Science Offers New Theories on Star of Bethlehem

Authors argue that the Magi observed astrological portents involving the planet Jupiter.

In the Gospel of St. Matthew, it's the apparition that heralds the birth of Jesus. Today, it features in Christmas trappings from tree toppers to carols to cards. No children's Nativity play is complete without its tinfoil likeness above the storied stable.

But what was the Star of Bethlehem?

Suggestions have included a comet, a supernova, meteors, bright-shiningplanets--even a UFO. The truth may be more subtle.

Using reconstruction software and the historical record, astronomers increasingly have come to believe that the three wise men "following yonder star" may have been interpreting astrological omens so esoteric that only the learned would have noticed anything unusual in the night skies.

While scientists disagree on the particulars, "one thing is absolutely certain," said Mark Kidger, an astronomer with the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias in Spain's Canary Islands. "Whatever the Star of Bethlehem was, it was not an extraordinarily spectacular object."

King Herod hadn't seen the sign that drew the Magi to Judea. Even the meticulous astronomical observations of the Chinese show nothing truly spectacular in the years around Jesus' probable birth date.

In fact, this "star" may not have been visible at all. Michael R. Molnar proposes that the heavenly sign was an eclipse of the planet Jupiter that took place in the constellation Aries, among other regal portents, on April 17 of the year 6 B.C.


That morning, just before dawn, Jupiter, a planet associated with kings, emerged from behind the sun to rise in the east, appearing as a morning star. Later that day, the moon moved in front of--or occulted--Jupiter.

While such events can be dramatic, this one was invisible, lost in the glare of the noonday sun. Even so, the Magi would have predicted it, argues Molnar, a retired Rutgers University astronomer who lives in Warren, N.J.

"It was something very subtle, only something an astrologer would haveseen as important," he said.

The occultation happened in Aries, which ancient astrologers thought ruled the fate of several Near East kingdoms--including Judea, which was struggling under the yoke of Roman rule. Hence, Molnar concludes, the wise men would have read the birth of a new Jewish ruler, perhaps even the long-prophesied Messiah, in this configuration of heavenly bodies.

Kidger, author of "The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomer's View," disagrees. Occultations aren't rare and so wouldn't have excited seasoned skywatchers, he said. He noted that the moon occulted various planets almost 200 times between 20 B.C. and 1 B.C.

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