Judith Weingarten at Zenobia: Empress of the East, has some thoughtful comments as a follow-up to The Star of Bethlehem Solved? in The Magi and Christmas. She starts by talking about Marco Polo’s trip to the east, and it’s a great example of how history can be a series of echoes from the past interacting with each other. She also raises three problems with Jenkins’ theory and two of them highlight how little we know about ancient astronomy. Her most serious objection is that comets are not stars, and Matthew would not have confused the two. It’s a very good point and strikes at the heart of the problem I have with some histories of ancient astronomy.
One reason that it’s reasonable to state that a comet would not be confused with a star is down to Aristotle. Aristotle puts forward his theory of comets in book one of Meteorology. He argues they’re caused by exhalations of the earth and exist in the sub-lunar realm. This would explain their unpredictability as for Aristotle the heavens were perfect and constant. Aristotle was writing in the 4th Century BC, but his ideas had great influence. Manilius wrote wrote his Astronomica in the Augustan/Tiberian period largely accepts Aristotle’s explanation. This isn’t the only explanation of comets though, and we’re lucky that Aristotle records the opinions of other thinkers before discarding them. These explanations would suggest that some people in the ancient world were thinking about comets as stars. In Book one, part six we get:
Anaxagoras and Democritus declare that comets are a conjunction of the planets approaching one another and so appearing to touch one another.
Some of the Italians called Pythagoreans say that the comet is one of the planets, but that it appears at great intervals of time and only rises a little above the horizon. This is the case with Mercury too; because it only rises a little above the horizon it often fails to be seen and consequently appears at great intervals of time.
A view like theirs was also expressed by Hippocrates of Chios and his pupil Aeschylus.
Unfortunately I’m not sure how much this tells us about Matthew’s astronomy. Aristotle’s Meteorology is a book of serious research notes. It wouldn’t have been accessible to the average farmer in the ancient world, nor necessarily reflected the folk astronomy of the period. It’s the astronomy of an élite. This is a problem everywhere in ancient history. It tends to be written by male élites and the vast bulk of population was not of interest to them. In contrast Matthew’s gospel is a work of evangelism. It was intended to be spread among the general populace and so folk astronomy is important if we take the star of Bethlehem seriously. How can you access this astronomy? It’s hard but there are clues in other texts.
Aratus wrote the Phaenomena, a poetic description of the sky, in the 3rd Century BC. He only mentions comets briefly, but the word he uses on line 1092 is κομόωντες. From Kidd’s translation (page 557), this is from κομῆται ἀστέρες. Kometai asteres are literally hairy stars. Pliny’s Natural History opens its section on comets in the Penguin translation (page 19) with:
There are also stars of several kinds that suddenly come into being in the sky itself. The Greeks call them ‘comets’; we call them ‘long-haired’ stars, because they bristle with a blood-red tail which is shaggy on top, like hair.
You can read the section on comets in a Loeb translation on the Perseus Project. I can see that certainly there would be a view among the educated that comets were not stars, but I think there’s enough uncertainty to leave the door open to Matthew’s star being a comet.
Judith Weingarten’s second objection is more serious. Comets are bad news. Some authors like Aristotle think they’re bad news because the conditions which lead to things like civic strife also cause comets. Manilius closes book one of the Astronomica (from line 809 onward) with a description of comets. He can be bleak like around line 893–5 in the Loeb translation:
Death comes with those celestial torches, which threaten earth with the blaze of pyres unceasing, since heaven and nature’s self are stricken and seem doomed to share men’s tomb.
Following that with Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all Men seems difficult.
Despite this, there are a few reasons to suspect that comets weren’t automatically bad news. My favourite is mentioned on page 24 of Comets, Popular Culture, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology by Sara Schechner Genuth, which I found by accident while searching on Google. She tells of Chaeremon the Stoic who I don’t remember hearing of before. He wrote the book On Comets which sadly is lost, but in it he apparently argues that comets can be good news. Context is important before we accept this opinion and in this case the context is interesting. Chaeremon was a tutor to Nero, who as I mentioned in the earlier post, had a few comets visible during his reign. It could be that this was a matter of flattering the emperor.
Another Neronian source is Seneca’s De Cometis, which is book seven of the Quaestiones Naturales. This dates from around AD 60, so it close to the gospels in date. There sadly not a lot I can say about that because I don’t have a copy handy. Liba Taub touches on it a few times in her book Ancient Meteorology, and it seems to be in part a matter of writing against fear of comets. Seneca even says that the rule of Nero “redeemed comets of their bad character”, but given Nero’s reputation that’s debatable.
Pliny the Elder is the closest source in time to the Gospel of Matthew that I’ve looked at and he can be positive about comets. From Natural History again:
It is thought important to notice towards what part it darts its beams, or from what star it receives its influence, what it resembles, and in what places it shines. If it resembles a flute, it portends some– [p. 1058] thing unfavourable respecting music; if it appears in the parts of the signs referred to the private parts, something respecting lewdness of manners; something respecting wit and learning, if they form a triangular or quadrangular figure with the position of some of the fixed stars; and that some one will be poisoned, if they appear in the head of either the northern or the southern serpent.
I’ve altered a couple of words to update the translation slightly an emboldened the positive sign because it could easily be lost amongst the doom and foreboding. This is currently the biggest problem I see with Jenkins’ idea. It does require comets to be indicative of change as well as death and disaster. In the aftermath of the fall of the temple of Jerusalem that may be a hard idea to support.
There are a couple more texts which give circumstantial evidence to support Jenkins interpretation. Manilius writes in Astronomica 1.8146: In times of great upheaval rare ages have seen the sudden glow of flame through the clear air and comets blaze into life and perish. This is the same guy that I quote above saying “Death comes with those celestial torches…,” so it’s not over-positive but it does show there’s another problem in interpreting comets. Their meanings were not fixed in antiquity.
For Manilius this was a time of great change. Augustus had turned the Republic into an Empire and as part of this Augustus was engaged on a radically different approach to public image. Part of this was the use of popular astrology and so this was a very dynamic time in the use of astronomical symbols. Virgil uses a comet in the Aeneid as a divine sign. There’s a lot of room for discussion of whether or not the Gospel of Matthew uses post-Augustan imagery and uses it to communicate its own story. The arrival of the Messiah would be a time of change, and so the story could be using the language of creating a new epoch, hence a comet. Judith Weingarten is absolutely right in identifying this a problem for historians. The meaning of comets to a 1st Century audience is uncertain. I expect that if this idea gains traction, this is what a lot of the discussion will be about.
Her final point is one that I simply cannot answer. She shows that Cassius Dio recorded the procession of the Magi as proceeding overland without passing through Syria. If I remember rightly, Antioch is currently the favourite location for the writing of Matthew’s Gospel, which is well off this route. Why then is the procession in the gospel? I don’t have an answer. Nonetheless even this shows why Jenkins’ idea is appealing. It’s a question that needs to be answered but, like the problems above, it’s a question that can be discussed by historians. Most Star of Bethlehem ideas simply aren’t historical answers. If you have an opinion then add it below or on the Zenobia blog.
The Magi and Christmas: Judith Weingarten’s comments on Rod Jenkins’ Star of Bethlehem paper.
What’s up with the star of Bethlehem?: Another collection of views on what the Star might be.
The Comet Book: Not directly relevant, but I don’t link to Bibliodyssey often enough.