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A Star Is Born
The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi
By Mark Kidger
Princeton University Press 320 pp $22.95 November 1999
Slightly more than two millennia ago, in the night sky over a small hill town south of Jerusalem, something happened, or didn't, and whatever it was, or wasn't, was an honest-to-God miracle, or a naturally occurring astronomical phenomenon, or neither, or both.
Such is the state of star of Bethlehem scholarship. We cannot know for sure what the light in the east was that directed the wise men to Bethlehem to greet the newborn Jesus, and any attempt at a natural explanation of what the star might have been must take the supernatural into account. Otherwise, why bother?
This unholy mix of religion and science is what compels the enduring fascination with what would otherwise seem a narrow, peculiar, and quite pos sibly purposeless arena of scholarship. Michael R. Molnar, a former Rutgers astronomer and a leading authority on the star, writes on the first page of his book's preface that every Christmas his phone rings with "calls from people around the world who want to learn what happened in the sky two millennia ago." Meanwhile, according to Mark Kidger of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias in Tenerife, Spain, star of Bethlehem Web sites "have become a minor industry." Certainly it's not just scientific curiosity that's driving this popular demand for star of Bethlehem scholarship. But what's driving the supply? No matter what a star scholar might conjecture or reveal, chances are it won't completely satisfy either the religious or scientific faithful. It's like putting a Communion wafer under a microscope: Depending on what you believe, empiricism is either inadequate or irrelevant to the task. Why bother, indeed?
But bother these scholars do. In The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomer's View, Kidger recapitulates their efforts--and then capitulates: "Probably we will never know, and can never know, for certain what the Star of Bethlehem really was." The account of the star appears only in the Gospel of Matthew, which was probably written a hundred years after the fact (or fiction); it presents a "selected, edited and abridged" version of a story that had been passed on orally for about sixty years after Jesus' death. Moreover, the Gospel doesn't survive in original form. As Kidger notes, "even the very oldest Gospel texts we have are probably copies of copies."
As uncertain as the origins of the story are, there is a further, even fatal, complication: Was the star merely a mythological element that storytellers introduced in order to illustrate the royal and divine lineage of the future King of the Jews? If it was mythological, then the astronomer's job is over. But assuming that the star corresponded to a genuine celestial event--and the fact that Matthew refers to it twice suggests that it did--the scholar hoping to discern what it was must first figure out when it was.
Which leads to only greater uncertainty. Kidger dates Jesus' birth to March of 5 B.C.; other scholars, including Molnar, to 6 B.C. The difference of a year in trying to pinpoint heavenly events is astronomically significant. And then there's the whole business of, as Matthew says, the "wise men from the East," a.k.a. the three kings. It turns out, however, that Matthew is maddeningly vague not only about their country of origin but--carols, crèches, and other modern Christmas traditions notwithstanding--about who they were (not kings, certainly) or even how many they were (more than one, anyway).
Not, Kidger suggests, if it wasn't a bright object at all. Instead of an astronomically noteworthy event, what if the star were an astrologically significant sign, or a series of such signs, that the Magi interpreted as denoting the birth of a future king? With this thought in mind, Kidger pores over the astronomical record and posits his own Murder on the Orient Express-style solution: They all did it. The conspirators? A planetary conjunction in 7 B.C., a massing of planets in 6 B.C., two pairings (moon with Jupiter, Mars with Saturn) in 5 B.C., and, finally, a nova, also in 5 B.C.
This is no more a solution, however, than the star it conceives is really a star. It's speculation, as Kidger admits. Through his extensive research, Kidger has earned the right to speculate, but what he offers is an argument that we can't evaluate without a proper historical context. What might astrology in general, and these portents in particular, have meant to the Magi? His failure to consider his possible solution from the point of view of a first-century-B.C. holy man could easily lead us to assume that adequate historical records simply don't exist.
In fact, they do. Molnar, in The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi, unearths and examines exactly the historical context previous star scholars have so often missed. In setting the stage, Molnar highlights three crucial factors: advances in astronomy in the first-century-B.C.; the use of astrology to make sense of the fresh data emanating from those astronomical advances; and the ongoing clash between Romans and Jews that caused Romans to fear the messianic prophecy and Jews to anticipate its fulfillment. As a result, Molnar writes, underscoring a point that Kidger also makes (though far less centrally or persuasively), "people were indeed watching the skies for the advent of the Messiah."
But what were they looking for? In 1991, Molnar was studying Roman coins from the first century A.D. when he realized that they might provide a clue about ancient astrology--specifically, the coins suggested an association between the kingdom of Herod and the sign of Aries. "With this important clue," he writes, "I set out to find what a stargazer of Roman times would have recognized as the star of the new Judean king." While Jews themselves didn't practice astrology--and therefore might well have missed the signs that sent the Magi on their journey--"news of a celestial portent pointing to a new king would nevertheless have attracted much attention among people hoping for the coming of the Messiah."
Molnar dispenses with the familiar hypotheses in one brisk chapter. He argues that phenomena such as a comet or a supernova might have been "visually spectacular" but were nonetheless astrologically meaningless. He also notes that unwitting scholars have accepted as historical fact numerous inaccuracies that have crept into the record over the millennia. In this regard, Molnar indirectly delivers a devastating blow to much of Kidger's multisuspect solution. Kidger, like many star scholars, repeatedly searches the first-century-B.C. skies for potential portents in Pisces, "the constellation of the Jews." Molnar, however, calls this a zodiacal misidentification.
According to Molnar, modern scholars borrow the association of Pisces with Judea from the astronomer Johannes Kepler. But Kepler had blindly accepted the word of Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel, a Sephardic Jew and fugitive from the Spanish Inquisition who "drew his conclusions from his personal beliefs, not from primary astrological sources of Roman times." To Renaissance scholars, the rabbi's identification of Pisces with Judea fit neatly with their own Christian fish symbolism. When Molnar checks the ancient astrological sources themselves, however, he finds that "none equated Pisces to Judea," and he concludes that any "theories that rely on Pisces as a sign of the Jews" therefore don't "reflect the practices and beliefs at the time of the Magi."
Instead, taking his cue from the Roman coin, Molnar locates three ancient sources that identify Herod's Judean kingdom with Aries. He then revisits the language in Matthew's account of the Nativity and offers interpretations of the Gospel's crucial and confusing claims that a star "went before" the Magi and "stood over" Bethlehem: He notes that the planet Jupiter, in Aries, first "went retrograde" (appeared to reverse direction) and then "became stationary" (appeared to stop before reversing direction again).
Most convincingly, Molnar locates in ancient sources the signs that astrologers of the day would have interpreted as pointing to the kind of birth that would send wise men on a pilgrimage. He then searches astronomical data for a date that would have agreed with a "hypothetical best case" of astrological conditions, and he finds it: April 17 in 6 B.C. "Indeed," Molnar concludes, "there is nothing ambiguous about the implications for Judea; the astrological conditions in Aries blatantly point to...the birth of a divine, immortal, and omnipotent person."
To be sure, everyone born on that date would have the same horoscope. But the wise men--"astrologers of antiquity" who "were the scientists of their time"--would have known that the Messiah was to be a descendant of David, whose house was in Bethlehem. Presumably, only one child had been born in that small town on that date.
Is Molnar's case airtight? No. Is it convincing? Yes. Does it matter if he's right or wrong? Absolutely not.
And that's what distinguishes his scholarship. By elaborately reconstructing astrological beliefs at the time of the event, Molnar illuminates the culture of the time. Unlike mystery-solving scholarship that consigns the reader to the role of spectator, his methodology involves us as participants in his sleuthing. In so doing, it subverts any scientific or religious biases we might bring to the subject of the star of Bethlehem and suggests a whole other kind of answer to the question "Why bother?" It's a response that couldn't be more intellectually engaging: Why, it's no bother at all.
Richard Panek is an astronomy columnist for Natural History and the author of Seeing and Believing: How the Telescope Opened Our Eyes and Minds to the Heavens(Penguin, 1999).