Monday, December 22, 2008

Star of Bethlehem? Or a MacGuffin?

At many lectures I've given one of the most asked questions has been: "Was there really a star of Behtlehem?"

This is a difficult question. In the preliminary pass for any sort of validating records, it entails assuming any or all of the ancient scriptures were true historical artifacts, not mere mythological escapism masquerading as such. For example, Matthew 2:1-1 notes such a "star" - but not one of the other quadriforms peeps a syllable about it. Why not? Why - if it was such a signal event (no pun intended) and an actual occurrence- did none of the other New Testament authors note it? This is disturbing and makes one recall the words of Catholic historian, the Rev. Thomas Bokenkotter, in his monograph ‘A Concise History of the Catholic Church’,(page 17):

“The Gospels were not meant to be a historical or biographical account of Jesus. They were written to convert unbelievers to faith in Jesus as the Messiah, or God.”

This is a shattering admission indeed, and from a historian of Christendom’s largest Church. It is a de facto admission that no historical support exists for any of the accounts in the New Testament, including Matthew's star. But for the sake of this article, let us assume there is something there, some faint signal amidst the noise.

We consider ordinary bright stars first. For an observer in Middle Eastern latitudes 2,000 years ago, there would have been at least ten visible at this time of year. Each one in a different direction, location of the Celestial sphere. Thus, no one star would be visible long, and certainly not at a fixed location or altitude such that it might provide a "search beacon".

The only other stellar candidate one might invoke is a nova or exploding star. Certainly the indredible brightness common to such entities would attract attention, but could any have occurred then and provided the basis for the Matthew citation? Interestingly, this very attirbute of attention -getter eliminates the nova theory from contention. Such a cataclysmic event could not have escaped notice yet there is no mention in any astronomical records of the time - including the Chinese who were already consummate star gazers.

an alternative explanation is that the object was a bright comet. An exceptionally brilliant comet was recorded in 45 B.C. but this is too far in advance of the probable Nativity date. Could such a comet have appeared suddenly and unpredictably around the time. Possibly, but it's doubtful such an event would have been associated with anything beneficent. Two thousand years ago comets were uniformly regarded by all cultures as omens of impending disaster, so we can rule them out.

The only other reasonable explanation is that the Magi witnessed an uncommon astronomical alignment of bright planets. One such candidate is the triple conjuncti9on of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C. A "triple conjunction" here means that Jupiter and Saturn appeared in close proximity no less than three times in succession.

One can spculate here that the Magi in preparing for their jounrey witnessed the first conjunction ca. May 29. A second event was observed on September 29 could have established that Jerusalem was in the general direction they needed to go. Finally, a third conjunction on Dec. 4 would presumably provided the final directional "fix", leading to Bethlehem some eight kilometers away.

The accuracy of the above speculations (and I reinforce that's all these are!) is subject to the dubious assumption that our present calendar is actually a bit off and Christ was actually born in 7 B.C. rather than the 1 B.C. usually quoted.

Given this, one is forced to concede that at the present time there is no comprehensive astronomical explanation which consistently explains all the details. The triple conjunction sounds like the best, assuming we are really in the year 2001 and not the end of 2008.

Perhaps the event must remain forever intangible and beyond the realm of any scientific investigation. Or, perhaps there never was such an object in the first place - and Matthew simply resorted to some elaborate poetic license.

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