SERMON: The Star of Bethlehem

Here is the text of a sermon I presented in 2015 on “The Star of Bethlehem” at the Little Log Church in Palmer Lake, Colorado. Of interest, the church is at the base of Sundance Mountain, which is the home of the historic “Star of Palmer Lake.”

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UPDATE: Tomorrow night, December 21, 2020, you can observe a very close conjunction of the planets Saturn and Jupiter, an event that’s not happened in the last 800 years, making this sermon of five years ago even more poignant this Christmas! Read more about this year’s “Christmas Star” here or here.


As is our custom, if you can, please stand and open your Bibles to Matthew Chapter 2 (Read Matthew 2:1-11, NASB):

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; for out of you shall come forth a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called the Magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.” After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

May God bless the reading of His Word. You may be seated.

Often, at Christmas, preachers remind us of the amazing prophecies about the birth of Jesus, made hundreds of years before His birth:

  • Moses foretold that the Messiah would come from the line of Abraham in Genesis 22:18 and from the tribe of Judah in Genesis 49:10. These were written as early as 1400 B.C.
  • Moses also recorded Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:17, that Messiah would be a descendant of Jacob and that His coming would be associated with a star, again—1400 years ahead of time.
  • Micah predicted the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem in Micah 5:1-2, penned sometime between 750-686 B.C.
  • Isaiah foresaw the virgin birth in Isaiah 7:14, recorded sometime between 701-681 B.C.
  • Jeremiah prophesized that the Messiah would be a descendant of King David in Jeremiah 23:5, chronicled sometime between 626-586 B.C.

As amazing as are these fulfilled prophecies, today, I want to tell you an even more amazing story about the birth of Jesus.

This story is about a technology that will absolutely astound you. In fact, if you are not astonished and inspired, you flabbergasted meter (flabbergastometer) is broken.

Ready? Here we go.

TOP CHRISTMAS TOYS IN 1977

The story begins in 1977. Now that was a long time ago—38 years ago to be exact. And, Christmas was different in 1977—at least the toys were a lot different.

Here are the top twelve Christmas toys from 1977:

#12) Waterfall Ring Toss: Like Pong, this simple game had the ability to mesmerize and keep us playing for hours. Behold, the power of water currents!

#11) Looper Looms: The Rainbow Looms our kids have for making bracelets? Puh-leeze. In our day, we made real things, useful things, like potholders.

#10) Play-Doh McDonald Happy Meal Playshop: It’s a toss up as to which was healthier—the Happy Meal you could make out of Play-Doh, or the one you’d order at the drive through.

#9) Strawberry Shortcake: Scented dolls equals sheer genius! What was your favorite doll? Who had the best scent? I confess a lingering fondness for the peculiar Purple Pieman.

#8) Fisher Price Record Player: Who needs an iPod when you can rock out to Twinkle, Twinkle?

#7) Atari 2600 Game System: Frogger, Donkey Kong, Pac Man—wouldn’t you still take those over Candy Crush, Subway Surfer, and Angry Birds?

#6) Easy Bake Oven: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When life gives you light bulbs, make cake.

#5) Rock’em Sock’em Robots: Parental permission to whale on your little brother, albeit via your own plastic robot. No wonder we loved them.

#4) My Little Pony: How many horseshoe points did you have?

#3) Hot Wheels Big Wheel: Usually the punks had the CHIPS or Mr. T versions. If someone didn’t terrorize your neighborhood with a Big Wheel, then you are not a child of the 70’s.

#2) Cabbage Patch Kids: No American Girls full of historical accuracies for us. We had babies that grew in the garden. And no knock offs, please. Only authentic dolls with the Xaviar Roberts signature on the bum, that came with birth certificates and adoption papers. Bonus points if you also collected Garbage Pail Kids cards.

And #1 for 1977—believe it or else—The Star Wars Special 12 Mini-Figures Set: Long before there was Episode 7, The Force Awakens, in a galaxy far, far way, there was the one and only Star Wars, later retitled Star Wars: Episode 4, New Hope. Raise your hand if you were Princess Leia for Halloween—once in elementary school in the white robes, then again in college in the slave girl bikini.

TOP TECHNOLOGY OF 1977

But there were two other events in 1977 that went almost unnoticed by the vast majority of the population. But we now know, with the vantage of 20-20 hindsight that these two events were amazing indeed. In fact, the technology of 1977 made the expertise employed for the manned missions to the moon look like kindergarten play.

It involved two unmanned space missions: Voyager 2 took off on August 20, 1977 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and then on September 5, 1977, Voyager 1 blasted off. Their launches were perfectly timed so as to take advantage of a favorable alignment of Jupiter and Saturn.

Then, in 1979, the little Voyager 2 gadget caught up with Jupiter—365 million miles from earth—right on schedule, in fact, right to the minute—and then it sent back impeccable images of Jupiter’s moons, some of them never seen before.

I remember sitting there looking at my television screen, but instead of watching something that was happening simultaneously, I was seeing signals that left their source nearly two hours earlier and traveled to earth, at six tenths the speed of light—about 186,500 miles per second.

Then, in 1980, in a tangle with those spectacular rings of Saturn, 746 million miles from earth, the works of Voyager’s camera platform became fouled, apparently by dust.

Not to be outdone, those intrepid space probers in Houston got out their tools and with a digital arm three-quarters of a billion miles long worked it loose. Except for the loss of a few pictures on the backside of Saturn, everything went exactly as projected—exactly as predicted—down to the second.

Although their original mission was to study only Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager 2 continued on to Uranus and Neptune and far beyond.

In fact, the twin Voyager spacecraft are now exploring where nothing from Earth has flown before. In August 2012, Voyager 1 made the historic entry into interstellar space, the region between stars.

The Voyagers are expected to be able to operate scientific instruments for another five to ten years. And Voyager 1 has a date with a star, called AC +79 3888, which lies almost 18 light-years from Earth (by the way, a light-year is about 6 trillion miles). Even traveling at speeds of over 35,000 miles an hour, it will still take about 40,000 years to get there.

As of today, they have both traversed over twelve billion miles. Incredible.

HOW BIG IS A BILLION?

It’s really pretty easy to stand here and talk about this because I really have no conception of twelve billion miles. It’s hard for me to conceive of even a billion miles. I suspect it’s hard for you, also.

How big is a billion?

If a billion kids made a human tower, they would stand up past the moon (about 250,000 miles away–a quarter of a million miles). If you sat down to count from one to one billion, you would be counting for 95 years. If you found a goldfish bowl large enough hold a billion goldfish, it would be as big as a stadium.

  • A billion seconds ago it was 1959.
  • A billion minutes ago Jesus was alive.
  • A billion hours ago our ancestors were living in the Stone Age.
  • A billion dollars ago, at the rate Washington spends it, was only 8 hours and 20 minutes ago.

Yet these scientists were are using a technology operating over millions of miles.

It is hard to believe, and if you really think about it, it leaves you agape: “Some planning,” you may think. “Some technology.”

TOP TECHNOLOGY OF ALL TIME

But, at the start of this sermon, I related to you that I wanted to tell you an amazing story—a story about technology that would absolutely astound, astonish, inspire, and flabbergast you.

However, I wasn’t thinking about the Voyagers or the technological miracle of having them pass Jupiter and Saturn.

No, I was thinking about another time those two planets made headlines. In those days, the historians tell, us that a Roman Senator, named Quirinius, was a highly placed military figure and greatly trusted by Emperor Caesar Augustus. Quirinius served the Emperor in Syria from 12 to 2 B.C. The historians also tell us that the time period from 7 to 6 B.C. coincides with the transition period in which Augustus may have appointed his friend Quirinius to step in and conduct a census taxation.

The physician and apostle, Luke, tells us in Luke 2:1-2, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone went to their own town to register.”

Luke was writing about a drama written before time itself began before the universe was formed and created—a drama written before the ages began was unfolding. It all started with a star.

Now, while man’s search through the world’s dust bins has yielded astonishingly details, astronomical notes, and observations over thousands of years from Greece, Rome, Babylonia, Egypt, and China, there is no mention of any bright star, comet, or nova at any time near year zero.

Then in Prague, shortly before Christmas in 1603 the astronomer and mathematician, Johannes Kepler, was making observations with his modest homemade telescope. He was watching a conjunction of the planets Saturn and Jupiter in the constellation of Pisces, also called ‘The Fishes.’

A conjunction is when we see two planets come very close to each other in the night sky. And the two planets, in conjunction, can appear much brighter than either would alone.

Suddenly Keppler remembered a statement in an old Hebrew writing by a Rabbinical writer, Israel Abravanel (1437-1508), that the Messiah “would appear when Saturn and Jupiter were in conjunction in the constellation of the Fishes.”

Kepler started carefully checking the mathematics of this phenomenon and figured out that a similar conjunction occurred in 7 B.C. Kepler concluded that he had found the “Star of Bethlehem,” but few people believed him and his theory was rejected for over three hundred years.

Fast forward to the latter part of the 19th century, where archeological excavations began of the ancient Sumerian city of Sippar in what is modern Iraq.

Sippar was a very important commercial and religious center, which lay on a canal that linked the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. During the digs, archeologists unearthed the remains of a temple and a tower that were part of an ancient scribal School of Astrology.

Now, the most important discovery in the dig at Sippar involved tens of thousands of clay tablets from the school archives that dated from the Old Babylonian and Neo-Babylonian periods.

In 1925, the German Scholar P. Schnabel found, among the endless cuneiform records of dates and observations on clay tablets, a tablet dated to 8 B.C., which predicted the upcoming conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces—an event that occurs only about every 800-900 years. Recorded calculations predicted the conjunction would be particularly brilliant in the first light of dawn in the east in the most western of the Mediterranean countries.

Four copies of astronomical tablets were found that actually described the celestial activities in 7 B.C. and documented that the three conjunctions actually occurred. This means that Babylonian astronomers were thoroughly familiar with the movements of the stars and planets (which they called ‘wandering stars’). They then hand carried these tablets by caravan to fellow astronomers around the region. I think they called this c-mail (mailed by caravan).

Keppler’s hypothesis about the Star of Bethlehem had been reignited.

Don’t forget that when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple in 586 B.C., he had taken many, if not most, of the Jews home with him to Babylon. As a result, Babylon became as important a center for Judaism as Jerusalem in the ancient world.

It is possible that the ‘wise men’ or ‘magi’ were, in fact, scholars at the School of Astrology in Sippar and likely of Jewish ancestry dating back to the mass deportations of Jews to Babylon.

The word, ‘magi,’ which is plural for ‘magus,’ is sometimes translated ‘wise men.’ In general, they were learned men, who studied the physical world and were knowledgeable about many things, including the stars. Magi were often court astronomers, who were consulted by the rulers of the day for guidance in affairs of state.

For example, during the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, King Nebuchadnezzar kept a stable of court magi. Nebuchadnezzar even made the Jewish prophet Daniel Chief Magus of his court when Daniel was able to interpret a dream the other magi could not.

ASTROLOGY VS. ASTRONONOMY

Before we dig a bit deeper, a word about ‘astrology’ and ‘astronomy.’ ‘Astrology’ holds that stars exert forces on people. ‘Astronomy’ is the study of celestial and processes. The Bible condemns the former and lauds the latter.

The Book of Deuteronomy warns in Chapter 4, verse 19: “When you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon, and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshipping things the LORD your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven.”

In Genesis 1:14, God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs.”

Scholars believe that the Book of Job is the oldest Biblical text, likely originating before the time of Abraham and the founding of the Jewish nation. It’s interesting, then, to find that this oldest book speaks of the stars and the constellations with respect. It states that God set them in place. And it references the same constellations we know today.

King David wrote much of the Book of Psalms and in Psalm 19 he extols God’s handiwork in the stars and tells us that the stars bear a message. Listen for his choice of verbs in Psalm 19:1-4:

1The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. 2Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. 3There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. 4Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

David chose verb after verb, which say that the stars communicate.

And Jesus himself, in the Luke 21:25, tells us, “There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars.”

If we are interested in following the counsel of the Bible, we must hold a distinction in mind. The Bible assumes that celestial bodies can provide messages about earthly events. Astrology assumes that celestial bodies are causes of earthly events. The Bible refers to the celestial objects as carrying signs from the Almighty, but it prohibits worship of what we see.

It may be useful to think of this as a thermometer distinction. A thermometer can tell you if it’s hot or cold, but it can’t make you hot or cold. There is a big difference between a sign and an active agent. This is the difference between ‘astrology’ and what the Bible holds forth about ‘astronomy.’ So, it is Biblically legitimate to look for signs in the stars, but always remembering the thermometer distinction.

SO WHY DID THE MAGI TRAVEL TO BETHLEHEM?

However, a reasonable question remains: Why would Jewish astronomers care about these particular conjunctions in this particular year?

We find the answer in the significance which the ancient astrologers gave to each constellation and each star, particularly the stars that they called the ‘wandering stars,’ or what we now know as planets.

If these magi were secular, to them the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces would have predicted, from the Babylonian’s viewpoint, “the end of the old world order and the birth of a new king chosen by God,” likely in Syria or Palestine.”

Historians contend that Caesar Augustus’ authority was questioned and there was power vacuum in the Middle East. This would have led the people, including the Jews, to look for a new King that would topple the Roman Empire.

If these magi were Jews, as is likely, this sign would be from God for at least three reasons:

First, the Jews and all other ancient nations considered the ‘wandering star’ Jupiter both the regal and the royal star. The ‘wandering star’ of Saturn, according to all Jewish tradition, was called ‘The Special Protector of Israel,’ equated by the Roman historian, Tacitus, with the God of the Jews.’

Second, the constellation Pisces—the Fishes—had been from vey ancient Hebrew times considered ‘The Sign of Israel’ and ‘The Sign of the Birth Place of the Messiah.’

Third, the constellation of Pisces stood at the end of the sun’s course and at the beginning of its new run. It represented then, under certain circumstances, the end of one age and the beginning of another.

Some might say that the triple conjunction by itself would indicate to Jewish astronomers, the Magi, that a new king was on the scene.

Maybe.

But then, a triple conjunction in the constellation representing Israel and the birthplace of the Messiah—well, that’s what would have been even more convincing.

So, to the Magi, the conjunction of royal Jupiter with Saturn, the guardian of Israel, in the constellation of the country of the prophesized Messiah, would likely have stirred those exiled Jewish astrologers, for it pointed to the birth of a mighty king in the land of their fathers.

In other words, steeped in their Jewish Messianic hopes and in astronomy, these men would have been convinced that the birth of the Messiah was imminent. Given their background, an expedition to the Homeland would seem the most likely course of action for validation of their scholarly, astrological, and religious prognostication.

WHEN DID THE MAGI TRAVEL TO SEE JESUS?

Now, the conjunction was predicted to occur three times, the first in late May in the 24th degree of Pisces, the next in early October in the 18th degree, and the third and last in early December n the 16th degree.[1]

To travel in the desert in May was unthinkable, and in December it was cold in Judea—much too cold, in fact, for shepherds to be watching their flocks in the fields at night. In fact, the flocks were usually brought in from the fields around the first of November.

October likely seemed right to them, especially as in 7 B.C., October 3 was the Jewish Day of Atonement—called Yom Kippur. By the way, this was exactly the time of year when shepherds did in fact watch their flocks, with the young lambs, in the fields by night.

So, these magi would have observed the first conjunction in late May, exactly when and where predicted. And, as a result, some believe this event was the tipping point that led the Magi to saddle up their camels for a six-week, cross-country, cross-desert trek to Jerusalem.

They would have planned to arrive at the time of the predicted second conjunction.

We have read of how the Magi came to Herod the Great, the Roman-appointed King of the Jews, asking about the newborn King, having seen His star in the east during the first light of dawn.

And, wouldn’t you know it, the second conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in the constellation of Pisces was the brightest in the southern sky over Judea just before dawn. And, sure enough, as the Magi looked south from Jerusalem, there would have hung the Star of the King, directly over the city of Messiah’s birth, Bethlehem, as they would have observed along the road leading south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.

Then, we’ve read of Herod’s subsequent actions—called “The Massacre of the Innocents”—when Herod ordered the execution of all young male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn King of the Jews, whose birth had been announced to him by the Magi.

Matthew, who described this horror in Matthew 2:16-18, tells us that these murders were the fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy. He writes, “For this is what has been written by (Jeremiah) the prophet: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and she refused to be comforted because they were no more.’”

In three years or 4 B.C., Herod would be dead. But the King the Magi sought, who was born in a stable in Bethlehem, lives on.

On October 3, 7 B.C., when Quirinius was governing in Syria the first time, the brightest star in the heavens may have been the conjunction of two planets, Jupiter and Saturn, millions of miles apart, set in a constellation, 130 light-years (or 780 trillion miles) away, and all perfectly aligned and designed in the palm of the hand of God Himself—their courses set when the Universe was created, formed, shaped, and set into motion by He who the Bible tells us has individually named over 1 billion trillion stars; over 100 billion planets, stars, solar systems, and galaxies.

This is the amazing story I wanted to tell you—the story of the Star of Bethlehem—a story about a God-designed, God-created, God-driven technology that should absolutely astound, astonish, inspire, and flabbergast you.

Some planning! Some technology!

APPLICATION

Now, this theory I’ve described to you has supporters and opponents. And, there are others with a number of other plausible theories about what actually constituted the Star of Bethlehem.

If you go to my blog at www.DrWalt.com, I’ve listed sources for not only this theory but also a number of others.

But, this is my take-home point for you is that today. As amazing as is the story of the so-called ‘Star of Bethlehem,’ we live today with the benefit of knowing personally the real ‘Star of Bethlehem,’ the person whose birth the entire universe aligned to announce—Jesus.

We now know so much about the full and historical story of Jesus: Not only His birth, which we’ve celebrated this week, but also His life, death, and resurrection.

And, this leads me to two practical conclusions: One for us as the Body of Christ, and another for us as individuals.

Last week, in a compelling essay in The Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson objected to the depressing conclusion of some: that we live in a “post-Christian” America. Ferguson said, “We don’t live in a post-Christian age after all, not really. More to the point, it’s impossible to live in a post-Christian age.”

I’ve adapted my friend Gary Bauer’s response:

He is right, of course. Certainly, America in the hands of secularists might finally succeed in destroying the evidence of Christianity in our republic. It is possible that someday, God forbid, our churches in America will be historic curiosities and more like museums than the places where voices were raised to the heavens singing praises to Immanuel.

But the Christian era won’t be over even if America loses its way. The Baby was born. History was split in two. God became man. Angels announced the Good News. The blind saw. The lame walked. The cross beckoned. The perfect Lamb climbed it! Our sins were washed away. The stone was rolled away. Death was defeated. The gates of hell did not prevail.

When He returns in glory, every knee will bend, every head will bow, praise will fill the air, and, if not, “the very stones will cry” out their adoration. So, no matter who is the President, Jesus is the King. Do not ever doubt that when history ends the King of all kings has been and will be on the throne!

And, for us as individual Christians, looking back at the birth of Christ, I wonder if we should meditate some on just how much faith was required of those who walked in obedience at the time of His birth—that first Christmas so many years ago. These folks were not saints, but flawed human beings just like all of us—as they hoped and prayed they were being divinely inspired.

As we finish our Christmas celebrations and contemplate the gift of another New Year, consider their examples as possible applications to your life:

  • First, consider the Innkeeper, who with no room in his inn, chose to give all that he had left, his stable, for the birth of Jesus. May we also choose to give whatever we have, to honor God and give Him glory.
  • Contemplate the Shepherds, terrified by an angel and the glory of the Lord, chose to go see the Baby and then told everyone about who the angel said He was. May we also eagerly choose to go to him in the early morning hours of each day, and then follow after Him and enthusiastically tell others about Him.
  • Ponder on Mary, a pregnant, engaged virgin, chose not to be fearful, but to surrender her life to God’s will. May we also choose not to be fearful of what others may say or think and to surrender ourselves to God’s will and way in our lives—all for His glory.
  • Reflect on Joseph, an honorable man, chose to believe that God was at work despite the evidence to the contrary. May we also choose to believe in what God says and promises, even when circumstances and situations seem otherwise.
  • Finally, meditate about the Magi, who followed a star, who chose at great expense and endangerment to follow a long, difficult, and dangerous leading by God. May we also choose to follow God’s leading, even if it’s at great expense and endangerment. May we, like the Wise Men, find Him, worship Him, and give gifts of great value to Him.

As we each ponder those who first welcomed Jesus into the world, I hope and pray that we are filled with awe and amazement, encouraged to trust and follow Him more fully, and filled with a new enthusiasm to share Him with others.

Amen

Sources:

  1. John Ankerberg. Was Luke Wrong About the Census Under Quirinius? 2005.
  2. Gary Bauer. Celebrate Christmas. Campaign for Working Families. End of the Day Report. December 24, 2015.
  3. Troy Brooks. When Was Jesus Born? First Census, Quirinius, and Archaelogy(sic). Based upon: (a) Gary R. Habermas. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. College Press Publishing Company. Joplin, MO. 1996:171-173, and (b) Kenneh F. Doig. New Testament Chronology. Edwin Mellen Press. Lewiston, NY. 1990. Chapter 5.
  4. Craig Chester. The Star of Bethlehem. IMPRIMIS: the monthly journal of Hillsdale College. December 1996;25(12):1-6.
  5. Thomas B. Dameron, Jr., MD. Editorial. Jupiter and Saturn: A Thought for Christmas. Southern Medical Journal. December 1981;71(12):1429.
  6. Lenny Esposito. Is Luke Wrong About the Time of Jesus’ Birth? Come to Reason Ministries.
  7. Andrew Ferguson. Jingle Hell: The debasement of Christmas songs. The Weekly Standard. December 21, 2015.
  8. The First Light of Dawn.
  9. The Star of Bethlehem web site, a treasure trove of information and citations on most of the above, posits a similar thought process, but ends up estimating the birth of Jesus to be on December 25 of 2 B.C.
  10. Nick Strobel. The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomical Perspective.
  11. Triple Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Quotes: Simo Parpola. The Magi and the Star: Babylonian Astronomy Dates Jesus’ Birth. Bible Review. December 2001:16-23,52,54.
  12. Voyager: The Interstellar Mission. Jet Propulsion Laboratory. California Institute of Technology.

[1] Here are the dates of three conjunctions in 7 BC according to Parpola: May 27, 8am; October 6, 10 pm; December 1, 9pm. According to the UB: May 29; September 29; December 5. This discrepancy could be due to computer programs calculating the dates differently: one using a Julian calendar and the other a Gregorian calendar.

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