December 24, 2010

John J. Miller of National Review Online has written this interesting piece on the Bethlehem star. According to asrtronomer Michael Molnar, it was the planet Jupiter appearing under the sign of Aries and rising in the east on the morning of April 17, 6 B.C. that got three wise guys’ attention:

Molnar described a few initial ideas about the Star of Bethlehem in an article for Sky and Telescope magazine. He thought his involvement would end there. Then the dean of historical astronomy called him. “I’d read articles and books by Owen Gingerich of Harvard University, but we’d never spoken,” says Molnar. “His call came completely out of the blue, and he said he thought I was really onto something. This encouraged me to do more research.”

He worked on the question for five years, studying Greek versions of the Bible and the writings of Roman astronomers. “Today we know Jupiter is a planet, but to the ancient astronomers it was an important star, and it was linked to the birth of kings,” says Molnar. The position of other planets, plus the sun and the moon, also carried special meanings. Today, astronomers and astrologers are very different sorts of people. Twenty centuries ago, however, there wasn’t a distinction.

Working on a computer, Molnar learned that the morning of April 17, 6 B.C. contained all the elements he was looking for: Jupiter rose in the east, in the sign of Aries the ram. Joining it in Aries were the sun, the moon, and Saturn — events that would have added to the moment’s extraordinary significance for the ancients.

“The basic elements of this event occur once every 60 years — in other words, once a lifetime,” says Molnar.

But there’s more: Mars and Mercury weren’t in Aries, and they also weren’t in positions that would have wrecked the divine interpretation. Mars is notorious for upending astrological events by showing up in the wrong part of the sky when everything else is in seeming alignment.

“If you think like an ancient astronomer would have thought, this event would have been extraordinarily exciting,” says Molnar.

The account describing the Star of Bethlehem is contained wholly within the Gospel of Matthew — the other gospels don’t mention it at all — lending credence to the idea that the star didn’t light up the night sky like a 4th of July fireworks display. A close reading of the Bible suggests that nobody saw the star but the wise men, which may be a way of saying that only the wise men had the astrological knowledge necessary for interpreting the events of April 17 the way they did.

Many Biblical scholars believe the birth of Jesus probably occurred between 8 B.C. and 4 B.C. The event Molnar describes took place in 6 B.C. — “right smack dab in the middle,” he says.

It’s a very interesting column, read the whole thing.

In keeping with my Beach Boys Christmas theme from yesterday, let’s move up a decade. Here’s a quirky little ditty from 1974 that received little airplay, and a moody Dennis Wilson contribution to their planned 1978 Christmas album that never saw the light of day until released on CD twenty years later.

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