May 28, 2017

Review: The Star of Bethlehem by Michael R. Molnar

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It’s a biblical tale of astronomical intrigue that comes around every Christmas.

Just what was the Star of Bethlehem? Mentioned only in the Book of Matthew, many have tried over the years to link the Star that led the Magi to Bethlehem to astronomical phenomena. As Christmas draws near, planetariums will once again present their yearly shows on “The Star,” and science bloggers will dust off and recycle their posts on the subject. Heck, even we couldn’t resist doing a post on the controversy as a fledgling blogger, oh so long ago.

This year, we thought we’d look at two books that examine the Star of Bethlehem story from an astronomical perspective. This week, we’re taking a look at The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi by Michael Molnar. Mr. Molnar is a retired astronomer and wrote what is perhaps the most exhaustive treatise on the subject back in 1999. Out this year in paperback from Rutgers University Press, The Star of Bethlehem looks at past assertions for the Star, as well as a fresh perspective presented by the author.

Just what could’ve led the Magi in search of the birth of a Messiah? Are there any true astronomical phenomena that could match what’s described in the Book of Matthew? Unfortunately, many have gone broke trying to apply the science of astronomy to the allegoric tale.  A bright morning comet paints a compelling picture, but these were almost always seen as harbingers of evil. More exotic theories, such as planetary conjunctions or a bright supernova have been evoked, but it’s just plain tough to consider what ancient astrologers would have thought of such spectacles.

After looking at past ideas, Molnar takes a look at the ancient practice of astrology in the time of Jesus. Of course, such practices were frowned upon by many Jewish sects, but many rulers of the day, including Herod, were known to have consulted with astrologers.

After laying out an extensive backdrop of “ancient astrology 101,” the author focuses on a grand planetary gathering in the constellation Aries, which climaxed with an occultation of the planet Jupiter by the Moon on April 17th, 6 BCE.

The footprint path of the daytime occultation of Jupiter by the Moon on April, 17th, 6 BC.

(Created by the author using Occult software).

The author’s detective work on the subject began with the discovery of an ancient coin minted in Antioch around 5-14 AD. The coin shows the depiction of a bright star in the sign of Aries the Ram, which various sources link to signify the land and peoples of Judea.

The Star of Bethlehem does lay an excellent groundwork on the topic of ancient astrology. This is separate from the discussion of whether astrology “actually works,” and simply lays out how ancient astrologers may have perceived the goings on in the sky. As a skeptic and backyard astronomer doing public outreach, I find it’s often useful to know your “trines” and “exaltations” if for no other reason than to arm yourself when talking to the astrologically-minded. We always remember the quote from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, stating that if Capricorn was sign for “The King of the Jews,” that “There’d be a lot of ‘em, then…”

To back his claim up, Molnar looks at the precedent set by other well known royal horoscopes of the time, including that of Caesar Augustus. The dilemma of dating the death of Herod is also addressed, which some sources peg as tied to a lunar eclipse that occurred on March 23rd, 4 B.C.E.

Molnar’s work is a fascinating take on the astronomy of the subject. Though the true source of “The Star” if any, will probably always be the field of conjecture, it’s interesting to consider just what the Magi might’ve seen, long ago.

Next week: We take a skeptical look at the Christmas tale controversy, with The Star of Bethlehem, A Skeptical View by Aaron Adair.


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