Every year on Christmas my wife and I love to walk around and look at the Christmas light decorations on houses. I usually critique them and make suggestions of how they could have done better while my wife zones me out, but we have lots of fun. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that there are many different nativity scenes. I love nativity scenes because they represent the true meaning of Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ. But I can’t help but notice that almost all nativity scenes seem to be more based on tradition than the actual recorded events in the Bible. These traditions have even made it as far as Church plays to mainstream songs and even as far as to major motion movies… coughTheNativityStorycough. But when you actually read Matthew 2 and Luke 2:1-20 you can see just how much tradition has worked its way into what we believe the real birth of Jesus was like.

The Manger

 

            Almost every nativity scene I’ve seen shows Jesus lying in a manger within some kind of barn or stable surrounded by animals. Why? Because tradition holds that when Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem there was no room for them at the Inn, and they therefore had to stay the night in the only shelter they could find, a stable[1], and then Mary subsequently gave birth that night. The first misconception is that Mary gave birth the same night they arrived. This would be assuming the Joseph and Mary made a pain staking 70 mile trip (remember they had no cars back then) in the final stages of her pregnancy. The bible on the other hand states that they arrived in Bethlehem earlier and eventually the time came for the pregnancy, “So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered”(Luke 2:6 NKJ). In regards to the Inn being full, the English translations of the original Greek scripture used “Inn” for the original Greek word kataluma, which means “guest room”.[2] The Greek word for “Inn” is pandocheion, which was not used by Luke, so he was clearly referencing a guest room, not a hotel or inn.

            Joseph and Mary were returning to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem due to the census decreed by the Romans. So of course many others would also be making the same journey back to Bethlehem for the same reasons, and would have to stay in the homes of relatives. Archeological digs revealed that first century homes in the Judean hill country had two floors; the first floor served as living and dining rooms, with the second floor served as the guest chambers. During night time it was very common for people to bring their more vulnerable animals into the first floor of the house to shelter them from the cold or protect them from theft. This practice was common place through out history and there are some people that still do it today in parts of Germany and Austria.[3] Another interpretation is that Jesus was born in a cave, which comes from the writings of Justin Martyr. This also is a possibility as it was typical for shepherds to herd their flock into caves at night to keep better track of them and shelter them from the weather in the 1st century. It is possible that Mary’s virgin conception would have been believed to be the product of adultry by family in bethlehem and therefore they may have been turned away from staying in the 1st floor, and forced to find shelter out in a nearby shepherd’s cave. Though possible, Justin Martyrs writings are hundreds of years past the time of Jesus.

            Considering all this we can draw the more accurate conclusion that Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem, and due to the large amount of people making the journey as well, everyone’s houses are crowded, there is no room for them in the kataluma (guest room/2nd floor). So they instead stayed in the first floor (or were forced into a nearby shepherd’s cave), where Mary would eventually give birth to Jesus, wrap him in a swaddling cloth, and place Him in a manger (feeding trough). The manger would of course have been inside to accommodate the animals that commonly stayed inside during the night. But the Bible makes no reference that they were surrounded by animals, only that Jesus was placed in a manger.

Three Kings

My personal favorite misconception in the nativity story is that of the three kings. Common tradition holds that three kings saw the Bethlehem star in the night sky and made the long journey west to Bethlehem following the star where they arrived right as Mary gave birth to Jesus and delivered him three gifts from each of them; frankincense, myrrh and gold. Some tradition has gone so far as to name them Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar! The first point to make is, we don’t know their names and if there were three. We just know three gifts were given and the bible refers to them in plural, so there were at least two. There could have been anywhere from 2 to 3, 4, 8, 11 of them, but tradition says three because of the three gifts given.

Also, they were not kings. The original Greek scripture refers to them as magoi, which some Bible translations refer to them as “magi” and others refer to as “wise men.” The magi were a class of Persian wise men who practiced interpreting significant signs, mostly in astronomy. They were in no way kings, but instead closer to astronomers. The magi being Persian also coincides with the reference that they were from the “eastern lands” (Matthew 2:1), of which Persia and Babylon are in fact east of Bethlehem.

Around 600 years prior to this, many Jews were held captive in Babylon, and during this period of captivity, Jewish scripture was well studied and understood by the Babylonians.[4] So it would be no surprise that they were aware of the prophecies of the coming messiah. We don’t know exactly where the magi were from, since the Bible just says from the east, but the use of the word magoi which references wise men from the Persian area and because Jews spent much time in captivity in Babylon where there scripture would be studied, it is safe to say, that this is the region (Persian Gulf) the “wise men” came from.

Another misconception is that the wise men arrived the night of Jesus’ birth. If one reads Matthew 2, you’ll read that the wise men first arrived in Jerusalem[5] to find the new messiah, and would meet with King Herod after Jesus was born. It’s unlikely that the magi would arrive and immediately be granted an audience with King Herod. If we assume they were granted an immediate meeting with Herod, and then set out for Bethlehem (six miles away) they would at the soonest not reach Jesus until the next day. The real give away is in Matthew 2:16, when Herod orders the Magi to report back to him where the messiah is (so that he can kill the new born king that was a threat to his reign). The magi never report back to Herod, so he orders his soldiers to Bethlehem to kill every child under two years of age. Why would he order them to kill every child under two years of age instead of telling them to kill just the newborns? This gives clear indication that Jesus had been alive for sometime before the Magi arrived to visit Him and give Him gifts.

The Bethlehem (Christmas) Star

 

The star that leads the magi west toward Bethlehem and subsequently to Jesus has been a focal point for many traditions and scientific study. The first thing we must analyze is the word “star” as it appears in the Bible. To us today, a star is a massive ball of burning helium gas powered by nuclear fusion out in space. But the original Greek word in scripture used is aster, which is where the word astronomy comes from. As Dr. Jason Lisle, an astrophysicist from the University of Colorado explains, “In the Biblical conception of the word, a star is any luminous point of light in our night sky. This would certainly include our modern definition of a star, but it would also include the planets, supernovae, comets, or anything else that resembles a point of light.”[6] So what was the Christmas star?

 

In chapter two, Matthew wrote of nine key factors that can be used in identifying the star:

  1. It signified birth
  2. It signified kingship
  3. It had a connection with the Jewish nation
  4. It rose in the east, like other stars
  5. It appeared at a precise time
  6. Herod didn’t know when it appeared
  7. It endured over time
  8. It was ahead of the Magi as they went south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
  9. It stopped over Bethlehem.

 

Knowing these nine factors, enables many candidates for the star of Bethlehem to be eliminated.

Shooting star (meteorite)? These move too fast, only last for seconds at best, and are extremely common.

Comet? Although a better candidate, comets are very unlikely as well. In ancient times comets were symbols of impending doom by all cultures and civilizations. So why would God use a symbol of doom to signify the birth of our savior? Also, many ancient cultures charted the stars, the Chinese having some of the most extensive records. However no comets were recorded between 4 and 1 B.C.[7] Lastly, Herod was surprised to hear of the star, meaning he was unaware of it. If a comet was present in the sky, he would have been immediately notified, being that he was king of his people and there was a symbol of doom in the sky…

Super Nova (exploding star)? Another good candidate, but still somewhat common, and none were recorded happening between the years discussed.

Planets? BINGO! I know what you’re thinking; planets are very common and are seen in the sky all the time. But it’s not necessarily what planets look like, but more so what planets do in the night sky. When Johannes Kepler discovered the laws of planetary motion in the 17th century, he realized that everything in the night sky works like a clock. The movement of planets, stars and comets can be tracked and calculated, making it possible to predict the future position of these celestial bodies, as well as track where they have been in the past, known as archaeoastronomy.

The biggest planet in our solar system is Jupiter, known by all ancient civilizations at the time as the King Planet. Astronomers studied Jupiter’s orbit in the past using archaeoastronomy to see if it did anything unusual, but first, where to look? Someone’s view of the stars in one place on earth could have been completely different from another’s view of stars from another place on earth.

We know from the bible that it was the Magi from Babylon (Persian Gulf area) that recognized the signs in the sky. Presently, Babylon’s location is about 60 miles south of Baghdad, Iraq. So in knowing that, we can pinpoint where the Magi first saw the star in the sky, Babylon. So, astronomers traced Jupiter’s movement in the skies from the viewpoint of someone in Babylon between 4 B.C. and 1 B.C.

Sure enough, in the month of September, 3 B.C. they found Jupiter doing something pretty unique around the star Regulas. Regulas is an intensely bright star that was known by both the Romans and Babylonians as the King Star. At this point in time, Jupiter (the King Planet) and Regulas (the King Star) came very close to each other (as viewed from earth) to the point where they appeared to the naked eye as one single star. The chances of a planet coming very close to a major star to where they almost appear as one, is not that uncommon. It is said that within a lifetime this could be seen from 3-10 times depending. But this particular time was unique because it retrograded.[8] As Jupiter passed Regulas, Jupiter retrograded to the point where it appeared to rotate around Regulas three times before continuing on it’s course. This is extremely rare. Rare enough for the Magi to take notice and begin to study it.

There were 12 Jewish Tribes of which made up the nation of Israel, in which the Bible said that the tribe of Judah would be the tribe that would produce the messiah. The symbol for the tribe of Judah is the Lion. Genesis 49:9-10. Regulas (the King Star) belongs to the constellation of Leo (the Lion). So, Jupiter (the King Star) for days was rotating around Regulas (the King Star) in the constellation of Leo (the Lion). To Magi observing from the ground, this symbolism was surely indication of the messiah’s arrival.

In the book of Revelation there is a passage that for a long time now is known to be a symbolic vision of the birth of Christ. Revelation 12:1-5, John describes seeing a pregnant woman clothed in the sun with the moon at her feet. Her child (Jesus) is said to be born to rule all nations. This passage in revelations is believed to be symbolic of Jesus’ birth.

But what does this have to do with the star? Directly underneath the constellation of Leo lies the constellation of Virgo (the virgin). As Leo rises in the sky, Virgo rises underneath it, but at this point in the year Virgo did not rise at night but at dawn, with the sunlight preventing it from being seen in the sky. On September 12th, 3 B.C. when Leo rose in the late evening, Virgo rose behind it in the morning, directly behind the sun, and with the moon directly below the constellation.

In summary, Jupiter (the King Planet) began to rotate around Regulas (the King Star) within the constellation Leo (the Lion). And on the 12th of September, as Leo rose, Virgo (the virgin) rose behind the sun (clothed in the sun) with the moon passing just below the constellation (moon at her feet), just as Revelation said. Think of that symbolism.

This was the marking of the conception of Jesus. Not the birth. Because life begins at conception, not birth. It is believed that this is the date when the virgin Mary was visited by the angel and told she would bare the Son of God.

Nine months later, Jupiter once again did something unique. It came into close quarters with Venus (the Mother Planet). Venus has always been known for being the brightest planet in the sky. Jupiter came so close to Venus that they almost touched (as viewed from earth), meaning they came so close that they did not block each other’s light but merely added to each other’s light. To the naked eye on the ground no one would be able to distinguish the two stars. Instead they appeared to be one large and brightly intense star. It is agreed by astronomers that this would have been brightest star anyone alive at the time had ever seen in their life. This is believed to be the night Jesus was born.

So as the Magi looked west from Babylon (Persian Gulf region) towards Israel they saw Venus (the Mother Planet) and Jupiter (the King Planet) coming together to form the largest and brightest star they’d ever seen.  So the Magi began to ride west, in search of the new born Messiah.

Now Jupiter and Venus did not stay close forever of course, and in fact by the time the Magi reached Jerusalem, Venus was no longer is the sky. But Jupiter still was, and was at the time the brightest star in the sky. When the Magi asked where the Messiah was, they were told to head to Bethlehem, which is about 5 miles south from Jerusalem. As they traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, one of the Magi noticed that the star (Jupiter) had stopped directly over Bethlehem, and stayed there all night, while the other stars continued moving through the sky.

But how did the star just stop, while the others continued to move? Remember retrograde motion… Jupiter stopped in the sky over Bethlehem all night long, while every other star in the sky kept moving. The next day Jupiter was moving again back in the direction it came from, but for one night it was completely motionless in the sky. Astronomers know this occurrence very well because it happened on December 25th. The night that the Magi reached Bethlehem to see baby Jesus (now a toddler), was December 25th, 2 B.C. Now they did not use our calendar system at this time, but we now know that this was the first Christmas.  

Summary Timeline

 

September, 3 B.C.     -Jupiter (the King Planet) crowns Regulas (the King Star) appearing to be the brightest star in the sky, also lies within the constellation of Leo (the Lion). On the 12th, Leo rises with Virgo (the Virgin) below it, behind the sun and with the moon at her feet. The Magi know that the time of the messiah is here.

June, 2 B.C.   -Jupiter (the King Planet) becomes extremely close to Venus (the Mother Planet) to form the brightest star anyone alive had ever seen. This is also a very rare occurrence. The Magi know the messiah has been born and begin to head out in search for him.

December, 2B.C.       -The Magi reach Jerusalem and begin to head south towards Bethlehem, when Jupiter (the King Planet) stops directly over Bethlehem, and stays there all night. They give gifts to the baby messiah, and mark what would later be known as the first Christmas.

So, in conclusion, the star of Bethlehem was not a comet or supernova, but instead multiple events of star/planet conjunctions. Now many Christians may not like these answers because they feel they’re not miraculous and discredit God’s power. But as Dr. Lisle states, “Whatever the exact mechanism, the fact that the star led the magi to Christ is evident that God uniquely designed the star[s] for a very special purpose. God can use extraordinary means for extraordinary purposes. Certainly the birth of our Lord was deserving of honor in the heavens. It is fitting that God used a celestial object[s] to announce the birth of Christ since ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’ (Psalm 19:1).”[9]

My purpose for writing this essay was to point out the misconceptions many of us may have about the nativity story. I believe that these inaccurate traditions can accidentally cause a sort of mythological or legendary status to be assigned to the birth of Jesus, instead of being understood for the true and historically accurate event that it was. I believe it is important to understand what really happened those nights so that we better know our Savior and can better make a defense for Him, when scoffers try to discredit the accuracy of the nativity story. With that said, I leave you with a question to ponder: Why is it that every nativity scene seems to depict Jesus, Mary and Joseph as fair skinned Europeans, yet the three wise men seem to each be a different ethnicity like African, Middle Eastern, and in some cases Asian? Oh how I despise some traditions…

[1] The stable/barn is assumed, because Jesus was placed in a manger (feeding trough for animals).

[2] “Kataluma” is also used in Luke 22:11 in the original Greek scripture where it is clearly referencing a guest room, which would be used for the Last Supper.

[3] Tim Chaffey, “Born in a Stable?” www.answersingenesis.com Nov 20, 2010.

[4] Tim Chaffey, “We Three Kings,” www.answersingenesis.com, Dec 14, 2010.

[5] The wise men would of course visit Jerusalem first to seek out the new born messiah since Jerusalem was the Holy City that housed God’s Temple.

[6] Dr. Jason Lisle, “The New Answers Book 2,” What Was the Christmas Star? (Master Books, Green Forest:AR) 2008, Pg  179.

[7] Frederick A. Larson, “Setting the Stage,” www.bethlehemstar.com.

[8] Retrograde is an optical illusion that makes stars (planets in this case) appear to move backwards or motionless in the moving sky. This is because the earth is not only rotating around the sun, but we are also rotating on our own axis. Tied into the fact that all the other planets in our solar system are also orbiting the sun at faster or slower speeds create this optical illusion. In other words, we are observing a sky with moving objects from a moving platform. For example, when you are driving past someone walking in the same direction, they appear to be moving backwards as you pass. They are in fact moving in the same direction you are, but because you as the observer are moving at a different speed it appears otherwise. This is what retrograde is, and it is what creates the illusion of the planets moving oddly through our sky.

[9] Dr. Jason Lisle, “The New Answers Book 2,” What Was the Christmas Star? (Master Books, Green Forest:AR) 2008, Pg 184.

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