears to be red.  Using Kepler’s calculations, Larson claims that there was a lunar eclipse on April 3, 33 C.E., the day of Jesus’ death.  But there was one more heavenly sign during Jesus’ death, according to Larson, and here I’m relying solely on my memory, for I cannot find anything about it on the Internet right now.  In one of the Special Features of the DVD, Larson says that, during the death of Jesus, people saw the stars in the shape of a slain goat, and Larson related this to Jesus being the Passover lamb who would die for the sins of the world.  For Larson, God communicated through the heavens that Jesus was the Messiah, and that is what Paul means when he says in Romans 10 that Israel should have known that Jesus was the Messiah, for the word of God has gone forth throughout the world.

That’s my summary of Larson’s argument, and my summary turned out to be more detailed than I anticipated (though there is still stuff that I left out, which you can find on his web-site or the DVD itself).  The DVD was enjoyable to watch, for Larson comes across as a likable and well-informed guy who is able to take his research and package it into something that’s understandable and entertaining.  I could not find any decent atheist or secular critique of Larson’s argument, for most of the critiques that I read either faulted the DVD’s style, noted that Larson places a great deal of weight on certain dates for Jesus’ birth and death, or proposed an alternative explanation for the star of Bethlehem, without even interacting with Larson’s specific arguments.  Indeed, Larson does place a lot of weight on certain dates, but I think that he offers fairly plausible reasons for those dates being the correct ones—-at least possibly (but I have to confess that I have not done a thorough study on Josephus and Herod’s death). 

If I have questions or criticisms, it is that Larson does not really address biblical contradictions—-on Jesus’ birth, on Jesus’ death, etc.—-but Larson would probably go on a harmonistic route for these issues.  At least that’s my guess.  It’s interesting how a conservative Christian like Larson could present a tight, neat presentation for his scenario, and yet many conservative Christians appear to be reaching and stretching when they try to reconcile biblical contradictions.  Moreover, I wonder if Larson is looking at the heavens and selecting the details that he can fit into the story of Jesus, doing with the heavens what many Christians do with the Hebrew Bible.

A final point: I called Larson a conservative Christian, and he does appear to be that.  But his interaction with the Bible is not exactly literal.  For example, his argument is that the star of Bethlehem was Jupiter and Venus coming close together.  But that’s not a star.  That’s two planets coming together.  Larson would probably respond that the Bible is simply saying what the people thought they saw, and there are plenty of conservative Christians who give the Bible that kind of leeway—-for example, when the Bible says in the Book of Joshua that the sun stood still, many conservative Christians say that actually the earth stood still, but that the Bible was saying that the sun stood still because that’s what it looked like to the people who experienced the event.  Are there any parameters for determining what would constitute a biblical error?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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