Thursday, 17 December 2015

The #ChristmasMyths. #2: The Star of Bethlehem

Part of a continuing series looking at the pagan origins of the Christmas Myths, one day at a time. (Introduction is here.) Today, the story of three mendicants and a star.

We Three Kings of Orient are
One on a tractor, Two in a Car
One on a scooter Tooting his hooter
Following yonder star-ar

~ Fred Dagg, ‘The Authorised Version’


Long before Fred Dagg first sang or the Bethlehem Star burst into print, Jesus was born under a star that guided three wise men to his stable door, stopping at Herod’s palace to ask the way. So goes the myth.

The real story is marginally more interesting—especially its real origins. 

The story of stars and wise men and Jesus is only barely told. Of the gospels, it appears only in Matthew. And you may consider it passing strange for a few reasons:
  • why this one author chose to add the tale, when the Bible itself was so equivocal on what amounts to astrology;
  • why the authors of the other Gospels choose to ignore the embroidery altogether;
  • why the author(s) of Mark, the earliest Gospel from whom the author(s) of Matthew borrowed most of his, didn’t bother to include any of it;
  • why the three men who we’re told are so wise, and despite being led by this star, lost their way so badly they ended up in Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem, where they very unwisely dobbed in the new baby to King Herod, causing the King to “slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof,from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men.”
If this sounds in any way wise, or even literarily or historically correct, then I have some gold, and frankincense and myrrh to sell you.

Of course, it’s not intend to be either literarily or historically correct. It was written as myth, based on other myths, to appeal  to a credulous audience. A credulous audience who was rather partial to a celestial message from the skies.

The Roman historian Tacitus tells us, for example, that at a crucial moment in the reign of the Emperor Nero,
A comet having appeared at this juncture, the phenomenon, according to the popular opinion, announced that governments were to be changed, and kings dethroned.  In the imaginations of men, Nero was already dethroned, and who should be his successor was the question.
Indeed, popular opinion also had it that brilliant stars were also seen at the birth of every Caesar, Canon Farrar declaring in his own Life of Christ:
the Greeks and Romans had always considered that the births and deaths of great men were symbolised by the appearance and disappearance of heavenly bodies…
Frankly, the credulous Roman people were prepared to accept that a sign from the sky would indicate either a coming coup, or the coming of a great man.

This was the audience to whom Matthew was talking when he wove his tale—one to whom it would have been passing strange if his story of this new Messiah didn’t contain some sort of cosmic sign.
So why did he need to add the Three Magi from the East who were following what they told Herod was “His star”? Perhaps because it was from “The East” that this tradition of the cosmic herald derived.

Consider the birth of the Buddha, which was supposed have been announced in the heavens by what was called a “Messianic star” rising on the horizon. “Wise men,” known as “Holy Rishis,” were informed by this that their Messiah was born.

Famous births in India also enjoyed their own celestial shining light. The Indian Nakshatias divided the astrological field into 27 constellations, any one of which could direct your life—any unfavourable signs needing to be assuaged by a ceremonial S’Anti. When Crishna was born, “his stars” were said to be seen in the heavens.

In China too, the same astrological influences predominated, and the birth of Yu the legendary founder of China’s first dynasty, was said to have been accompanied by a star, as was the birth of the Taoist sage Laotse.

In the Muslim world, a star and several other celestial signs were supposed to have appeared at the birth of Ali, Muhammad's great disciple.

According to Hebrew legends, a “brilliant star” was also supposed to have shone at the birth of Abraham, and the star at Moses’s birth was so bright it was supposed to have been seen and reported by Egyptian Magi to their king.

In Egypt too, tables were kept with tables of the constellations and their movements for every hour of every month of the year—all of which were supposed to have influence on human beings, and to herald forthcoming events—not least the birth of a Pharaoh.

That’s a lot of stars to have appearing and disappearing in the cosmos. All these appearances on cue would have demanded many more “special stars” and astrological events than even the ancient heavens could have provided. But as we said, they were al a fairly credulous lot.

For his story, Matthew chose to hook directly into the Persian tradition of strangeness in the heavens, where from ancient times they looked to the heavens for guidance, and to the stars for divination. Astrologers were said to have “swarmed throughout the country.” And according to Matthew’s addition to the Gospels it fell to what seems to be three Persian Magi, the Zoriastrian priesthood who followed the god Ormuzd, to distinguish “his star” and announce to the world—or at least to Herod—that the newborn had been granted divine sanction thereby.

A strange tale indeed. (Or an interesting one, if you consider all the sources.)

But if you want to sell your man as a Messiah to an uncritical world ready to believe that the great men of myth and history already had stars to their name, and misguided astrologers to guide them, then evidently that’s a tale a budding Gospel writer decides he has to write.

Well, one of them at least.

Tomorrow: “The Song of the Heavenly Host.
* * * *

* This and later posts in the series rely heavily on Thomas William Doane’s Bible Myths and Their Parallels in Other Religions. Unless otherwise attributed, all quotes are sourced from there.

1 comment:

  1. I have no idea what the star was or may have been but a planetarium plot will show an interesting meeting of Jupiter and Saturn three times in a year (I recall) about the time of Christ in 3BC. I don't think that's the "star" talked about though as although significant to star watchers of the day like Assyrians (the Jews didn't do that) it seems far too general. The Gospels are not intended to match as they are targeted at different audiences. There is no statement that there were three wise men - just wise men with three gifts. Again you ignore the cultural understanding and expect these old texts to make sense without allowing for that.



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