The Christmas Star
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. With the Renaissance, a new way of looking at the world evolved. 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.
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 (ww.ips-planetarium.org) 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.
The scholarly tradition of explaining the Star of Bethlehem with scientific evidence apparently began with Johannes Kepler who identified a triple conjunction as the likely event.
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.)
According to Michael Walter Burke-Gaffney of the Royal Astronomical Society (also of the Society of Jesus), the popular tradition began with one Bishop Münter in 1831. It was Münter who first cited Kepler (wrongly), claiming a triple conjunction. The assertion lived on. Burke-Gaffney claimed that the popularizer Münter was widely read, though Kepler himself was not. (“Kepler and the Star of Bethlehem,” Burke-Gaffney, W., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 31, p.417.) Personally, I am not sure who did and did not read Kepler. As far as I know, unlike Shakespeare and Bach, Kepler’s writing never suffered a hiatus.
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.
Alternatley, a triple conjunction in 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 Science, planetarium director Dan Snow, told us of the connection between Pisces and Judea. So, for me, the Wise Men traveled to Judaea because of a rare conjunction in Pisces.
Also, answering Molnar, as the precession of the vernal equinox - the peripoint of Aries - moved through the zodiac, the next sign would have been Pisces. This correlates to the coming of a new age, and the equivalency of the "sign of the fish" with the Greek initialization IXTHEOS: Jesus Christ Son of God Our Savior. And just to note, the first day of Spring is moving from the Age of Pisces to the Age of Aquarius. Make of that whatever you want.
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.
Here on Rebirth of Reason, I suggest that that actually indicated another positive consequence of Christianity. Ayn Rand pointed to the fact that more than just obedience to the gods, Christianity attempted to provide a guide to self-improvment, personal salvation. So, too, was the story of the ages always a downward spiral, in the Bible as the Fall of Man, but also in Hesiod. In Works and Days Hesiod says that we passed from a golden age to a silver age and so on and now we are in the Age of Iron, of blood and war. But Christianity promised the coming of a new age. We still look forward to that, but we have a worldly, realist-rationalist construct.
(Edited by Michael E. Marotta on 12/28, 4:01pm)