The topic of horoscopes, with reference to Jesus Christ, sparks debate. Some religious people regard astrological inquiry as impious or at least trivial. Others reason, to the contrary, that astrology may lay claim to truth from one vantage point. Jesus himself advised that “the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). Every branch of knowledge ought to be brought to bear in order to understand the life of Jesus.
Whatever our opinion about the validity of astrology, it is thought-provoking to make use of astrological reasoning in order to reconstruct the dates of Jesus’ birth and death.
Before delving into this historical inquiry, by which to ascertain the dates of Jesus’ birth and death, I will briefly address the scruples of many people as to whether astrology ought to be taken seriously in biblical and theological studies.
The Bible and Astrology: The Magi
Astrology is regarded by some believers as impious insofar as the Bible scorns pagan divination and the worship of stars as gods. It is argued that devout Jews, and Christians, reviled astrology for its association with paganism. Thus, the planets cannot have had a hand in shaping the destiny of a great Jewish holy man, messiah, and savior for Christians.
While it may be true that worship of the stars is denounced in the Bible, the biblical worldview does not carefully distinguish astrology from astronomy. According to a broader definition of astrology, which includes astronomy, the New Testament seems to legitimate these arts in some places—for instance, in Matthew’s nativity account (Matt 2:1–12).
The magi there are certainly astrologers not kings. Such oriental wise men figure into ancient Greek history (Herodotus, 1:101) and Jewish philosophy (Philo of Alexandria, De Opificio Mundi 1.22). Astrologers or astronomers (the two sciences were combined) read the stars as signs to foretell significant events.
In the birth narrative, Matthew juxtaposes an astronomical omen (2:7) alongside a biblical prophecy. The Old Testament prophet Micah predicts the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem (Matt 2:6). Based on a “rising star,” the magi know the “exact time” of Jesus’s birth (v. 7). In antiquity, astrologers, like prophets of all kinds, gave oracles to sanction royal regimes. Matthew adopts this motif, exhibiting Christ’s universal sovereignty, which is confirmed by astrologers and prophets alike.
The New Testament does not speak directly to Jesus’ horoscope. However, sufficient data is provided to infer his time of birth and death.
The Star of Bethlehem: Jesus’ Birth Date
The star of Bethlehem marks the birth of Jesus and a lunar eclipse his death (Luke 23:45). Historical research, taking clues from the star of Bethlehem, yields two alternatives for Jesus’ birth date. The traditional date of December 25 is most likely non–historical, having been adopted to coincide with the pagan festival of the winter solstice.
One proposal identifies the star of Bethlehem with a portentous conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, together with Mars, occurring in 7 BCE, around August 22 or Sept 14– 15 (at sunset or early evening). This trio in the sign of Pisces, containing the three slowest moving planets then known, stood in opposition to the Virgo sun.
This natal horoscope would give new meaning to Isaiah’s prophecy, foretelling that the messiah would be born from a virgin (Luke 1:27–38). Virgo is the sign of the virgin. The planetary conjunction of Saturn (a name for the Roman father god) and Jupiter (his son) neatly matches Christian Father-Son imagery.
Mundane astrology, among the Persians, explained conjunctions of Saturn and Jupiter as inaugurating a new era. The Renaissance astronomer Kepler concurred while identifying the star of Bethlehem as a super-nova.
Another proposal says that the star of Bethlehem is neither a planetary conjunction nor a super-nova but instead a comet. Matthew (vv. 9–10) specifies that the star rose and stood over Jesus’ birth place. Similar terminology describes the behavior of comets in ancient sources. In Greco-Roman religion, comets are omens of favor or disfavor by the gods. Ancient Chinese records tell of a comet between March 9 and May 4 of 5 BCE.
Lunar Eclipse: Day of Death
Astronomical reasoning also can help to nail down the date of Jesus’ death by crucifixion. Luke says that the sunlight “failed,” using the technical term for an eclipse. If an eclipse is intended, it may refer to a partial lunar eclipse that occurred on April 3, 33 CE.
This proposal, however, as to the date of the crucifixion has less to recommend it than the date 29 CE. Ancient authorities, and the New Testament itself, date Jesus’ crucifixion to the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius (i.e., 29 CE). Ecclesiastical tradition held that the crucifixion fell during the reign of the “two Geminis,” so called because the two Roman consuls that year (i.e., 29 CE) both were so named. The most likely date for the crucifixion is probably March 18 at 3 pm.
New Testament Evidence for the Dates of Jesus’ Birth and Death
According to the NT, the latest possible birth date for Jesus will be earlier than 4 BCE (King Herod’s death); Jesus was born during Herod’s reign (Matt 2:4; Luke 1:5). Jesus was in his thirties when he began his ministry (Luke 3:1–2), which probably lasted for three or four years.
The NT indicates the date of the crucifixion (14-15 of the Jewish lunar month Nisan). Luke 3:1 says that Jesus was crucified under the Roman governor Pontius Pilate (i.e., in 28–36 CE) and during the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius (i.e., 29 CE). The 14-15 Nisan of 29 CE would be either April 15 or March 18, probably the latter.
Jesus died at the ninth hour (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34; Luke 23:44), which is 3 pm. Combining historical and astronomical data, Jesus may have been born in the spring of 5 BCE (March-May) or late summer (Aug-Sept) of 7 BCE. He may have died March 18, 29 CE (or possibly April 3, 33 CE).
The Significance of Jesus’ Horoscope
Astrological insights may deepen knowledge of Jesus’ historical destiny, implied by alternative horoscopes: whether under the sign of Aries or Taurus (the 5 BCE birth date in the spring) or under the sign of Virgo (the 7 BCE birth date in the summer). The crucifixion date of March 18, 29 CE (or April 3, 33 CE) can be interpreted, astrologically, as a portentous event.
Astrology, like other mundane knowledge (e.g., psychology, biology), pertains to human history. The New Testament mainly proclaims God, the still–point and axis around which the cosmos turns.
For Christians and other devotees, the human history of Jesus of Nazareth is valuable, but God is the ultimate treasure. In fact, excessively to focus on Jesus may occlude God’s love and holy spirit that shine through Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ is like a transparency, containing and awakening us to the light—and like a door, empty of itself.
Leo Depuydt, “The Date of Death of Jesus of Nazareth,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 122.3 (Jul. – Sep., 2002) 466-480.
Patrice Guinard, “L’étoile de Bethléem (Un scénario organisé par des astrologues),” http://cura.free.fr/16christ.html
James H. Holden, “Early Horoscopes of Jesus,” http://cura.free.fr/xxv/24hold2.html
Colin J. Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem, A Comet in 5 BC, and the Date of the Birth of Christ,” Q Jl R. astr. Soc. (1991) 32, 389–407.
Bradley S. Schaefer, “Lunar Visibility and the Crucifixion,” Q Jl R. astr. Soc. (1990) 31, 53–67
A. Wright, “On the Date of the Crucifixion,” The Biblical World (1893) 2.4, 275-282.