The planets will line up in the sky on Monday. Is the Star of Bethlehem returning?

On December 21, 2020, Jupiter and Saturn will intersect in the night sky and, for a brief moment, will appear to shine together as one body. Although planetary conjunctions like this are not everyday events, they are not particularly rare.

This year’s conjunction is different for at least two reasons. The first is the degree to which the two planets will be aligned. Experts predict that they will appear closer to this conjunction than they have had in almost eight centuries and also brighter.

But the second factor that has put this event in the spotlight is that it will take place in the winter solstice, just before the Christmas holiday. The moment has led to speculation as to whether this could be the same astronomical event that the Bible reports on the sages to Joseph, Mary, and the newborn Jesus — the Star of Bethlehem.

As a scholar of early Christian literature who wrote a book about the three sages, I argue that the future planetary conjunction is probably not the fable of the Star of Bethlehem. The biblical story of the star is meant to convey theological truths rather than historical or astronomical ones.

Leading light

The star’s story has long fascinated readers, both ancient and modern. In the New Testament, it is found only in the Gospel of Matthew, a story from the life of Jesus in the first century, which begins with the story of his birth.

In this account, the sages arrive in Jerusalem and say to Herod, the king of Judah, “Where is the child who was born king of the Jews? The star then leads them to Bethlehem and stops over the house of Jesus and his family.

Many have read this story with the assumption that Matthew must have referred to a real astronomical event that took place during the birth of Jesus. Astronomer Michael R. Molnar, for example, claimed that the Star of Bethlehem was an eclipse of Jupiter in the constellation Ares.

There are at least two issues involved in associating a specific event with Matthew’s star. The first is that scientists are not sure exactly when Jesus was born. The traditional date of his birth can be stopped by up to six years.

The second is that measurable and predictable astronomical events occur with relative frequency. The search to find out which event, if it existed, Matthew might have considered is therefore a complicated one.

Beliefs about the star

The theory that the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn may be the star of Bethlehem is not new. It was proposed in the early 17th century by Johannes Kepler, a German astronomer and mathematician. Kepler argued that the same planetary conjunction in or around 6 BC. it could have served as inspiration for Matthew’s story about the star.

Kepler was not the first to suggest that the Star of Bethlehem could have been a recognized astronomical event. Four hundred years before Kepler, between 1303 and 1305, the Italian artist Giotto painted the star as a comet on the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy.

Researchers have suggested that Giotto did this as a tribute to Halley’s Comet, which astronomers have determined is visible in 1301 on one of its regular flights to Earth. Astronomers have also determined that Halley’s Comet passed through Earth in or around 12 BC, five to 10 years before most scholars claimed that Jesus was born. Giotto may believe that Matthew is referring to Halley’s comet in his story about the star.

Attempts to discover the identity of Matthew’s star are often creative and insightful, but I would argue that they are also wrong.

The star in Matthew’s story may not be a “normal” natural phenomenon, and Matthew suggests just as much in the way he describes it. Matthew says that the sages come to Jerusalem “from the East.” The star then leads them to Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem. Therefore, the star makes a sharp turn to the left. And astronomers will agree that stars do not make sharp turns.

Moreover, when the sages arrive in Bethlehem, the star is low enough in the sky to lead them to a certain house. As physicist Aaron Adair says: “It is said that the Star stops at its place and moves over a certain accommodation, acting as an ancient GPS unit.”

“The description of the Star’s motions,” he remarked, was “beyond what is physically possible for any observable astronomical object.”

Theological foundations

In short, there does not seem to be anything “normal” or “natural” about the phenomenon described by Matthew. Maybe the idea Matthew is trying to say is different.

Matthew’s story about the star draws from a body of tradition in which the stars are connected to rulers. Raising a star means that a leader has come to power.

In the biblical book of Numbers, for example, which dates back to the 5th century BC, the prophet Balaam foretells the arrival of a ruler who will defeat Israel’s enemies. “A star will come out of Jacob, [meaning Israel]… he will crush the shores of Moab. “

One of the best-known examples of this ancient tradition is the so-called “Sidus Iulium” or “Julian Star”, a comet that appeared a few months after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Roman authors Suetonius and Pliny the Elder report that the comet was so bright that it was visible in the late afternoon and that many Romans interpreted the show as proof that Julius Caesar was now a god.

In light of such traditions, I believe that Matthew’s story about the star exists not to inform readers about a specific astronomical event, but to support his claims about the character of Jesus.

In other words, I argue that Matthew’s purpose in telling this story is more theological than historical.

Therefore, the future conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn is probably not a return of the Star of Bethlehem, but Matthew would probably be pleased with the amazement he inspires in those who anticipate it.

Eric M. Vanden Eykel, Associate Professor of Religion, Ferrum College.

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