Chinese and Babylonian Observations



Both the Chinese and the Babylonians made and recorded astronomical observations around the time of the Nativity, some (but not all) of which still survive. These have been carefully sifted through again and again in a search for clues as to the nature of the Star of Bethlehem.


Chinese observations and chronicles


It was not until the 1950s that astronomers began to realise that they had completely ignored one of the most important and complete archives of astronomical data in the world. Only then was attention starting to be paid to the literally hundreds of Chinese astronomical records which were known to exist and which covered not just centuries, but millennia of observations of eclipses, comets, novae, supernovae, aurorae, sunspots and anything else that can be seen in the sky by diligent observers using nothing more than their eyes. Although the first exploitation of the Chinese archives dates back some forty years, it has only been in the last two decades that the ancient Chinese and, to a lesser extent, Korean, Japanese and Arabic records, have been recognised as a incredibly rich source of knowledge and information.


The number of surviving Chinese observations drops suddenly before the 2nd Century BC. This is due to a Cultural Revolution, which took place more than two millennia before that ordered by Chairman Mao. During the 3rd Century Before Christ, in 213 BC, the Emperor Qin Shih Huang ordered a “Burning of the Books” which was followed, just seven years later by the sack of the then Chinese capital of Xianyang.



Babylonian observations and chronicles


One of the greatest Babylonian contributions to science and to learning in general, was the library set up during the reign of  King Ashurbanipal, who lived from 668-626 BC. The library, which has come to be know as the Library of Ashurbanipal, was an important archive located in the city of Ninevah. This library was the main repository of Babylonian knowledge and records. However, almost nothing has survived of these archives.


An additional complication to the researchers who study the archives, above and beyond the fragmentary state of the records, is the problem of translation of the tablets. The astronomical records were written in Sumerian, the even more ancient precursor of Babylonian tongue, which had died as a language one thousand years before the time that the great library of Ashurbanipal was established. It appears that the reason for this decision to write in the completely dead Sumerian language, long since forgotten by almost everyone, was to ensure that the contents of the tablets would only be accessible to a highly controlled elite of scribes and intellectuals. In this way, potentially dangerous knowledge was carefully limited to a few people who would not spread it. Whilst the language has been deciphered and the texts translated, this is an advanced skill open to a select few experts who have dedicated their lives to the challenge.


The reason why so many tablets have been deciphered is due to the lucky chance that a few of the fragments which have been recovered are written in cuneiform on one face, with a Greek translation on the other. Some evidence suggests that these bilingual fragments may date from as late as the 2nd Century AD, although this point is controversial. Despite this lucky find, the translation of small fragments of tablet is still a difficult and highly skilled job and there is no guarantee that all of the translations are completely accurate.


There are, however, despite all the problems and difficulties involved, a significant number of surviving ancient Babylonian astronomical records among the fragments. The records cover a wide range of astronomical phenomena.


Christopher Walker, an expert in the history of the Middle East at the British Museum in London, points out that few Babylonian tablets of any kind have ever been recovered at all, despite extensive excavations. The British Museum possesses about 90% of the known tablets, most of which are just tiny fragments recovered at different sites.


Many of the tablets which have been recovered and analysed appear to be astronomical diaries, listing phenomena in columns, one for each year. In many cases only a small part of the tablet referring to a particular year has been found. These diaries are not on display to the public, but are available for study (one of the drawers in Walker’s office is filled with fragments of tablets which are stored with care[i] and taken out only when necessary). Even where a number of smaller pieces have been reconstructed into a more complete tablet, the result is usually still just a small fraction of the original. None of the pieces that I was shown on my visit were as large as the size of an average hand.


Despite this, a curiosity of these diaries, according to Walker, is that a number of the fragments that are available in different museums are copies of the same information. There are various possible reasons why the same tables of data keep appearing again and again. We know that the Babylonians, like the Chinese, transcribed and retranscribed their records. The direct evidence for this is  simple. The Venus Tablet describes observations taken some 1000 years before the tablet was written. It is evident that a scribe was preparing an astronomical diary and had either found, or been given these earlier observations which he decided to incorporate into the compilation, finding them interesting, or relevant to what he was doing. The experts state that there is much evidence that this was a systematic practice: old observations would be recycled, perhaps many times over the years.


In what are called the Late Babylonian texts (700 - 50 BC) there are a wide variety of  astronomical records. The first eclipse known to have been observed from Babylon after its foundation was on September 26th 322 BC, long after the fall of the city to, and its sack by, the invading Persians. The very last surviving Babylonian observation which can be positively dated is from 46 AD (although, as we have seen, it is possible that the bilingual texts may be later). Thus we do know that the Babylonians were still observing actively at least half a century after the birth of Jesus. This is at least consistent with the possibility that the Magi were Babylonians.



The contrast between the Babylonian and Chinese archives


Despite the episode of the “burning of the books” the Chinese records of comets and probable comets include no less than sixty objects during the twelve centuries Before Christ. In contrast, Babylonian astronomers register just eight comets in the same interval, but that number is still well in advance of the number of observations of comets which had been made in any other country and shows that the Babylonians were also probably energetic observers, if less concerned with leaving permanent records.



Chinese and Babylonian observations relevant to the Star of Bethlehem


·        General comments about the historical record

Inevitably, the Chinese chronicles and the observations from other countries in the region, usually grouped together as the Far Eastern records, have been closely scrutinised to see if there is any record of a comet, or bright nova, or any other remarkable object close to the date of the birth of Jesus. These dates were not particularly rich in Chinese observations.


·        Halley’s Comet in 12 BC

To put the 12 BC observations in context, they refer to what was not a particularly spectacular apparition of the Halley's Comet, although it passed just 24 million kilometres from our planet, inside and above the Earth's orbit on September 10th, 12 BC, exactly one month before perihelion. The comet was first sighted on August 26th, when it was just outside the Earth's orbit and probably about magnitude four and a half. The Chinese observations refer to it at that time as a “po-hsing”. During the 56 days that Comet Halley was observed, until nine days after perihelion, the comet crossed the sky, a fact reflected accurately in the Chinese records, which track its journey across the heavens, from Canis Minor through to its disappearance in the glow of twilight when it was positioned in Scorpio, close to the brilliant star Antares.


Despite its close approach to the Earth, the comet was never particularly bright and barely passed magnitude +1. In many respects the circumstances of the comet and its appearance would have been similar to Comet Hyakutake in March and April 1996, although it would have appeared rather less bright than Comet Hyakutake and would have shown a less well-developed tail.


The ambiguity between the aspect of comets and that of bright stars is expressed in many records, not just the Chinese chronicles.


·        The 7 BC triple conjunction

In fact, one of the Babylonian tablets in the British Museum is an astronomical almanac for the years 7/6 BC, which covers the period of the triple conjunction which is a widely commented candidate to have been the Star of Bethlehem. The almanac explicitly speaks of the movements of the two planets. The tablet, catalogued as BM 35429, makes neither direct reference, nor allusion to the conjunction. A translation of a small portion of the tablet is, as follows:


Month VII, the 1st of which will follow the 30th of the previous month. Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces, Venus in Scorpio, Mars in Sagittarius. On the 2nd, equinox.


Month XI, ... Jupiter and Saturn, and Mars in Pisces,  Venus in Sagittarius. On the 13th Venus will reach Capricorn.


As can be seen from the above extracts, the conjunction seems to have given rise to no perceptible comment or interest, either in the triple conjunction (e.g. the text from Month VII reproduced above) or in the planetary massing (Month XI). If the Magi were Babylonian astronomers it seems odd that, if this event was the Star of Bethlehem, they made no comment that indicates any interest in it at all.


·        The 5 BC star

Apart from the apparition of Halley's Comet in 12 BC and a “ghost event” (i.e.: a false record) in 10 BC, only two events are found that are dated around the correct time. These events though are very interesting indeed.


In the book called the “Ch'ien-han-shu”, we find the following reference:


“In the second year of the period of Ch'ien-p'ing, second month, a hui-hsing appeared  in  Ch'ien-niu  for more than days”


The second year of the reign of Ch'ien-p'ing meant the year 5 BC and the second month, in the Chinese calendar, implied the month that ran from March 10th to April 7th. A hui-hsing is a broom star and Ch'ien-niu is the Chinese constellation that included Alpha and Beta Capricornii. Thus the complete translation should read:


“During the interval  between March 10th April 7th of 5 BC, a comet appeared close Alpha  and  Beta  Capricornii  and was visible for more than 70 days”


Curiously, the chronicle appears to state that the object remained fixed in the same place in the sky for more than two months, which is rather unexpected if it were a comet.


In the Korean chronicles, a second record is found from about this date in the “History of Three Kingdoms- the Chronicle of Silla (Samguk Sagi)”


“Year  54 of Hyokkose  Wang, second  month,  (day) Chi-yu, a po-hsing appeared in Ho-Ku”


“Ho-Ku” is the Chinese constellation, or asterism, which includes Altair and various stars of the south of Aquila (the Eagle). A po-hsing is a bushy star: an extremely bright star with rays, or a tail-less comet. The problem here is the date which is given; the day Chi-yu did not exist in the second month of the year. It is almost as if the chronicler had written that the star had appeared on February 30th.


One way of resolving the problem is to suppose that “Chi-yu” really should be “I-yu”, a character written in an almost identical fashion in Chinese and easily confused with it. If so, the chronicle really states:


“Year 54 of Hyokkose Wang, second month,  (day) I-yu, a po-hsing appeared in Ho-Ku”


Day “I-yu” of the second month of year 54 of Hyokkose Wang corresponds to March 31st, 4 BC. Thus the translation would be:


“On March 31st of 4 BC a bushy star appeared close to Altair”


·        Understanding the 5 BC and 4 BC objects

In 1977 a group of British researchers (Clark, Parkinson and Stephenson) pointed out that this curious discrepancy in the date, due to the confusion between “Chi-yu” and “I-yu”, leads to a  strange series of coincidences:


1.    ) Apart from the difference of one year, the date of appearance (March) is the same for both objects.


2.    ) Both objects appeared in the same region of the sky; the asterisms of Ho-Ku and Ch'ien-niu border on each other, with Altair being located in the sky just a few degrees north of Alpha and Beta Capricornii.


3.    ) The objects are both described as comet-like (“hui-hsing” and “po-hsing” respectively) but there is no indication that either of them moved across the sky in cometary fashion.


This led them to the conclusion that there were only two possible explanations for the two records:


·      That the two objects were really the same one, with the year also in error in the Korean chronicle. In this case the object must have appeared close to the border between the two Chinese asterisms, hence it was located between Altair in the north and Alpha and Beta Capricornii in the south. The star would thus have been positioned, they concluded, quite close to the 3rd magnitude star Theta Aquilae.


·      That a comet and a nova, or two bright novae appeared in the same region of the sky, around the same date, in consecutive years.


Of the two explanations, the first is much more plausible than the second, especially considering that the records which are being translated are transcriptions of the originals made several centuries later. The idea that two bright comets or novae could appear in the same part of the sky, on the same date, in two consecutive years, seems incredibly implausible. It also seems unlikely, given the known record of the Chinese as observers, that the Koreans would record the 4 BC object, but the Chinese not, particularly as this was a  early era for Korean observations.


The first explanation also gives rise to another odd “coincidence”. The Korean chronicle gives a specific date for the observation: March 31st 5BC. This date though would be a most unlikely one for a first observation because it was the date when the object would have been in conjunction with the Last Quarter Moon. The view at dawn from Seoul in South Korea on this date is reproduced below, with the star marked in yellow. Most of the stars in the image would have been invisible due to the presence of the Moon. Undoubtedly the Korean chroniclers chose this as their reference date, not because it was the day that the star was first seen, but because of the significance of the striking conjunction with the Moon.


[i] One particularly interesting anecdote that illustrates some of the problems associated with the Babylonian tablets is the fact that these are, of course, no more than dried mud and if allowed to get wet, revert to being mud. I have it on good authority that one American museum’s collection of tablets was stored in a basement, supposedly completely safe, until a disastrous flood left the basement inundated and the tablets as small globs of mud on the floor.