New Book on the Star of Bethlehem and Birth Chart of Jesus
A book just came out in which the author proposes a new theory about the Star of Bethlehem and the birth chart of Jesus.
The book is aptly titled The Star of Bethlehem. It was written by a Swiss astrologer named Dieter Koch, who is primarily known for his work with the company Astrodienst, as a co-author of the widely used Swiss Ephemeris.
The book was originally written in German under the same title, Der Stern von Bethlehem, and this edition is a revised English translation of the same book with an added appendix. It can be ordered online either as a hardcover or an ebook.
I received a copy of the book recently due to my role in writing one of the two Hellenistic delineations of the proposed birth chart for Jesus in the appendix at the back of the book. And, despite my role in writing part of the appendix, I can honestly say that I am genuinely impressed by the research that went into the book, and I think that Koch’s arguments have merit.
What follows is sort of an overview of some of the main points of the book, although it this is not meant to be a complete guide or review. I just thought that it would be a good idea to let people know about the book and some of the subjects it addresses, since its that time of the year, and in my opinion this is an excellent book to check out if you are into this sort of thing.
The Historical Time Frame of Jesus
Much of the first part of the book is focused on narrowing down the historical time frame in which Jesus could have been born, largely based on a few sparse historical and biblical accounts. For example, chapter one is largely focused on the issue of the dating of King Herod, since this is a pivotal issue in any attempts to date the birth of Jesus.
Basically, the gospel writer Matthew says that Jesus was born “in the days of Herod”, and the majority of historians and scholars at the present time believe that Herod died in March or perhaps April of 4 BCE. Thus, this date is often used as the latest point in which Jesus’ birth could have taken place, since it appears to exclude the possibility of his being born after the spring of 4 BCE.
However, Koch argues that issues with the calendar and historical sources actually widen the possible date for the death of Herod to somewhere between 4 and 1 BCE. The questions that he raises against the 4th century BCE death of Herod seem sufficient for him to justify the 2nd century BCE date that he eventually introduces for the birth of Jesus.
Along the way he covers other issues such as the date of the crucifixion (30 CE according to Koch), the Christian appropriation of Roman and Mithraic holidays in order to establish the December 25th date in the late 4th century, and the historical improbability of the widely assumed 7th century BCE date (due to a lineup of planets in Pisces).
The Three Magi
Koch points out that the common reference to the “three kings” is a baseless translation of the original term in the Greek text of the New Testament which was ‘magos’. Magos, according to Koch, is more properly translated as ‘magician’, although he points out that more specifically the Magi were usually known as a class of Zoroastrian priests in Persia.
Taken in context with the rest of the story of the Star of Bethlehem in Matthew, Koch says that the Magi would likely have been astrologers coming from Mesopotamia or Persia, the reputed birth place of astrology. He points out that “In the Persian Empire, the magicians functioned as priests and advisers to the kings…” (pg. 24), and they were often fluent in a number of different forms of divination, as well as what might be characterized as magical practices (i.e. propitiation rituals). Thus the designation of Magi would have been fitting.
One of his most interesting points about the Magi comes when he draws a parallel between the story of the Magi hitting the road in order to look for a new-born spiritual leader and modern day Tibetan Buddhists. (pg. 32) He says that like the Tibetans who will take into account a number of different phenomena in the process of locating the reincarnation of a spiritual leader, it is probable that the magi took into account other non-astrological considerations based on a mixture of prophecy and divination. (pg. 34) More specifically, he argues
It is even likely that it was not the astrological reasons that were the cause of their journey but a combination of prophecies, visions, dreams, oracles and astrological considerations. (pg. 35.)
Or in other words, the ‘star of Bethlehem’ itself may not have been the only factor which led the Magi to Jesus.
He deals with some of the similarities between Mithraism and Christianity here, although he seems to take this line of thought primarily in order to postulate that the three Magi could have been in the Mithras cult. My objection to this would be Beck’s recent argument about the full development of Mithraism only occurring with Balbillus in the 1st century CE, and while Koch does seem to allude to this argument (pg. 29), he doesn’t really attempt to counter it.  I suppose that one response might be that even Beck acknowledges that the Mithraic cult of the 1st century was formed based on earlier precursors.
What Was the Star of Bethlehem?
As most people who have studied this issue know, the pivotal passage that recalls the story of the star of Bethlehem occurs in chapter 2 of Matthew. Of particular importance is this statement by the Magi:
Where is He Who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the east at its rising and have come to worship Him.
Koch points out that the passage in Matthew clearly uses a specific Greek technical term (anatole) that is used to refer to a planet (or star) making a heliacal rising. (pg. 42-43) Or, in other words, anyone familiar with both ancient Greek and ancient astrology, especially in the ancient world, would immediately recognize that the passage is referring to a very specific astronomical phenomenon.
He rightly emphasizes the importance that was ascribed to planets making a helical rising in ancient astrology, and then later adds another dimension to the argument when he takes the statement that the star “stopped” over the place of Jesus’ birth as an indication that the relevant star stationed around the time the Magi arrived in Bethlehem. (pg. 57)
Eventually he unveils the crux of his argument, which is essentially that
“Jesus was born at a heliacal rising of Venus!” (pg. 59)
Alternate Theories on the Star of Bethlehem
Koch acknowledges that there are a multitude of different theories about the star of Bethlehem, although he says that most theories are based on mistaken notions or prejudices about what astrological or astronomical indications would have been significant enough to indicate the birth of the Messiah. He says that this is because few have studied the ancient astrological and magical traditions.
In chapter 4 he provides a nice overview of some of these traditional theories surrounding the birth of Jesus. These theories range from comets to novae, Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions, Moon-Jupiter occultations, aspect patterns, etc.
Of all of the alternate theories, the one that Koch spends the most time discussing, and the one that is closest to his own, is the one put forward by Michael Molnar in his book titled The Star of Bethlehem: Legacy of the Magi. Koch basically acknowledges that the approach that Molnar took was essentially correct, and in some ways Koch is following a similar path, although to a much different conclusion, and eventually he criticizes Molnar’s argument in detail ( pg. 68.) Molnar basically argued that the star of Bethlehem was an occultation of the Moon and Jupiter in Aries on April 17, 6 BCE.
So, When Was Jesus Born?
According to Koch, Jesus was born on on September 1st, 2 BCE at about 4:30 AM in Bethlehem, Israel. This was shortly before sunrise, as Venus was making a heliacal rising in Leo. Here is the chart:
What Can This Chart Tell Us About Jesus?
As I stated earlier, in the appendix of the book I did a brief delineation of the chart from a Hellenistic perspective, and there is also a second, far more elaborate (and better) delineation by another specialist in Hellenistic astrology just after mine. I’m not going to go into that delineation much here, but I will reiterate what I said in my conclusion:
While the picture that this presents us is in some ways in keeping with what is known of Jesus’ life, in other ways it would force us to change our conceptions of him somewhat, if indeed this is the correct chart.
What I found the most personally interesting about doing the delineation was that the closest approximation to the Jesus described in the above chart is the picture of him presented by the scholar Jean Dominic Crossan, for example in his book The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. Here is one passage:
In the beginning was the performance; not the word alone, not the deed alone, but both indelibly marked with each other forever. He comes as yet unknown into a hamlet of Lower Galilee. He is watched by the cold, hard eyes of peasants living long enough at subsistence level to know exactly where the line is drawn between poverty and destitution. He looks like a beggar yet his eyes lack the proper cringe, his voice the proper whine, his walk the proper shuffle. He speaks about the rule of God and they listen as much from curiosity as anything else. They know all about rule and power, about kingdom and empire, but they know it in terms of tax and debt, malnutrition and sickness, agrarian oppression and demonic possession. What, they really want to know, can this kingdom of God do for a lame child, a blind parent, a demented soul screaming its tortured isolation among the graves that mark the village fringes? Jesus walks with them to the tombs and, in the silence after the exorcism, the villagers listen once more but now with curiosity giving way to cupidity, fear, and embarrassment. He is invited, as honor demands, to the home of the village leader. He goes, instead, to stay in the home of the dispossessed woman. (Read the rest of this excerpt on Crossan’s website.)
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that I’m convinced that this is definitely the chart of the historical Jesus, or even that the story in Matthew is 100% legit for that matter, since even that could simply have been made up by Matthew after the fact in order to legitimize Jesus and/or the religion. Even Koch admits this possibility several times in the book. After all, such a story would have been a powerful propaganda tool during that time period, and other figures such as the Roman Emperor Augustus were publishing their birth charts for political purposes at the time.
I will say this though: Koch presents a very well-researched and compelling case, and the implications of the chart are interesting to entertain. If nothing else his book provides an excellent model for how such studies can and should be conducted, and anyone who is interested in looking into the star of Bethlehem and the birth chart of Jesus will find much valuable material in his work.
Update (December 2015):
For an extended discussion of this topic, please see the podcast episode I recorded on The Star of Bethlehem.
- For Beck’s argument see Roger Beck, ‘The Mysteries of Mithras: A New Account of Their Genesis’, in The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 88, 1998, pgs. 115-128.