Sunday, December 13, 2015

Star of Wonder: Arguments over the Christmas Star

In science, a good problem takes us far beyond the results of a single observation. The Christmas Star has been debated on many levels. The International Planetarium Society website ( lists over 100 citations to the Star of Bethlehem. Some of those articles and letters were part of a multifaceted decades-long argument among at least five astronomers and one editor. Writing in Archaeology Vol. 51, No. 6 (Nov/Dec 1998), Anthony F. Aveni cited 250 “major scholarly articles” about the Star of Bethlehem.

A Wondrous Problem

Timing any proposed astronomical event is the first challenge. The book of Matthew records the birth Jesus as having been during the reign of Herod. The book of Luke says that the birth of Jesus happened when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Biblical accounts have to be reconciled with secular histories by the Romans Lucius Cassius Dio and Josephus Flavius. Those histories record the reign and death of Herod the Great, king of Judea, and a client of Rome, who lived from 74 or 73 BCE to 4 BCE. Josephus also tells of the appointment of Publius Sulpicius Quirinius as legate in Syria, to which Judea was annexed for taxation. That is accepted as 6 CE. Any candidate must fall within those dates.

Moreover, the evidence must belong to a class that is supposedly interesting to astrologers. After all, the Magi traveled to Bethlehem seeking the King of the Jews, “for we have seen His star in the East.” Something is always happening in the sky, but what is significant—and why?

Conjunction Junction

For about 1500 years, the story of the Star of Bethlehem was accepted as historically accurate because it was divine truth. Miracles were not questioned. (The Church did investigate such claims, and even appointed a Devil’s Advocate to argue against them, but the outcome was seldom in question.) With the Renaissance, a new way of looking at the world evolved.

About 50 AD coin of Antioch in Syria shows
Jupiter to west of Aries.
EPI KOUDRATROU = “of Quadratus"
the name of the Roman legate).
Year is Rho Delta = 104 of Roman rule.
Author’s collection.
The scholarly tradition of explaining the Star of Bethlehem with scientific evidence apparently began with Johannes Kepler. Over the centuries, the Christmas Star has been explained as a comet, a meteor or meteor shower, but the conjunction theory has been the most popular.  The triple conjunction identified by Kepler is not alone.

In 1604, he published The New Star in the Foot of the Serpent (De stella nova in pede serpentarii: et qui sub ejus exortum de novo iniit, trigono igneo…). In that tract, he examined a triple conjunction, as well as a nova, which he identified as the cause of the conjunction. He was not alone in that kind of a belief. Others expected the conjunction to cause a comet. Reviewing the facts in 1614, Kepler said that the Star of Bethlehem was a nova in 4 BCE caused by a triple conjunction in 7 BCE. (See “Common Errors in ‘Star of Bethlehem’ Planetarium Shows,” by John Mosley, The Planetarian, Third Quarter 1981.)

The triple conjunction of 7 BCE occurred in Pisces. Some astrological lore identified that constellation with Judaea. Other traditions give Pisces to the Libyans, among others. However, back in the 1960s, at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, planetarium director Dan Snow, told us of the Pisces connection. So, for me, the Wise Men traveled to Judaea because of a rare conjunction in Pisces.  

“… the Star was Jupiter or a series of conjunctions between Jupiter, Venus, and Regulus in 3 and 2 B.C.    On August 1, 3 B.C., Jupiter became visible above the predawn eastern horizon as the ‘morning star.’ Twelve days later, at about 4:00 a.m., a very close conjunction occurred between Jupiter and Venus, the space between them narrowing to only 0.23 degrees. Five days later Mercury emerged from the glare of the sun and came into conjunction with Venus on the morning of September 1, their minimum separation being only 0.36 degrees.

“The fact that Jupiter became stationary among the stars on December 25 (and, by the way, directly midbodied to Virgo the Virgin) may well explain what Matthew meant in his Gospel when he said that the star came to a halt over the village Bethlehem…” (“The Star of Bethlehem Reconsidered: An Historical Approach,” John Mosley, IPS Planetarian Vol. 9 No. 2, Summer, 1980.)
About 51 AD coin of Antioch ad Orontem
(eastern side of the metropolis).
Year is Rho Epsilon or 105 of Roman rule.
(“et” is the abbreviation for “etios” = “year”)
Crescent Moon and Jupiter
to the West of Aries.
Author’s collection.
Money Talks

In 1999, Rutgers Press published The Star of Bethlehem: the Legacy of the Magi by Dr. Michael R. Molnar. In addition to his achievements as an astronomer, Molnar is a numismatist. He was attracted to a series of coins from Antioch in the first century of the present era. They show a star, a crescent moon, and a Ram, among other symbols and legends.

Jupiter underwent two occultations (“eclipses”) by the Moon in Aries in 6 BC. Jupiter was the regal “star” that conferred kingships a power that was amplified when Jupiter was in close conjunctions with the Moon. The second occultation on April 17 coincided precisely when Jupiter was “in the east,” a condition mentioned twice in the biblical account about the Star of Bethlehem. In August of that year Jupiter became stationary and then "went before" through Aries where it became stationary again on December 19, 6 BC. This is when the regal planet “stood over.” A secondary royal portent also described in the Bible. In particular, there is confirmation from a Roman astrologer that the conditions of April 17, 6 BC were believed to herald the birth of a divine, immortal, and omnipotent person born under the sign of the Jews, which we now know was Aries the Ram. Furthermore, the coins of Antioch and ancient astrological documents show that there was indeed a Star of Bethlehem as reported in the biblical account of Matthew.”,1998.aspx and

It is important to note that Jesus was not the only king, and his reign was not the only new age. Julius Caesar was assassinated March 15, 44 BCE. In May through July, a comet appeared, a singular event, not Halley’s or any other recurring comet. The people of Rome accepted it as obvious fact that the soul of Julius Caesar had ascended to the heavens. Julius Caesar was the first historical Roman deified by the Senate. His adopted heir, Gaius Octavius, became at once Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, and also Divi Filius.

Moreover, although he was born 23 September and therefore a Libra, Octavian Augustus took Capricorn as his personal symbol. Capricorn is the zodiacal sign of the winter solstice, of course, and therefore the symbol of the new year – ultimately, a new age.

Molnar’s book offers images of the Caesar Comet coin and Augustus’s Capricorn on a coin. The centerpieces, however, are the coins of Antioch (the Roman mint closest to Judaea) and the astronomical interpretation of them. It is important to understand that while some were struck during the accepted lifetime of Jesus, the series is broader than that. What was meant at the detail level to the people of the time must remain at least somewhat conjectural.

Is There a Wise Man in the Planetarium Tonight?

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard several cases involving so-called “creation science.” Those rulings defined the limits of what is permissible for public funds and religion.  In 1971, the Supreme Court created “The Lemon Test” named for the plaintiff in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971).  Writing for the Court’s unanimous (8 to 0) opinion, Justice William J. Brennan established a three-pronged test to determine whether or not government action in religious matters was allowable.
  1. There must be no “excessive government entanglement” with religious affairs.
  2. No law or action can either advance or inhibit religious practice.
  3. Any government action must have a secular legislative purpose.
The Supreme Court and lower appellate courts heard many such cases over the past 35 years. The Lemon Test stands the test of time.  If your planetarium is publicly funded, then the “Star of Christmas” cannot be a December holiday show. But what if your star theater receives no tax dollars? It may nonetheless be problematic.

Agreed, it brings in viewers. Allow me to suggest that Colorado is among several states that have liberalized laws regarding marijuana. How would you react to a Colorado planetarium that handed out marijuana cigarettes? It would surely bring in the crowds. They definitely would enjoy the show. But would that be advancing science?

(A longer version appeared in the December 2015 issue of Sidereal Times of the Austin Astronomical Society.)


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