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.
Actually, we’re not really in the middle. Most of us have opted out of Christmas and opted into Hannukah. Not because we have rejected Messiah Yeshua (Jesus Christ), mind you. We understand that His birth happened in the fall, most likely at the Feast of Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah in modern Jewish practice) rather than in December. We also understand that all the Feasts of the Lord presented in Leviticus 23 are connected to Messiah’s redemptive and restorative work for the nation of Israel and all the world.
The fact is, we celebrate Passover (Pesach), Unleavened Bread (Matzot), Firstfruits (Yom Habikkurim), Pentecost (Shavuot), Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah), Atonement (Yom Kippur), and Tabernacles (Sukkot) because God established them and called on His people to observe them “as a statute forever”. That’s different from Christmas, which is a human tradition rather than a Divine decree. Christmas is a Christianization of the old festivals our ancestors celebrated in honor of other gods before they learned about the One True God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We have learned that our Messiah is Jewish, which is why we prefer to follow His example rather than the traditions which overshadowed and obscured His Jewishness and the Hebraic origins of our faith.
One might argue that Hannukah is a tradition as well. Indeed it is, but it is rooted firmly in history as a tale of our God’s salvation of His people in a time of great distress. Why is it not in the Bible? Well, it is, in some canons. The Catholic Bible still has 1st and 2nd Maccabees, the books that tell the Hannukah story. There is also a mention of it in the New Testament: John 10:22 tells us that Yeshua was in the Temple during the Feast of Dedication, which is another name for Hannukah. The point is, the origin of Hannukah is no less real and no less miraculous than the origin of Purim as recorded in the book of Esther. Our Jewish brethren established both feasts to commemorate the provision of the Almighty and His faithfulness to His covenant. Is there a better reason to celebrate?
Many people realized the significance of Ken Rank’s letter to the Jewish people when he published it last week. We have only begun to see the impact of it. Within a few short days it appeared as a guest blog piece in The Times of Israel, and today Breaking Israel News published it along with a deeply moving response by Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz.
In years to come, when our God has completed His work of bringing together the fragmented parts of His people, these two letters by Ken and Eliyahu will be counted as major milestones in the process of breaking down the wall between those of us from the Christian side and our brethren from the Jewish side.
Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz
October 11, 2016
Originally published on Breaking Israel News
I received this letter from Ken Rank last week. Rank founded United 2 Restore in order to bring Jews and Christians, or as he prefers to describe it, Judah and Ephraim closer together, in order to “re-build bridges of communication which have been previously burned”. He sent me this letter as part of his personal teshuvah (repentance) for Yom Kippur. My response to him was sincere, and I intend for it to be a part of my Yom Kippur prayers.
The Barking Fox just completed the annual Torah Cycle and is ready to embark on another year of Bible commentary. Rather than embark on another systematic journey through the Torah and Haftarah, in this Hebrew year 5776 Fox Bytes will focus on selected books and topics, starting with the book of Job.
A sad commentary on human nature is that people who stand for what is right rarely are the people with whom one would prefer to be seen in public. We may honor such saintly persons as Mother Theresa, Billy Graham, or William Wilberforce, but we do not want to be close friends with them – or at least not let such relationships be known. Our preference is to hang out with “good old boys”, friends who like the things we like, sympathize with our problems, and make us feel better about ourselves without actually causing us to change. That, of course, is the problem with those saintly people: they uphold high standards of right living which make us feel uncomfortable. It does not matter how blessed they appear to be, or the peace they seem to enjoy in any situation, or that they give the authorities no cause for alarm. The truth is that they are righteous, and their righteousness interferes with our desire to live comfortably and indulge whatever pleasure seems good.
Shakespeare understood this fact of human nature. He made use of it in his masterful manipulation of the Roman public through Marc Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar. Caesar’s assassins justify their murderous act by saying the great man was ambitious and that his ambition would have been the death of Roman freedom. Antony seems to agree, saying “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones”, a statement that indicates whatever good Caesar would have done has died with him. Then he turns the tables, calling the assassins honorable men – good men whom the good citizens of Rome should trust, and with whom they should be glad to associate. Yet their honorable good pales in comparison to Caesar’s selfless ambition: an ambition that enriched Rome through his military service, that wept for Rome’s poor, and that refused a kingly crown thrice offered. In other words, any honor that may have accrued to Caesar’s assassins was as nothing compared to the great man’s righteousness in life and legacy in death.
We learn through Shakespeare’s theatrical Marc Antony a truth written centuries earlier to a real Roman audience by a man who also understood something about human nature:
For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. (Romans 5:7 NASB)
It is understandable why Peter Jackson had to take considerable license with The Lord of the Rings when he brought J.R.R. Tolkien’s mammoth work to the screen, and yet his choices inevitably brought disappointment to Tolkien aficionados. Why, for example, did Jackson choose to minimize the presence of Farmer Maggot? Tolkienists take issue with the fact that his role in The Fellowship of the Ring was diminished to the point of insignificance. In the book, Farmer Maggot saved Frodo and his companions as they fled the Shire, giving them provision and helping them elude Sauron’s dreaded Black Riders. It was unexpected help, for Frodo had considered Farmer Maggot an enemy. As a child Frodo had taken a liking to Maggot’s mushrooms, and on more than one occasion absconded with portions of the good farmer’s crop. Such youthful mischief roused Maggot’s anger, compelling him to chase Frodo from his land and threaten him with his very large dogs should he ever return. And so it was that Frodo grew up fearing Farmer Maggot, never knowing that beneath his fierce anger lay a loyal, generous, and hospitable heart. Thanks to the mediation of his companion Pippin, and to the dire need of the moment, Frodo at last gained opportunity to get to know the real Farmer Maggot. He explained as much as they prepared to leave Maggot’s home:
Thank you very much indeed for your kindness! I’ve been in terror of you and your dogs for over thirty years, Farmer Maggot, though you may laugh to hear it. It’s a pity: for I’ve missed a good friend.
Frodo’s words present us with an all-too-familiar and all-too-tragic reality. How often have individuals, families, and nations remained at odds over ancient offenses, the causes of which are long forgotten? How much suffering has multiplied on the earth because natural allies regard each other as enemies, or at least minimize their contact with each other out of mistrust and misbegotten fear? And how much greater is that tragedy if the people who regard each other in this way are the two parts of YHVH’s people? In truth, Moses and Yeshua have no contradictions or arguments, but their followers think they do, and for that reason Jews and Christians have separated themselves from one another for twenty centuries.
One of the great depictions of American historical events is John Trumbull’s painting, Declaration of Independence, which hangs in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol. The scene captures the moment on June 28, 1776, when the five men who drafted the Declaration present their work to the Continental Congress. Of the 56 signers of the Declaration, 42 appear in Trumbull’s work, the others having died before he could obtain their images. The painting also depicts five men who did not sign, including Robert Livingston of New York. Livingston was one of the men who drafted the Declaration, but New York recalled him from the Congress before he could sign his work. In Trumbull’s painting Livingston appears in the center of the drafting committee, with Roger Sherman of Connecticut on his right and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia on his left. Americans may not remember the distinguished men from Connecticut and New York, but they do remember Jefferson and John Adams of Massachusetts, two future presidents. Jefferson and Adams embraced different visions of how to govern the infant American Republic, and even though they became political rivals, they remained friends until their deaths on the same day, July 4, 1826.
There is a legend that Jefferson paid Trumbull to paint his foot on top of Adams’, but it is only a legend. The two men’s feet are close together in the picture, and as time and dirt wore away at the painting it came to appear that Jefferson’s foot was resting on Adams’. That is not the only oddity in Trumbull’s work. Like many works of art it is not entirely accurate, but is effective in capturing the spirit of the moment and of the age. So also is 1776, a musical play which humorously explores the events during that fateful summer of American independence. Howard DaSilva dominates the film version with his portrayal of Dr. Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania. If we are to believe the movie, independence was Adams’ idea, and the declaration was expressed in Jefferson’s words, but it was Franklin who brought it into being with his wisdom, wit, and ability to achieve consensus. 1776 embellishes the story with fictional dialogue, but it captures a number of famous quotes by the Founding Fathers, including Franklin’s immortal words: “If we do not hang together, we shall most assuredly hang separately!”
Dr. Franklin spoke a warning to a people facing the threat of political extinction before they could become a nation. Long before Franklin uttered his warning, Yeshua of Nazareth spoke the same truth to the people He had come to redeem from the threat of extinction by the enemy of their souls:
And knowing their thoughts Jesus said to them, “Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand. (Matthew 12:25 NASB; see also Mark 9:38-40; Luke 9:49-50, 11:16-23)
In a response to a reader’s question about his works, author Stephen R. Donaldson provided this enlightening comment about the motivation behind his writing:
I’m a storyteller, not a polemicist. As such, my only mission is to help my readers understand my characters and appreciate what those poor sods are going through. (Stephen R. Donaldson Official Website, February 23, 2004)
Donaldson’s best known writings might be categorized as postmodern American science fiction and fantasy literature. The worlds he creates are not the pristine, archetypical fantasy worlds of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, but darker realms that mirror our present ambiguous reality. Donaldson explores human nature in a secular, relativistic world detached from the moral underpinnings of Christian civilization. Good and evil manifest in the worlds he creates, but they are often uncomfortably intertwined so as to be nearly indistinguishable. Such is the case with his most famous protagonist, the anti-hero Thomas Covenant. In ten novels published over the span of 36 years, Donaldson follows Covenant through three epic quests in The Land, the world of his creation where magic and Earthpower shape the lives of mortals. Covenant is one of the most unlikely heroes in the history of literature: a leper living in present-day America who is magically transported to The Land to save it from destruction by Lord Foul the Despiser. He wears a wedding band of white gold, the source of Wild Magic, which is the greatest power ever known in The Land. He does not know how to wield this power, nor does he desire to do so, yet the dire circumstances of The Land compel him to find a way. Each victory comes at a cost. Ultimately it is Covenant himself who pays the greatest price, and thus he earns not only sympathy, but redemption.
We learn much about power in White Gold Wielder, the last novel of The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. The Elohim, supernatural beings who keep watch over the Earth, “silence” Covenant, placing him in a catatonic state so he will not use his ring unwisely and risk destruction of the world. After Covenant is revived by his companion Linden Avery, Findail of the Elohim explains their actions to her:
The ring-wielder we silenced, not to harm him, but to spare the Earth the ill of power without sight . . . Thus the choice would have fallen to you in the end. His ring you might have taken unto yourself, thereby healing the breach between sight and power. Or perhaps you might have ceded the ring to me, empowering the Elohim to save the Earth after their fashion. Then would we have had no need to fear ourselves, for a power given is altogether different than one wrested away.
Findail’s declaration, “a power given is altogether different than one wrested away,” is a restatement of something taught long ago by One Who understood power:
But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28 NASB)
תַזְרִיעַ / מְּצֹרָע
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov wrote a story about how a dead fish ruined a man’s life. To be honest, it was not the fish itself, but what happened when this particular man encountered it. Chekhov opens “A Slander” by explaining that Sergei Kapitonich Ahineev, a writing instructor, is enjoying the celebration of his daughter’s wedding at a great feast. As time for supper approaches Ahineev goes into the kitchen to see if everything is ready. He asks Marfa, the cook, to show him the centerpiece of the banquet, a fine sturgeon, and at its unveiling is overcome with delight at the aroma and presentation of the great fish. The sight of it moves Ahineev to smack his lips, a sound much like a kiss. Just at that moment, one of his colleagues, Vankin, looks in and makes a joke about Marfa and Ahineev kissing. Apparently thinking nothing further about it, Vankin moves off to rejoin the party. Ahineev, however, is mortified that Vankin would think he was kissing the cook, and anticipates that he will be spreading that story to the guests. Determined to prevent such a slander, Ahineev makes the rounds of the party, telling everyone he can that there was nothing to the story Vankin would be spreading about him kissing Marfa in the kitchen. In the process, he describes both Vankin and Marfa in the most unflattering terms, calling him a silly fool, and her a perfect fright whom no one would care to kiss.
Having completed his self-appointed task of circumventing Vankin’s anticipated slander, Ahineev settles down to enjoy the rest of the celebration. All is well until a few days later, when his headmaster calls him into the office and reprimands him about his indiscretion not only in having an affair with his cook, but also in being so public about it. Truly scandalized, Ahineev goes home at the end of the day, only to face the anger of his wife at his supposed unfaithfulness. Angered himself, Ahineev leaves immediately to confront Vankin, the man he supposes has spread this false tale. Yet that confrontation does not turn out as he expects, for Vankin’s sincere denial convinces Ahineev that he is innocent of the gossip. Puzzled, Ahineev reviews the list of his acquaintances, frantically asking himself who might have ruined his reputation.
To the reader there is no mystery about the guilty party: it is Ahineev himself. By spreading rumors about his colleague and his servant, he has made himself an outcast. In other words, Ahineev has become a social leper. And in presenting the hapless writing instructor to us in this way, Chekhov helps us understand the deeper meaning of the Torah’s instructions about leprosy.
The problem with great satire is that it can be so irreverent. Then again, that is the strength of satire: using humor and ridicule to point out something (usually a shortcoming, hypocrisy, or vice) often overlooked in the routine of living. Satire can be cruel, and thus must be used with great caution. If employed properly, it moves the audience to laugh loudly in genuine humor at their own or their society’s expense, and plants seeds for reflection that hopefully will bloom into motivation for positive change.
Or perhaps not. Sometimes humor exists only for humor. That is one way to consider the works of Douglas Adams, the late English author best known for his satirical science fiction works, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It is quite possible that Adams and I could have been good friends, although our worldviews would have generated a continuous wrestling match between us. To the end of his life he remained utterly convinced in the nonexistence of a Creator, even as I am utterly convinced that there is no god but YHVH. And yet I can appreciate his masterful use of the English language, his clever story lines, and his penetrating wit, all of which he employed to point out things worthy of our consideration. Here is one example from the first Hitchhiker’s Guide novel:
The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question How can we eat? the second by the question Why do we eat? and the third by the question Where shall we have lunch?.
This is Adams at his best, using seemingly trivial questions with simple answers to provoke a deeper level of inquiry on the very nature and meaning of human existence. Perhaps he would be surprised to learn that the Lord God does the very same thing. The small, simple, seemingly insignificant things are what He uses to test our hearts, to discipline us, and to mature us so we can exercise greater responsibility, and all the time He magnifies His glory through us and through these processes. Thus, when it comes to distinctions between believers in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the differences usually are much smaller than we may think. Consider, for example, the attitudes of believers in Messiah Yeshua (Jesus Christ) regarding the Law, or Torah, of God. To define this difference, we can use the same pattern Douglas Adams used by asking three simple questions:
When are we to worship God?
How are we to worship God?
What does God say is food?