Friday, December 16, 2011

The Star of Bethlehem

As an amateur astronomer, I have read extensively as to theories about the star of Bethlehem.  Suggestions range from the idea that it was an example of Midrash, wherein the writer of Matthew’s Gospel used the myths of a “star” to indicate the birth of a great personage. Examples include stories of a star appearing at the birth of Abraham, Moses, and several of the Roman Caesars.

Other theories of the Star of Bethlehem include the explanation that a comet appeared around the time of Jesus’ birth.  Comets often have tails and these can be imagined to point towards or away from any point near the horizon. One advantage of the comet theory is that comets move across the starry sky. It has been argued that this fits the interpretation of the Gospel that the star was first seen in the east and thereafter moved to the south. The same argument could be applied to an object moving with the stars, however, if the journey of the Magi took some months. Below is my picture of Comet Garradd this fall. It has been visible for several months and it has moved from one constellation to another.

Conjunctions of planets, particularly of Jupiter and Saturn, were used in that time to signal great events, such as the birth of rulers.

However,  Mark Kidger, in his best-selling book “The Star of Bethlehem,” suggests  that there really was a Star of Bethlehem. It is his contention that DO Aquilae, still visible as a faint star, erupted in 5 BC, was visible during daylight and recorded by Chinese astrologers, and fit the criteria as the Magi’s guiding star. Biblical scholars place Christ’s birth at anywhere from 7 BC to 1 BC. At any rate, it is a guesstimate.

Stars obviously appear to circumnavigate the earth, so their position changes, relative to the North Star which remains fixed. However, the remnants of DO Aquilae, Kidger’s choice for the star of Bethlehem, is visible to large telescopes in the northwestern night sky in the northern hemisphere for most of the year. If it were visible during daylight hours it would appear to be pointing to Bethlehem most of the day from noon on, almost like an arrow, whose track would point to a western location for the Magi traveling from the East.

The region of Aquila that the star occupies is not populated with any easy pointers. In checking Burnham’s “Celestial Handbook,” I found that DO Aquilae’s position is 19 hrs, 28 min., 7 sec. in Right Ascension, and -06 hrs., 32 min. in Declination. Cross-referencing this info with my SkyAtlas 2000 detailed series of maps, DO Aquilae is not even mentioned, but it does lie about one-third the distance between 42 and 26 Aquilae, which are both marked in the Atlas.

Below is my picture of the area in question. I have placed a circle, in which DO Aquilae is located. Although I am unable to be certain which star in the circle it is, you may indeed be looking at the remnants of the Star of Bethlehem, if Kidger is correct. Click on for a larger view.

It is my opinion that none of the possible astronomical explanations appears to have overwhelming evidence in its favor. As a theologian and an astrophotographer, I am torn between the biblical account and astronomy’s best efforts to resolve the issue.

On the one hand, Matthew’s Gospel is the only one that records the appearance of a star, the visit of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, and Herod’s slaughter of children in Bethlehem. Without getting into a lengthy discussion as to the historicity of these events, suffice it to say that there is much in scripture, especially in the Old Testament, that is Midrash.

On the other hand, in the tradition of early Christianity, Origen (about 185-253 AD), who writes a couple of centuries after the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, favors a physical interpretation and he describes it as a “new” star, different from known ones, similar to celestial phenomena such as comets. John Chrysostom, a century later, viewed the star quite differently… as a supernatural event.

While the Star of Bethlehem remains a mystery, we can be certain that something extraordinary occurred…the birth of the Savior of the world.

(The Pleiades © Edward J. Hahnenberg 2010)

Hahnenberg Observatory

Hahnenberg Observatory