Selected one of Popular Sciences 50 Best of the Web.
Get Email Updates
Write to us and we will send you an email when a new feature appears on the site.
Christmas Star (video)
December 18, 2001
Also on ScienCentral News
Focus on Space - Never before seen features of planets and images of stars at the center of our galaxy are now coming into focus thanks to recent advances in adaptive optics. (2/6/01)
Northern Lights - While beautiful to look at, aurorasthose captivating displays of light that can be seen in the night sky over the Earths polar regionshave confounded scientists trying to explain what causes them. But after 50 years of debate, there finally is an answerauroras are visible effects of space storms. (5/31/00)
Elsewhere on the web
Common Errors in "Star of Bethlehem" Planetarium Shows
The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomical Perspective - from Nick Strobels astronomynotes.com
What was the star? - A Christian site with a lot of in-depth research
The Official Town of Bethlehem tourism site
Could one astronomers interest in ancient coins provide a clue about the Star of Bethlehem?
This ScienCentral News video reports.
What was the "star"?
Through the centuries efforts to find a natural explanation for the Star of Bethlehem have tended to get tangled up in questions of faith. For example, one recent astronomical analysis sets out to identify the star but ends in using it as a clue to the date of Jesus birth, just as the Magi did in Matthews New Testament account.
"Let the Bible be the Bible! Its not about science," wrote famed science author Martin Gardner about theories that the stars appearance to the Magi was a real physical event.
While that is certainly one approach which satisfies believers and nonbelievers alike, astronomer Michael Molnar thinks hes found an even more agreeable solution. His serendipitous investigation is thoroughly nonsecular. "If youd asked me some 10 years ago whether I would be talking about the Star of Bethlehem, I would be laughing, because I always thought that the Star of Bethlehem was one of these great mysteries that never could be solved," says Molnar. "I only got interested in it because of the ancient Roman coin, that I had a new clue about what happened in the skies, and this was a clue that no one else had realized existed."
Molnar scorns the assumption that the star was a spectacular sight. "My colleagues, fellow astronomers, had looked for bright celestial objects... very much what you would find in, say, a movie or on television," he says. "But they really havent investigated closely enough what the ancient people were reporting in the skies as being important."
The ancient coin not only led him to the constellation of Aries the Ram for the events location, it caused him to rethink the question.
Molnar realized that "we have to really look to astrology for the answer--that is, astrology as it was practiced during those times. Im an astronomer, I do not practise astrology, but I had to learn what the astrology was of Roman times. And therein lies the answer to the Star of Bethlehem."
Heres how Molnars theory stacks up against leading modern contenders.
In his 1991 book Ernest Martin argued that the star was a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in 3 BC, a theory endorsed in many holiday star shows now playing at planetariums everywhere. Molnar, however, says that while patterns of planetary movements like this "had astrological meanings... if we again look at the ancient records we find that they did not relate necessarily to the birth of a great king in Judea," according to astrologers of the time. Molnar identifies an event in Aries, which he claims is the only correct symbol of Judea.
Modern astronomers have pretty much decided that the star was not a comet or a supernova. Molnar agrees, but his reasoning is not based on a lack of astronomical candidates, but on primary manuscripts. "Comets were not the indication of the birth of a king," Molnar says. In fact, "they were held as being an evil omen." And "if we look to the records for sudden stars that appeared in the sky and then disappeared, these things were never related to the birth of a great king."
While Molnar rejects any theories that involve "celestial pyrotechnics," they continue to be proposed by his colleagues. Mark Kidgers 1999 book concludes the star was a nova recorded by Chinese astronomers. "A very faint nova, I might point out,"says Molnar. And one illustrious astronomer, Sir Patrick Moore, claims that the star must have been a meteor shower.
Molnars book, The Star of Bethlehem, The Legacy of the Magi was published last year. Is the origin of the stars legend now settled? A new round of planetarium shows incorporating his arguments has yet to be produced.