The Stations of Jupiter
9And having heard the king, they went their way. And lo, the star, which they saw in the Branch (rising), had gone ahead of them till when it came and was stationed over where the child was. 10And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.
How do we interpret this verse from the point of view of the Messianic Faith—those who keep the commandments of the Almĭghty and hold to the testimony of Mĕssiah Yĕshu‘a? There are many books on the Star of Bɛƫleɦem, but very few of them are written from a Biblical point of view. Rather they are written to satisfy Christian tradition, which has strayed far from its scriptural basis, and has been mixed with alien philosophies. It does not matter the technical expertise of any of these books if their authors write from the wrong world view! One can be an astrophysics astronomer and still be an evolutionist, a higher critic of Scripture, or worse attack the Messianic Faith by strategically omitting important information. Every world view has a bias, including the Messianic Faith. It is important to realize that the bias toward the Law and the Prophets and the things that concern the Scripture is the way we should go when there is some wiggle room in interpretations.
The station of a planet (wandering star) is a point at which it stops and begins to wander backwards in relation to the other stars. The key phrase, “was stationed” comes from the Greek word ἐστάθη. In Hebrew it translates וַיֵּעָמֵד. The Lutheran translator Franz Delitzsch translated the word as an active verb, but in Greek it is a passive verb, and so should be translated passive, “was stationed.” This requires a Niphal or Pual, “was caused to be standing.” The Hebrew root עמד may mean either stand up or stand still. In this case it means stand still. The wandering stars (planets) are always moving in diurnal motion, that is they rotate with the earth’s daily motion, so an arresting of this motion is not meant. They usually are moving with respect to the stars behind them also, but exceptionally they stop their movement momentarily to turn around and reverse direction with respect to the stars. This stopping is only what this phrase can refer to, because the passive indicates that something made the star stop. But it is not explained. The explanation then is what normally goes for stopping of stars. And that is retrograde motion. It is the earth that causes the appearance of stopping when it passes by the other planet.
The text also says that the star “had gone ahead of them.” The verb is the imperfect προῆγεν, which is to say that it refers to a past continuous. The technical interpretation of the word is “prograde” motion, which means “to go forward,” but Matthew only leaves this to be assumed from the context. The star was not leading them as if they were following it as a guide. They already knew their destination was Jerusalem. “Had gone ahead” is like saying Messiah went ahead of the disciples into Galıl. They did not follow him watching him to lead them there. They already knew the way. It is in this sense that “had gone ahead” is meant. The star arrived at its stationary destination before they arrived at the destination.
For the astronomically astute reader Matthew does not have to use a technical word for prograde motion. The context requires it. Whenever a star that is a superior planet does a heliacal rising it always first moves in prograde motion to its first stopping point, the first station. The Magi saw the star rise in LEO in 3 BC and rise in VIRGO in 2 BC. The narrative implies that they had finally agreed that the last rising was the important one. This they did not tell Herod because Herod only wanted to know when the star first appeared. After each new appearing of the star in the east, it always first moves in prograde motion to the stopping point of the first station. To an ancient astronomer, Matthew does not have to explain this. He only has to mention the star rising and then going ahead to a point where it stops. Matthew does not explain what the astronomers of the day already know in technical language. He puts it in plain language for everyone. The readers of the day would have known that “go ahead of” does not need to mean lead, though many naive readers may have thought that. As soon as they asked an expert, the ambiguity would be cleared up.
The star could not be an inferior planet, Mercury or Venus. These stars come out of their heliacal risings in retrograde motion already underway. And the remaining retrograde is too short of a time to reach the next station. That is, the Magi could never see the heliacal rising of an inferior planet and then make it to Jerusalem fast enough to rendezvous with the planet at its first stopping point. The timing between the rising of Jupiter, on the other hand, on 9/1/2 BC and its station of December 28th is just short of four months. And that gives us the time of the Magi’s journey.
So the star was going forward in a prograde movement before was caused to stop. Prograde motion is the normal motion of a planet before it stops and moves backward in a retrograde motion. Matthew avoided using the technical jargon of the astronomers of his day. He wrote for a non-technical audience. So he employs such terms as describe the situation without using the overly technical terms of the day. The technical term for a stationary point is στηριγμος, as used by Ptolemy (Birdsall). The technical term for prograde motion is ἕπομαι, which means following the sun through the constellations. The term for retrograde motion is προηγέομαι which means “leading,” that is the planet is leading the the daily motion of the stars. It is precisely because technical terms require someone knowledgeable of the technical context that Matthew avoided some terms. It is a matter of perspective whether one considers a planet in prograde motion to be moving in normal “forward” motion against the stars, or “following” the sun through the constellations.
We must interpret the phrase with the expectations of a lay audience in mind. For the layman the normal motion is forward motion. So if a layman watches a planet he normally sees it moving further and further eastward among the stars of the night. Backwards motion is relatively brief and opposite the usual motion. To impart a technical sense we have to translate it according to the lay audiences expectation rather than non-intuitive technical terms. It is the lay audience’s expectation that has guided the modern astronomical technical terms. Prograde does mean forward among the stars, and retrograde backward among the stars, and forward is the normal direction and backwards the brief exceptional motion.
I should also note that it says the star “had gone ahead of them,” which has an astronomical explanation. The clue that there is a second level of meaning is the phrase, “and was stationed,” or “stopped itself,” and the fact that this would not be exceptional if interpreted only on the surface meaning. A star that rises, goes ahead, and stops, is one that heliacally rises (Mars, Jupiter, Saturn), and then progrades to the first station. The Magi rejoiced because this event happened when they had just received the news of where the Messiah had been born. So in the thinking of the Magi (which I do not endorse) the coincidence of discovering the prophetic detail about Bɛƫleɦem with the stopping of the star was either fated to be or providential. It is only by the grace of the Almĭghty that it was providential in this case, as Matthew has recorded it as such. So while the text says “going before them,” when we learn of its stopping, we would suppose it stopped with respect to “going before” the other stars according to the observation of the Magi. This I think is the meaning of the parable within the parable. So I am not dismissing the obvious surface sense, but am here going to explain a second sense.
Before going into the second sense more, I will review the first sense, which I explained before in another section. The star would rise in the east, but after a time it would appear in the west due to daily motion. Whether visible or not, the Magi knew it moved from east to west daily, and so in that sense they were following along with it, since they traveled from east to west. Also when they turned south they were following it because the star would be in the south when at zenith once a day. This is sort of like driving down a highway and seeing the moon in your front view. You seem to be following the moon, or the moon seems to keep moving in front of you. This may not be particularly miraculous. But with regard to the Magi, what they deemed as providential was the timing of matters and the technical meaning they put on “and was stationed.” This is not a simple as stopping the caravan or the car and saying the star or moon has stopped. There isn’t anything providential in that. And this observation is why I think we are to find the explanation in a more technical astronomical meaning, which has been put by Matthew into layman terms. The deeper explanation is not apparent at first, but it does explain their joy.
The star, after rising, appeared in the east briefly, and then moved invisibly to the west on a daily basis, which was the way they were going. Each day they would see the star disappear in the daylight at a higher altitude, disappearing at a more westward point each day, until the day it stopped moving among the stars, and on that morning they saw it standing at the zenith before it disappeared looking due south. So in astronomers language the star disappeared daily as it climbed toward the west, which is the direction they were going, and then appeared at the stopping point in the south over Bɛƫlehem at zenith. Thus the language can tell both the apparent story and fit the technical story at the same time.
As we shall see, the 9/1/2 BC birth of Messiah, the helical rising of the star on that date, the appearance of the star in “the Branch” (the riser), and the attendant madness of Herod and his subsequent death just after the visit of the Magi in 1 BC, all come together to show that this interpretation of the star’s stopping is most correct. What I am going to add to this explanation, however, is the Messianic world view. The star stopped just before the new moon feast, or on the new moon feast according to the double day of the new moon, and the Magi presented their gifts on the new moon day and worshiped. The new moon is an appointed time in the Law and Prophets, and like the other new moons we mentioned, it makes sense that events in the birth time line of Yoɦanan and Yeshu‘a are connected to new moons. This is the thing that Christian tradition is desperate to avoid. That tradition would rather detail all the other amazing events than even come close to confirming them with their happening at Biblical appointed times. They would rather speculate everything else than to accept a logical explanation in terms of Biblical Feast days!
The Emperor Aurelian made December 25th the feast day of Sol Invictus (ca. AD 274). Sol Invictus means “the invincible sun,” which was the chief Roman god at the time for many Romans. One theory has it that Christians interpreted this as the birth of Christ instead so as to make Christianity more attractive to pagans, and so began celebrating his birth on December 25. Others point out that December 25th is referred to in Christian history before this, namely in Hippolytus (AD 170-240). I think that both ideas are partly correct. Christians responded to the Sol Invictus feast by emphasizing the assumed date of Christ’s birth more on this day, but also before Aurelian we can credit 25 December with the superstitious belief that famous people would be born and die on the same day, or same date. A similar superstition was stated by Rabbi Halaptha. A day of evil attracts evil and a day of blessing attracts good. Even though many years separated the supposed March 25th death date and the December 25th birth date, it was speculated that exactly nine Roman months was a propitious difference between the death and birth dates going backwards. False teachers used this superstition to say that Christ was conceived at Passover and died at Passover on March 25th. Then they added nine months to 25 December to determine a birth date. Finally, there may be other reasons that have been forgotten by history. But we can be assured that the basis these other reasons provide is equally false. There was then no shortage of supposed chronologically based historical speculations and future predictions based on number coincidences and beguilingly pretty number symmetries. Neither is there now.
“The first coming of our Lord, that in the flesh, in which he was born at Bethlehem, took place eight days before the Kalends of January, a Wednesday, in the forty-second year of the reign of Augustus, 5500 years from Adam.”
Hippolytus of Rome, Commentary on Daniel.
We must understand the reasoning behind December 25th before the Sol Invictus connection. Some early Christians had placed the death of Christ on March 25th. Not only that, but they placed creation on March 25th! The actual death date was March 24th (14 Nisan in AD 34). So they were not far off at that point. What they did was apply the theory that a person was supposed to be born on the same day they died along with an assumed nine month period in terms of the Roman calendar. So they came up with December 25th and commuted the superstition to the conception date as part of this theory after moving ahead nine months. So December 25th was at least a speculative theory before Aurelian turned it into a pagan feast day. There are often erring speculations floating around that are given a new lease on life, or increased in importance, due to changed circumstances. The idea that God is just a force has been around a long time, and was correctly recognized as pagan by many. Then Star Wars came along with “the force,” and Christians decided to say “Jesus is the force,” being ignorant of the fact that in Star Wars “the force” is both good and evil and comes from eastern philosophy. So I see something like this with December 25th. The date was around the time of Messiah’s conception, actually December 10th, 3 BC, or around the time of the Magi’s visit (28 December, 2 BC). So they justified the exact dating of December 25th on some such theory as Hippolytus’. Then when Aurelian made 25 December a pagan feast day, they promoted 25 December for the birth of Jesus as the answer to his paganism. The problem with this, of course, is that both the speculation and the paganism are false teachings.
However, it came about, even if some disagree with me, either for not blaming it on Sol Invictus enough, or for saying that superstition played a part in the selection of the date, one thing should be clear. December 25th is false teaching, and the promotion of the date is based on an original lie somewhere somehow that was nurtured and encouraged by the powers below because they hated the true dates. The real reason is because the correct dates are hated, not because those who disagree with 25 December hate the day. I admit there are many who make a career out of hating the day more than pointing us to the right day. It does not matter that we have imperfect knowledge on the history of the error. All that matter is that is is an error, and especially so since the true date is known. We do not need to explain the error. We need to explain the true date. And as part of this, I now return to explaining the Magi and their observations.
The Magi observed the planet Jupiter as it moved against the background of the stars. Every 398.88 days on average Jupiter turned around and went the other way. This movement is called retrograde motion. The exact point of the turnaround is called a station. Normally Jupiter moves eastward among the stars until it reaches the point of the first station. Here is stops at a point and then turns around and moves westward until it reaches the point of the second station, where again it stops at a point, turns around, and resumes its normal westward motion. Jupiter conjuncts with every stellar object between the two station points three times. Between the two stations are about 10 degrees.
The image shows a simulation of Jupiter coming to the first station on 12/28/2 BC. I have rounded off the date from 12/27 @ 22 hours JMT. Stellarium 0.14.1 took a huge jump in accuracy since this image was made using Cartes du Ciel. The stopping point is at 22h 30m on 12/27/2 BC. Observe that the three positions on 12/26, 12/27, and 12/28 are all within a diameter and a third of Jupiter’s angular width. It would be no small accomplishment if the Magi could nail down the exact date of the stopping point. It is called a stopping point because to naked eye it appears Jupiter has stopped for a week. But close up, it is clear that the “stopping point” is really an instant in time on one day.
What we want to discover is how accurately the Magi could predict the exact time of the first and second stations. That is, could the Magi actually tell anyone what day was the exact day of the turnaround, or the stopping point? Could Matthew have learned from Miryam, Yeshu‘a’s mother, that the star stopped over their place? Could she have learned this from the Magi? And how would they have known? If the star stops its eastward motion just after they learn the Messiah is supposed to be born in Beƫleɦem, then this means something to the Magi. It suggests to them that the Almĭghty is guiding events for them. So of course, they would want to say the star had stopped.
Could they do it by direct observation? The answer to this question is no. The planets move so slowly at their station points that one cannot tell the exact day, much less the hour, upon which they stop and turn around. The simulation above shows that one would need to have telescopic eyesight to detect the day of the turn around point. To the naked eye all those positions of Jupiter look like they are in one place. A similar problem attends the solstices. The sun sets in the same place for several days at the solstice. One cannot tell which day is the exact day of the solstice. At the equinox, on the other hand, the sun is setting a whole diameter different along the horizon every day. For this reason it is not hard to observe the first day when the sun sets due west. Similarly it is easier to observe a planet’s position when it is moving faster.
The technique is as follows. When Jupiter is moving up toward the first station, the Magi note the night upon which it passes a star (or is as close to the star as it can get). Then they wait until it stops, turns around, and moves back to that star. They note the night upon which Jupiter again conjuncts with the star. They then find the number of days between the two nights, and divide by two. From this they figure the date of the turn around. This technique only works a short distance away from the turn around point.
The Magi then watch the star Jupiter move westward toward the second station. They note when it passes a nearby star or stars on its way to the stopping point. They watch the stopping point, without telling which day it is, and then watch Jupiter return to an eastward course and pass their marker star again. By finding the midpoint date between the two dates the marker star was passed, they can compute the date of the stopping.
Jupiter returns to an eastward course after the two stations. About 399 days later it approaches a new set of stations one constellation sign distant from the first set of stations. The Magi use the same procedure to compute the dates of the first and second stations. Then then find the number of days between two first stations and two second stations to be about 399 days. But the exact figure varies depending on whether Jupiter is going fast or slow. If it is near perihelion (near the sun), it is going fast, and earth will take longer to catch up with it. In that case the distance between two first stations is greater than the average. But if Jupiter is going slow near aphelion (away from the sun), then earth catches it sooner, and the distance between stopping stations is less than the average.
While it is easier to calculate the time between two stations, it is harder to predict the time between two stations, that is, knowing the date of the last station, to predict the date of the next station. However, if the Magi knew how much faster or slower Jupiter was going between two stations in advance, then they could make the prediction a success. This they could do. The perihelion of Jupiter stays in the same constellation sign (Pisces 2000 years ago). That is, they observed that Jupiter is always moving faster in one part of the constellations than in the other part. Jupiter moves through all the constellations along the ecliptic in 12 years. If a record is made of the days between station sets in each of the 12 constellations, then the speed of Jupiter from station to station can be remembered for the next 12 years. They can then calculate the date of a first station using the guide star method and use the record from 12 years earlier of the days to the next first station to accurately predict the exact date of that first station about a year before it happens.