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The Star of Bethlehem and the Magi

Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Experts on the Ancient Near East, the Greco-Roman World, and Modern Astronomy

Edited by Peter Barthel and George van Kooten

This book is the fruit of the first ever interdisciplinary international scientific conference on Matthew's story of the Star of Bethlehem and the Magi, held in 2014 at the University of Groningen, and attended by world-leading specialists in all relevant fields: modern astronomy, the ancient near-eastern and Greco-Roman worlds, the history of science, and religion. The scholarly discussions and the exchange of the interdisciplinary views proved to be immensely fruitful and resulted in the present book. Its twenty chapters describe the various aspects of The Star: the history of its interpretation, ancient near-eastern astronomy and astrology and the Magi, astrology in the Greco-Roman and the Jewish worlds, and the early Christian world – at a generally accessible level. An epilogue summarizes the fact-fiction balance of the most famous star which has ever shone.

Cover illustration: © Michael Farrell

The Star of Bethlehem and the Magi

Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Experts on the Ancient Near East, the Greco-Roman World, and Modern Astronomy

Series:

Edited by George H. van Kooten and Peter Barthel

This book is the fruit of the first ever interdisciplinary international scientific conference on Matthew's story of the Star of Bethlehem and the Magi, held in 2014 at the University of Groningen, and attended by world-leading specialists in all relevant fields: modern astronomy, the ancient near-eastern and Greco-Roman worlds, the history of science, and religion. The scholarly discussions and the exchange of the interdisciplinary views proved to be immensely fruitful and resulted in the present book. Its twenty chapters describe the various aspects of The Star: the history of its interpretation, ancient near-eastern astronomy and astrology and the Magi, astrology in the Greco-Roman and the Jewish worlds, and the early Christian world – at a generally accessible level. An epilogue summarizes the fact-fiction balance of the most famous star which has ever shone.

Series:

Owen Gingerich

Abstract

As a young teacher in Graz in the 1590s, Johannes Kepler became fascinated with the pattern of conjunctions of Saturn and Jupiter (which occur approximately every 20 years) and the way they moved around the zodiac in an 800-year cycle. He had the opportunity to follow the beginning of a new 800-year cycle in 1603–04 and was astonished when a brilliant (super)nova appeared near Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars on 11 October 1604. The time of the birth of Jesus would have been near another of these conjunctions, two 800-year cycles earlier, and Kepler conjectured that a conjunction just beginning a series in the so-called fiery signs could have triggered the star of Bethlehem. He recorded his conjectures in De stella nova (1606) and then again, with more chronological detail, in De vero anno (1614), in the year in which University of Groningen was established.

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Mathieu Ossendrijver

Abstract

The story of the magi (Matt 2:1–12) may be condensed as follows: scholars from the East observe a celestial phenomenon, which they interpret as a sign of the coming of a new king, to whom they go to pay homage. If summarized in this fashion, the story of the magi is not without its parallels. In particular, it is remarkably similar to stories about the encounters between Alexander the Great and Chaldean astrologers. In the Greco-Roman era, these accounts enjoyed a wide circulation, both in textual form and perhaps also as oral legends. In this chapter, the author argues that these accounts could have inspired the story of the magi, which may therefore preserve a reminiscence of events from the life of Alexander.

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Antonio Panaino

Abstract

The present contribution analyzes the story of the magi and their star as trans¬mitted by Matthew 2:1–12, with a special focus on the cultural relations between the Jewish and Iranian worlds. It further emphasizes the importance of these cultural relations in the framework of early Christianity, whose relevant Iranian horizon has not generally been given due consideration, at least outside of a restricted circle of spe¬cialists. The presence of the magi in Bethlehem, according to Matthew’s pericope, inevitably invites us to reflect on the origins of these wise men, who were able to recognize a special sign in the heavens and follow it in order to worship the newborn savior of the world. A number of historical events and earlier Mazdean religious doctrines provide a good cultural back¬ground for the mention of this priestly collegium in a Christian source at the end of the first century ce. This chapter offers a short overview of Iranian astral lore as well as its astrological Late Antique traditions and describes the main lines of some eschatological doctrines concerning the Mazdean expectation of the virgin birth of Zoroaster’s son. All these data are fundamental to a reconstruction of the historical meaning of the magi in the perspective of a person living in Palestine or the Middle East during and shortly after Jesus’ life. The final part of the chapter shows that many current explanations for the astral phenomenon appearing in Bethlehem are inadequate, as in the case of the millenarian doctrine of the Saturn/Jupiter conjunctions, which was not elaborated by Iranian astro¬no¬mers until Sasanian times. The author finally proposes a philological evaluation of the Greek text in the light of strict historical and comparative criticism, from which it appears that the text contains a strong symbolic and religious meaning, while strict astronomical interpretations are fre¬quen¬tly linguistically inappropriate and in some cases reflect a confessional mirage that counters historical reality, or at least historical plausibility.

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Albert de Jong

Abstract

Since the Greek word magos (a loan-word from Old Persian magu-) is semantically polyvalent, interpretations of the role and the literary function of the magi in Matthew’s narrative on the birth of Jesus and the Star of Bethlehem have tended to be very different. The important role of the Star of Bethlehem in Matthew chapter two has led many scholars to assume that the magi must appear in this story because they were widely known as experts in astrology. Knowledge of astrology, however, is not commonly attributed to the magi in Greek literature; this is the case independent of the question of whether the magi were seen as Zoroastrian priests or as practitioners of what has been called, after them, the art of ‘magic’. In the absence of convincing arguments for an astrological role of the magi, both in historical reality and in the Greek literary imagination, this chapter argues that the role of the magi in Matthew’s story must be interpreted in the light of their connection with kingship. This was a connection they had both in historical reality and in the imagined Persian courts of authoritative Greek authors.

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Roger Beck

Abstract

This chapter adheres to Albrecht Dieterich’s hypothesis that Matthew’s story (2:1–12) of magi following a “star” to Bethlehem was calqued on a notable historical event: the journey of actual Iranian magi to Rome in 66 ce. These magi were in the train of King Tiridates of Armenia, who came to pay homage to the emperor Nero, whom, according to Pliny (2:1–12), Tiridates “initiated into magian feasts.” On this premise, there is no connection in history between the birth of Jesus and real Iranian magi or, for that matter, Greco-Roman astrologers. The author demonstrates that historical Mithraism cannot be linked in any way to the development of Christianity or its stories in the first century ce. Furthermore, although Mithraists called themselves “Persians” (and were so called by others), and although there was an esoteric Mithraic myth that Zoroaster himself had founded the cult in a cave in “the moutains near Persia,” the evidence for the transmission of actual Iranian Mithra-worship to Rome is quite slim. The god Mithras was essentially re-invented in the Roman mystery cult. Finally, the evidence for Mithraism being saturated with astrology is very strong, but it was standard Greco-Roman astrology (stemming of course largely from Hellenistic Egypt), not an exotic, oriental variety.

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Stephan Heilen

Abstract

This chapter is devoted to a central point of Michael R. Molnar’s thesis regarding the Star of Bethlehem: the association of the zodiacal sign of Aries with Judea. After a demonstration that the planetary alignment of 17 April 6 bce envisaged by Molnar could indeed have been interpreted as a royal birth by a Hellenistic astrologer, this contribution provides the first complete survey of extant Greco-Roman systems of astrological geography, with detailed information on their different characteristics and two special analyses devoted to the systems of Paul of Alexandria (including comparisons with Mesopotamian presursors and the Book of Acts) and Claudius Ptolemy. It is argued that Paul of Alexandria’s is the oldest Hellenistic system and that Ptolemy’s system must, in view of its extreme sophistication, be largely Ptolemy’s own invention. Various scholarly hypotheses regarding the development of Hellenistic astrological geography are discussed. Based on these premises, the plausibility of Molnar’s assumption that the magi associated Aries with Judea is evaluated, with negative results. In addition, a seemingly important argument adduced by Molnar in support of his theory, the horoscope of emperor Nero, is critically assessed. His entire theory on the Star of Bethlehem turns out to be problematic. The contribution ends with a philological appendix on Matt 2:1–12.

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Jan Willem van Henten

Abstract

This contribution concerns the oracle about a world leader coming from the land of the Jews, as transmitted by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (Jewish War 6.300–315), which is paralleled in Tacitus (Histories 5.13) and Suetonius (Vespasian 4.5). The oracle plays an important role in Michael Molnar’s contextualization of Matthew’s Star of Bethlehem passage. Josephus and Tacitus set the oracle in the period of the Roman war against the Jews (66–70 ce) and connect it with portents indicating disaster. All versions state that the Jews misinterpreted the oracle, and that the ruler it pointed to was Vespasian (or Vespasian and Titus). The similarities between the three versions are so great that it is plausible that they are dependent on each other, or on a common source. The most probable explanation of the interdependency of the three versions is that Josephus is the source of the Latin versions. This explains how the oracle functioned as a reason for the Jews to revolt against the Romans. Josephus’ version may derive from a (messianic) passage in Jewish scripture, as Josephus states, but the content of the oracle is not specific enough to trace it to a specific passage in the Hebrew Bible.

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Kocku von Stuckrad

Abstract

Heavenly signs played a considerable role in the legitimization of political power in the ancient world. During imperial Roman times, astrology was closely tied to philosophy, religion, and politics, and the Romans’ expectation of a Golden Age had clear astrological and astral connotations. This chapter describes how these interpretations and expectations were adopted in Jewish politics, beginning with the Hasmoneans in the second century bce, continuing through the period of Herod the Great, up to the Bar Kokhba Revolt in the second century ce. In this discourse, the pagan prophecy of Balaam (Numbers 24:17) played a significant role. It influenced the motif of the Hasmonean Star that is prominent on coins and in other sources from that period and is often connected to astrological interpretations of Saturn and Jupiter. This chapter argues that the narrative about the Star of Bethlehem has a clear propagandistic function and must be regarded as fiction. It is based on a story about the mythical birth of a world leader and Jewish king, which was then probably linked to the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn and seen as further confirmation of these political and religious claims.