Portrait of Kepler by unknown artist, 1610

One morning in early October, 1604, astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler was startled by his colleagues’ shout of “There is a new star!” Where? Slightly above the much-anticipated rare conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars, known as the “fiery trigon”. Kepler, Imperial Mathematician to Emperor Rudolph II, had to wait days for the clouds to clear, but he went on to observe the supernova in the early hours before dawn, then publish his findings in De Stella Nova. And this new star got him wondering: could this conjunction coupled with the new star hold similarities to the Star of Bethlehem?

As a young man, Kepler earned a scholarship to study for the Lutheran ministry at the University of Tübingen, Germany. While there, he learned of Copernicus’ heliocentric ideas and redirected his studies to mathematics. Due to the counter reformation, Kepler moved to Prague to study with the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. When Brahe died, Kepler took over his position as Imperial Mathematician. Using Brahe’s observation data, Kepler proved that the planets’ orbits were not circular as Copernicus had stated, but elliptical. He went on to prove other laws of the planets but referred to these as harmonies, as that of the system set in place by the Creator God. Thus, he embraced the heavens as a celestial symphony moving in a predictable, logical, and provable way.

Contrary to many of his Earth-centric contemporaries, Kepler was not prone to superstition nor portending catastrophe, nor did he believe that the conjunction caused the supernova. His calculations proved the huge distances between the planets making that impossible. Yet he never relied on his thoughts alone, but read, supported and conversed with such contemporaries as Galileo.

After reading Laurentius Suslyga’s book that Christ was actually born in 4 BC, Kepler, spurred on by his innate curiosity, calculated that the fiery trigon only appears once every 800 years. In the years 7 BC and 1603 alike, Jupiter and Saturn appeared together three times. In each of the respective years, Mars entered the conjunction. If Christ was born in 4 BC, that is the current year is behind by 4 years, the date falls within two years of the great conjunction that initiated the fiery trigon.

©The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Provided by NASA Astrophysics Data System.

There’s more. The Jewish midrashim known as Messiah-Haggadah speaks of the Star. Midrashim are rabbinical commentaries of the Old Testament based on a specific topic rather like a concordance. This one in particular states that over the course of 7 years famine will occur followed by abundance, and the Star shall shine forth from the East, and this is the Star of the Messiah. In other words, the star would appear 2 years before the birth of the Messiah. At the end of the second year, the birth would be expected.

The timing aligns with Kepler’s calculations. But what about the evanescent Star?

From the account of the Magi as recorded in Matthew 2:2, there is no doubt that this star was unique, not belonging to anyone other than The King of Israel, the awaited Messiah. And, they observed it in its rising, meaning in the early hours before dawn. Numbers 24:17 states, “A Star shall come out of Jacob” and in Revelation 22:16 Jesus states, “I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star.”

Something as unique as three planets aligning would catch the attention of men whose living was to watch the skies, yet there had to be something even more extraordinary. And it wasn’t just the Magi. The Chinese have long been regarded for the recording of events dating back to nearly 2000 BC. Their accuracy and persistence derived from the basic need of timekeeping to mark the rise and fall of dynasties. Just as important, tradition held that Chinese rulers take their mandate for daily life on Earth from events in the sky. Hence, Chinese astronomers answered to kings and emperors and took careful notice of guest stars and unusual occurrences that appeared among the well-known stars. The Chinese cataloged observations continuously spanning 4000 years thus leading to many astronomical discoveries. In the year 5 BC, a tailed comet was recorded as appearing for 70 days from March 9 to April 6. A comet could more easily fit the parameters mentioned in the Bible of the star’s movements, disappearing and reappearing, hovering and changing directions.

In any event, Kepler’s accurate calculations have withstood the test of time. He was the first to understand refraction in vision, explain how a telescope works, form the basis of integral calculus, and explain that tides are caused by the moon, among other things. And he is credited with deriving the birth year of Christ which is universally accepted.

Image of SN1604.
Credit: ©NASA/CXC/SAO

What became of Kepler’s supernova, the last to appear in our Milky Way galaxy? NASA’s Chandra Observatory took pictures of the remnant of SN1604, and NASA honored Kepler by naming their space telescope after him.

Throughout his life and writings, Kepler felt he was a messenger given a glimpse of God’s Wisdom for the sake of mankind. A brilliant man of science yet humble before God. Truly, a Renaissance man.

Merry Christmas!

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