Friday, December 19, 2008

Searching for the Star of Bethlehem

A new theory makes the news. But are 21st-century astronomers looking in the wrong place?

Using powerful computer software, an Australian astronomer says that he has re-created the night sky over Bethlehem in the year 2 B.C. and discovered a planetary conjunction that may have been the Star of Bethlehem that drew the Magi to worship the baby Jesus.

Astronomer Dave Reneke said the close proximity of Venus and Jupiter created a spectacle in the night sky just before the summer solstice that year. Britain's Telegraph newspaper reported that Reneke went so far as to suggest that perhaps Christmas should be celebrated on June 17 rather than December 25. An interesting idea, since the December Christmas celebration probably doesn't mark the true birth day of Jesus either. The December observance has its roots in a Roman celebration of the winter solstice.

Reneke seems to assume such a celestial spectacle would automatically spur the Magi, who were Mesopotamian astrologer/astronomers, to travel a great distance to pay tribute to a newborn king. This is the weakness in most Bethlehem Star theories.

A variety of celestial spectacles have been proposed as the Star of Bethlehem. The famed 17th century astronomer Johannes Kepler suggested it was a nova, a temporarily ultra-bright star. Others have suggested a comet, although in ancient times a comet was usually perceived as a bad omen.

Beyond bright ideas

The story in Matthew's Gospel seems to indicate that the people of Judea were oblivious to the Star. So, at least one scholar has taken a different approach to identifying the Star of Bethlehem.

"I set out to find what a stargazer of Roman times would have recognized as the star of a new Judean king," wrote retired Rutgers University astronomer Michael Molnar in the preface of his 1999 book, The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi.

Owen Gingerich, professor emeritus of astronomy at Harvard University, thinks that Molnar is on the right track. "He has made a serious attempt to situate the Star in terms contemporary with the event, tying it in with numismatical evidence and Roman imperial horoscopes," he said. "Too many have tried to formulate the Star in modern terms, without considering the first century context."

Molnar said it was an ancient coin that initiated his Star quest. "That coin had Aries the Ram on it," he said in an interview. "My research of several astrological manuscripts from Roman times showed that the kingdom of Judea was represented by Aries the Ram."

Molnar's extensive research in primary sources led him to a set of conditions that "pointed like an astrological road sign to Jerusalem." On April 17, 6 B.C., the royal planet Jupiter rose as a morning star and was eclipsed (technical term: occulted) by the moon while it was located within the constellation Aries.

Later the earth in its inner orbit passed Jupiter and for a week in December of 6 B.C. Jupiter appeared to be standing still or drifting backwards. The astronomical term is retrograde motion, and could explain why Matthew 2:9 states that the Star stood still over Bethlehem.

(The birth of Jesus around 6 B.C. fits what scholars know from other sources, since the gospels indicate that Jesus was born before the death of Herod. Herod's death is believed to have occurred around 4 B.C., just after an eclipse that's mentioned in ancient sources. That Jesus was born B.C. is due to a calendar miscalculation centuries later.)

While Molnar's book laid out a what may be the strongest case so far (a review in Sky & Telescope magazine called it "the final word") for the Star of Bethlehem, astronomer Gingrich said "no reconstruction agrees with the New Testament in every detail, there is always some discrepancy."

Some Christians are satisfied with the biblical story and don't care what the astronomers think; but others would like to know if there is scientific evidence to support the Biblical account.

Edwin Yamauchi, emeritus professor of history at Miami University, and the author of Persia and the Bible, said, "It is quite legitimate to consider such scientific explanations, as long as they are not reductions which deny God's supernatural ability. God the creator can use his creation to reveal and to work his will."

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