Astrology in the Christmas Story

In my quest to find out things that aren’t generally well known, I came across a DVD called Mystery of the Three Kings by Questar Entertainment.  I thought it brings up some really interesting points, some which really add to the Biblical story, while some details are a little strange.  Here are some of the interesting things I took from the video.

December 25 became Christmas Day because it descended from a Roman festival of the winter solstice.  Our current calendar incorrectly identifies the year of Jesus birth.  Our current calendar comes from a monk named Dennis the Little about 500 years after Christ’s birth.  Astronomer Michael Molnar said, “Even his fellow scholars argued with him, that he missed a few years.  But no one could agree on just how many he missed.”

In the Bible we learn that Christ was born during the time of Herod the Great.  Herod died about 4 BC.  As we know from the Bible, Jesus was born prior to the death of Herod, which would mean that Christ was born before 4 BC.  We are all familiar with Herod’s decree to kill all Jewish boys under the age of 2, on account of the Wise Men’s visit.  So, this would mean Christ must have been born around 6 BC.

The Book of Matthew refers not to kings, but “wise men”.  This term Magi comes from Greekmagoi, which is the Mages.  Biblical writers preferred the term “wise men” over the term “sorcerers”, which has a more negative connotation.  Note Magi is the source to the word “magician.”  The ancient historian Herodotus referred to Magi, as a mysterious religious community in Northern Iran (known as Persia).  Ancient artwork shows the wise men as ancient Persian priests, and many scholars believe the Magi came from Babylon.  Because they were highly regarded priests, they may have been mistaken for kings.

The religion they practiced was called Zoroastrianism, which is still in existence today.  It is the largest minority religion in Iran.  According to my friend from Iran, the country is approximately 90% Muslim, so all other religions are much smaller.  Of the smaller religions, Zoroastrianism is definitely the largest among the few Jews, Hindus, and Christians who do live there.  (When I told her that the wise men may have come from Iran, she was quite surprised to hear this.)

Zoroaster was founding prophet of Zoroastrianism, a religion that has been around longer than Christianity, and is about as old as Judaism.  It is a monotheistic religion.  Prophecy and miracles were a big emphasis.  Fire, representing light is a big part of their religious ceremonies.  They also believed in a Messiah, just as the Jews.  Persians also spoke Aramaic, just as the Jews did.

There is an ancient writing called the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy.  In this gospel, Zoroaster predicts the birth of Jesus, and the Magi’s journey to Jerusalem.  The sign of Zoroaster is predicted by a star.  The Magi were great astrologers.  Modern astrology is descended from the Magi.  In Babylon, stars were magical things.  The signs of the Zodiac are the same today as they were in Babylon.

So, the question arises as to what star might have appeared around 6 BC.  A clay tablet from Babylon (the Almanac of Sippa) in the British Museum tells of a great astronomical event.  Jupiter and Saturn aligned in 7 BC.  Astronomer Michael Molnar tells us that these planets were known to play the central role in kingship, or emporership.  Jupiter tells of the coming of a new king.  Saturn tells of the old ruler.  When these 2 planets aligned closely in the sky, it meant the change of one ruler to another.  Traditionally, the constellation of Pisces was the sign of Israel.  These 3 objects aligned 3 times in the year 7 BC.  This happens every 820 years, so it is a very unusual event.  Jupiter also was eclipsed by the moon, and occurred in the East, which would be April 17, 6 BC.  Molnar believes this is the date of the birth of Christ.  It is an extremely unusual event, and would have been greatly noticed by the Magi.

Herod was a vicious ruler, and was very paranoid.  He killed anyone who was a threat to his throne, killing 3 of his own sons, a brother, and had his brother-in-law who was high priest of the temple drowned.  These are a few of several examples where he had his rivals killed.  It makes sense that he would be quite threatened to learn of the Wise Men’s interpretation.

The Book of Matthew tells of 3 gifts the Wise Men gave:  gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Prof Deirdre Good of the General Theological Seminary in New York tells us the meaning of these particular gifts.  “The gift of gold is for royalty.  The gift of frankincense is for divinity.  The gift of myrrh is for death.”

Gold is a gift for an earthly king, and holds obvious symbolic significance.  Frankincense is used in incense, for many religious observances.  Frankincense was used by Jews in the temple, as well as a great number of other religions of the day.  It is made from the resin of rare trees.  It was so precious that it was literally worth its weight in gold.  Myrrh also comes from a rare plant (in Arabia) and is worth 7 times more than frankincense.  It’s use was for annointing the dead, as well as for healing properties.  In modern day use, it has anti-fungal properties, and there is some anti-cancer research regarding myrrh as well.  It would have been a gift for a physician.  Obviously, Jesus was a master physician with all the healings he performed.

Astronomer David Hughes tells us “Myrrh is used to anoint the dead.  You get this Christian attitude that even as Jesus was born, they knew he was going to die on the cross.”  While none of us would have any idea what to do with frankincense and myrrh, when we uncover how the ancient people felt, it helps us realize how valuable these gifts were.

Matthew and Luke seem to have some differing accounts of Jesus birth.  In Luke, the wise men visit a manger.  In Matthew, they visit a house.   One tradition has it that the Wise Men visited 12 days after Jesus birth, but it could also be that Jesus may have been as old as 2, since Herod ordered all male boys killed under the age of 2.

The gifts may have been a test for Jesus.  There is evidence that the Jews expected as many as 3 different Messiahs:  a spiritual one, a great warrior, and a healer.  When presented with the gifts, the idea was that if Jesus chose gold, he would have been an earthly ruler.  If he had chosen frankincense, he would have been a spiritual leader.  If he had chosen myrrh, he would have been a healer and miracle worker.  Legend has it that he chose all three, showing that he was all of the above.

Of course, the magi sneaked out of Judea due to the dream not to return to Herod.  Joseph was also warned in a dream to leave for Egypt.  These gifts would have been very helpful for their flight into Egypt.

I’ll continue with part 2 a little later.  At this point, I want to stop, and ask a question.  Does it bother you that the Wise Men may have been astrologers?

4 comments on “Astrology in the Christmas Story

  1. As far as thinking any less of the “wise men” I don’t at all. It actually makes sense since the 3 did not travel just the one night, but for several weeks to get there. I did not however know the meanings behind the gifts! Good info to have. Even better for a Christmas EQ or SS lesson!

  2. Dirthead,

    Thanks for commenting. I did include the gifts portion of this topic in a Sunday School lesson a couple of years ago. (I added it on my own–it mystifies me as to why the church manual never seems to care about when Easter and Christmas are–I would think that when these holidays approach, we should have some lessons geared towards them, instead of just slogging through the scriptures in order….)

    It is quite interesting to me that the Magi, or Wise men, were not Jews. How would we feel if a psychic like Jeanne Dixon, proclaimed Thomas S Monson as a true prophet? My guess is that we (as a church) would be uncomfortable with it. Would we want to include this kind of recommendation in the D&C, or P of GP? To me, this is analogous to the Magi’s recommendation in the New Testament. Frankly, I think most Christians take the Wise Men story at face value, but it isn’t quite so simple as that.

    It kind of reminds me of the story of Balaam–was he a prophet or not? He was not a jew, so didn’t have the priesthood, and he never claimed to worship the Jewish God…. (That’s quite an unusual story as well.)

  3. […] only visible to the Wise Men from the east.  After all, Herod wasn’t aware of the star.  In a previous post, some astronomers discussed when this star must have […]

  4. […] was only visible to the Wise Men from the east. After all, Herod wasn’t aware of the star. In a previous post, some astronomers discussed when this star must have […]

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