I do hope that Damian Thompson of the excellent ‘Counterknowledge’ won’t mind me borrowing a question he posed earlier this this year
[H]as anyone ever produced a theory in which computers recreate the night sky that hasn’t turned out to be bullshit?
The answer is, quite clearly, no – but that doesn’t stop some people trying, even those who should really know better like Dave Reneke, the News Editor of Sky & Space magazine:
‘Jesus was born in June’, astronomers claim Astronomers have calculated that Christmas should be in June, by charting the appearance of the ‘Christmas star’ which the Bible says led the three Wise Men to Jesus.
They found that a bright star which appeared over Bethlehem 2,000 years ago pinpointed the date of Christ’s birth as June 17 rather than December 25. The researchers claim the ‘Christmas star’ was most likely a magnificent conjunction of the planets Venus and Jupiter, which were so close together they would have shone unusually brightly as a single “beacon of light” which appeared suddenly.
Assuming, of course, that there’s even the remotest shred of truth in the nativity story to begin with, which is highly unlikely as its already known to be littered with basic factual errors, i.e. there was no Augustinian census and a local census ordered by the Roman provincial governor of the time took place several years after the death of Herod, which rather craps on the whole Magi story from a great height. But even that is nothing compared to this articles next move, a rapid descent into high farce…
If the team is correct, it would mean Jesus was a Gemini, not a Capricorn as previously believed.
All of which would rather fuck up the whole Last Supper/Communion wine thing as, according to Jonathan Ray, Jesus’s personal taste in wine would have run to something ice-cold and with sharp snappy flavour, such as well-chilled, zingy New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc rather than the corked and oxidised homemade Gooseberry wine that a Capricorn would prefer. Or this could all be a complete load of bollocks, which is by far the most plausible explanation. But Reneke’s not finished yet…
Australian astronomer Dave Reneke used complex computer software to chart the exact positions of all celestial bodies and map the night sky as it would have appeared over the Holy Land more than 2,000 years ago. It revealed a spectacular astronomical event around the time of Jesus’s birth. Mr Reneke says the wise men probably interpreted it as the sign they had been waiting for, and they followed the ‘star’ to Christ’s birthplace in a stable in Bethlehem, as described in the Bible.
Really? And they managed that how, exactly?
The conjunction of Venus and Jupiter is real enough – if you want to see it for yourself and you have your own planetarium software (try the Sky view in Google Earth or download Stellarium, if you haven’t) then:
1. Set the location to Tehran,
2. Set the date to 12 August 2BC (-2) – don’t forget that we moved from the julian to Gregorian calender in 1752 so the dates are out a bit (and, in terms of the date given by Reneke, by more much more than the 11 days correction applied on moving from one to the other in the UK, but we’ll let that pass for now),
3. Set the time to midnight, and
4. Turn on the azimuth grid (which will show the angle of objects relative to a reference plane centred on the location of the observer) and move the view to face East (90°).
And there, just above the horizon at around 64° on the azimuth grid, you’ll see Venus in conjunction with Jupiter.
Now, if you’ve followed those instructions, may have spotted a very obvious problem with Reneke’s theory…
[UPDATE] …or a very obvious error of my own as we’ve got two Venus/Jupiter conjunctions within the space of 10 months to play with, the one given above, which actually works out to have been in the year 3BC (no year zero in the Gregorian calendar – D’oh!) and Reneke’s conjunction which does lead in the right direction, from a starting point somewhere around Basra or Shiraz.
So, In order to see the first Venus/Jupiter conjunction (3BC) our hypothetical Magi would have to have been looking towards the EAST, not the WEST, which is the direction they would have had to have been looking in order to see a ‘star’ that would guide them to Bethlehem and, on a very, very rough calculation, for that one we’re going to need to rewrite the one Christmas carol that deals directly with the story of the Magi so that the opening line becomes ‘We Three Kings of Sardinia are”…
…because that’s one of the few places that the Magi could have journeyed from to get the Bethlehem if they were following the first conjunction; mostly its the Mediterranean Sea you’d have to be crossing but there are viable landfalls on that path at Crete, Northern Sicily and the Southern ‘boot’ tip of Italy, Sardinia and then anywhere between Perpignan and Barcelona. In fact, Ibiza’s not too far off the the relevant line so our Three Magi could have just as easily been Spoony, Tim Westwood and Pete Tong as they could Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar.
Then, 10 months later, we have a second Venus/Jupiter conjunction, which you can see by setting the location to Basra or Shiraz, the date to 17th June 2BC (-1 in the software’s date field) and looking west, where you’ll find it just after sunset at an azimuth of around 290°.
This second conjunction would have been brighter that the first due to position and phase of Venus – Jupiter is far enough out that it makes no odds as regards a conjunction, its visual magnitude being around -1.34 at both conjunctions. As for Venus, its visual magnitude would have been around -3.65 for the first conjunction and -4.25 at the second. So even if we assume that the light from a Venus/Jupiter conjunction is perfectly additive then our first conjunction has an estimated visual magnitude of something like -5 while the second would have come it at around -5.5, which is pretty impressive (although an Iridium satellite flare has a typical magnitude of -8) but not that much of a difference.
Conjunction number two fits the bill for Reneke’s ‘star’ but the fact that there was an earlier Venus/Jupiter conjunction, 10 months earlier, which would have been only marginally less impressive, raises the obvious question of why, exactly, we should assume that our hypothetical Magi would have set out to chase the second conjunction in the expectation of it leading them to an event of particular ‘spiritual’ significance, but not the first. Why should that first conjunction not have resulted in the Magi hitting the road, in which case Christians the world over would shortly be celebrating the birth of Our Lord Jesus Krishna, because the Magi would have eventually rocked up somewhere in India with their gifts.
Another obvious problem with the idea of following a planetary conjunction anywhere become obvious if you run simulations of these two events from a couple of day before to a couple of days after the point of conjunction, in which case you’ll find the conjunctions last at most, and being very charitable, for three days, and on only one these days is it not obvious that you’re looking at two different astronomical bodies. By the same token, Venus’s proximity to the Sun means that its only visible for a relatively short amount of time just before sunrise or just after sunset, hence its being called either the morning or evening star.
In fact, simulations on both events show that, at most, the conjunction was visible – assuming good weather – for around 3 hours a night, which is not much to be following unless you’ve only got a very short distance to travel or a Ferrari to get around in, but if we stick to the traditional image of the Magi rocking up at Bethlehem on camels then it seems that a riding camel can cover around a 100 kilometres a day if its in good condition, which gives a viable starting point somewhere in the middle of the desert in what is, today, Eastern Jordan, or maybe just over the Saudi border if you’re going to give the Magi the full three days.
So, is there any sense in which one can contrive a connection between of hypothetical Magi and Reneke’s conjunction?
In theory, there is, but it requires quite a few pieces of the puzzle to drop in very specific ways to make the whole thing work.
For starter’s, we can forget the idea of anyone following a planetary conjunction to a specific location – for that story to work the bit of the East that the Magi came from can only have been a matter of 150-200 miles away from Bethlehem and there’s just nothing of archaeological significance within range and in the right direction. If they’d shipped from the South, then the ancient city of Petra and the Nabateans would have been a possibility, but then anyone setting out from Petra to follow Reneke’s conjunction would have had to wait until they reached the Nile delta to arrive anything remotely Biblical unless they ran across part of Moses’ old stamping ground in the Sinai. So, we can rule out the idea of a ‘star’ or conjunction as a physical marker of an event, but what about it being a purely temporal marker, on that points to the date of a particular event. Now we enter the realms of possibility.
If we assume that our Magi are well-educated and would have had access to at least some of the retained knowledge of the Babylonian, Assyrian, and Persian Empires, not to mention the Greeks, of course, by way of Alexander’s conquests, then we might reason that our Magi would have been astronomers in their own right and that, based on what we know of the Babylonians, may well have been capable of predicting the date of the conjunction with a pretty fair degree of acccuracy. Likewise, the Magi may well have had some knowledge of Jewish folklore as a legacy of the Babylonian period or simply from knowledge gathered and exchange in the course trading with other cultures across the Middle East. The key Biblical prophecy, which specifies the expected birthplace of the Messiah, is contained in the Book of Micah, which is thought to predate the Babylonian captivity by a couple of hundred years and could have become known to our ‘Magi’ by either route.
As for a starting location, if distance is not an issue because you’re not following anything, merely planning to rock up in a predetermined location on or around a particular date that you think has some kind of astronomical/astrological significance then the ancient city of Tirazis, which gets it first mention on Elamite tablets dating to 2000BC and which occupied the same location as modern day Shiraz, is the first place of any significant antiquity you run into and just about the only significant location on the right kind of bearing until you hit Pakistan and Northern India.
So, hypothetically, at least, if you swallow the idea of there having been three Persian mystics/astrologers living in the Shiraz area who had a detailed knowledge of Jewish folklore then, in theory, you could be on to your Magi, and their knowledge of the prophecy in the Book of Micah and a bit of basic geography would have enabled them to pick out which of the two conjunctions to go for…
That still presupposes that its possible to make the link between the supposed prophecy in the Book of Micah and the Magi’s view of the astronomical/astrological significant of Reneke’s conjunction, which is real stretch as although the verse in Micah (5:2) is pretty solid in identifying Bethlehem as the place that would spawn and new King of the Jews:
But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting. (KJV)
The next bit of the chapter suggests that Micah was expecting this King to show up rather sooner than 700 or so years after the presumed date of death:
And this man shall be the peace, when the Assyrian shall come into our land: and when he shall tread in our palaces, then shall we raise against him seven shepherds, and eight principal men. And they shall waste the land of Assyria with the sword, and the land of Nimrod in the entrances thereof: thus shall he deliver us from the Assyrian, when he cometh into our land, and when he treadeth within our borders.
About a 100 years or later, a King did rock up and lay waste to the land of Assyria… but unfortunately the king in question was Nebuchadnezzar II (the Great) of the Babylonian Empire, the Babylonian Exile and the Book of Daniel, all of which was a bit of pisser for the Jews of the period as one of the factors that contributed to his ultimate victory over the Assyrians was that a Jewish army under King Josiah managed to delay the army of the Assyrian’s main ally, Pharoah Necho II at Meggido (yes, as in ‘The Omen’) prior ot both armies being annihilated at the Battle of Carchemish. And then, of course, the Babylonian’s fell to the Persians, under Cyrus the Great, after which Alexander rocked up and took the Persian Empire and then died, leaving behind a rather ineffective regent and a whole bunch of fractious and ambitious generals, one of whom, Selucius, carved himself out a big chunk of Alexander’s empire, including Judea, and founded himself am empire and a dynasty that finally got turfed out of Judea by the Maccabees in 163BC…
…and then the Roman’s rolled up under Pompey the Great and kicked just about everyone’s arses.
And somewhere in all this, presumably, this whole business of Micah’s prophesied King of Jews laying waste to Assyria became a bit like the weekly Euromillions draw and rolled over from one occupying empire to the next.
In all that there’s absolutely bugger all about stars or planetary conjunctions, in fact Orthodox Judaism doesn’t really have any significant astrological traditional at all but for what bits a few non-orthodox Jews managed to pick up from this assortment of conquerors and ruling empires. So, anything which might tie Micah’s prophecy to an astronomical event definitely falls outside the Orthodox Rabbinical tradition, and this where things get interesting.
You see, to a Persian – or to be more precise – a Selucid astronomer of this period, the prophesied birth would of a Jewish Messiah would be nothing more than a passing curiosity unless, of course, we suppose that our hypothetical Magi were not just your standard subjects of the Selucid empire but actually a bunch of Hellenised Jews whose ancestors wound up in Shiraz as a consequence of the Jewish Diaspora which began with the Assyrian conquest 700 years earlier. But, that said, as Hellenised Jews, the whole Messiah thing would hardly have been that big a deal either – waiting for the arrival of the Messiah was very much an Orthodox thing and, indeed, the Maccabbean revolt which turfed the Selucids out of Judea was also revolt against the Hellenisation of Judaism.
And that suggests, much as does the absence of the nativity story in the Gospel of Mark (which is considered to be the oldest canonical gospel) that the whole Magi story is likely to be a later addition to the story of Jesus, one that was tacked on to suit a Hellenised (Gentile) audience which doesn’t give a toss about 700 year old Jewish prophecies but might just swallow a hooky story about Three Wise Men and a bunch of expensive but largely useless Christmas presents.
Right, so where are we?
Ah, yes – the Magi as, perhaps, some kind of Hellenised descendants of an earlier Jewish Diaspora, living in what is, today, Southern Iran and practising a form of syncretic mysticism that mixes and matches Judaism, Zoroastrianism and the Classical Greek Pantheon. In theory this is all possible but it still doesn’t get us from A to B, or rather from am 8th century BC Jewish prophesy to the interpretation of an astronomical event as a sign marking the birth of the prophesied messiah.
There is, admittedly, what might a first glance appear to be an obvious route by way of astrology, which, of course, went hand-in-hand with astronomy at that time, and continued to do so right up until the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, when rational science come to the conclusion that it would get a lot further it ditched its disreputable cousin. What we have, on the face of it are two planets, one of which, Jupiter, was taken to be associated with a masculine father deity – Jupiter is derived from ‘Deus Pitar’, literally, ‘Father God’ (or ‘God Father’) and, in addition to the Roman god of the same name, is associated with the Greek god Zeus and the Babylonian god Marduk. Jupiter is male, the chief masculine god (and usually the chief god of the pantheon) and, by the time we get to the Greeks, a bit of randy old scrote who appears to be willing to shag almost anything with a pulse.
The other planet, Venus, aka Aphrodite (Greek) and Ishtar (Babylonian), represents a female deity who is basically the Angelina Jolie/Julie Christie/Brigitte Bardot (or pick your own piece of totty) of the ancient world.
So, the logic goes, if you’ve a planets representing male and female deities coming into an apparent conjunction – remembering that is all based on line of sight – then you’re presumably on a bit of Barry White away from a prediction of the birth of Jesus – and never mind just exactly how many unlikely conditions we’ve already to chuck into the story to get there…
Except… even something as whacked out as astrology has to maintain some kind of internal consistency in order to pull in the suckers and that presents us with a problem, because despite the various civilisations of the period treating the whole deity thing as a bit of a celestial pick’n’mix counter, nowhere in any of the mythological stories of the period will you find a story in which the Jovian sky deity gets to dance the horizontal mambo with Venus, in any of her many variations. In fact, in many of regions extant cosmogenies the relationship there is more a matter of ‘my heart belongs to daddy’ than hitting the Marvin Gaye albums so getting it on is right off.
And that demonstrates that, with a bit of effort, you can concoct just about any old load of bollocks from the movable feast that was the mythology of the Middle East and come up with an explanation for the three wise men that someone, somewhere, will turn into a book and then a really crappy film starring Tom Hanks.
You see, there’s not a shed of evidence to support any of that stuff about quasi-Jewish astrologers from somewhere to the right of Basra any more than there any evidence to support Reneke’s claim to have discovered the ‘star of Bethlehem’, but none of that matters, but if things run true to course, we only need to give it few years and some twat will turn up and knock out a book that claims that this whole load of tosh is the truth – minus all the anthropological stuff which demonstrates what a bunch of crap it all is, and maybe I’ll get a few off hits off Snopes out of it.
As for what to make of Reneke’s story, well I’m still halfway inclined to think that he’s pulling a fast one for the publicity and a bit of increase circulation for his magazine, even thought he’s quoted by the Telegraph as having said that:
“Often when we mix science with religion in this kind of forum, it can upset people. In this case, I think this could serve to reinforce people’s faith.”
Faith in what exactly? The gullibility of the kind of people who willingly swallow this crap?