Saturday, January 2, 2010

Star of Wonder

Apropos the question of "When was Jesus born?" is "What was the star of Bethlehem?" Matthew's gospel tells us the following:
Matthew 2:1-11 When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem,
saying, "Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage."
When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet:
'And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"
Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star's appearance.
He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage."
After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.
and that is the only mention in the bible of the star of Bethlehem. There are some basic questions raised by this:
  • Was this a historical account, or a legend?
  • If this was a historical account, what was it the magi saw?
  • If it was a real phenomenon could we use it to pinpoint Jesus' time of birth?
As to the first question, "was this a historical account" we can only speculate. The events described are not inconsistent with anything we know about the period or the other gospel accounts. Some people point out that since only Matthew describes the event, he made it up to make it appear that prophesies were fulfilled, namely:
Psalm 72:10 "May the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute, the kings of Arabia and Seba offer gifts."
Psalm 72:15 "Long may he live, receiving gold from Arabia, prayed for without cease, blessed day by day."
Isaiah 60:6 "Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; All from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD."
Matthew, a Jew, and writing for a Jewish audience, would have been more concerned with the fulfillment of prophecies, so he'd have the greatest likelihood of wanting to embellish the nativity story in this way. Of course, Matthew, a Jew and writing for a Jewish audience would also be more likely to include this bit of history, which would have seemed minor to other gospel authors. One could also argue that those passages are not related to the appearance of the magi. So the argument that this "proves" the story is false is specious.

Since a negative assertion cannot be proved, the best we can do is look for evidence of the event. What was the star? Some claim that it was miraculous. Could this be the case? Certainly the miracle of the sun at Fatima was such an event. If we were to look for astronomical evidence of that we would be hard pressed to find anything that could be taken seriously. Indeed, the only explanation is a miracle, which is why the Church calls it one. Of course, if the star were a miraculous event, then there' not point in looking for evidence. Once again, we'd have a negative assertion and the whole thing must be taken on faith.

So in order to have some "proof", we must examine the case that the star was real and was a natural event. The word "star" in those days did not mean what it means today (an incandescent ball of hot gas floating in space), which makes the realm of possibilities broader than it might otherwise be. Some possibilities include:
  • A meteor
  • A comet
  • A supernova
  • A planet
  • Some astronomical event (e.g. conjunction)
Right away we can rule out meteors. The longest lasting meteors are only visible for minutes, which hardly explains how the magi were able to follow it for a long journey and still see it, even when they were in Jerusalem. So perhaps it was a comet.

The closest repeating comet sighting we know of would have been comet Halley in 12 BC. That's too early to correlate with other historical evidence that points to Jesus' birth as being between 7 and 2 BC. There was a comet reported by Chinese astronomers in April of 4 BC. We don't have evidence of a repeat visit by this comet. It could have been a long period comet. Such comets have extremely elliptical orbits and only approach once in thousands of years. However, if it were such a comet, there's no way to get evidence of it, so once again, there's no point in considering it. Additionally, comets were not thought to herald the birth of kings, but were considered bringers of death and misfortune, so it is hardly likely that the magi would have associated the appearance of a comet with the birth of Jesus.

There was an object recorded by Chinese astronomers in 5 BC which may have been a supernova in Capricorn. It was recorded from March 10 to April 27. It might have been a long period comet, although since no movement relative to the stars was recorded by the Chinese it seems unlikely to have been a comet. A more likely explanation would be a supernova. A supernova is a star which explodes, suddenly becoming brighter. Over a period of time the supernova becomes dimmer. A supernova leaves behind an expanding cloud of gas and debris, so if it were one there would be evidence. There is no such evidence, although it has been hypothesized that it could have been a bright supernova in another galaxy, which would make finding its remnant problematic.

Of the planets, there were five (other than the Earth) that were visible with the naked eye, and recognized as planets. They are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Usually there's at least one of them visible at some point during any given month. It would be hard to find something about a planet that would make it special enough to be considered the star of Bethlehem.

The popular theories around the star of Bethlehem focus on astronomical (or rather astrological) events, namely conjunctions. A conjunction is when two or more bodies are relatively close to each other in the sky. It doesn't necessarily mean they appear right next to each other. Anywhere in the same constellation can be considered a conjunction. Conjunctions are likely candidates because the magi are believed to be astrologers, and such events would have had symbolic meaning to astrologers. There are two main candidates in this area.

Frederick A. Larson, founder of The STAR Project, has created an impressive body of evidence concerning a series of conjunctions in 3 and 2 BC. In September of 3 BC there was a conjunction of Venus and Jupiter (the "mother" planet and the "god" planet). Jupiter then passed Regulus (the "king" star) 3 times, stopping and moving back and forth. In June of 2 BC, nine months after the original conjunction, there was an even more impressive conjunction, where Venus and Jupiter would have appeared to merge into a single very bright object, and then separate into separate objects.

Larson also claims that the description of John's vision in the book of Revelations is actually a depiction of the night sky at that first conjunction. In other words, John's vision was of the Annunciation.
Revelations 12:1-5 A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.
She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth.
Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadems.
Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth.
She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne.
The Austrian astronomer Konradin Ferrari d’Occhieppo had a different conjunction hypothesis. His theory was that the Star of Bethlehem was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Jupiter and Saturn rose together in the east on September 15, 7 BC. That was followed by three conjunctions of the two planets in 6 BC:
  1. May 27
  2. October 6
  3. December 1
The triple conjunction is rare, occurring every 800 years. Since 7BC, triple conjunctions were observed in 786 and 1583. Since Jupiter was the "god" planet and Saturn was associated with the Jews by the ancient Babylonians, the conjunction would have meant the birth of the king of the Jews.

I have read accounts of each of these hypotheses which claim that it is more likely than the other. As an amateur astronomer I personally like the Larson theory better, because the Jupiter/Venus conjunction in 2 BC would have been more visually impressive, and of course, we want to think impressive when we think of Christ.

I have two caveats, however. First off, in order to evaluate whether these events are "significant" we need to compare them to a "control". If we picked a different decade, could we find astronomical events just as compelling for the star of Bethlehem? Certainly the conjunctions mentioned are rare, but there are many different signs that could appear. What is the likelihood that a star of Bethlehem candidate appears in any given year? My gut tells me the likelihood is small, but I have not seen any publications that describe the research having been done.

Secondly, the "finding" of the star of Bethlehem, and even the accuracy of the account itself has no impact one way or the other on the historical fact of Jesus' birth, or on our belief that He is our Lord and Savior. Although it would be cool to have some "definitive" evidence of the star of Bethlehem, it would be a mistake to somehow base one's faith on it or to conclude that it alone was sufficient reason to believe.


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