Of course, it didn’t work out the way they had planned. There was no royal birth in the family of King Herod the great of Judea in the spring of 6 BC. This was a catastrophe for the Magi. They had invested a ton of money into the enterprise and so far they had nothing to show for it. What does an ancient astrologer do in a crises like this? They consulted their star charts and astrology tables for the answer.
What they saw there was Jupiter entering retrograde motion in the house of Taurus on August 23rd. Retrograde motion of the outer planets is a wonderful optical illusion. The Earth’s orbit is shorter and faster than Jupiter’s, and so every so often we catch up to Jupiter and pass it. When that happens, Jupiter appears to stop against the background of stars for a week. Then the big planet moves in the opposite direction than it normally does for several months. It then stops a second time for a week and proceeds on its merry way. A modern astronomer knows that Jupiter never stops and also knows that retrograde motion is due to the different speeds of the planets and the changing angle of view. However, to an ancient astrologer, planetary retrograde motion was an amazing phenomenon that portended great things. The meaning they assigned to this event was that it enhanced greatly whatever qualities the portents were predicting. In other words, if I was born under a sign that foretold I would be a leader, and Jupiter was in retrograde motion at the same time, the portent would mean that I would be a great leader. Thus when the Magi looked at their tables, they saw that Jupiter would move backwards out of Taurus and back into Ares and stop for a week on December 19th. They would have interpreted this to mean that the royal birth would happen in the winter of 6 BC rather than the spring. They were back in the hunt.
I would also like to point out that during planetary retrograde motion, the wandering star, in this case Jupiter, stops in the sky. “And, lo, 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 planet (wandering star) was “moving before them”, which meant that it was moving against the background of stars. The language used in these quotes is exactly the same language ancient astrologers used to describe retrograde motion.
How did the Magi find Jesus? At the time there were several prophets proclaiming the coming of the Messiah in the Jerusalem Temple. Simeon (Luke 2:25-35) and Anna (Luke 2:36-38) were probably typical of the people who came to the temple and prophesied in the outer courts. Word may have reached the Magi of their preaching and they went to speak with them. Both Simeon and Anna were aware of Mary and Joseph and so they could have sent the Magi to Bethlehem. Of course this common couple and their new born were not what the Magi expected. But what the heck? Prophets had proclaimed Jesus the King of the Jews, and that meant the Magi could return home and proclaim victory. And of course, cash in.
One last detail before I wrap up our Christmas story. Why would a good Jewish boy like Matthew associate the worst of sinners, astrologers, with the coming of the Jewish Messiah? Deuteronomy 18:10 condemns anyone who practices divination or reads omens, which is what astrologers did. No good God fearing 1st century Jew would have anything to do with someone who cast horoscopes. So why would Matthew write this story? Because it is true. As strange as it sounds, the more unlikely a story is the more likely it is to have happened. For the simple reason that if Matthew was to make up a story about the birth of God’s anointed King, he would follow the OT tradition of miraculous birth announcements, like Sarah and Abraham in chapters 17 and 18 of the book of Genesis. Instead Matthew tells his mostly Jewish audience that the birth of Jesus was predicted by sinful Babylonian diviners. It’s so crazy it must be true.
So, next time someone brings up the question of The Star of Bethlehem, you can say; why it was Jupiter in retrograde motion, of course.
I hope you have enjoyed this brief explanation. If you wish to know more, I heartily recommend the books I listed in the beginning of this narrative.
God bless you,