Can astronomy explain the biblical Star of Bethlehem?
What was the celestial body that the three wise men followed 2000 years ago? epSos.de, CC BY
Bright stars tower over Christmas trees in Christian homes around the world. Believers chant about the “star of miracle” that led the wise men to a manger in the small town of Bethlehem where Jesus was born. They are reminiscent of the star of Bethlehem described by the evangelist Matthew in the New Testament. Is the biblical description of the star a pious fiction or does it contain an astronomical truth?
Puzzles for astronomy
To understand the star of Bethlehem we have to think like the three wise men. Motivated by this "star in the east" they first traveled to Jerusalem and told King Herod the prophecy that a new ruler of the people of Israel would be born. We must also think like King Herod, who asked the wise men when the star appeared because he and his court did not seem to have known such a star in the sky.
These events introduce us to our first Christmas First Astronomy puzzle: How could King Herod's advisors not know a star so bright and evident that it could have led the wise men to Jerusalem?
To reach Bethlehem, the wise men had to travel south directly from Jerusalem. Somehow this “star in the east” “went ahead of them until it came and stood where the little child was.” Now we have our second astronomy riddle for Christmas: How can a star “in the east” turn our wise men south to lead? The Nordsternführer lost hikers in the north. So shouldn't a star in the east have led the wise men east?
And we have a third astronomy conundrum for Christmas: How does Matthew's star move "in front of you," like the taillights on the snow plow that you might follow during a blizzard, and then stop and stand over the crib in Bethlehem, in who is supposed to be lying the baby Jesus?
What could the "Star in the East" be?
The astronomer in me knows that no star can do these things, nor a comet or Jupiter or a supernova or a conjunction of planets or any other really bright object in the night sky. It can be argued that Matthew's words describe a miracle, something beyond the laws of physics. But Matthew chose his words carefully and wrote “Star in the East” twice, suggesting that those words have special meanings to his readers.
Can we find another explanation that is consistent with Matthew's words and does not require that the laws of physics be violated and that has something to do with astronomy? Amazingly, the answer is yes.
Astrological answers to astronomical puzzles
Astronomer Michael Molnar points out that “in the east” is a literal translation of the Greek term en te anatole, which was used as a technical term in Greek mathematical astrology 2000 years ago. It specifically described a planet that would rise over the eastern horizon just before sunrise. Then, just moments after the planet rises, it disappears in the bright sunlight in the morning sky. Except for a brief moment, nobody can see this “star in the east”.
We need a bit of an astronomical background here. In a human life, practically all stars remain fixed in their places; The stars rise and fall every night, but they don't move relative to each other. The stars in the Big Dipper always appear in the same place year after year. But the planets, the sun and the moon wander through the fixed stars; In fact, the word "planet" comes from the Greek word for wandering star. Although the planets, sun and moon move roughly the same path through the background stars, they move at different speeds, so they often lap each other. When the sun catches up with a planet, we cannot see the planet, but when the sun goes past it far enough, the planet reappears.
And now we need some astrological background. When the planet first reappears and rises in the morning sky just before the sun, for the first time in many months after being hidden in sunlight for those many months, that moment is known to astrologers as heliacal rising. A heliacal ascension, the particular first re-emergence of a planet, is what the Anatole refers to in ancient Greek astrology. In particular, the reappearance of a planet like Jupiter was viewed by Greek astrologers as symbolically significant for anyone born that day.
The “star in the east” thus refers to an astronomical event with a supposed astrological meaning in the context of ancient Greek astrology.
What about the star that is parked right above the first day nursery? The word, which is usually translated as "survived", comes from the Greek word epano, which also had an important meaning in ancient astrology. It refers to a specific moment when a planet stops moving and changes its apparent direction from west to east. This occurs when the earth, orbiting the sun faster than Mars, Jupiter, or Saturn, overtakes or laps the other planets.
Together, a rare combination of astrological events (the correct planet rises before the sun; the sun is in the correct constellation of the zodiac; plus a number of other combinations of planetary positions considered important by astrologers) would have suggested to ancient Greek astrologers a royal horoscope and a royal birth.
Wise men who look to the sky
Molnar believes that the wise men were actually very wise and math-savvy astrologers. They also knew about the Old Testament prophecy that a new king of David's family would be born. Most likely, they had been watching the sky for years, waiting for alignments that would predict the birth of this king. When they identified a number of powerful astrological signs, they decided it was time to set out to find the prophesied guide.
If Matthew's wise men did go on a journey in search of a newborn king, the bright star was not leading them. it just told them when to leave. And they would not have found a child in a crib. After all, the baby was already eight months old when they deciphered the astrological message that they believed predicted the birth of a future king. The sign began on April 17th, 6 BC. (With the heliacal ascent of Jupiter that morning, followed by its lunar cover in the constellation Aries at noon) and lasted until December 19, 6 BC. BC (when Jupiter stopped moving west). stood still for a moment and moved east compared to the fixed background stars). By the earliest time the men could have arrived in Bethlehem, the Baby Jesus would likely have been at least a toddler.
Matthew wrote to convince his readers that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah. Given the astrological clues contained in his gospel, he must have believed that the story of the Star of Bethlehem would be convincing evidence to many of his listeners.
This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts.
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David Weintraub does not work for any company or organization that would benefit from this article, does not consult any stocks or companies that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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