For years, astronomers have tried to puzzle out what made three astrologers travel from Persia to Israel at a certain date 2,000 years ago. Missing data, unclear sources, later additions and elisions, and religious bias make the job just more interesting. But are astronomers the right people to unravel an astrological puzzle?
Before we start talking of the star, let’s have a look at the available data. Jesus Christ was born sometime before the Birth of Christ. Makes sense, doesn't it? When good monk Dionysius Exiguus did the calculation of the birth date for Jesus Christ, his results were wrong by several years. It is generally believed today that Jesus was born before 4 BC and after 8 BC. And an exact date of birth is even less known, some think it was in November, others tend to go towards April. It was definitely not December 25th as this is one of those many assumed dates religious propagandists adopted to convert the pagans. And other churches, other dates; in the East it’s January 6th. No big help either.
The best known story is the one of the three kings coming to pay homage. It is not really in the bible and they weren't kings but magi; astrologers of the Zoroastrian religion maybe or even probably; Zoroastrian magi were renowned for their astrological skills at that time. But what could make three priests from Persia to look for in a foreign king? What induced them to travel across the known world?
Let’s set out what pieces we have in our puzzle. The only hint we have is in the Gospel of St Matthew, which was written somewhere in the first or second century AD, a long time after the facts had been mixed with wishful thinking. The gospel is therefore about as historically precise as my knowledge of the life and times of my great-grandfather based on family traditions. And it doesn't mention three wise men, only three gifts.
Like the Jews, Zoroastrians believe that a Messiah will one day come and establish the kingdom of God on earth. Like the Jews, they are still waiting for it to happen. But something triggered their interest 2,000 years ago to go and have a look at a contender. Obviously they had seen an astronomical event that was of importance, but just as obviously it wasn't important enough to invite Jesus for a recall.
So what happened in the skies above the East? A UFO? A comet? A supernova? Astronomers using state of the art programs on computers rolled back the skies to the time frame mentioned. We just have to assume that our computers do better than Dionysius Exiguus, but let’s pretend they do. What should they look for? The UFO is clearly out of question, as the beetles of Betelgeuse Zeta have little interest in earthly kings, and hovering for months, while three old men plodded through the desert seems asking a bit much even of highly evolved beetles.
A comet was first depicted by the Italian painter Giotto in 1301 still under the impression of Halley’s Comet passing. And a comet it couldn't have been, as comets are harbingers of destruction, war, and pestilence since times immemorial. True, if you look at the crusades, but not what would have impressed Zoroastrian priests. A supernova would fit the bill of being spectacular, but wouldn't it have asked for more than a cursory screening? Not being asked for a second interview looks like a more common place phenomenon.
That leaves our neighboring planets as guides, and seemingly in 7 B.C. there was a series of unusual constellations between Jupiter and Saturn, where they seemed to travel backwards or even stand still on certain days. And these occurrences repeated themselves over several months, enough time to get the old camel and do the hike. The phenomenon would have started in May, been repeated in September, and again in November. As the date of December was fixed only in 400 A.D. to coincide with the feast of Sol Invictus (The invincible Sun) and the feast of Mithra, the god of the Zoroastrians (in a belated try to tell them they should have given that second interview), this is at least a possibility.
At the same time, it would explain why the Zoroastrians were not convinced. A planet travelling backwards always means negative energy, and standing still is obviously immobility. Looking at all the sects that call themselves Christian Churches these days (no exceptions granted), they seem to have been uncannily right in that assessment. Insert the value of Jupiter as freedom and mental development (going backwards means less freedom and development reversed) and add to this the value of Saturn as angst, and you have the complete history of Christianity down pat.