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Kepler's View of the Star of Bethlehem and The Babylonian Almanac for 7/6 B.C.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 August 2014


Modern discussion of what identifiable astronomical phenomenon lies behind the biblical story of the so-called Star of Bethlehem was effectively begun by the astronomer Johann(es) Kep(p)ler (1571–1630), mathematician to Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor 1576–1612. In the years 1604–5 a supernova appeared in the constellation Ophiuchus and excited considerable discussion in Europe. Kepler kept a detailed record of his observations of the star. In the preceding year, 17 December 1603, at Prague he had also witnessed a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn with Mars moving into the vicinity soon after, which interested him in his capacity as court astrologer. The supernova appeared in the neighbourhood of these three planets. In medieval times the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, known as the “great conjunction” (recurring only once every 19·86 years on average), was regarded as of great astrological significance. Kepler calculated that a similar conjunction with Mars moving into the vicinity soon after had occurred in the year 7 B.C. = Julian year 39. On that occasion the conjunction had been a triple conjunction, a very much rarer event than the normal single conjunction.

Research Article
Copyright © The British Institute for the Study of Iraq 1984

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1 Matthew 2, 1–12.

2 Kepler's works are edited by Max Caspar in five volumes, Kepler, Johannes, Gesammelte Werke, I–V (Munich, 19381953)Google Scholar. The volumes relevant to the present article are I, pp. 147–390 (De Stella Nova; Prague and Frankfurt, 1606)Google Scholar and V, 5–126 (De Anno Natali Christi; Frankfurt, 1614)Google Scholar, cited here as Kepler I and Kepler V.

3 Clark, D. H. and Stephenson, F. R., The historical supernovas (Oxford, 1977), 191206CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The constellation Ophiuchus was also known in Kepler's time as Serpen tarius.

4 Kepler I, 157–65 and 208–17Google Scholar.

5 Kepler I, 197 ffGoogle Scholar.

6 Kepler used a Julian era, starting with the introduction of the Julian calendar on 1 January 45 B.C.

7 The three conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn occurred on 27 May, 6 October, and 1 December 7 B.C. according to modern calculations. See note 23 below.

8 Velificatio seu Theoremata de anno ortus ac mortis Domini, deque universa Jesu Christi in came oeconomia (Graz, 1605)Google Scholar. Known to us only by title from Kepler I, 359 and 445Google Scholar; copies are preserved in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, and the Steiermarkische Landesbibliothek, Graz (information courtesy Miss I. Seybold).

9 Bickerman, E. J., Chronology of the Ancient World (London, 1968), 81Google Scholar; Finegan, J., Handbook of Biblical Chronology (Princeton, 1964), 132Google Scholar.

10 For Kepler's original statement of this view see Kepler I, 279–80 (and 359–60)Google Scholar; it is repeated in Kepler V, 95–7Google Scholar (see also 298–9). Part of Kepler V, 96–7Google Scholar is translated into German in Kritzinger, H. H., Der Stern der Weisen (Gütersloh, 1911), 44–5Google Scholar.

11 The literature on the subject is vast and ever increasing. The most useful bibliography is to be found in Hughes, D., The Star of Bethlehem mystery (London, 1979)Google Scholar, which is a comprehensive discussion of the various theories and the astronomical phenomena. The following works, consulted in the preparation of the present article, explicitly or implicitly ascribe the planetary conjunction hypothesis to Kepler: (1) Maunder, E. W., The astronomy of the Bible (London, 1908), 396–7Google Scholar. (2) The Christmas star (Anon., Morrison Planetarium; California, 1954), 1214Google Scholar. (3) Keller, W., The Bible as history (English edition; London, 1956), 328–36Google Scholar. (4) Montefiore, H. W., “Josephus and the New Testament”, Novum Testamentum 4 (1959), 140–8Google Scholar. (5) J. Finegan, op. cit., 245–6. (6) d'Occhieppo, K. Ferrari, “Jupiter und Saturn in den Jahren -125 und -6 nach babylonischen Quellen”, Osterreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften Sitzungsberichte, Abt. II, 173 (Wien, 1964), 343–76Google Scholar (see also Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 19 (1978), 517–20Google Scholar). (7) Clark, D. H., Parkinson, J. H., Stephenson, F. R., “An astronomical re-appraisal of the Star of Bethlehem”, QJRAS 18 (1977), 443–9. (8) D. Hughes, op. cit., 96–100Google Scholar (see also his earlier article in Nature 264 (1976), 513–17Google Scholar and the resulting correspondence in Nature 268 (1977), 565–7)Google Scholar.

12 Ideler, L., Handbuch der mathematischen und technischen Chronologie II (Berlin, 1826), 399401Google Scholar.

13 Caspar, M., Kepler (English edition; London and New York, 1959,Google Scholar translated and edited by C. Doris Hellman), 156. See also Caspar's, Nachbericht in Kepler I, 445Google Scholar. Correct accounts of Kepler's view are also given by Kritzinger, H. H., Der Stern der Weisen (Gütersloh, 1911), 34–5 and 44–5Google Scholar, Schaumberger, J., “Textus cuneiformis de Stella Magorum?”, Biblica 6 (1925), 444–9Google Scholar, and Mosley, J., “When was that Christmas star?”, Griffith Observer (Los Angeles), 12 1980, 29Google Scholar.

14 Caspar, M., Kepler, 153Google Scholar. See also Schlaumberger, J., Biblica 7 (1926), 300Google Scholar n. 1, and 24 (1943), 165 f.

15 Not 805 years as stated by Finegan, op. cit., 245. Ideler, whom Finegan cites, gives the figure 794 years 4 months 12 days. The misunderstanding is taken a stage further by Hughes, op. cit., 96–7, perversely correcting the chronological scheme devised by Kepler, (Kepler I, 183)Google Scholar.

16 Kepler I, 279Google Scholar.

17 Luard, H. R., Annales Monastici IV (London, 1869), 491Google Scholar: “Saturnus et Jupiter eodem anno erant in conjunctione in Aquario, quod non contigit post Incarnationem, nee multo tempore secundum astronomicos iterum eveniet ut aestimatur.”

18 Newton, R. R., Mediaeval chronicles and the rotation of the earth (Baltimore and London, 1972), 691Google Scholar; D. H. Clarke et al., op. cit., 447; Botley, C. M., Nature 268 (1977), 565Google Scholar; D. Hughes, op. cit., 94–6.

19 That conjunction took place on 31 December 1285 at 308° in Aquarius, while the 7 B.C. conjunctions took place between 345° and 351° in Pisces. See Tuckerman's tables cited in note 23 below.

20 Ideler, loc. cit.

21 Kepler I, 279Google Scholar.

22 Rev.Pritchard, C., “On the conjunctions of the Planets Jupiter and Saturn in the years 7 B.C., 66 B.C., and A.D. 54”, Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society, 25 (1857), 119–24Google Scholar (summarized in the Monthly Notes of the R.A.S., 16 (1856), 215–16Google Scholar).

23 Tuckerman, B., Planetary, Lunar, and Solar Positions 601 B.C. to A.D. 1 (= Memoirs of the America Philosophical Society, 56Google Scholar; Philadelphia, 1962), 330. Similar tables for A.D. 2 to A.D. 1649 are published in M.A.P.S. 59 (1964). For other similar tables see Stahlman, W. D. and Gingerich, O., Solar and Planetary Longitudes from –2500 to + 2000 (University of Wisconsin Press, 1963)Google Scholar.

24 See note 11 above.

25 The data on the angular separation of the planets is presented in the form of a graph by Clark et al., op. cit., 447, and Hughes, op. cit., 115. Pritchard, op. cit., reached the same conclusion.

26 Kritzinger, Ferrari d'Occhieppo, and Hughes. See notes 11 and 13 above. Pritchard and Schaumberger reject the idea without proposing alternative astronomical hypotheses.

27 Sinott, R., Sky and Telescope, 36, no. 6 (Cambridge, Mass., 12 1968), 384–6Google Scholar; Mosley, J., Griffith Observer, 12 1980, 29Google Scholar.

28 Clarke, et al., QJRAS 18 (1977), 443–9Google Scholar, and The Historical Supernovae, 40–56. The idea goes back to Foucquet, J. F., Tabula Chronologica Historiae Sinicae (Rome, 1729)Google Scholar. See also Munter, F., Der Stern der Weisen (Copenhagen, 1827), 29Google Scholar; Lundmark, K., “The Messianic ideas and their astronomical background”, Actes du VIIe Congrès International des Sciences (Jerusalem, 1953), 436–49Google Scholar; Montefiore, op. cit., 143–4; Finegan, op. cit., 246–8; Hughes, op. cit., 148–63; Cullen, C., QJRAS 20 (1979), 153–9Google Scholar, correcting the data of Clarke et al. on the supposed Korean references.

29 Montefiore, op. cit., 142 n. 6; Finegan, op. cit., 246; Clarke et al., op. cit., 448; Hughes, op. cit., 120–3, 128, 159–60, 190; and especially K. Ferrari d'Occhieppo, op. cit., passim.

30 Journal of Cuneiform Studies 2 (1948), 271–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar; see especially 277–80.

31 The latest dateable cuneiform texts’, Kramer Anniversary Volume, Alter Orient und Alte Testament 25 (Neukirchen, 1976), 379–98Google Scholar.

32 Pinches, T. G. and Strassmaier, J. N., Late Babylonian astronomical and related texts, edited by Sachs, A. J. (Providence, R.I., 1953), nos. 1118–19Google Scholar; hereafter abbreviated as LBAT, 1118, etc.

33 LBAT, 1117.

34 Bibliotheca Mesopotamica 2 = Babylonian Planet Omens (Malibu, Ca., 1975–)Google Scholar.

35 Bibliotheca Mesopotamica 2/2, 43 III 13–13b,45 IV 5–5a, 49 VI 5–5aGoogle Scholar.

36 E.g. Reiner, E., Bibliotheca Mesopotamica 2/1 = Babylonian Planetary Omens 1, The Venus tablets of Ammisaduqa (Malibu, Ca., 1975)Google Scholar.

37 LBAT, 1193–5.

38 Zeitschrift fur Assyriologie 36 (= NF 2) (1925), 6670Google Scholar.

39 Negative VAN 3321.

40 Sachs, , JCS 2, 271–3Google Scholar.

41 ZA 36 (= NF 2), 66.

42 Biblica 6, 446 and Analecta Orientalia 12, 279–82Google Scholar. Finegan, op. cit., 246, and Hughes, op. cit., 128, still give Sippar as the provenance; Clarke et al. and Ferrari d'Occhieppo are aware of the correct provenance.