Because it’s that time of year when people talk about these things, today I watched Rick Larson’s documentary on the astronomy behind the Star of Bethlehem. It’s slightly more than an hour long, and you can view it on YouTube here.
There are a lot of interesting things to consider, such as the speculation that these magi were scholastically descendants of Daniel and lived in Babylon some 700 miles east of Jerusalem. Larson’s explanation of Peter’s use of Joel’s prophesying in Acts 2:16ff is insightful, as well as his explanation of what exactly John saw in Revelation 12:1ff. I recommend watching the documentary in its entirety. If you’re new to astronomy like I am, you’ll be introduced to neutral and useful concepts like retrograde motion and blood moons.
There are some problems with his viewpoint though, pontificated in great degree by Colin Nicholl in a thought piece over at Union Theology.1 In fact, Nicholl has written an entire book on this subject in which he argues that the star in Matthew 2 is actually a comet. It’s a shame this book isn’t on Audible, because now I want to read it.
One thing that Nicholl doesn’t go into is the issue about the day of Jesus’ execution. Larson states that it ocurred on a Friday, which I believe to be correct, but he says that it happened on 14 Nisan, which I believe to be incorrect. A.T. Robertson’s Harmony of the Gospels reconciles the seeming contradiction of the Synoptics over against John’s Gospel on this point. Robertson’s Greek knowledge, among other things, has persuaded me that John’s gospel is describing a crucifixion that occurred after the Passover, which is not something the casual English reader would find plausible. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are in the right when they describe a post-Passover crucifixion, and John supports them, albeit with phraseology that must be understood in proper nuanced context. The sabbath did not coincide with the Passover that particular year, and the paschal lambs were not killed the same time that Jesus died — they were killed a day before. Thus, the crucifixion happened on a Friday that was also 15 Nisan. This seems to rule out Larson’s date of Friday, April 3, 33 AD.
Perhaps the big takeaway at this point is that the depictions of magi wandering into a manger are completely fake. This is an example of where all the artwork has clouded the clear reading in Matthew. Shepherds in a manger (Luke 2:16), magi in a house (Matthew 2:11). When we look at Matt 2:7 and 2:16, the evidence is strong that Jesus was up to two years old by the time the magi showed up.
- Union Theology is not to be confused with Union Theological Seminary. As far as I can tell, there is zero connection. Regardless, Colin Nicholl’s guest appearance on this site does not imply his direct affiliation with them. He’s written a total of 3 articles on the site, all of them having to do with this subject of the Bethlehem Star, and his tenure is at University of Cambridge and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary before dedicating his career to biblical research. I’m only mentioning all of this because some people tend to see the word “Union” in a domain and immediately poison the well because of the unforgivable shenanigans at UTS. At ease! ↩︎