Advent of the (Rival) King: Part 2


“The stars are not distant and aloof, cut off from the lives of men. The rising of a new star entails an immense labor in the heavens that always has it counterpart on earth. The universe is about to bring forth a prodigy beyond our understanding.”

So says the resonant voice of James Earl Jones as Balthazar in the 1977 mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth. That poetic speech provides a good lead-in for the topic of this post: the visit of the “wise-men” to Herod the Great recorded in Matthew 2:1-3.

Part of the problem with this passage is how to classify the visitors. They are variously presented as “Kings,” “Wise-men,” “Magi,” or “Astrologers.” The actual Greek word is “magos” (singular) or “magi” (plural). The same Greek word is used in the singular in Acts 13 for Barjesus the “sorcerer.” For reasons of consistency, “Astrologer(s)” seems to fit better in both contexts.

Astrology and astronomy and not yet been sorted out in the first century. According to Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch, this time period saw the rise of astronomical and astrological knowledge and its use.

Those who were adept read the sky to explain either what happened in the past or what would happen soon. To acquire this knowledge and thereby learn about the behavior of celestial beings and the impact of this behavior on earth dwellers below enabled those who knew about what went on in the sky to make this information known to others…Celestial secrets were privileged information, however, meant for kings, priests, or prophets—not for any reader or hearer. (Social Science Commentary on the Book of Revelation;., pg 3)

Of interest is how the astrologers read the patterns in the sky and then tied them with the patterns of history on the earth. This was not the astrology of the newspapers or your local occult bookstore. It appeared at times to be more akin to statistics than to charts and zodiac signs.

But these [secret answers] were never individualistic, personal questions of the sort found in modern horoscopes. Rather it was common in the period to read the sky to find out information about the past celestial and social conditions that led to present social conditions as well as to find out answers concerning what the sky holds in store for kingdoms as a whole, for prominent, socially unique individuals such as kings and prophets…(pg. 4, emphasis added)

If Pilch and Malina are correct, astrologers would study the patterns in the sky and find statistical associations with patterns on the earth. These patterns did not involve everyone but had to do with the exceptional individuals, those who stood out in society. Celestial patterns that with regularity became associated with the birth of great leaders in the past were used to predict the births of such prominent leaders in the future.

Curiously, this statistical correlation between the patterns in the stars and the birth of prominent individuals was noted by Michel Gauquelin in the 1970’s. He found a statistical correlation between the birth of champions (in his case, sports athletes) and the position of the planets in relation to the earth’s horizon at the time of their births. He reported:

“Subsequent results only confirmed and amplified my initial discovery about the physicians. On the whole, it emerged that there was an increasingly solid statistical link between the time of birth of great men and their occupational success. … Having collected over 20,000 dates of birth of professional celebrities from various European countries and from the United States, I had to draw the unavoidable conclusion that the position of the planets at birth is linked to one’s destiny. What a challenge to the rational mind!” (Neo-Astrology, 1991 as quoted in the Wikipedia)

Gary North, in Unholy Spirits, gives a summation of Gauquelin’s findings. Though the correlation was not overwhelming, it was definitely statistically significant.

Gauquelin had found that relative to both a control group of ordinary sportsmen and theoretical expectation, Mars tended to be in one of the critical zones at the birth of 1,553 sports champions. This study was repeated for a new group of 535 sports champions from France and Belgium. In the original study, 21.4 per cent (sic) of the champions were born in one of the two critical sectors, while in the replication the proportion was 22.2 per cent. (Chance expectation in both cases is 16.7 per cent.)–pg 83

This statistical correlation above random chance has been found in repeat studies by others and at the same 22% rate. Though none of the statisticians claim that the stars actually influence anything, they found the position of planets on the horizon does correlate in a statistically significant way with the births of prominent people of all professions. Only after 40 years has this correlation been put into doubt due to alleged bias in the sampling. Still, the repeated findings by other independent sources do give one pause.

Maybe astrology as applied by the Magi made them “wise-men” in the modern sense of the word. Like Gauquelin, they found statistical correlations in the past between the position of the planets on the horizon and the birth of kings. If such conditions were repeated in the sky at the time of the birth of Christ, they could be forgiven for expecting such an event. They may have been similar to our modern statisticians who find correlations between independent events that allow them to predict things like stock market cycles and presidential elections.

James Earl JonesSo maybe “star-statisticians” is a better translation than either “wise-men” or “astrologers.” That would make the prediction of the “Magi” in Matthew extremely credible for their time and to some extent in ours. The problem is that that I cannot picture a “star statistician” with the same glamour as that of the three kings. James Earl Jones would not get to wear that really neat hat like he did in Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, he would probably have had to wear glasses and a sweater or something similar.

That would have taken all the fun out of it.


~ by heretic on December 9, 2005.

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