Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Using the Bible to Date the Nativity

In the previous posts in this series examining the historical and astronomical evidence for the date of the Nativity, we saw how all the ancient, non-biblical sources point to a date that, in our present calendar, would fall somewhere between August of 3 B.C. and July of 2 B.C. This also ties in well with our interpretation of Josephus to say that Herod died within a few weeks after the very visible lunar eclipse which occurred on December 29, 1 B.C.

Using the evidence of Jupiter's meanderings in the skies in 3-2 B.C., we saw that the phenomena associated with it began with a close conjunction with the planet Venus on August 12, 3 B.C. near the constellation of Leo, traditionally associated with the "lion of Judah." Then, beginning on September 14, 3 B.C., Jupiter (the "King planet") began a series of three conjunctions with the "King star", Regulus, also in the constellation of Leo. After passing it on the 14th, Jupiter continued westward, then doubled back in retrograde motion to make another conjunction with Regulus on February 17, 2 B.C., and moving westward again, made its third conjunction with the King star on May 8, 2 B.C. It crowned its wanderings with a truly spectacular, and very rare (since it was so close the two planets could not be told apart) conjunction with Venus in the evening skies of June 17, 2 B.C. It closed out by moving ever farther westward until it appeared in the southern skies over Jerusalem (in the direction of Bethlehem), where it came to a standstill (before beginning retrograde motion again) exactly on December 25, 2 B.C., and stayed in place until January 6, 1 B.C. (You can watch short movies of all of these phenomena in this earlier post.)

All of the foregoing observations are based on solid astronomical facts, since with computers we are able recreate how the heavens would have looked over any given spot on Earth, at any time in the past or future. Although the significance of the extremely rare and bright conjunction in June of 2 B.C. was first heralded by Roger Sinnott in an article in the December 1968 issue of Sky and Telescope, the notion that it could be the phenomenon described in Matthew chapter 2 took quite some time to catch on. Much of the latter-day credit has to go to Dr. Ernest L. Martin, the author of The Star that Astonished the World, first published in 1991 and still available in a reprint of the second edition in 1996.

Dr. Martin's account of the Nativity ties in two other sources from the Bible itself, which I would like to discuss in this post. They are both rather more indefinite than the astronomical data covered thus far, but they are each worthy of an attempt to reconcile them with that data. The first begins with this passage from the Book of Revelation, chapter 12, verses 1-6:

12:1 Then a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and with the moon under her feet, and on her head was a crown of twelve stars. 12:2 She was pregnant and was screaming in labor pains, struggling to give birth. 12:3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: a huge red dragon that had seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadem crowns. 12:4 Now the dragon’s tail swept away a third of the stars in heaven and hurled them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. 12:5 So the woman gave birth to a son, a male child, who is going to rule over all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was suddenly caught up to God and to his throne, 12:6 and she fled into the wilderness where a place had been prepared for her by God, so she could be taken care of for 1,260 days.
"[A] woman clothed with the sun, and with the moon under her feet, and on her head was a crown of twelve stars. . . ." Many commentators have struggled with the interpretation of this passage. In verse 5, John's reference to Psalm 2 (vv. 7-9) makes it clear that he is speaking of the birth of the Messiah, and so the woman described can only be Mary, while the dragon is John's symbol for Herod, who tried to kill Jesus after His birth. Others have seen the woman as a symbol of Israel generally, and there have been interpretations still more far-fetched.

Ernest Martin interprets the passage astronomically. He points out that the woman is described as "in heaven" in vs. 1, and that the sun and the moon both attend her. He sees this as an inescapable reference to the constellation of Virgo, the Virgin, which lies along the ecliptic with the other eleven constellations of the zodiac ("the twelve stars" in her crown). He points out that for the sun to "clothe" her, it would be in the middle of the constellation, between her head and her feet. The sun does this, of course, once a year. It passes through that region of Virgo (150-170 degrees along the ecliptic) in the course of about twenty days. But in all that time period, there is only an extremely narrow interval when the moon could simultaneously appear at her feet (between 180-187 degrees). In September of 3 B.C., that would have occurred precisely on the 11th of the month, between the hours of 5-7 p.m., local time, just after the sun had set.

What is significant about sunset on September 11, 3 B.C.? Dr. Martin points out that it was the beginning of the Day of Trumpets, the first day of Tishri, Rosh ha-Shanah, the start of the Jewish civil year. No other nearby year has such a precise alignment of the sun and moon in Virgo at just that significant moment in the Jewish calendar, which matches John's description in Revelation 12:1. The significance of the Day of Trumpets, Dr. Martin shows, is its symbolic connection with both the beginning and the end of the earth. In Jewish tradition the earth, with its fruits ripe for Adam and Eve to eat in the Garden of Eden, was created in autumn, on 1 Tishri. And in the Book of Revelation, John's passage describing the arrival of the Messiah occurs right after the blowing of the seventh and last trumpet (ch. 11:15).

Here is another movie, from the Starry Night software program, showing the sun in Virgo and the movement of the moon at Virgo's feet, as the skies would have appeared over Jerusalem on September 11, 3 B.C., from about 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. (To make things more visible -- the moon is just a sliver, because it is a new moon at the start of Tishri 1 -- I have eliminated the glare of daylight, and just shown the whole sky as dark.) In the video, the top green track is the orbit of the Sun as it is passing through the middle of Virgo, and the lower green track is the orbit followed by the new moon (I apologize for the illegibility of the labels -- you might try viewing this in the full-screen mode, by clicking the button at the lower right):

For Dr. Martin (and several others), the concurrence of these astronomical events with the significance of the date for the Jewish calendar, and with the passage from John's Revelation, clinches the matter: Jesus the Messiah was born precisely on September 11, 3 B.C., just after sundown and the start of the Jewish New Year. To support this conclusion, he draws on one more ancient source: the Gospel of Luke, with its references in the first chapter to the birth of John the Baptist, about six months before Jesus:

1:5 During the reign of Herod king of Judea, there lived a priest named Zechariah who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah, and he had a wife named Elizabeth, who was a descendant of Aaron. 1:6 They were both righteous in the sight of God, following all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. 1:7 But they did not have a child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both very old.
1:8 Now while Zechariah was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 1:9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the holy place of the Lord and burn incense. 1:10 Now the whole crowd of people were praying outside at the hour of the incense offering. 1:11 An angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense, appeared to him. 1:12 And Zechariah, visibly shaken when he saw the angel, was seized with fear. 1:13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son; you will name him John. 1:14 Joy and gladness will come to you, and many will rejoice at his birth, 1:15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. 1:16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 1:17 And he will go as forerunner before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for him.”
1:18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this? For I am an old man, and my wife is old as well.” 1:19 The angel answered him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 1:20 And now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will be silent, unable to speak, until the day these things take place.”
1:21 Now the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they began to wonder why he was delayed in the holy place. 1:22 When he came out, he was not able to speak to them. They realized that he had seen a vision in the holy place, because he was making signs to them and remained unable to speak. 1:23 When his time of service was over, he went to his home.
1:24 After some time his wife Elizabeth became pregnant, and for five months she kept herself in seclusion. She said, 1:25 “This is what the Lord has done for me at the time when he has been gracious to me, to take away my disgrace among people.”
1:26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, 1:27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, a descendant of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. 1:28 The angel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you!” 1:29 But she was greatly troubled by his words and began to wonder about the meaning of this greeting. 1:30 So the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God! 1:31 Listen: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 1:32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. 1:33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.” 1:34 Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?” 1:35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.
1:36 “And look, your relative Elizabeth has also become pregnant with a son in her old age – although she was called barren, she is now in her sixth month! 1:37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”1:38 So Mary said, “Yes, I am a servant of the Lord; let this happen to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Dr. Martin picks up on two clues from this passage: first, Zechariah was of the "priestly division of Abijah", which is to say, the eighth of twenty-four divisions of priests in the duty cycle at the Temple, where they would serve for exactly one week twice each year (not counting the three great feasts of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles, when all the courses would serve together). In 4 B.C., he calculates that the first course of the division of Abijah would have fallen between May 19 and May 26. Allowing time for Elizabeth to conceive, and then to progress to her sixth month, Dr. Martin concludes that Mary became incarnate with Jesus in December of 4 B.C., so that she would deliver the infant 280 days later, on September 11. John the Baptist would have thus been born six months earlier (the second clue: in Mary's third month), about March 10, in 3 B.C.

Now Dr. Martin has given this scenario a lot of time and thought, and it makes for engrossing reading. My only problem with it is that it does nothing with the spectacularly rare conjunction of Venus and Jupiter on June 17, 2 B.C., except to make it an event sufficiently unusual to trigger the decision of the magi in the court at Seleucia to travel to Jerusalem and worship the new King of the Jews. (It also does not offer any explanation for what the shepherds would have seen in the fields on the night of September 11, 3 B.C.) In pondering this question, I asked myself: just how old would Jesus have been on June 17 of 2 B.C. if he had been born the previous September 11? What event in his early life could we associate with the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter?

I counted up the days, and lo and behold! there are exactly 279 days between the two dates. Now go back to Dr. Martin's invocation of the average gestation period of 280 days to account for the birth of John the Baptist, and you will have some idea of my thinking. If we assume that the incarnation of Jesus in the Virgin Mary occurred at the beginning of the Jewish New Year in 3 B.C., then the spectacular conjunction of the Mother planet with the King planet, again in the King constellation of Leo, on June 17 in 2 B.C. would exactly mark the Messiah's birth!

Under this scenario, the earlier conjunction of Venus and Jupiter on August 12, 3 B.C. could have heralded the Annunciation to Mary by the Archangel Gabriel, with the incarnation following just one month later, and the birth following just nine months and nine days after that. This was now all coming together.

The shepherds would certainly have been out in the fields in June, just after lambing season -- and they, too, would have seen the conjunction which made the Star (which would not have been anywhere evident in the skies on the eleventh of September, nine months earlier). And as for John the Baptist? A birth date of June 17 for Jesus would place his birth in December of the previous year, meaning that Elizabeth became pregnant with him in early March of 3 B.C. But remember -- there were two priestly courses of Abijah each year. If the first occurred from May 19 to May 26 of 4 B.C. (and some say it was later, depending on when Nisan 1 in 4 B.C. was reckoned), the second occurred six months plus two weeks later (to allow for the feasts of Pentecost and Tabernacles), in mid- to late December of 4 B.C. Luke is vague about the amount of time that lapsed between Zechariah's return home, which would have been about the beginning of our January, and the start of Elizabeth's pregnancy, but a  February-March date for the commencement of Elizabeth's pregnancy would not clash with his account (see above).

All in all, then, I think the best use of the astronomical data, which are a given, as a fit to the historical record we glean from Scripture, puts the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem on the 17th of June in 2 B.C., when it was accompanied by the most spectacular conjunction in the night sky the world had ever seen, and which will not recur, as I calculated in this post, for another 177,270 years. The Annunciation would have occurred at the time of the earlier Jupiter-Venus conjunction on August 12, 3 B.C., in the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, and the Incarnation would have taken place on the Day of Trumpets, the first day of Tishri (September 11, 3 B.C.).

The point of this exercise, I emphasize, is not to let astronomical science determine, let alone lay down markers for, our faith. The precise date of Jesus' birth is no longer of such theological importance as it might have been for his fellow Jews at the time. No doubt Mary told the whole story to Luke, who set it down faithfully as she remembered it, with all of the personal details. We who read his account today, however, may rest assured that there is an actual, first-person report which underlies his Gospel.

This completes my series of posts on the Nativity. However, on Christmas Day, I will revisit my post about Frank Tipler's analysis of the evidence for the Virgin Birth, and will put up the data as he first reported it. In all of this, I am struck by the realization that the more we are able to discover about the past through new scientific techniques and methods, the better Holy Scripture stands up to the scrutiny we give it. For which I say: Deo gratias!


  1. I've been away from my RSS reader for a bit and so am just catching up on some of your posts. I noticed that in your examination of the astronomical events surrounding the nativity, you've been hunting down the same path as Rick Larson (interestingly enough, also an attorney), who for a number of years now has been screening a presentation on the Star of Bethlehem and related events, first in College Station but now around the world. I encourage you to take a look at his work as well!

  2. Thank you, chrylis. I am aware of Mr. Larson's work -- indeed, it was a gift of his very DVD, as I acknowledged in this post, that started me down the path I have followed in these posts. Mr. Larson wrote to thank me for helping make his work more widely known. So I am happy that you became aware of it independently, as well.

  3. Aha; I'd searched for his name but didn't find your post. Thanks for bringing this fascinating topic to a wider audience; while I no longer live close enough for it to be practical to attend, I was able to make something of a Christmas tradition of it for a number of years, and the eerieness of it all never faded.

  4. I am very eary in my study but I am finding the possibility that the date in June may have been the Biblical feast of Shavuot/ Penticost when our Heavenly Father gave the Torah on Mt. Sinai- The Holy Spirit - and the Living Word Jesus/ Yeshua. Does your research agree or conflict with this?

  5. Emet, thank you for your question. As I understand the Jewish calendar, Shavuot falls on the 50th day after the start of Passover (seven weeks of seven days, plus one). Passover always starts on 15 Nisan, and hence Shavuot could fall on the 5th or 6th of the month of Sivan (Lev. 21:15-16).

    In 3 BC, Passover (15 Nisan) fell on March 29, according to this site. If that reckoning is correct, then Shavuot in 3 BC would have occurred not in June (as it can when Passover falls in April), but around May 18, or well before the stunning conjunction in the skies that occurred on June 17, a month later.