Alexander Reznikov Alexander Reznikov
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On possible historical origins of the Nativity legends

"Est modus in rebus"
Horatius. Sermonum. I, 1, 106


Halley's Comet was many times nominated for the role of the Christmas Star, especially in the 20th century. However, as far as I know, my work "Halley's Comet: a demystification of the Nativity legend?" published in Russian in 1986 was the first one analyzing interrelations between events of the autumn 12 BCE, when Halley's Comet was observed, and those of the canonical nativity stories. In further studies, I’ve introduced significant corrections and clarifications into the hypothesis. These modifications can be seen if one compares the present form of the hypothesis with my article "Halley's Comet: a demystification of the Nativity legend?" or with the criticism of my hypothesis in Richard R. Racy's book "Nativity: The Christmas Story, Which You Have Never Heard Before" (Chapter 9. Candidate #2: Reznikov’s comet), published in November 2007, or with my comments on Internet publications. I continue my research. New refinements appear which allow to see the canonical Christmas story in an increasingly realistic light. The very possibility of making such refinements testifies to the fact that the hypothesis is basically correct. The summary below gives an idea of the current state of the hypothesis which is presented in detail on the site in Russian.

"Anno sequenti Herodes rediens a Roma cum videret qui illusus esset a magis...", i.e. "The following year on his return from Rome, when Herod saw that he was mocked of the Magi...". This fragment of a gospel (Manuscrit D, Paris, BNP Nr. 1652 [1], see also [2, p. 65-66]), which looks surprising and even absurd if we accept the traditional interpretation of the canonical text, has played a key role in the formulation of my hypothesis. According to modern scholars the last voyage of Herod to Rome took place in the late summer of 12 BCE (see [3], [4, p.74]). Flavius Josephus writes: Herod "not only became one of the combatants in that return of the fifth-year games [Olympic Games-A.R.], which in his sailing to Rome he happened to be present at..." [5, Book I, Chapter XXI, 12]. According to Britannica "the Olympic Games were... held every four years between August 6 and September 19" [6]. F.K. Ginzel noted: "Nissen faßte seine Resultate in die Regel zusammen daß die ungeraden Olympiaden mit dem Vollmond des August, die geraden mit dem des September begonnen haben... So vereinigt sich alles, die Zeit der olympischen Spiele wesentlich späten anzusetsen, als um die Zeit nach der Sommersonnenwende" [7, S.355-356]. In 12 BCE were celebrated the 192nd (even!) Olympic Games. The moon was full on September 3. At that time one spent 6 days to come from Syracuse in Sicily to Alexandria in Egypt [8]. Herod should have spent about the same time to come from Palestine to Olympia in Greece. Consequently, his departure for the trip was in the last week of August 12 BCE.

The main purpose of Herod's last trip to Italy was to accuse his sons Alexander and Aristobule in front of the emperor Augustus of an attempt to poison their father [5, Book I, Chapter XXIII, 3; 9, Book XVI, Chapter 4, 1-5]. I suppose that before leaving for the trip he assembled something like Sanhedrin ("a mere tool at his beck") to get a formal approval of his decision. During the meeting Herod got a report that "Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him”" Mt 2.1-2 [10]. It is crucially important to note: the Magi do not say they saw the star in the East, i.e. in their country, as it has been mistranslated and misinterpreted since antiquity (see, e.g., my comments on the articles Can astronomy explain the biblical Star of Bethlehem? è Dialogue sur l’étoile de Béthléem), but "when it rose". Furthermore, the Magi speak about only one sighting of the rising star, and this means they were near Jerusalem! I have never seen a single work in which such an assumption would have been made. According to the Chinese dynastic history "Ch'en-han-shu. Treatise on the Five Elements": "On August 26 (in the year 12 BCE) a star (in Chinese po-hsing, i.e. “a bushy star: an extremely bright star with rays, or a tail-less comet” ) emerged at Tung-Ching (Lunar Mansion 22)...In the morning it appeared at the East direction..." [11]. Modern calculations have shown it was Halley's comet [11]. The comet's path can be seen on Robert S. Fritzius' site. Consequently, if the Magi observed the comet at dawn on August 26 (an inaccuracy of a couple of days is completely acceptable), it was still without a tail and looked like a bright star. It is quite possible that at the dawn of that day the Magi were waiting for the rising of the Manger to predict the weather [12], and the appearance of an unusual star was a complete surprise for them.

I suppose the Magi from Parthia were traveling by the circular route: Parthia, Arabia, the Nabataeans, Judea, Galilee, Iturea-Trachonitis, Damascus, Palmyra, Parthia (see the map). In Arabia they could acquire some gold, frankincense and myrrh for their own needs. But all these things could be purchased in Jerusalem too. At dawn of August 26 when the Magi were near Jerusalem they saw a rise of an unusual star. According to modern calculations, this could happen after 2 am. The sun rose after 5 am. The magi decided that the rising of the "sparkling star" announced the birth of the future Jewish king (nota bene: not the Messiah, as the commentators have traditionally affirmed, but only another future king !) in Jerusalem and, leaving the star behind them, hurried to the capital to worship the newborn. They came to Jerusalem in the late morning or afternoon, so the "star" was not visible in daylight and no one could see it. Herod was quickly informed about the excited Magi and their report. The statement that " King Herod was disturbed and all Jerusalem with him" Mt 2.4 is an obvious exaggeration. The king could simply invite the Magi to the palace and present them an appropriate baby. But there was no suitable baby in Herod's big family (see Table Marriages and descendants). Then one could tell the Magi they are wrong , or simply ignore them.

But someone from Herod's environment "added fuel to the dying fire" making a clarification: according to the prophecy Numbers 24.17 the rising of an unusual star could mean much more than the birth of another "king of the Jews", namely the birth of Christ - the Messiah - Mashiach. At the meeting Herod asked with curiosity "chief priests and teachers of the law... where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied" Mt 2.4,5 [10]. The king became interested, decided to listen to the Magi and ordered to bring them to him "secretly" Mt. 2.7. The king did not leave the meeting so the Magi had to wait . If Herod met the Magi after 19 hours, one could see stars in the sky. Probably, Herod wanted the Magi to show him their unusual "star". However, the comet had not yet risen and he only "found out from them the exact time the star had appeared" Mt 2.7 [10] (note well: "the exact time" not the date, because it was on the same day). Obviously, neither the appearance of the magi nor their story impressed the king. "He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him" Mt 2.8 [10]. If Herod had been just a little preoccupied with the message of the magi and the comment from the Sanhedrin, who would he send to Bethlehem in search of a suitable baby: strange aliens or his police? The answer is obvious. But according to Israeli archaeologists, very few people lived in Bethlehem at Herod's time. So Herod was sure they would not find a newborn king of the Jews there.That's why the oriental king behaved so inhospitable. He did not provide any shelter to travelers who had come from afar to his palace, and did not give them any escort to Bethlehem. Thus it was not king's craftiness, traditionally supposed by most scholars, but simply an indifference towards the modest looking Magi and their report. Possibly, the Magi noticed Herod's contemptuous attitude towards them, remained unhappy with the inhospitality of the king and, as we shall see later, voluntarily or involuntarily, but took revenge on him.

The night the Magi spent in Jerusalem and at dawn of August 27 went to Bethlehem in search of the newborn king of the Jews. Possibly the same day Herod went on a long journey to Greece and Italy, without knowing whether the Magi went to Bethlehem or not. That morning the Magi did not observe the rise of their "star", probably due to cloudy weather. Though the Gospel says "the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them" Mt 2.9 the Magi did not see it when they were following the winding road between hills, the road which turned eastward at the approach of Bethlehem. So it was not a celestial object but the road that guided the Magi to Bethlehem. The second time they saw their "star" only after it had "stopped over the place where the child was" and it was only then that "they were overjoyed" (cf. Mt 2.9 and Mt 2.10). Modern calculations show it was about 8 am. If there were maps available, one could try to determine the house into which the Magi entered. Thus when the Magi had seen the "rising star" for the first time they left it behind them and entered Jerusalem from the east. Now they suddenly saw the "star" standing over the house before them. That’s why it’s written "went ahead of them" Mt 2.9. Note that according to my hypothesis two observations of the "star" by the Magi are separated by a little more than one day and not by several months, as it has been supposed by scholars since antiquity. Obviously, such a simple realistic interpretation is in a better agreement with the letter and spirit of the canonical text than traditional ones.

The Magi, seeing for the second time the "star" and, most importantly, above the house in which the Child was, "rejoiced with exceeding great joy" Mt. 2.10. As it appears from the Gospel, they were so ingenuous that they wanted to return to Herod, to share their joy with him and tell about the miraculous end of their quest. It was necessary to explain them that this was unwise and even dangerous Mt 2.12. Judging by their behavior and the way Herod dealt with them, the magi, of course, were not "kings" and even not "wise men". But these ingenuous and, probably, young Magi were honored with "natural revelation".

So after the Adoration the Magi "returned to their country by another route" Mt 2.12 that is by Judea, North Galilee, Iturea-Trachonitis, Damascus, Palmyra, Parthia. According to Chinese observations and modern calculations, under favorable weather conditions, the rise of the comet could be observed till September 7. In the 3rd century Dio Cassius wrote about seeing this comet over Rome: "The star called the comet hung for several days over the city and was finally dissolved into flashes resembling torches" [13, LIV, 29.8, p.361]. Thus, after the first observation in China on August 26, the comet not only acquired a tail, but also lost it. The spectacle was impressive and symbolic for the Magi. Also in the third century Origen wrote shrewdly about the Magi's star: "The star that was seen in the east we consider to have been a new star... such as comets...It has been observed that... such stars are wont to appear, indicating either the removal of dynasties or the breaking out of wars..." [14, I, Chaps. 58-59]. The Magi realized they watched not a star, but a comet, and they had reasons to predict "the removal of dynasties" and Herod's death. When they went through Iturea-Trachonitis (see the map) their narrations produced a particularly strong effect. Josephus writes: "But when he (Herod - A.R) was sailing to Rome, it was at that time when he went to accuse his son Alexander... the Trachonites spread a report as if he were dead, and revolted from his dominion, and betook themselves again to their accustomed way of robbing their neighbors [9, Book XVI, Chapter 9, 1]. Within the framework of the hypothesis, it is natural to assume the Trachonites began to spread rumors about Herod's death not spontaneously, but under the influence of the Magi's stories that had come down to them.

Thus"the following year on his return from Rome" (Manuscrit D, Paris, BNP Nr. 1652 [1]), "when Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious..." Mt 2.16 [10]. Herod went on his trip in the third decade of August. He was back surely after the 1 Tishri ("Rosh Hashanah the new year for the purpose of counting years") which should have begun on September 18 with the new moon. At that time the Mediterranean was navigable from March until mid-November [8]. It is possible that, as with the first trip to Rome, he spent the winter outside his kingdom. It follows from our hypothesis that Herod was angry with the Magi, not because they did not report to him about the results of their walk to Bethlehem. According to the canonical text he did not even know whether they were in Bethlehem or not. Herod was very angry with the Magi several months after their visit because during his trip they provoked great disturbances in his kingdom which led to "the breaking out of a war" with Nabataeans. Apparently, not immediately Herod became aware of who had generated rumors of his death. Some time had passed after his return from Rome before he gave "orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under..." Mt 2.16 [10]. In his action Herod was not original at all. The Roman Senate in 63 BCE and emperor Nero in the years 60 acted in the same manner[15].

Two sources report Herod's order to kill boys: Matthew's Gospel and Macrobius's "Saturnalia". In "Saturnalia" we read: "When he [emperor Augustus] heard that among the boys in Syria under two years old whom Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered to kill, his own son was also killed, he said: it is better to be Herod's pig, than his son" [16, Book II, Chapter IV,11)]. Josephus Flavius writes that Herod ordered the execution of three of his nine adult legitimate sons: Alexander and Aristobulus in 7 BCE and Antipater in 4 BCE a few days before his death [17]. In connection with this, in the 18th century N. Lardner (see [18], Book II, Chap. II, p. 444-445) and after him most scholars believed that Augustus uttered his joke after learning about the execution of Herod's son (or sons ) and Macrobius (or someone before him) edited the opening sentence under the influence of Mt 2.16. Moreover, in the opinion of "modern critical scholars", Matthew invented the whole episode with the star, the Magi and the slaughter in Bethlehem(see [19], pp. 170-171).

Indeed, both Matthew and Macrobius tell about Herod's order to kill all the boys from two years old and lower, but their texts stem from two completely independent sources. Note that in the opening sentence of Macrobius the murdered king's son is less than two years old, and Flavius reports the execution of adult royal sons. In addition, in Matthew, the child avoids execution, while in Macrobius he is killed. It is impossible that someone so distorted Matthew's text to use it in the opening phrase to Augustus's joke. Why? There is no doubt that in "Saturnalia" Augustus's joke and the opening sentence are written in their original form like emperor's other jokes. I guess that Macrobius' original source was someone from Herod's circle, who knew about the Magi's visit, heard about Herod's order and thought that the purpose of the order: to kill a possible heir to the throne - had been achieved. Matthew's original source was also someone from Herod's court, who knew not only about the Magi and Herod's order, but also that the "Holy Family" was timely warned and managed to flee to Egypt. Herod secretly met with the Magi Mt 2.7 and also secretly ordered to kill the babies. So Herod's order was known only to the king's encirclement and to several thugs who were sent to Bethlehem to carry out it. According to archaeological data at Herod's time very few people lived in Bethlehem. That's why the execution of the order did not make any noise in the neighboring capital and was not reflected in Josephus's works. The order was cruel, but the effect of its execution was minimal.

But how and when was emperor Augustus informed about Herod's order? Josephus writes that shortly before his execution in 7 BC Herod's son Aristobulus said Herod's sister Salome: "Art thou not in danger of destruction also, while the report goes that thou hadst disclosed beforehand all our affairs to Sylleus [Syllaeus - A.R.], when thou wast in hopes of being married to him?" [9, Book XVI, Chapter 10, 5]. I suppose, Syllaeus was informed about Herod's order and told about it to the emperor Augustus when he met him in connection with Herod's military actions against Nabataeans. And when Augustus "heard that among the boys in Syria under two years old ...etc.". Note, the emperor said this a few years before Herod began to execute his adult sons. Josephus reports, that after this meeting Augustus "wrote to Herod sharply. The sum of his epistle was this, that whereas of old he had used him as his friend, he should now use him as his subject" [9, Book XVI, Chapter 9, 2-3]. In my opinion, it is not surprising that the order of Herod and his execution were not reflected in the writings of Josephus. Rather surprisingly, the reports of this secret order reached us in two independent sources. As it was noted: "there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed" Mt 10.26 but "there is a time for everything" Eccles 3.1.

Thus "the following year on his return from Rome", i.e. in 11 BCE Herod ordered the massacre. But the "Holy Family" had escaped to Egypt and according to our hypothesis stayed there for some seven years until Herod died in 4 BCE. In XIII century Bonaventure wrote: "When the Lord had completed his seven years' exile in Egypt, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream..." (20, Chapter XII, p. 89). Such a long period coincides exactly with our estimate, but it is in contradiction with centuries-old traditional views, because it has always been believed that Herod had met the Magi shortly before his death, and accordingly "Holy Family" had stayed in Egypt several months, not years. How did Bonaventure in the 13th century come to the conclusion that the Holy Family had been in Egypt for seven years?

Joseph had the intention to return to Judah and possibly to Bethlehem, but "he was afraid to go there" Matthew 2.21-22. Apparently, even after 7 years of the stay in Egypt and Herod's death, he feared that it would be known in Jerusalem about the return of the family with the child, which the Magi had predicted to become "King of the Jews", and he would be killed. This fear leads to the assumption that not the "Holy Family" was a source of information about the Magi and escape to Egypt.That is why "the Nativity Story" in Luke is silent about the visit of the Magi and the stay in Egypt.

Who, then, was the original source of the realistic, accurate enough, though concise story about the star, the Magi’s visit and the subsequent events? Evidently it was someone who 1) knew about the purpose of the Magi’s arrival in Jerusalem, 2) heard Herod's address to the Sanhedrin and its answer to the king, 3) was present at the king’s secret meeting with the Magi, 4) knew about the circumstances of the two sightings of the star (Mt 2.2 and Mt 2.9-10) by the Magi, 5) heard about the king’s order to kill boys and timely warned Joseph, 6) strongly recommended Joseph to flee to Egypt, 7) informed Joseph that his family may come back to Israel, 8) knew why Joseph decided to return to Nazareth. Matthew writes that Joseph and the Magi received in dreams recommendations from an angel on how to behave. As we formulate a scientific hypothesis, we have to suppose that in reality such a guardian angel could be a courtier of the king. He took seriously the coming of the Magi and their report, was present at their meeting with the king, accompanied them (secretly) to Bethlehem, was present at the Adoration, recommended the naive Magi not to tell Herod about the results of their walk to Bethlehem. He also took care of "The Holy Family" from the moment of Adoration, until, at least, the return of the family from Egypt. He probably suggested to Joseph a place in Egypt and helped "The Holy Family" financially. The courtier possibly left a written account of events, but he did not reveal his name, because he was also "afraid" . I do not try to suggest who he really was, and how the story came to Matthew.

It is interesting to note that our hypothesis reveals a number of moments of connection of Matthew’s "Nativity story" with Rome, namely: 1) the "star" , which "stopped over the place where the child was" (Mt 2.9), "hung for several days over the city" [9, LIV, 29.8, p.361] of Rome; 2) Herod shortly after his meeting with the Magi went to Rome and learnt on the dramatic consequences of their visit to his kingdom "the following year on his return from Rome" (Manuscript D, Paris, Nr BNP. 1652 [1]); 3) the Emperor Augustus was informed about Herod's order to kill the Innocents shortly after its implementation. The events described in Luke's "Nativity story", which we are going to consider, also appear in some cases in connection with the events in Rome, explicitly and implicitly.

[1] C. Tischendorf. Evangelia apocrypha. Leipzig, 1876.

[2] D. W. Hughes. The Star of Bethlehem. Walker, New-York, 1979.

[3] E. Mary Smallwood. Jews under the Roman Rule. Leiden, 1981.

[4] Duane W. Roller. The Building Program of Herod the Great. University of California Press, 1998.

[5] Josephus. The Jewish War. Loeb, London, 1927.

[6] Britannica. Macropaedia, v.25, p.197, 1978.

[7] F. K. Ginzel. Handbuch der mathematischen und technischen Chronologie. Bd.II. Leipzig, 1911.

[8] G. Luzzatto. Storia Economica d'Italia. Cap.3. Roma, 1948.

[9] Josephus.Jewish Antiquities. Loeb, London, 1943-1969.

[10] Holy Bible. New International Version.

[11] F. R. Stephenson, K.C.Yau. Far eastern observations of Halley's comet: 240 B.C. to A.D. 1368. JBIS: journal of the British interplanetary society, 38, 195, 1985.

[12] In the 3rd century BCE the Greek poet Aratus wrote in Phenomena (versets 892-998), e.g.: "Scan well the Manger, whereby wheels the Crab, when first it is freed of every covering cloud. For its clearing marks the waning tempest".

[13] Dio Cassius. Roman History. Loeb Classical Library edition, London, 1917.

[14] Origen. Contra Celsus.

[15] Suetonius. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars (Latin original, English translation from Loeb Classical Library (1914) by John Carew Rolfe).. Book II. The Life of Augustus 94,3. Book VI. The Life of Nero 36.

[16] Macrobius. The Saturnalia.

[17] Gordon Franz. The Slaughter of the Innocents: Historical Fact or Legendary Fiction? Associates For Biblical Research, December 9, 2009.

[18] Nathaniel Lardner. "The credibility of the Gospel history : or, the facts occasionally mention'd in the New Testament confirmed by passages of ancient authors .The Credibility of the Gospel History: Or, the Facts Occasionally Mention'd in the New Testament Confirmed by Passages of Ancient Authors ... The Second Edition with Additions". John Gray. London, 1730.

[19] Paul L. Maier. Herod and the Infants of Bethlehem. (Chronos, Kairos, Christos II: Chronological, Nativity, and Religious Studies in Memory of Ray Summers. Ed. Vardaman J. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press 1998).

[20] St. Bonaventure's Life of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Translated from the Original Latin. P. J. KENEDY & SONS. NEW YORK. 1881.

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