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The Star of Bethlehem through the prism of cultural astronomy

Bernadette Brandy, a Ph.D. historian in the postgraduate department of cultural astronomy and astrology in Wales, gives us a transcendent perspective on the Star of Bethlehem.

By Anastasia Diakidi

It all began, in Renaissance times, when the great astronomer Johannes Kepler, after years of observation and calculations in his laboratory, was able to prove that the stellium of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, which he himself had seen occur in 1603, had been repeated around 7-6 BC. Also, since Kepler was a living computer, he was able to calculate that this meeting takes place every 796.4 years and the accumulation of so much energy in the sky may have caused a supernova and thus began the connection with the Star of Bethlehem. Kepler's discoveries brought great excitement to the scientific community of that time and the public because for the first time it was initiated an attempt to connect Christ with a human horoscope. If an astronomical (and astrological as at that time the two sciences were intertwined) phenomenon could indicate the birth of the God-Man, then the God-Man himself would have a horoscope since he was subject to the same cosmic laws. But was there a supernova? Was the Star a divine miracle or was it a politically engineered event? Centuries later and theories abound, but so do the means of our time that make historical and astronomical study more accessible...

Let's take things from the beginning. Bernadette Brady explains in her lecture that the two sources available to us on the Nativity are the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. In Matthew, with a probable date of between 75-90 AD, the narrative places the Magi as the protagonists with the gifts and their contact with Herod before they visit Jesus. Herod told them that if there was a sacred birth somewhere, it would be in Bethlehem, as the city was already sacred. The Magi received the information and disappeared. Herod had asked them to return as soon as they found the infant (not a baby), to tell him the exact location so that he could go and worship him himself. The disappearance of the Magi essentially led to the massacre of the infants shortly afterwards (note that the massacre is not historically recorded). The Magi, since they were also astrologers, followed the heavenly sign, which clearly had to be there if we are talking about a divine emissary, and this led them to Mary's house where she was with the boy (given that travel was time-consuming in Christ's time, the idea of the infant seems reasonable).

The political and dramatic intensity of Matthew's narrative is completely reversed by Luke, who in his own Gospel recounts the birth in a more peaceful and solemn narrative. Here we have the now-classic story of the baby born in a manger during Mary's journey to Bethlehem. The divine infant was watched over by shepherds with their sheep and an angel. It was the same shepherds who brought the message to the world about the coming of the Messiah.

The star is relegated to the background in Luke's narrative, which is based more on the humility of Jesus' nature and his position as the Lamb of God. In contrast, Matthew's Gospel created controversy. The idea that the astrologers followed a star was something that they wanted to avoid being connected with the birth of Christ because that might make the blasphemous connection about Christ and his horoscope, as happened later with Kepler's discoveries. But there was also the Prophecy of Balaam, which they wanted to include in the story of the Nativity since this was the prophecy that foretold the coming of the Messiah. The Prophecy said: "When the Star rises a scepter will arise from Israel". The connection with the Prophecy of Balaam had to be made so the Star had to be there. In both Gospel narratives, the story takes place at night which is an oxymoron since Divine Births or Leaders Births have always been recorded as daytime regardless of the fact that they were or not. The reason is that there was a belief that lunar births gave weak characters and were not associated with leadership abilities. This view clearly has an astrological background and although they later wanted to shake it off, however during the Nativity period and shortly afterwards, astrological literature was prevalent and influenced people's beliefs in cosmic phenomena. The astrological literature of the time had Babylonian and Hellenistic elements. It was a mixture of anthropomorphic celestial narratives with horoscopic Hellenistic elements. So were the Gospels themselves influenced by astrological narratives?

From then on, Brady explains that the three main theories began: the Star as a Miracle, a view supported by St. Ignatius, who also mentioned that "the Star as a miracle would free people from magic and astrology"; the Star as a politically fabricated event; and the Star as a real celestial phenomenon. When the Star may have appeared was placed according to the death of Herod. Since he died in the 4th century BC, so the Nativity occurred between 10-5 BC. This is the scope of astronomical research. St. Ignatius, as mentioned above said that the Star was a comet and his view was quite popular. In Capricorn - a sign which, incidentally, was then more associated with the Birth of a King - we had an appearance of a comet in 5 BC. Chinese astronomers have documented the comet's appearance, so the theory has merit.

In contrast, the supernova theory, which as mentioned above was supported by Kepler, has not been recorded anywhere. However, the idea of Jupiter-Saturn triple conjunction with later Mars involvement (not in conjunction, just in close proximity) is a fact that should be considered, given its rarity. The conjunction took place in May, October, and December 7 BC.

Another less influential theory was Molnor's theory, which supported that the Star appeared during the time Jupiter was in Aries and we had a lunar eclipse. His theory was based on the discovery of a coin with a ram and Jupiter in Antioch. His theory is weak, both because the ram and Jupiter coins pre-existed; since Jupiter was the patron of Antioch and a Roman symbol of leadership; and because the eclipse is not a clue. Astrologically, the Magi would have taken it as a sign of the weakening of the king, not a sign of the birth of one.

The main problem with all of the above theories is that they are based on assumptions. The assumption that the Magi were real, assumption that their very expensive gifts were also real, assumption that the phenomenon must have been dazzling, assumption that there was a manger and it was not put in as a symbol of humility, assumption and that shepherds and animals were present (perhaps based on the routine of the shepherds, which was known). But if it weren't so blasphemous to put astrological facts into the narrative, might we be getting somewhere? Bernadette Brady has an idea. Let's explore it!

Before Herod's death, we have a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the 7th century BC, and in the 6th century BC we have Mars entering the scene. The Magi, according to Matthew, were coming from the East i.e. Mesopotamia to Jerusalem. It is not mentioned whether there were three of them. The astronomer Ptolemy (2nd century BC) in his famous work, Tetrabiblos, states that the satellites (the Greek word of satellite is dorephoros: dore+phoros means gift-bearers) of a chart are the planets that follow the Sun (or Moon) and bestow their gifts on it, making it powerful. And this is associated with the birth of a great king.

So with experimentation, the historian of the University of Wales begins her astrological observation with the assumption that we are in Jerusalem, in the Temple east of Bethlehem, observing the sky. During the period of the Mars-Jupiter-Saturn triplet, they appear in the sky and follow the Sun in its westward motion. The phenomenon lasts from about January 31, 6 BC (without Mars) until about the beginning of March (with Mars together since February), when they disappear completely. Later, in June of the same year, they reappear without Mars, this time before sunrise (according to the scriptures, in the House of the Sun [King]).

During the same period, from November 7 BC to March 6 BC, Venus and the Moon appear in the eastern sky in the early morning hours. Venus, because of its odd orbit and therefore retrograde course does not make the same move often. In fact, the trajectory of its movement observed in the sky in the winter of 7-6 BC is so rare that it repeats itself every 240 years or so. Venus is also is a bright star, known as the Morning Star, Lucifer (=brings light) and its appearance is reminiscent of the familiar depiction of the Christmas Star. Around December 7, Venus, which has been rising in the sky since the beginning of the previous month, has reached its highest point, remains there for a while until it begins to descend, and finally disappears on March 6 BC.

So, are we not talking about an isolated astronomical event but a rare celestial scene? Imagine studying the heavens at that time and seeing a full star in the sky before dawn, and three planets following the Sun in its west before nightfall when the Prophecies and astrological texts interpret these as the coming of a King. Is this not, after all, how the differences in the Gospels are explained? Did the astrological literature that had influenced people's lives, did it also influence the Evangelists who basically recorded the birth after Jesus' death and relied on oral tradition?

Venus in her rising phase was standing in front of Orion near the constellation of Taurus, but in Mesopotamian skywriting, this is called the constellation of the Shephard of Anu and the area as the "shepherd's crook". Of extreme interest is that in the work

"Astrological Reports on the Assyrian Kings", there are records of the appearance of the brilliant Venus in the region of Shepard and its connection with the establishment of a new kingdom.

Brady's observations also lead to a hypothesis, based on Luke's Gospel account of the night of the Nativity. So going back, a New Moon in Taurus took place on May 1, 7 BC, and in Mesopotamian terms, it was the beginning of the lunar month. On the then-New Moon, we had the first trans-Saturn conjunction, and we also had Venus in Orion, before she began her strange retrograde course, along with the waxing Moon almost touching each other. Which again, in Mesopotamian tradition, the New Moon, with the Sun in the constellation of the Shepard and the Taurus of the Heavens or Cosmic Bull testifies to the birth of a King with a long and stable reign. Were these the shepherds who announced to the world the coming of the King? So, from the prevailing mixture of Babylonian - Hellenistic astrology, was Luke more influenced by the anthropomorphic Mesopotamian Celestial Cartography, while Matthew was influenced by the horoscopic Hellenistic one in which the Magi, the three cosmic planets of the time, act as satellites bringing their gifts to the King?

The hypotheses are many, the theories for hundreds of years unsolved will continue to baffle scholars. But Brandy's theory through the prism of cultural astronomy puts in elements that we have never investigated, partly because of ignorance and partly because of the religiously sensitive nature of the phenomenon. Whether or not one embraces the above theory is purely a matter of personal faith and worldview. And perhaps with faith, there is no need to explain how or why. Maybe the King is high up in the sky but also maybe he is just inside us and all we need to do is search for him by looking for the star of kindness and generosity in the hearts of people.


Bernadette Brady, The cultural astronomy of the Star of Bethlehem. Lecture at the University of Wales, Ph.D. historian in the postgraduate department of cultural astronomy and astrology.

For more information and photos see this interesting lecture in full on youtube:

Brady's astronomical observations were made with Stellarium software.

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