Friday, December 24, 2010

What Was the Star of Bethlehem?

[Nb: This is reposted from Philippine Commentary 2005--DJB=]
SINCE NO ONE SEEMS TO KNOW THE ANSWER, I have made it a habit, indulged in around Christmas time, to write an essay based on the best conjectures, past and present, as to what exactly the author of the Gospel According to Matthew might have been referring to in this famous passage --
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and are come to worship him." When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him." -- Matthew 2:1-10
The Griffith Observatory provides an authoritative set of links to various investigations into the astronomical mystery of the Star of Bethlehem, assuming of course that Matthew was reporting a real observation of something that was perhaps an abiding mystery even then. Check out this video animation -- it gives a quick visual introduction to the theories that have been favored for centuries.

PLANETARY CONJUNCTIONS: The planets of the solar system move roughly within the same plane of revolution, or slice of space, around the sun. It sometimes happens that they seem to be right on top of one another in the night sky. A planetary conjunction is rare and remarkable enough that ancient peoples have invested them with portentous or momentous meanings, just like eclipses and other unusual astronomical and atmospheric phenomena. For example on August 12 in the year 3 B.C. there was a CONJUNCTION in the sky between the planets Venus and Jupiter in the constellation Leo and near the star Regulus, an event that would have been known to astute skywatchers and astrologers of that era, such as "the Maji." According to John Mosely, Leo was the tribal sign of Judah, the tribe to which the forebears of Jesus of Nazareth are said to have belonged. To the Babylonians and Persians, Jupiter was the Planet of Kings, Regulus the Star of the Kings, and Venus (named Ishtar) was the Goddess of the Female Spirit. Of course the idea of moving Christmas to August may keep this particular theory, just that. But see the video animation for a good idea of how this actually looks from the perspective of someone on the ground, one Holy Night, ABOUT 2000 years ago, plus or minus 10 years!

COMETS like Halley's have been an attractive model for the Star of Bethlehem, though this particularly famous one, HALLEY'S COMET which last returned in 1986, was far away in the far reaches of the Solar System, far out in the middle of its orbit in the Oort Cloud, during the most likely period of Jesus's birth in Bethlehem. The related phenomena of METEORS is probably not a good candidate however, because a meteorite usually lasts only a few seconds at the most during its fiery descent to Earth, and would not be expected to behave like the object described by Matthew. The nice thing about comets is it usually takes months to appear from out of nowhere, come careening towards the sun and back out again -- just the time-scale needed by the Three Kings to follow a celestial signal. But no such comet with a suitable orbit has been found. If the Star of Bethlehem was comet, perhaps its orbital period is longer than 2000 years, since it has not yet returned.

SUPERNOVA EXPLOSIONS are mysterious, titanic stellar explosions that produce extremely bright objects in the night sky, sometimes brighter than the containing galaxy, for a period of weeks or months. (Again, the right time frame to qualify as the Star of Bethlehem in the Gospel story). However, it seems that supernovae usually leave visible remnants. For example, the most famous supernova remnant is what is today known as the CRAB NEBULA, which was first observed and recorded by Chinese astronomers in 1054 AD. Today it is known that the Crab Nebula is the location of a PULSAR, a rapidly spinning, extremely dense NEUTRON STAR. The Crab Nebula is pictured nearby. Another famous supernova remnant is something called Kepler's Star, which is associated with a really famous name in astronomy, JOHANNES KEPLER. Carl Sagan reportedly referred to Kepler as the "last scientific astrologer in history." Kepler's work is associated with other famous names like TYCHO BRAHE and GALILEO GALILEI.

NEAR EARTH OBJECTS LIKE APOPHIS: About a week ago I read the following amazing article in the GUARDIAN --
In Egyptian myth, Apophis was the ancient spirit of evil and destruction, a demon that was determined to plunge the world into eternal darkness.A fitting name, astronomers reasoned, for a menace now hurtling towards Earth from outerspace. Scientists are monitoring the progress of a 390-metre wide asteroid discovered last year that is potentially on a collision course with the planet, and are imploring governments to decide on a strategy for dealing with it. Nasa has estimated that an impact from Apophis, which has an outside chance of hitting the Earth in 2036, would release more than 100,000 times the energy released in the nuclear blast over Hiroshima. Thousands of square kilometres would be directly affected by the blast but the whole of the Earth would see the effects of the dust released into the atmosphere.
Well you heard it here first folks. THE END OF THE WORLD could come in 31 YEARS. Seriously. At the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., there has been for several years a serious effort to discover, monitor and track these NEAR EARTH ORBITING ASTEROIDS which are all over the Solar System, but in particular near the orbits of the Earth, Mars and Jupiter. The concern is real, and now it looks like they have found at least one asteroid, 390 meters across, that IS on a collision course with the Earth and has good chance of hitting it.

THE THREE KINGS AS SCIENTISTS AND ASTRONOMERS:No discussion of the Star of Bethlehem can possibly be complete without touching upon the names of the three MAJI who followed the Star of Bethlehem to Christendom's greatest discovery -- Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. There are perhaps as many theories about who they were as speculations on the nature of the Star of Bethlehem. But here is a very unusual and charming essay about the Three Maji arguing rather cogently that they were free spirits, scientists, astronomers AND kings --
The Wise Men were not scientists only but kings also. Practically, this meant that they did not have to seek funding from a university, a foundation, or a government agency, and so they did not have to modify their research project to fit the notions fashionable in those bodies. Their royalty also meant that they had certain advantages in traveling from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and that they could deal with other kings, like Herod, on an equal footing. It also gave them the practical savvy to use and to evade the likes of Herod, as prudence might require.

More importantly, their kingship furnished their minds with an important body of knowledge that enabled them to recognize the full meaning of their research results. As kings they understood things like authority and obedience, jurisdiction and sovereignty, legality and equity. As "pure" scientists—who refuse to go beyond the confines of their discipline—they would have been constrained only to record their observations on the Star of Bethlehem; they could not even have moved on to the scientist's cherished "predictability" or "repeatability" for the behavior of this star was altogether unique. In other words, these kings were able to know a King when they saw one, despite the limitations of their science's vocabulary and procedures.

Their legal and practical knowledge was apparently supplemented by some skill at literary and historical research, for they had enough sense to enquire among Herod's scholars about the legends and prophecies in Hebrew tradition and then to sort through them to find material pertinent to their astronomical observations.
Perhaps we cannot find the Star of Bethlehem out in the largeness of the Night, but rather, in the depths of our soul.


We three kings of Orient are,
bearing gifts we traverse afar,
field and fountain,
moor and mountain,
following yonder star.
O star of wonder, star of night,
star with royal beauty bright;
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light!

Born a King on Bethlehem's plain,
gold I bring to crown him again,
King for ever,
ceasing never
over us all to reign.

Frankincense to offer have I:
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising,
gladly raising,
worship him, God Most High.

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing,
bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

Glorious now behold him arise,
King and God and Sacrifice;
heaven sings
alleluia; alleluia
the earth replies.

Words: John Henry Hopkins, Jr., 1857

No Rizalist! Now is not the time to talk about DARK ENERGY.
And quit playing around with that REAL TIME SOLAR SYSTEM ORRERY already.

UPDATE: Philippine Commentary is following BREAKING NEWS ITEMS today, including President Bush's Oval Office Speech and doings in OZ at THE ARCHIPELAGO CALLED EARTH.