The Star of Bethlehem Revisited

I love the Star of Bethlehem. It’s a magical combination of science, history, and faith. I’m writing a new book, a work of fiction, and one of the chapters is about the Star. I’ve reproduced the latest draft of that chapter below. It’s a rough draft, so please let me know if you have any suggestions for improvement.

The scene is dinner Christmas Eve, at a mansion in Greenwich Connecticut. Here’s the characters in this chapter:

John – family patriarch, one of the richest persons in the world, dying of cancer.

Mary – John’s wife.

Ashley – their daughter, who teaches math at MIT.

Hajid – Ashley’s husband, who teaches physics at Harvard.

Rebecca – Ashley and Hajid’s daughter, nine years old and totally, totally adorable.

Mark – John and Mary’s oldest son, who is an entrepreneur in San Francisco.

Matthew – John and Mary’s youngest son, who was a drug addict, went to prison, and almost overdosed.

Imani – Matthew’s girlfriend, a Black nurse from the South Bronx who knows the Bible and the history of the birth of Jesus.

I hope you enjoy it. Merry Christmas!

Chapter 24

They were back in the dining room for strawberry shortcake, with real whipped cream of course, lots of it. Nobody ever said Mary skimped on whipped cream. John was tired, very tired, felt weak, very weak, but it was strawberry shortcake, so he sat up and ate. For some things you push yourself. Even more important perhaps, although food was certainly of great importance, but perhaps even more important, no it really was more important, he was feeling kind of dizzy so things weren’t so clear, was that the family was together, and it was Christmas Eve. Pretty service, but this God stuff was confusing, damn confusing. Wait. Did Imani say something about when Jesus was born and the Star? That could be interesting. Maybe ask.

“Imani, tell us when Jesus was born and about the Star,” said John. If you don’t mind.”

John saw Imani look to Mary for permission. Mary nodded as a sign that Imani should go ahead.

“The short version or the long version?”

John smiled. “Maybe the medium version. The medium short version.”

“Okay. I went to a talk. Then I read books and watched videos. It makes sense, it all fits together.”

John saw Imani was feeling a bit at home, getting over the culture shock, trying to get over years of prejudice against people with money. And if one thing was obvious, it was that Imani loved talking about the Bible.

“People have tried to figure it out for two thousand years,” said Imani. “Two thousand years. There’s lots, tons, dozens of different theories. I’m going to tell you what I think.” John saw Imani glance at Ashley and Hajid. “There’s a lot of different theories, but I hope you’ll let me tell you how I see it.”

John could see Imani didn’t want to be interrupted, challenged, by the education elites. Imani’s got street smarts, thought John. It was something he’d come to respect from a thousand deals. Some people (and he thought of himself as one) have street smarts, intelligence and wisdom they didn’t learn at school. Could be interesting, he thought. Could be fun. Ghetto girl versus the education snobs. A little like David versus Goliath. He expected Ashley and Hajid to challenge Imani. Did Imani have a chance?

“The starting question,” said Imani, “is when did King Herod die? This is Herod the Great.”

“Why was he great?” asked Rebecca. John smiled. Rebecca was intensely curious. She got that from him.

“Super question,” said Imani, “but your grandfather asked for a short version.”

John saw Imani pause. No one spoke, so Imani continued.

“People used to think Herod died in 4 BC,” said Imani, “but we now know there was a copying error in an ancient book. The earliest copies of that book tell us Herod died in 1 BC.” Imani paused, and looked again at Ashley. “At least that’s what I think. Some people with fancy degrees don’t agree.”

Priceless, thought John, priceless.

Imani continued. “When you look at the ancient skies using computers, and we know Jesus was born before Herod died, you will see that on June 17, 2 BC, and we know the exact date here, the exact date and time, Jupiter and Venus touched each other in the sky. It’s called a ‘planetary conjunction.’ Jupiter and Venus are the brightest planets, the brightest objects in the sky after the sun and the moon. Jupiter and Venus touched each other, you might say kissed each other. It must have been amazing. You wish you were there to see it.”

“Does that happen often?” asked Rebecca.

“No,” said Imani. “It’s only happened three times in the past two thousand years, and June 17, 2 BC is the only time the conjunction was visible from the Middle East. It may have been the closest, the most spectacular conjunction ever. NASA supercomputers have verified this. It’s true, it happened. That’s part of the story of the Star of Bethlehem, what the wise men saw. But it’s only part.”

Ashley couldn’t help herself. “But Imani, and I don’t mean to be critical in the slightest, not one bit, how kind of you to tell us this story, but it seems a stretch to say that, just because two planets get near each other in the sky, and you’re right that’s called a conjunction, very good for you, nicely done, that just because they get near each other in the sky, that means Jesus was born that night. Planets move. Even if it happened as you say, and by the way I agree modern computers can show us what the ancient skies looked like at any time from any place on Earth, you did a good job on that too, it seems a stretch to say that proves Jesus was born that night. Of course, that’s if Jesus was a real person.”

John saw Imani blink with shock, as if Ashley had hit her with a bucket of cold water. Ashley had thrown down the gauntlet. The fight was on. If Jesus was a real person? If? Watch out Ashley, John thought. You just stepped on a hornet’s nest. John saw Imani take a deep breath, sit up straight, square her shoulders, and glare at Ashley. Imani was visibly angry.

“First,” Imani said loudly, “I didn’t say it proves anything. But now we’ve got a date. Now we can put pieces together. For how it all fits you need the longer version.”

“Second, as for Jesus being a real person, perhaps you should read the Roman records. Or study history. Those would be nice subjects to learn something about. Jesus changed the world more than any other person.”

Priceless, thought John, absolutely totally perfectly priceless. Ashley walked right into it. Imani was not going to back down. Now John had to hear more. He was innately curious. That’s where Rebecca got it from. His side of the family.

“Now you’ve got to give us the long version,” said John. “I’m staying awake for this.” He had finished his strawberry shortcake, had asked for and gotten more whipped cream, but even though desert was over, and he sure was dizzy and exhausted, the cancer and the wine and the drugs were still partying, he had to hear more. “Hit us with your best shot, lay it on. Details. I always thought the Star of Bethlehem was a myth, made up, you know sort of like …” John stopped. He was going to say Santa Claus, but he stopped. “Like a made-up story.”

“You got it” said Imani. “Put your seat belt on.” Imani smiled at him. They were becoming friends.

“The wise men, and let’s use the word in the Bible, the Magi, came from Saba, a city that is now called Saveh. It’s sixty miles southwest of Tehran, in present-day Iran. It was a key city in the Parthian empire. The Parthians were tough, one of the great empires of the ancient world, an empire that lasted for almost five hundred years, a single dynasty. They were never conquered by Rome. They didn’t practice the Jewish religion, but they had Jewish blood, and they knew Jewish history and the Old Testament. They knew the prophecies about the Messiah. Their Kings claimed they were entitled to rule because they were descended from the line of David.”

Imani paused. She didn’t get interrupted by Ashley, but she did by John. “How do we know Saba’s the place?”

“Marco Polo,” answered Imani. “The Venetian trader who made it to China and back, and wrote what he saw. Marco Polo saw their tombs. He saw the tombs of the Magi in Saba. He gave details, said the tombs were of great size and beauty, said the bodies were well-preserved, and he even gave the names of the Magi. He wrote that the Magi left from Saba when they went to find the baby Jesus.”

“Couldn’t that have been added later into Marco Polo’s manuscript?” asked Ashley.

John saw Imani make a face. She glared at Ashley. Imani was not going to back down. “You can always make up stuff, and come up with a theory that denies Jesus, denies the living God. You have free will, you can make stuff up. I’m trying to keep it short. Do you mind if I keep going?”

Wow, thought John, wow.

Imani continued. “You need to know a little about the Magi and the Parthian empire. The Magi were royal astronomers and the top advisors. If you know Daniel, the Daniel who survived being thrown into the lion den when God shut the mouths of the lions, after that Daniel became the leader of the Magi, that was five hundred years earlier.” Imani turned and smiled at Matthew. “They were like Jedi knights. Very powerful, very smart, and they knew astronomy. They could predict solar and lunar ellipses, when planets would get close to each other, and they knew Jewish history.”

Ashley couldn’t help herself. “I don’t think the Magi could possibly know in advance where planets would be.”

“Then you’ve never heard of the Antikythera mechanism,” said Imani. “The world’s oldest analog computer. Found in a shipwreck off the coast of Greece, in a ship that sank two centuries before the birth of Jesus.”

Praise the Lord, thought John, praise the Lord. Imani was eating Ashley’s lunch, besting her at every turn.

Imani continued. “Now the stage is set. We’ve got powerful royal astronomers, possibly the smartest people in the world, brilliant people with centuries of knowledge and access to the full resources of their empire. They know the Bible and they watch the skies carefully, very carefully. Now we use modern computers, and look at what they saw two thousand years ago.”

John saw Imani pause and look around the room. Imani was taking charge. You go girl.

John saw Imani look straight at Ashley. “This is going to get technical,” said Imani. “Try to keep up.”

Priceless, thought John, perfectly priceless.

“Go back nine months earlier, to September of 3 BC. The Magi see a triple conjunction of Jupiter and the star Regulus. The Babylonians called this star “Sharru,” meaning “the King.” Jupiter, as everyone back then knew, was the King Planet. Jupiter passed Regulus three times, and traced a crown above it. Regulus is the brightest star in the constellation of Leo the lion. The Bible compares the Israelite Tribe of Judah, the tribe of King David and Jesus, with a lion. This triple conjunction of the two kings happens only twice every 83 years.

I’m loving this, thought John. Not sure I’m following it, but I’m loving it.

Imani was on a roll. “On September 11, 3 BC, as the triple conjunction begins, the Sun rises in the womb of the virgin in the constellation Virgo. At the foot of the Sun is a slim crescent moon. Of course the constellation wasn’t visible when the Sun was up. You normally can’t see stars in the daylight, would you agree with that Professor Hajid?”

John could see Hajid did not like being called out. “Yes,” said Hajid. “Of course! Everybody knows that.”

“But the Magi know it, they totally know it, they know the king planet, and remember planets were thought of a moving stars in those stars in those days, so it’s all stars to them, they know that the king moving star and the king fixed star have just done a dance, traced a crown, in the womb of a Virgin. These guys have instruments and skills we can hardly imagine.” John saw Imani turn again to Ashley. “You should read about the Antikythera mechanism,” said Imani. “It would be a nice addition to your education.”

John almost burst out laughing.

Imani continued. “Okay, and again please try to keep up professors, the Sun appears here only one day every year, and the moon has this shape one day each lunar cycle.” Imani looked at Hajid. “That’s 29 days, right professor? All signs point to the coming birth of a great king in Judah. This was the date of Christ’s conception, this is the blessed day the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary.[1]

There was no stopping Imani. “And nine months later it happened. The greatest event in history. The most important event for every human being until the day Jesus comes again. On June 17, 2 BC, nine months after the king planet Jupiter, the king moving star, traces a crown around the king fixed star, nine months later Jupiter and Venus meet in the sky. For the Magi Venus symbolizes femininity, the perfect woman. The planets combine. Together, they’re the brightest “star” anyone alive had ever seen, the brightest object ever after the Sun and the Moon that anyone alive then, or anyone alive for the entire Parthian Empire, has ever seen. It was visible in the West, in the direction of Judah, towards Israel, for an hour after sunset. Jesus Christ is born.”

Imani continued. “And here’s a fact that blows me away, that makes me scream with adoration for the living God, a fact that modern computers have confirmed, this planetary conjunction, this meeting of Venus and Jupiter, takes place again in the constellation of Virgo the Virgin. Get it? The conception occurs in the womb of the virgin, and the Jesus is born from the womb of the virgin. The sacrificial “lamb of God” is born in Bethlehem, where Jesse and David raised sacrificial lambs for the Temple in Jerusalem, five miles up the main road. Jesus is born in the early summer, not winter, during the birthing season for the sacrificial lambs. The shepherds who cared for those lambs were out in the warmer weather sleeping with the flocks during birthing season. Jesus is born, and Joseph and Mary wrap him in swaddling clothes.”

“What are swaddling clothes,” asked Rebecca.

John saw Imani look at Rebecca and smile. “Great question, thanks,” said Imani. “Swaddling clothes were old, used, garments that had been worn by rabbis. They were rags, but sacred rags. The sacrificial lambs that Jesse and David and others raised in Bethlehem were clumsy little critters. To be a sacrificial lamb for the temple in Jerusalem, they had to be perfect. So when a sacrificial lamb was born the shepherds would wrap the lamb in swaddling clothes, in rags that had been worn by men of faith, to keep it from hurting itself, to keep it perfect.

Imani kept going. “Imagine you’re a shepherd that night. An angel pops out of the sky, and you are much afraid. But the angel tells you not to worry, and that you need to get yourself to Bethlehem, where you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths in the very place where some of the sacrificial lambs are born. You go quickly, you run, and you cannot believe what you find. He’s there, the living God. You see a baby born in the building where the difficult births of sacrificial lambs took place, a human baby in the same place, wrapped in holy rags just like the shepherds wrapped a newborn baby lamb to protect it. It is wonder, it is a miracle, beyond words. Two thousand years of prophecy are beginning to come true. Jesus, the sacrificial lamb of God, is sent by God to pay for our sins, an offering by God to the human race, an offering for peace between us and God. God is just, a price has to be paid for the sin of Adam and Eve and of every person ever born, and only God can pay it. So God pays it himself, he sends Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. Jesus is born exactly like a sacrificial lamb, in the same town and in the same place and wrapped in the same way, as a sacrificial lamb. For the important stuff God doesn’t mess around. He puts in layers and layers of symbols to help us understand. The shepherds out in the fields know this. They see a human child, wrapped in used priestly garments, in swaddling cloths, in a place where sacrificial lambs are born.

Imani was getting a little repetitive, and John could see Imani knew that. But Imani kept going. “Now let’s go back to the Magi, the royal astronomers who see Jupiter and Venus touch each other on June 17, 2 BC. You can just imagine. You wish you were there. The Magi are stunned. It all fits. The stars tell them a great king has been born, born in Judah, the king they’ve been expecting for centuries, a king of virgin birth. Could this be the Messiah? They’ve got to check it out, they’ve got to see for themselves. They decide to make a very dangerous journey. They’ve got to go 1200 miles over mountains, through bandits, and into enemy territory, into land controlled by Rome. The Romans and the Parthians hate each other, and it’s going to be very dangerous. The Magi can’t call a taxi and they can’t hire a private jet. They spend months getting ready, and to go 1200 miles by camels and horses is going to take two months, maybe longer. They pack gold, frankincense, and myrrh to give to Jesus, really valuable stuff, gifts to give a great king. And they assemble an army.[2] Maybe hundreds, maybe thousands, of trained and armed soldiers. They put all this together, and they head out, they travel West, towards Jerusalem, they travel in the direction where they saw Jupiter and Venus kiss in the sky. As they travel Jupiter stays ahead of them in the Western sky, it points the way. They follow the Star, the planet Jupiter, as they travel to Jesus.”

John saw Imani took a breath, and look around. Nobody was challenging Imani now.

“They get to Jerusalem late December, 2 BC. They leave the army outside the city, they’re not trying to conquer anything, and they ask to see Herod. They put it to him, point-blank, right in Herod’s face — “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” You wish you were there. Herod the Great is an arrogant, psychopathic murderer. Herod killed two of his own sons because he was afraid they might take his throne. The Magi walk up to a murderously paranoid ruler, Herod the Great, and ask to see the new king, the real king. They tell Herod they “saw his star when it rose.”

Imani was hitting on all cylinders, rolling full steam. “The Magi are showing off; they are bragging. They’re dishing Herod, they’re throwing it in his face! They are saying that, because of their advanced knowledge of astronomy, they knew Jupiter and Venus were going to meet, and they knew exactly where to look for it rising in the morning sky, in the daylight as it rose. This historic conjunction was bright enough to be visible in broad daylight, if you knew where to look. Would you agree, Professor Hajid, that this conjunction would have been visible to the naked eye, if you knew exactly where to look and blocked out the sun?”

John heard Hajid mumble. “Maybe.”

Imani continued. “It’s so cool. The Magi are bragging, showing off, showing Herod what they’ve got. They have skills, knowledge, star smarts far beyond anything Herod, or anyone else in the Roman Empire, had at that time. They are royal astronomers, from a powerful empire, and they are bragging about their sophistication. Herod didn’t even know the conjunction had occurred, he had no clue; he had to ask his advisors later what heck the Magi were talking about. Herod is clueless, and he’s got some of the smartest people in the world talking to him.”

Imani again looked at Hajid. “And that proves the Star wasn’t a comet or supernova or anything like that. Herod didn’t know about the conjunction. If it was a comet or a supernova he would have known about it. But Herod had no clue.”

“Herod wants to kill the Magi, kill them right then and there, for their impertinence, for daring to ask where the real king is. He’s Herod the Great, and he’s just been royally dished. But he’s got to be nice. There’s an army outside the city. Herod is scared of the Parthians. He knows that, fifty years earlier, the Romans invaded Parthia with seven legions, 40,000 elite trained soldiers, elite trained troops that had conquered the Mediterranean world. The army was put together by the richest Roman ever, a guy named Crassus, who wanted to be the Roman version of Alexander the Great. The Parthian king sent 8,000 fighters, mostly archers on horseback, to slow down the Roman legions, to buy time while he formed a larger army. He shouldn’t have worried. The outnumbered Parthians destroyed the Romans. Ten thousand Roman soldiers were killed, ten thousand were captured, and the rest ran for their lives, ran like the Philistines did after David killed Goliath. Crassus was killed.”

Imani paused. She should get back to the story, thought John. Imani did. “But back to Herod. Herod can’t start a new war. So what does he do? He smiles, he fakes it, he plays nice. He says that’s so wonderful, how truly nice of you to let me know, thanks so much my new friends, please do go and find this sweet kid and tell me where he is. Yeah, says Herod, I can’t wait to worship this kid too, so you smart guys go and find him, and I’ll be right behind you to worship him. You go ahead, I’ll be right behind. Herod lies, it’s bullshit. Herod knows he will kill this baby the moment he is found. Ain’t no snotty babe in a manger going to bring down Herod the Great.”

“The Magi leave. They saw Herod was clueless, but the Magi do have a clue. They know where the Son of God made flesh was born. They know the words of the prophet Micah, 700 hundred years earlier, when he foretold Jesus would be born in Bethlehem.” Imani looked at Rebecca. “That’s the prophet whose name sounds like a stone.”

Imani was wrapping up. “The Magi head south to Bethlehem. It’s the evening of December 25, 2 BC, and they’re only five miles away. Remember the Magi know the skies. Now here’s something that will stop you cold. On that date, that exact date, on December 25 of the year 2 BC, Jupiter goes into retrograde motion. Jupiter stops in the sky, it stops moving against the background stars. The Star of Bethlehem stops in the sky, and it’s south of them, straight ahead, as they head down the main road. They follow the Star to Jesus.”

Imani took a deep breath. “Finally. The Magi arrive at the house where Jesus is. Jesus is now six months old, the original Greek uses the Greek word for toddler. And the Bible tells us that the Magi arrive after Jesus was born, and that Jesus was staying in a house at that time. The Magi walk into a house of dirt-poor peasants. They see Jesus with Mary his mother. Immediately, in an instant, they fall down and worship Jesus. Can you imagine? You wish you were there. These Jedi knights, these royal advisors, the elite of the Parthian empire, the smartest people on the planet, fall down to worship the baby Jesus. They saw the Star in daylight, as it rose, they watched the planets kiss in the sky, they have come all this way, 1200 miles, with servants and a private army, to fall down and worship Jesus. They sure didn’t do that when they met Herod. But Jesus is no ordinary king, and they know it. They fall down and worship Jesus, the living God, the Word made flesh. They’re top guns, they represent the Parthian empire, they’re the intellectual elite of the ancient world. They throw themselves down on the dirt floor of a peasant house, and they worship Jesus. They offer gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They came 1200 miles for this moment. They fall down before the most powerful king ever, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, and they worship Jesus. You wish you were there. They offer gifts. It’s the first Christmas. They hand Mary the first Christmas gifts. You wish you were there.”

Imani hit Ashley with a smile of victory. “And that’s how I say it went down. Any questions?”

Silence. Golden silence. “One more thing,” said Imani. “The heavens are like a clock. God knew, when He flung the universe into existence, exactly when and where Jesus would be born.”

Magnificent! A performance for the ages. John was blown away by the power of Imani’s faith, what she knew, and how she knit it together. He pushed back his chair to stand up. His legs were weak, so he grabbed both arms to push himself up. Imani deserved a standing ovation, and he was going to start it.

He didn’t make it. He lost consciousness on the way up, fell on his left side, knocked over the chair, and hit the floor hard.

1. Compare this also to the vision in Revelation 12:1-2: “And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth.”

2. Isaiah foretold, 700 years earlier, that the Magi would arrive with hundreds of camels. He also foretold two of the three gifts they would bring. From the sixth verse of the 60th chapter:

A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD.