How ancient astronomers observed the heavens
For the past 2,000 years, people have wondered about the identity and nature of the Star of Bethlehem. And for hundreds of years, some of the world’s smartest people—including famed astronomer Johannes Kepler—have tried to use science to find the answer. Dozens, if not hundreds, of natural solutions have been put forward to account for the Nativity story in Matthew 2:1–12.a However, no matter which astronomical phenomenon is suggested, there is one massive problem: Nearly all modern science-based solutions ignore how ancient people thought about and examined the sky.
As scientific advancements have drastically changed what we know about the sky, they have also drastically altered how we think about it. There is no guarantee that a particular celestial event identified by a modern astronomer would be seen as auspicious by ancient people—much less as predicting a future king—no matter how interesting or remarkable we might find that event today. But, if modern astronomy cannot identify the Star of Bethlehem, can ancient astronomy?
Ancient cultures throughout the Near East and Mediterranean had thriving and complex astronomical systems through which they examined and interpreted the sky. Although today these systems would more aptly be termed astral divination, in antiquity the difference between astronomy and astrology was negligible. After all, this is the reason the Magi would travel “from the East” (Matthew 2:1) upon seeing a star (see Book Review: The Magi in History and Tradition). These “wise men” did not operate according to any sort of modern principles; rather, they would have interpreted the sky in culturally specific ways, reading the sky as we would read a weather forecast today.
Although each system of ancient astronomy was unique, by the first century BCE many of them had come to prioritize highly regular and mathematically predictable events, such as lunar phases, eclipses, and the procession of the zodiac. Within Babylonian astronomy, already an ancient and revered system by the Roman period, nearly every repetitive event had its own significance, including every day, month, area of the sky, and celestial body. Yet these events were never taken on their own, and a wide range of factors could drastically impact their interpretation by astronomers—factors, such as weather patterns, that would have little or no bearing on the astronomy of today and are now irrecoverable in any case. An eclipse on a specific day, for example, may have indicated the death of a king, but the presence of clouds covering a particular side of the moon could have changed the king to which the signs referred, and thus whether it was a bad or good sign. More signs could then be layered on top of these, creating ever more complex results.
In antiquity, diagnostic manuals and charts existed for reading the heavens, such as the 70-tablet-long Babylonian text Enuma Anu Enlil, from which astronomers could base their interpretations. In practice, however, these interpretations were never as consistent and straightforward as one might expect. A similarly convoluted system existed in Roman astronomy. Ptolemy’s Apotelesmatika (second century CE), for example, listed seven separate regions that could be represented by an astronomical phenomenon in Aries: Britain, Gaul, Germany, Bastarnia, Syria, Idumea, and Judea. Yet many of these regions were not agreed upon by scholars of Ptolemy’s own age, which highlights the remarkably disparate range of possible interpretations.
Thus, we arrive at a twofold problem. First, ancient astronomers placed critical value on many astral phenomena that fall outside the purview of modern astronomy, including things as mundane as the weather. Second, interpretations of these events could vary greatly, even between individual astronomers who could choose which phenomena they focused on and which they did not.
Unfortunately, the Gospel of Matthew is of little help in pinning down what the Star of Bethlehem may have been. Despite the interpretive efforts of numerous scholars, Matthew’s description remains too vague, allowing for an incredible array of possible explanations before one even considers the many other phenomena that the ancients would have factored into their understanding of the sky.
Indeed, we cannot even be certain who the Magi were (see Book Review: The Magi in History and Tradition). While Matthew refers to them as magoi, a type of Zoroastrian priest from Persia, there is little evidence that such priests were common practitioners of astral divination. This word is used occasionally as a generic term for non-Greek scholars, including a group frequently called Chaldeans (Daniel 2:2), who were identified in Hellenistic times as practitioners of Babylonian astronomy. Yet even if we could connect the Magi to Babylonian astronomy with any confidence, the earlier twofold problem remains: ancient astronomers would have considered phenomena that we are unable to reconstruct in modern times; and even if we could, we would have no way of knowing exactly how the Magi themselves would have interpreted them.
While natural and scientific solutions have become increasingly popular, they fail to account for the insurmountable fact that in order to know what the Magi saw that night more than 2,000 years ago, we ourselves would need to be able to experience and know the world as they did. Perhaps those are things best left to the imagination rather than to modern science.
Nathan Steinmeyer is a Ph.D. candidate at Tel Aviv University where he specializes in the history and sociology of the Late Old Babylonian Period. His research interests also include the interconnection between the Hebrew Bible and its Near Eastern context. He is currently an assistant editor for Biblical Archaeology Review.
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