Astronomical Fact Check: A Review of The Bethlehem Star, The Star That Astonished the World, by Earnest L. Martin
Everyone knows when Jesus was not born. Even the most devoted Christians understand that December 25 is not the date their Savior came into the world. But when exactly was He born?
The average person would say that no one knows. That answer is incorrect. It is possible to know when Jesus (Yeshua) of Nazareth was born – at least within a few days of the event, if not the actual day. That is the message of Earnest L. Martin’s work, The Star of Bethlehem: The Star That Astonished the World.
If the book considered only the evidence of the Bethlehem Star, it would not be sufficient to establish the case with any degree of certainty. The title, however, does not embrace the comprehensive nature of the work. Martin delves into astronomy and the astrological practices of the ancient world, but that is only the beginning. His quest for truth leads him to investigate multiple avenues of evidence, including Roman, Judean, and Parthian records and historical data, Jewish cultural and religious practices of the era, and clues hidden within the text of the biblical accounts. In the process, he not only establishes with a reasonable degree of certainty when Yeshua was born, but also sheds light on a period that is considered one of the least known in Roman history.
This weight of evidence permits Martin to make this astonishing claim:
[The] historical evidence supports the nativity of Jesus in 3 B.C.E., at the beginning of a Roman census, and (if we use the astronomical indications of the Book of Revelation) his birth would have occurred just after sundown on September 11th, on Rosh ha-Shanah, the Day of Trumpets — the Jewish New Year Day for governmental affairs. There could hardly have been a better day in the ecclesiastical calendar of the Jews to introduce the Messiah to the world from a Jewish point of view; and no doubt this is what the apostle John clearly intended to show by the sign he recorded in Revelation 12.
Far from being a spoiler for the plot, that is only the beginning of a highly satisfying journey. Martin opens with a presentation on the signs in the heavens in the transitional years from the last century BCE to the first century CE. He makes the case that ancient peoples at all levels of society paid attention to the stars to understand signs of the times. This was universally true of all civilizations, of which the Greco-Roman, Judean, and Parthian are the most important in this investigation. The signs in those years pointed to the birth of a great king, something even the Romans recognized. The Parthians certainly understood; the Magi who visited the infant Yeshua were from that empire which ruled over the territory of present-day Iran. In fact, the signs in the heavens coincided with the 25th anniversary of the reign of Caesar Augustus, prompting an empire-wide “census” to register the congratulations of all the people under Rome’s rule and confer upon him the title “Pater Patriae” (Father of the Country) in the year 2 BCE. That, Martin contends, was the reason for the census which brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, according to Luke’s gospel.
But when exactly was that census? Investigations through the ages have had difficulty revealing such an event at the time Luke’s account places it, which according to scholarly consensus is no later than 4 BCE, a date before the death of King Herod the Great in the spring of that year. That consensus is based on what Martin contends is an erroneous dating of the Herod’s death. He maintains that the error is due to a misreading of an account by Josephus, the famous Jewish historian of the first century. A proper reading in the context of Roman records (including those of the “Pater Patriae” initiative) and astronomical events in the heavens reveals that Herod actually died in January of 1 BCE. That one correction places everything else in perspective.
Martin makes similar corrections regarding the census of Quirinius (Cyrenius in the King James). Criticism of Luke’s text is that Roman records do not include Quirinius as governor of Syria in those years. Martin contends, however, that Quirinius was not actually governor (Saturninus held that post in Syria at the time), but a procurator on a special assignment from the Emperor. What was that assignment? He was to register all the people of that part of the Empire during the summer and fall of 3 BCE in time to present to Caesar Augustus as part of the Pater Patriae celebrations early in 2 BCE. And as it turns out, the second century Christian apologist Tertullian – a man familiar with Roman bureaucratic records and procedures – reports precisely such a registration (“census”) happening at that time.
The simplicity with which Martin makes his case is perhaps the strongest point of the book. He contends that the reason this era of Roman history is shrouded in mystery is merely a matter of misplacing the evidence in the wrong years. It is the same reasoning Timothy Mahoney uses in his documentary, Patterns of Evidence, regarding the dating of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. In both cases, all it requires is shifting from the established (but erroneous) conventional dating to the correct dating. For Mahoney that meant matching the dating of Egypt’s pharaonic dynasties to the biblical record; in Martin’s case it was correcting the date of Herod’s death according not only to the astronomical records, but to the biblical record as well.
That is how Martin proceeds in this comprehensive quest. He begins with the Bible, using the entire text to date the birth of John the Baptist, Yeshua’s cousin who was born six months before him. This he does by taking the clues in Luke’s gospel and finding where they fit in biblical accounts of the Temple service (John’s father, Zacharias, was a Levitical priest serving in the Temple when the angel announced to him that he would become a father, so finding when his division of priests served during the year is the starting point). Martin also operates from the premise that something as monumental as the birth of the Messiah would have connection to the Appointed Times, or Feasts, of the Lord (Leviticus 23). Those two items – the order of the priestly service and the progression of the seven annual Feasts – form the frame of the puzzle. Once that is established, Martin places each piece very neatly in its proper location.
The Star That Astonished the World succeeds brilliantly in making the case for Yeshua’s birth in 3 BCE, and for revising the dating of events in Roman and Judean history. It is a first-rate scholarly work filled with evidence from multiple sources. Martin is not given to sensationalism or speculation, but makes each point after exhaustive presentation of the evidence. He is careful to identify areas where he must resort to deduction or inference rather than hard conclusion, but even those deductions and inferences fall within the realm of reason. The result is a reference volume that is worthy of any scholarly endeavor.
The Star of Bethlehem: The Star That Astonished the World is available from Associates for Scriptural Knowledge at www.askelm.com in paperback, and for reading and listening online. It is also available on Amazon.com in paperback.