Featured The Star of Bethlehem: Mythology or not?

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Jochen1, Feb 23, 2021 at 5:40 AM.

  1. Jochen1

    Jochen1 Well-Known Member

    Dear Friends of ancient mythology!

    I know that Christmas was some time ago, but I don't want to deprive you of this article that I just rediscovered.

    "Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem in 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 have come to worship him." (Matthew 2: 1f.)

    "and, look, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was
    ." (Matthew 2:9)

    The pic shows the "Adoration of the Magi" of Giotto di Bondone (the great pioneer of the Italian Renaissance, 1267 or 1276-1337), a fresco in the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padova/Italy, c. 1303. Above the scene, one recognises the Star of Bethlehem in the shape of a comet. This may be the first depiction of Halley's Comet, which was visible to the naked eye in 1301.

    Since the late ancient times it was tried to explain these lines. When we try to explain the Star of Bethlehem we have in principle the following options:

    A. The Star has never existed. It was added later as sign of divinity and choiceness and so like the story of the virgin birth and other miracles.

    B. It was a supranatural phenomenon like e.g..an angel.

    But these explanations we should disregard until we don't have exhausted all possible scientific possibilities. And there we have several. If we ask wether a natural phenomenon exists which could explain the Star we have these interpretations:

    C. Scientifical explanations:

    (1) It was a comet. But this is surely wrong. First there was no comet found for the relevant time, and then in ancient time a comet was seen as sign for coming desaster (desaster = bad star!). It was only Julius Caesar who succeeded in re-interpretating a comet as sign for his divinity!

    (2) It was a supernova. Such phenomenon Kepler has first seen on October 10. 1604 in the sign of Ophiuchus and immediately thought of the Star of Bethlehem. But for the relevant time no supernova is known. And it couldn't not have been overlooked!

    (3) It was a special conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. Such conjunction Kepler could observe between the signs of Sagittarius and Ophiuchus. In error he suggested that this conjunction was the reason for the supernova.

    The last two explanation originates on Kepler. Strange to say Kepler didn't use these explanations but suggested a supranatural phenomenon. Since these times no other explanation was found and there was no scientifical discussion about the Star. But in 1999 the American astronomer Michael R.Molnar has published a new explanation. His ideas I want to share, because the starting point of his research was an ancient coin of Antochia!

    In AD 13/14 Antiochia started to struck a series of small bronze coins, showing on the rev. a ram and a star.

    The Coin:
    Syria, Antiochia ad Orontem, pseudo-autonomous, AD 13/14
    AE 21, 4.43g, 21.26mm, 315°
    struck under Metellus Creticus Silanus, governor of Syria
    Obv.: Bearded head of Zeus, r.
    Ram, leaping r., head turned back, star above
    beneath ΔΜ (year 44 of the Actian era)
    Ref.: SNG Copenhagen 97; SNG München 645; BMC 65; RPC 626, 4269
    about VF, black-brown patina, light roughness
    Q. Caecilius Metellus Creticus Silanus was legatus Augusti pro praetore in Syria AD 11-17

    Molnar starts from a new conception. Suggesting that the wise men from the east are men with knowledge of stars and planets and astronomy and astrology was not separated in ancient times, he puts himself in the world of ancient astrologers and asks what could have been the belief of the ancient astrologists. One of his main sources is the Tetrabyblos of Ptolemaios. In this work the ram (Lat. aries) was called the sign of "Judaea, Idumea, Samaria, Palaestina and Coele Syria", exact the countries ruled by King Herodes. So this coin may be edited to commemorate the take-over of Judaea by the Romans in Antiochia in AD 6. In any case not the Pisces (fishes) were the sign of Judaea, as it is claimed often today, possibly because the fish (Greek ichthys) was an important symbol of the early Christians. Others suggest the lion as the sign of Judaea probably because they think of the 'Lion of Juda'. Others suggest Virgo possibly because of the Virgin Mary. But actually it was Aries, the ram, where the ancient astrologers were looking in searching for news for Judaea.

    The star on the rev. of the coins not only is a sign of divinity but a symbol for Jupiter/Zeus too, who is depicted on the obv. So the rev. means "Jupiter in the sign of Aries". Naturally the coin itself has no direct relation to the birth of Jesus. But it was the starting point Molnar used to get new conclusions for the Star of Bethlehem

    "On April 17, 6 BC two years before King Herod died Jupiter emerged in the east as a morning star in the sign of the Jews, Aries the Ram. The account in Matthew refers twice to the Star being in the east with good reasons. When the royal star of Zeus, the planet Jupiter, was in the east this was the most powerful time to confer kingships. Furthermore, the Sun was in Aries where it is exalted. And the Moon was in very close conjunction with Jupiter in Aries. Modern calculations suggest that this was close enough to be an occultation (eclipse). But the Sun’s glare would have hidden that event. Saturn was also present which meant that the three rulers of Aries’ trine (Sun, Jupiter, and Saturn) were present in Aries. Saturn and Jupiter were said to be attendants on the rising Sun, another regal aspect for astrologers. By modern expectations this is trivial, but for ancient stargazers this configuration was truly awesome." (Molnar)

    Firmicus Maternus, an astrologer in the time of Constantine I, describes AD 334 in his Mathesis this constellation as condition for a divine and immortal nature. Because at this time he converted to Christianity he probably means Christus.

    "The lunar occulation of Jupiter on April 17, 6 BC was just one of several astrological conditions pointing to a king's birth. The greatness of a ruler or king was said to depend on the number of regal astrological effects at the time of birth. This distinguished, say, a low level governor from an emperor. Knowing that lunar conjunctions (close approaches) with Jupiter were one condition for a king's birth, I looked for the closest conjunctions, namely occultations in the time frame biblical scholars claim as likely for the birth of Jesus. I quickly focused on the occultation of April 17, 6 BC after realizing that Jupiter was also "in the east" in Aries. "In the east" is mentioned twice by Matthew because astrologers such as the Magi said this was the most important time for Jupiter to produce future kings. Moreover, the Moon's incredible nearness to Jupiter amplified that power. Keep in mind that astrologers of Roman times were making crude calculations of planetary positions to create horoscopes, but they could not predict eclipses or occultations as we now can. However, they could estimate when these were likely. But keep in mind that the occultation was the key to finding this incredible day which has many important conditions pointing to the birth of not just a king, but a great king in Judea." (Molnar)

    The ideas of Molnar I can report only heavily shortened. Naturally it is much more complicated and profund. For all interested in his ideas I recommend his book. Mr.Molnar is very friendly and you can ask him questions.

    Naturally there are objections too. The most important I think are these two:

    (1) Why only Matthew mentions The Star of Bethlehem and the Magi from the east? It is known that especially Matthew in his gospel makes an attempt to explain the story of Jesus as a fullfillment of old prophecies. "The birth of Jesus was never recorded. However, the evidence is that the early Christians did believe Jesus was born under the Star because the prophecy of Balaam (Num. 24:17) said the Messiah would be revealed by a regal Star.

    (2) The Tetrabiblos of Ptolemaios has been written 100 years after the gospels and the Mathesis of Maternus not earlier as in the time of Constantine I. Is it possible that the Babylonian astrologers could know these interpretations? And how could Matthew knew them?

    Although Matthew calls them Magi, they often were called 'The Holy Three Kings" and even their names are known (Kaspar, Melchior and Balthasar). It's not wide known that the bones of the Holy Three Kings are kept in a shrine in the Cathedral of Cologne and are one of the most import relics of the Catholic Church.

    (1) New Testament
    (2) Michael R. Molnar, The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi
    (3) Wikipedia

    Best regards
    BenSi, Ryro, DonnaML and 17 others like this.
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  3. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter Enrich the soldiers...ignore all others

    Interesting write up. I'm a mod on another forum (astronomy-related) where we discussed this question in December and most folks favored the occultation of the planets theory. Great article and coin @Jochen1
    +VGO.DVCKS and Roman Collector like this.
  4. philologus_1

    philologus_1 Supporter! Supporter

    That same reverse type was issued from Antioch in each of the 14 following years:
    5/6, 11/12, 12/13, 13/14, 55/56, 56/57, 57/58, 128/129, 141/142, 145/146, 146/147, 147/148, 156/157, & 158/159.

    In view of so many different years of issuance spread over such a long period of time, IF the reverse does indeed refer to the "Star of Bethlehem", then the year of issue most desired for a biblical coin collection would seem to be the earliest issue. That's why I added this one to my collection:
    (re: Date of 5/6: See page 90, #95, and corresponding footnote #73, in Richard McAlee's excellent reference work, The Coins of Roman Antioch.)

    I will add that I am not convinced that there is a connection between this coin type's reverse and the Star of Bethlehem.
    Last edited: Feb 23, 2021 at 10:32 AM
    Ryro, Alegandron, DonnaML and 6 others like this.
  5. dltsrq

    dltsrq Grumpy Old Man

    I tend to think that the pericope of the Star and the Magi is an example of prophesy historicized. There is a famous passage in Numbers (24:17) which, at any early period, was taken as a prophesy of the coming Messiah. By interpreting this 'Star Prophesy' through the words and deeds of the Magi, the evangelist makes the argument that the divine kingship of Jesus was so obvious that even pagan astrologers in distant lands could see it.
    Last edited: Feb 23, 2021 at 4:02 PM
  6. -jeffB

    -jeffB Greshams LEO Supporter

    I've long understood that the "star in the East" was an astrological, not an astronomical, phenomenon. I'm no student of the matter, though, and I doubt my sources were especially trustworthy.
  7. Marsyas Mike

    Marsyas Mike Well-Known Member

    Great write-up as always, Jochen1.

    Here's a worn example of the OP:

    Antioch - Star of Beth Lot Feb 2020 (0aa).jpg
    Autonomous / Augustus Æ 17
    Actian Year 44 (13-14 A.D.)
    Antioch, Syria
    Creticus Silanus as Governor

    Laureate head of Zeus right / [EΠIΣIΛANOY ANTIO]XEΩN Ram leaping right, looking back at large star, ΔM below.
    BMC 65-67; RPC 4269; McAlee 99.
    (7.97 grams / 18 mm)
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