Currently making waves in churches abroad and here in the Philippines are the website and DVD entitled “The Star of Bethlehem” by Frederick A. Larson, a litigation lawyer and professor at Texas A&M University. Essentially, Larson says that the Star of Bethlehem was “the planet Jupiter crowning the star Regulus in a rare triple conjunction in the constellation of Leo The Lion and then rendezvousing with the planet Venus.”
Reasons why Larson's theory is wrong
(1) Contrary to Larson's view, the vast majority of Biblical scholars and archeologists date Herod's death at 4 BC, based on the writings of Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Larson's theory therefore has a significant problem since Herod would be dead by the time the Magi arrive.
(2) Larson's theory about the Star of Bethlehem emphasizes Jupiter's retrograde motion. Some astronomers have also emphasized this retrograde motion but have come up with different explanations and conclusions.
(3) Larson's theory is based on a gross misinterpretation of Revelation 12.
Old theory, different spin
Despite what Larson's DVD seems to claim, this theory on the conjunctions of Jupiter, Regulus and Venus being the Star of Bethlehem is not original with him. More than twenty five years ago, Roger W. Sinnott, writing in the astronomical journal Sky and Telescope, was the first to draw attention to this unusual conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in 2 B.C.E.
Seventeen years ago, Professor Ernest L. Martin in his book “The Star that Astonished the World” positively identified this conjunction of Jupiter with Regulus and then with Venus on June 17, 2 B.C.E. as the Star of Bethlehem. Martin (a follower of Herbert W. Armstrong’ s Worldwide Church of God) even went so far as to claim that Christ’s birth took place on September 11, 2 B.C.E. Because of Martin’s research, planetariums all over the world have been showing these spectacular celestial events.
Way back in 1987, astronomer John Mosley of the Griffith Observatory wrote about Martin's theory in his book “The Christmas Star.” (Please watch the Flash movie based on Mosley’s book to learn more about planetary conjunctions and retrograde motion.)
Larson in the FAQ section of his website acknowledges the previous research of Sinnott and Martin. He distinguishes his project and DVD however as being “built upon a leap of insight which is entirely new: that the Star of Bethlehem is part of a celestial poem that begins at Christ's conception and birth, but concludes with great drama on the day of the Cross.” Larson propounds the Biblical basis for his theory in what he calls the nine points of Christ's Star. The exact quotes from his website are posted below:
In 3/2 BC, Jupiter's retrograde wandering would have called for our magus' full attention. After Jupiter and Regulus had their kingly encounter, Jupiter continued on its path through the star field. But then it entered retrograde. It "changed its mind" and headed back to Regulus for a second conjunction. After this second pass it reversed course again for yet a third rendezvous with Regulus, a triple conjunction. A triple pass like this is more rare. Over a period of months, our watching magus would have seen the Planet of Kings dance out a halo above the Star of Kings. A coronation.
By the following June, Jupiter had finished crowning Regulus. The Planet of Kings traveled on through the star field toward another spectacular rendezvous, this time with Venus, the Mother Planet. This conjunction was so close and so bright that it is today displayed in hundreds of planetaria around the world by scientists who may know nothing of Messiah. They do it because what Jupiter did makes such a great planetarium show. Jupiter appeared to join Venus. The planets could not be distinguished with the naked eye. If our magus had had a telescope, he could have seen that the planets sat one atop the other, like a figure eight. Each contributed its full brightness to what became the most brilliant star our man had ever seen. Jupiter completed this step of the starry dance as it was setting in the west. That evening, our Babylonian magus would have seen the spectacle of his career while facing toward Judea.
You can read from the website or watch from the DVD the research, Biblical and scholarly bases for Larson’s claim that the conjunctions of Jupiter, Regulus and Venus were the Star of Bethlehem. You can then decide for yourself whether he is right or not about the Star of Bethlehem. As noted above, astronomers have confirmed long ago that there was a spectacular conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in 3/2 B.C. In Larson's own research, he used the Starry Night software based on the well-established laws on planetary motions by 17th century astronomer Johannes Kepler. (Kepler himself had his own theory about the Star of Bethlehem being a supernova.)How can the Magi interact with a dead Herod?
In a December 2007 Baptist Press article, Michael Foust quotes the objections to Larson’ theory by Professor Denny Burk of Criswell College in Dallas:
Scholars long have known Jupiter and Venus were in conjunction around the time of Christ's birth, but few have gone so far as Larson in describing it in such detail.
Denny Burk, professor of New Testament at Criswell College in Dallas, said he believes Larson's theory has some problems but applauded him for putting together a "fascinating" DVD.
Among concerns Burk has with Larson's theory is that Larson "goes beyond what the Bible teaches was the symbolic significance of the Bethlehem star," and that Matthew "gives some indications that the Bethlehem star was a miraculous sign" and not a "natural (though unusual) alignment of the stars." Additionally, Burk said, the "vast majority of scholars" date Herod's death to 4 B.C., although he said there is a minority viewpoint putting it at 1 B.C. If Herod died in 4 B.C., Larson's theory would have a significant problem, since Herod would be dead by the time the Magi arrive.
Larson in defending his work cites a recent study of Josephus’ earliest manuscripts reportedly conducted by the British Library in London and the American Library of Congress. The study allegedly revealed a copying error in 1544 that caused all of Josephus’ manuscripts in both libraries dating after 1544 to say Herod died in 4 BC when all Josephus’ writings before 1544 concluded Herod’s death was in 1 BC.
However, Nick Strobel in his article “The Star of Bethlehem, An Astronomical Perspective” defends the 4 B.C.E. date of Herod’s death. He says that Herod’s three sons (Herod Antipas, Philip, and Archelaus), among whom his kingdom was divided, all reckoned their reigns began from 5 - 4 B.C.E.Star Wars: Aries versus Leo, other conflicting theories by astronomers
Larson emphasizes in his theory Jupiter’s retrograde motion to explain among other things, Matthew’s account that the star stopped over Christ’s birthplace. However, Strobel in his article cites theories by astronomers Ivor Bulmer-Thomas and Michael Molnar which make use of Jupiter's retrograde motion but which differ from Larson’s view.
Molnar of Rutgers University in New Jersey, USA, explains in his website "Revealing the Star of Bethlehem" that the Star was the retrograde motion of Jupiter in the Aries constellation and a conjunction with the Moon in 6 B.C.E. As Molnar puts it, “Other investigators of what the Star was were not only looking in the wrong constellation but they were also looking for the wrong celestial phenomenon.” (Molnar first published his findings in 1991.)
Larson's theory, as noted above, is that the Star was “the planet Jupiter crowning the star Regulus in the constellation of Leo The Lion in a rare triple conjunction and then rendezvousing with the planet Venus in 3/2 BC.” In a CBS 11 News (Forth Worth) story, SMU adjunct professor of astronomy and physics John Cotton said Larson's approach is flawed, in part because he did not research ancient astrology as Molnar did. (In ancient days, astronomy and astrology were indistinguishable.)
Larson also states, “This association of Messiah with the tribe of Judah and with the lion is a productive clue. It clarifies the connection between Jupiter's behavior and the Jewish nation, because the starry coronation—the triple conjunction—occurred within the constellation of Leo, The Lion. Ancient stargazers, particularly if they were interested in things Jewish, may well have concluded they were seeing signs of a Jewish king.”
Molnar, on the other hand, dismisses this association of the tribe of Judah with the constellation Leo: “For religious and astronomical reasons people have proposed Pisces the Fishes as the site of the Star. A fish is a powerful Christian symbol. Also the spring equinox moved into Pisces close to the time of Jesus’ birth. So people assumed that Pisces was the sign for the dawning of Christianity – a beautiful but erroneous conclusion. Others have proposed Leo the Lion (thinking that this was the Lion of Judah), and others like Virgo the Virgin (believing that this was the Blessed Virgin Mary). Another notion claims “the manger” of Cancer the Crab. There are other clever ideas using Greek mythology and Christian symbols which have no basis in the ancient texts on Greek astrology.”
Larson’s theory is based on a gross misinterpretation of Revelation 12
In my opinion, what makes Larson’s theory wrong is his gross misinterpretation of Revelation 12. Let me explain. First let’s see what Revelation 12 is all about:
Revelation 12 (KJV)In his website and DVD, Larson explains Revelation 12 this way:
1. And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:
2. And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.
3. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.
4. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.
5. And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.
6. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.
7. And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels,
8. And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.
9. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
10. And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night.
11. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.
12. Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.
13. And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man child.
14. And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.
15. And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood.
16. And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth.
17. And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.
The last book of the New Testament is, in part, a prophetic enigma. But a portion of the Book of Revelation provides clear and compelling guidance for our astronomical investigation. The apostle John wrote the book as an old man while in exile on the island of Patmos. Perhaps the austerity of this exile or a lack of companionship left him time to ponder the night sky. Whatever the reason, Revelation is full of star imagery. In Chapter 12, John describes a life and death drama played out in the sky: the birth of a king.Summing up Larson’s interpretation of Revelation 12, the dragon is Herod, the woman in travail or about to give birth is Mary and the child is Christ. (This is also the interpretation of Philip Yancey in his book “The Jesus I Never Knew” if I remember correctly.)
1 A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. 3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. 4 His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. 5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron sceptre...
A woman in labor, a dragon bent on infanticide and a ruler of the nations. We have already seen this ruler in the Book of Genesis, above. This would be the Messiah, in his role as King of Kings. If that interpretation is correct, then according to the gospel story the woman would be Mary, the mother of Jesus. The dragon which waits to kill the child at birth would be Herod, who did that very thing. John says the woman he saw was clothed in the Sun. She had the moon at her feet. What can he be describing? When we continue our study of the sky of September of 3 BC, the mystery of John's vision is unlocked: he is describing more of the starry dance which began with the Jewish New Year.
As Jupiter was beginning the coronation of Regulus, another startling symbol rose in the sky. The constellation which rises in the east behind Leo is Virgo, The Virgin. When Jupiter and Regulus were first meeting, she rose clothed in the Sun. And as John said, the moon was at her feet. It was a new moon, symbolically birthed at the feet of The Virgin.
What is the proper interpretation of Revelation 12?
1. Revelation 12 is prophecy of events yet to happen (i.e. the Tribulation) and not the Apostle John’s backward look at the events of Christmas as reported in the Gospels.
2. If King Herod was the dragon mentioned in Revelation 12, then what does verse 3 mean by the dragon having “seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads”? What exactly did Herod do when verse 3 says “his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth”?
3. If Mary was the woman mentioned in Revelation 12, what does verse 6 mean when it says, “And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days”?
4. Larson’s interpretation of Revelation 12 smacks of Roman Catholic imagery and Marian veneration. Take note again of Larson's explanation: "The constellation which rises in the east behind Leo is Virgo, The Virgin. When Jupiter and Regulus were first meeting, she rose clothed in the Sun. And as John said, the moon was at her feet. It was a new moon, symbolically birthed at the feet of The Virgin."
5. I don’t agree with everything that Ptr. John Macarthur says but I think that his explanation of Revelation 12 is what the chapter really is all about. He says in his study Bible that:
[a] The woman is not an actual woman but a symbolic representation of Israel, pictured in the OT as the wife of God (Is. 54:5,6; Jer. 3:6-8; Ezek. 16:32; and Hos. 2:16). The phrase “cried out in pain” refers to Israel which is often pictured as a mother giving birth (Hos. 13:13; Mic. 4:10; 5:2,3; Matt. 24:8). Israel had agonized and suffered for centuries, longing for the Messiah to come and destroy Satan, sin, and death, and usher in the kingdom.BibleGateway’s commentary on Revelation 12 and even Matthew Henry’s Commentary present another view of who the dragon and the woman are. These views are somewhat different from Macarthur’s view but still, they do not equate the dragon with Herod and the woman with Mary as Larson does.
[b] The phrase “clothed with the sun ... moon under her feet ... twelve stars” speaks of the exalted status of Israel, the people of promise who will be saved and given a kingdom. The picture of the moon under her feet possibly describes
God's covenant relationship with Israel, since new moons were associated with worship (1 Chr. 23:31; 2 Chr. 2:4; 8:13; Ezra 3:5; Ps. 81:3).The 12 stars represent the 12 tribes of Israel.
[c] The phrase “a male Child” refers to Jesus Christ. In His incarnation, Christ was of Jewish descent (Matt. 1:1; 2 Tim. 2:8). Despite Satan's efforts to destroy Israel and the messianic line, Jesus' birth took place as predicted by the prophets (Is. 7:14; 9:6; Mic. 5:2). The phrase “to rule all nations with a rod of iron” refers not to Christ’s earthly ministry as recorded in the Gospels but to his future millennial rule.
[d] The great dragon is Satan. The woman's mortal enemy is Satan, who appears as a dragon 13 times in Revelation. The phrase “seven heads ... ten horns ... seven diadems” is figurative language depicting Satan's domination of 7 past worldly kingdoms and 10 future kingdoms. He has inflicted relentless pain on Israel (Dan. 8:24), desiring to kill the woman before she could bring forth the child that would destroy him.
[e] The period of “one thousand two hundred and sixty days” (42 months or 3 1/2 years) is the midpoint of the Tribulation when the Antichrist breaks his covenant with Israel, puts a stop to temple worship, sets up the abomination of desolation and devastates Jerusalem (11:2). At this point, many Jews flee for their lives.
Should we really be concerned about explaining scientifically what the Star of Bethlehem was?
Larson should have presented his theory as just that, a theory. A credible theory it may be but it is not a fact. Molnar states that his explanation is probably the best answer to what the Star was. He leaves the conclusion, however, with his readers. As he states in his website, “I am told that I have the best answer. Whether it is the correct answer can only be determined by your examination of my findings.”
The issue of what the Star of Bethlehem was has been vigorously discussed and debated down through the centuries. But should we really be concerned about explaining scientifically what the Star of Bethlehem was? A. W. Tozer decades ago in his essay “That Incredible Christian” probably said it best:
The current effort of so many religious leaders to harmonize Christianity with science, philosophy, and every natural and reasonable thing is, I believe, the result of failure to understand Christianity and, judging from what I have heard and read, failure to understand science and philosophy as well.
At the heart of the Christian system lies the cross of Christ with its divine paradox. The power of Christianity appears in its antipathy toward, never in its agreement with, the ways of fallen men. The truth of the cross is revealed in its contradictions. The witness of the church is most effective when she declares rather than explains, for the gospel is addressed not to reason but to faith. What can be proved requires no faith to accept. Faith rests upon the character of God, not upon the demonstrations of laboratory or logic.