Christmas Possibilities from Story of Christ's Birth
- Monday, December 22, 2003
It seems that nearly every year, someone floats a new theory to explain and rationalize the Star. One popular theory notes that Halley's Comet would have visited Earth in 12 AD, and that this was the Star of Bethlehem. There is even a painting of the nativity that shows a comet in the sky above the stable. Another recent theory would suggest that there was a conjunction (or grouping) of several bright planets that occurred near the time of Jesus' birth. This conjunction would have had astrological significance suggestive of a royal portent that would have been understood by "magi" and "astrologers" of the time.
The problem with these and any other such theories is that there is no way to prove any of them one way or other. In this writer's opinion, the Star of Bethlehem was a strictly supernatural event. For one thing, in the brief description in the Biblical account, the Star does not seem to behave like a natural star, rising and setting over the span of a night. In any case, we should be wary of attempts to provide a natural, scientific explanation for everything in the Bible. In so doing we would subordinate God's Word to the shifting sands of scientific methodology, and grant human reasoning greater authority than Scripture.
Even if we could establish a specific natural event for the Star of Bethlehem, the problem is complicated by the fact that we don't know exactly when Jesus was born. This is ironic since we know the birth dates of many others from antiquity, such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. In fact, other than some sparse references from the writings of Flavius Josephus and Pliny the Younger, there are really no literary sources outside of the Bible that even discuss Jesus himself. It is ironic that Jesus is the most important person in history and yet the least documented.
In our common calendar, Jesus' birth should have occurred in the year 1 AD. This date was determined by a Roman monk named Dionysius Exiguus in 532 AD. Like many, Dionysius was aware that the phases of moon would recurrently fall on the same days of the week in a cycle of 19 years. He also noted that with the four-year "leap year" cycle, the solstices and equinoxes would fall on the same days of the week every 28 years (4 years times 7 days in a week). So Dionysius proposed that the Moon's phases and the seasons would both recur on the same weekdays in a cycle of 532 years (19 times 28 years).
For some reason unknown to us today, Dionysius simply proclaimed that the year he proposed his calendar was at the end of a cycle that began in the year of Jesus' birth. There is no evidence as to whether Dionysius had a source for this assertion, or if he just made it up. But Dionysius' cycle was not commonly used until it was promoted by the Venerable Bede around 700 AD. Bede wrote:
"But Dionysius, a venerable abbot of Rome... chose instead to designate the years from the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, so that the source of our hope might be the more evident to us, and that the cause of man's restoration, that is, our Redeemer's Passion, might be more clearly manifest."
And this was the beginning of counting the years according to Anno Domini (A.D), "the Year of Our Lord." It was certainly a noble purpose, but we find no critical evidence from either Dionysius or Bede to authoritatively date the birth of Jesus.
The most popular historical theory says that Jesus was actually born in 4 BC. This year would have been the 750th year since the founding of Rome and the 25th year of the reign of the Emperor Caesar Augustus. So for these reasons and other, the experts think that this year was a cause for celebration by Augustus, and therefore a more likely time to issue a decree "that all the world should be taxed," as we read in Luke 2:1. Maybe so, but maybe no. This is a reasonable scholarly inference, but again there is no specific hard evidence.
Most folks would agree that Jesus was not born around the winter solstice, which is when we celebrate Christmas. After all, we read in Luke 2:8 that the shepherds were tending the fields at the birth of Jesus. I've read that the shepherds only stayed out at night with the sheep in the spring, when baby lambs were being born. This is a neat picture, since Jesus, as the Lamb of God, would have been born in the season of the natural lambs. Others make arguments for other seasons, but again, the text of Scripture offers no clue as to the season.
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