(Above, the great conjunction of April 17th, 6 BC)
And now a quick explanation of what the ancient art of astrology is all about. The stars move across the sky at night because the earth rotates creating a 24 hour day. The stars shift position from night to night because the earth revolves around the sun in a 365 day year which changes what part of the sky we can see. But moving across this slowly changing background are the wandering stars, the planets. Across the background of stars they move at their own pace through the constellations. Ancient scientists realized the planets and the sun follow a line across the sky called the ecliptic. Today we know it as the plane of our Solar System. Because the planets constantly changed positions compared to the stars and each other people created meaning in the movements. They saw portents in the sky that foretold events on earth.
There is a trick to this whole astrology thing. The movement of the planets through the ecliptic has to match the calendar. The twelve month calendar is based upon the 28 day moon cycle. That cycle creates an imperfect 12 month year (it took until the 1600’s to fix the European calendar). The ancients needed 12 constellations along the ecliptic to match the months, but there are actually 13 constellations, and their boundaries are not evenly spaced. So, astrologers just changed the organization of the celestial sky to suit their purposes. The boundaries were shifted into 12 equally spaced zodiac signs that matched the calendar and Ophiuchus the thirteenth constellation was dropped from the list. Ophiuchus is the Serpent Bearer, and I don’t like snakes, so I’m good with this. What is important to understand is that people 2,000 years ago derived great meaning from this system. It doesn’t matter whether the system makes sense to us. What matters is what the Magi saw in the sky and the meaning they derived from it.
What they saw coming up was a major conjunction of the planets in the House of Ares in March and April of 6 BC. Not only was it major, it was a portent of a royal birth in the land of Judea. And if they could be the only astrologers to claim to have predicted it, they could really cash in. As the sun moved through a zodiac house, it meant that the portents the planets pointed had a great effect on the people born while the sun was in that sign. The House of Ares was associated with the Kingdom of Judea. From March to April Jupiter rose ahead of the Sun, which is what the phrase “we have seen his star in the east” meant to the Magi. Jupiter was associated with royalty, and was surrounded by the other planets. The other planets became the attendants in a royal procession. At the same time the Moon occulted, or passed in front of, Jupiter on March 20th and April 17th. The occultation of Jupiter was seen as a portent of a royal birth. All of these signs pointed to a royal birth happening in Judea in the spring of 6 BC. Upon seeing this in their tables, it was time for the Magi to hit the road.
Traveling in the ancient world was a dangerous and expensive proposition. It meant hiring security and servants to accompany the group. It meant spending more money on food and sleeping arrangements. And it meant losing potential income while on the move. The Magi could set up shop in a friendly community once they arrived in Palestine. A friendly town would have lots of Greeks, Persians and Romans in it. The Jewish community of the time period considered astrology a pagan practice and thus a terrible sin. Another cost was the gifts they had brought to present to the Judean King when the royal announcement was made. One always brought gifts to a King. However, they also hoped to receive gifts in return as a reward for successfully predicting the birth. These gifts would be further proof of their success back in Babylon. I hope you can see the motivation for this long and expensive trip. Predicting this birth was a home run for the Magi, and they hoped to parlay it into a big reward.
Tomorrow, catastrophe strikes when there is no royal birth. Jupiter goes into retrograde motion and they find the baby Jesus.
God bless you,