The Magi & the Jupiter/Saturn Conjunction

“Now, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him…”

This passage, from the second chapter of the Gospel According to St. Matthew, is the only reference in Scripture to the Star of Bethlehem, which became the universal symbol of Christ’s birth. That symbol gained swift acceptance among the early Christian faithful and has enjoyed unimpeachable authority for two thousand years.

But who were the Magi? And what was the star? An early bishop of Antioch, writing to the Ephesians at the start of the 2nd century A.D. (about 30 years after the composition of the Gospel According to St. Matthew), writes: “Its light was unspeakable and its novelty caused wonder.” And in the 3rd century, the Church father Origen wrote that it was a “new star unlike any of the other well-known planetary bodies…but partaking of the nature of those celestial bodies, like comets, which appear from time to time.”

The first known visual representation of the star appears in a 6th century manuscript known as the Codex Egberti; the second in Giotto’s 14th century Adoration of the Magi, which depicts it as a comet rather than a star. Most astrologers (and astronomers) today think it was the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction that took place in Pisces in 7 B.C., as first suggested by Johannes Kepler in 1603. The two planets, it is thought, “fused” into one exceptionally bright light, which became the “Star of Bethlehem” of biblical lore. That conjunction also coincided with the meeting of the two zodiacal cycles—the tropical and the sidereal—which happens only once every 26,000 years. It therefore signified the dawning of a new age, and a new grand cycle of ages. Kepler wrote: “He [God] appointed the birth of His Son Christ, our Savior exactly at the time of the great conjunction in the signs of the Fishes and the Ram, near the equinoctial point”—that is, just as the vernal equinox, by precession, moved backward into the constellation before it in the zodiac. The best biblical scholarship today also places the birth of Jesus at about that time.

The Magi who came to Bethlehem to adore the infant Christ were neither “wise men” nor “kings,” as later story had it, but astrologers. The biblical Greek term Magos referred to a specific Persian caste of astrological seers. The story of the three kings was introduced later, in the 6th century; and their description as “Wise Men” was also a later, somewhat embarrassed attempt to acknowledge their sagacity while glossing over who they were. By the 9th century they had begun to appear under the names of Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, representing three different continents and races—Europe, Africa, and Asia—thus appearing to be the first gentiles to certify that Jesus was the Christ. (Modern biblical scholarship has caught up with the truth, and most translations today identify the Magi as astrologers, either in the text itself or an accompanying note.)

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