After Yeshua was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod,
Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked,
"Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?
We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." (Matthew 2:1-2)
In the day of atomic clocks and nanosecond precision, it may be difficult for us to imagine an error of possibly three to seven years in fixing the earthly starting point of the most important Life in history. Nevertheless, the basis of the modern calendar--linked supposedly to the year of Yeshua's birth, as calculated by the monk Dionysius Exiguus in 525 CE (AD)--has long been challenged. Today, common estimates of Yeshua's actual year of birth range from 7 BCE to 1 CE. But recent discoveries and today's computer technology have thrown new light on the historical circumstances surrounding Yeshua's birth, including the dating of certain key events.
This dating hinges on three Biblical assertions: The call for a Roman census brought Joseph and Miriam to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1); the death of King Herod occurred after Yeshua's birth (Matthew 2:19-20); and the appearance of a unique "star" brought the Magi to Jerusalem (Matthew 2:1-2). Of these three, the last two are closely linked in Matthew's Gospel and they have been the subjects of groundbreaking research in recent years.
Herod's Death and Messiah's Birth
Modern editions of Josephus' writings indicate that Herod died in 4 BCE, thus providing the latest possible date for the birth of Yeshua. All additional data (historical and astronomical) have been viewed in the light of this, supposedly solid, historical anchor. Recent research in earlier editions of Josephus' writings at the British Museum, however, has revealed that all modern editions have reproduced a copyist's error from the 16th century. Once corrected, the date of Herod's death according to these writings must be revised to 1 BCE, by early February, some ten weeks before Passover when Herod's son Archelaus departed for Rome to have the inheritance of his father's kingdom confirmed by Caesar (Antiquities XVII.9.3).
This corrected dating immediately opens the door for new astronomical confirmation. For example, Josephus indicates that Herod died shortly after executing two rabbis for inciting civil disobedience. He reports that on the day of the execution "that very night there was an eclipse of the moon" (Antiquities XVII.6.4). Computerized reconstruction shows that there was a total eclipse of the moon, visible from Judea, on January 10, 1 BCE. No comparable eclipse was evident in the years prior to this, something which had always posed a difficulty for the 4 BCE dating of Herod's death and Yeshua's birth.
"We have seen his star…"
Beyond this, the 1 BCE date for the death of Herod has also thrown a whole new light on the star of "the King of the Jews" which the Magi followed to Judea. The Magi, of course, belonged to an ancient caste of natural philosophers who served as court advisors in the countries east of the Roman Empire. Their expertise included astronomy/astrology and it is this which drove them to make the long and difficult journey from "the east" to Jerusalem. 'What had they seen and when had they seen it?' both Herod and we would like to know (Matt. 2:7).
On Rosh Hashanah, September 11, 3 BCE, Jupiter, the planet (literally "wandering star") representing Kingship and the birth of kings came into "conjunction" (apparent near-contact in the sky) with Regulus, the star of Kingship and the brightest star in the "king" constellation of Leo (the lion). Leo, in turn, was also associated with the tribe of Judah and the Jewish nation generally. A one-time conjunction of this kind would not have set the Magi packing; it was not so unusual. But when Jupiter entered a "retrograde phase"--seemingly reversing his direction relative to the fixed stars and later resuming his normal course--this conjunction repeated itself, not once but twice in the following months (February and May of 2 BCE). The uniqueness of the event was undeniable.
Finally, nine months after the first conjunction, on June 17, 2 BCE, Jupiter and Venus (the Mother planet) appeared in close conjunction as they were setting in the west shortly after sunset. In this once-in-a-millenium conjunction, also in the constellation of Leo, the two planets seemed to meld into one, forming the brightest "star" in the heavens that the Magi had ever seen. The inescapable conclusion to be drawn from the entire series of celestial events was clear: A great Jewish King had been born in the Land of Judea toward the setting sun.
"King Herod…was disturbed"
When the Magi arrived in Jerusalem seeking the newborn "King of the Jews," we are told that Herod "was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him" (Matt. 2:3). But why?
Much is known about Herod the King, especially from Josephus' writings, and all of it corroborates the character of the man as revealed in Matthew's Gospel. Herod was the son of an Idumean, Antipater, whom Herod claimed was Jewish. Rejected by the Jewish people as a Roman lackey, Herod was more than "disturbed." He was severely paranoid and during his reign he murdered every potential rival, including his Hasmonean wife and three of his own sons; the last one just five days before his own demise. Caesar Augustus was said to have commented wryly concerning the would-be Jew, "I would rather be his sow than his son."
As he was dying, Herod ordered all the most prominent Jews of Judea gathered into the hippodrome in Jericho, to be executed immediately upon his own death. This in order to assure that there would be national mourning at his passing--even if not for him personally (Antiquities XVII.6.5). Needless to say, Jerusalem had every reason to be "disturbed … with him."
A Standing Ovation
After learning that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, five miles to the south of Jerusalem, the Magi set out immediately to find him. It was night and they rejoiced to see Jupiter, the King's "wandering star," positioned due south, hovering over their destination (Matt. 2:9-10). Suddenly they noticed that Jupiter had just that night entered a retrograde phase again and so appeared to be standing still in the starry field, not having changed its position since the previous night. This final astronomical "coincidence" convinced them that God was confirming their quest and leading them on to the King.
It was the week of Hannuka when the Magi made this final trek and entered the "house" where Joseph had moved his family following Yeshua's birth at least forty days before (Matt. 2:11; cf. Luke 2:21-24). Already the young King is described not as an infant (brephos, cf. Luke 2:16) but as a child (paidion), indicating that in fact the birth had taken place some months earlier--perhaps already on the night of the June 17th celestial extravaganza. Computer reconstruction again can tell us exactly on which date Jupiter began its retrograde "loop" and "stood still" in the sky over Bethlehem. The day when the Magi laid their gifts before the King of the Jews was…December 25, 2 BCE.