Friday, April 8, 2011

The Star of Bethlehem, 12.20.10

Throughout time, one object in astronomy has continually puzzled astronomers. Only one source in all of history has recorded it, yet it has fascinated the faithful and obsessed the scientific. Like history, astronomy is not repeatable, and the truth of the matter can only be postulated from the evidence that remains. The evidence left for scientists to mull over, in this case, is everywhere but on Earth, and the mystery is a “star” that is no more. We are, of course, speaking of the Star of Bethlehem, mentioned in manuscripts included in the Christian Bible, and supposedly occurred over 2,000 years ago in what we now refer to as the Middle East, west of the Mesopotamian region.

Let us establish the context first. As we mentioned before, the Christian Bible contains the only written records of the Star. While there are multiple allusions to a star throughout the Scriptures, there is one section in particular that directly mentions the Star in question: Matthew, chapter 2.
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is e that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and are come to worship him”. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, “in Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, For out of thee shall come a Governor; that shall rule my people Israel.” Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. And when they heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. –Matthew 2:1-10
The wise men, or magi, were elite scholars of their day who practically knew the night sky and the movements of the objects in our solar system (that they could see) like the backs of their hands. Most likely from ancient Babylon, the magi used the skies to help them establish a calendar, know when to plant and harvest crops, how to plot navigation courses using them as guides, and more pertinent to this case, how to make predications or divinations about their current events.

Why would an elite group of astrologers (astronomy, the scientific study of space, had its roots in and was still closely entwined in astrology—the belief that our lives on earth are affected by the movements of objects in space—at this point, and would not emerge as a respected science for several hundreds of years) care about the birth of a poor Jewish boy several hundreds of miles away? The answer can be inferred from the Biblical book of Daniel. Hundreds of years prior, the astrologers were still busy reading the heavens and, more importantly, attempting to make predications based on the movements of what they saw. Whether he was attempting to test the wise men or merely gain a clear answer is not certain, but the Babylonian king at the time, Nebuchadnezzar, demanded of the wise men that they interpret his dream. Realizing their inability to do so using on astrology, they had to admit to the king that all they had been telling the king before was a bunch of lies. In a rage, the king commanded they all be put to death. Daniel, a young Jewish noble who had been brought captive to Babylon intervened and asked the king to give him time. According to the Bible, Daniel prayed to God for an answer, he pleased the king when he provided an interpretation of the dream, and the king made Daniel the ruler of the wise men. It is more than plausible that Daniel would have shared the Jewish prophecies with the wise men about a Messiah, which is probably why they were able to quote the prophecy recorded in the book of Isaiah to king Herod when they arrived near Bethlehem hundreds of years later seeking the Christ child.

It is also important to note, concerning the magi, that it was the significance they attributed to the sign that they sought, not so much the object itself that fascinated them. Most ancient cultures had their own sect of sky watchers (even the general population, on average, had a working familiarity with the night sky). That they had their own, unique significance for whatever it was they had seen is evident in the surprise and dismay that Matthew recorded the king Herod and his scribes having. Had they missed something important? Had they seen the sign and not even recognized it? One can only imagine the hurried conversation that took place between the Jewish scholars and their king before these foreign magi regarding a sign in their own, native skies.

So we know at least that the magi were expecting some sort of sign to herald the coming of the Messiah. Finding Him, though, was another story entirely. The journey from Babylon, where they most likely began, to Jerusalem, where they met with king Herod, as the crow flies, is a journey of a little over 400 miles. That, of course, would take the wise men straight across the middle of a barren wasteland. More than likely, they would have taken a more northerly course following along the Euphrates and then descending through Judaea, stopping from town to town along their way to Jerusalem. This would have been an even longer course. Granted, it is plausible that they could have gone straight through the desert if they had wished—there is no way to know for sure which route they took, whether just a really long route, or a much longer, really long route. The point of this is that it would have taken them several weeks, even if riding, to make it to Jerusalem. That is a very long amount of time to be “following” an object in the night sky.

So what was the star that sent wise men across the desert to bring gifts and worship the Christ child? Let us examine the candidates from an astronomical point of view. From supernovas to UFO’s, comets, a shooting star, supernovas, and a planetary conjunction, none of these fit exactly.

We can dismiss “shooting stars” without a chance. “Shooting stars” are meteors that burn up in Earth’s atmosphere as they fly past our planet. They only last the briefest of moments, and they fall at regular times throughout the year. There would have been nothing remarkable or noteworthy to the magi about just another meteor, or even another meteor shower. Small and only a few seconds in duration each, they were just another sparkly, streaking speck in the sky.

Supernovas can probably be disqualified as well. Supernovas are stars that, for all intents and purposes, explode and end their lives in violent chaos, creating a black hole and emitting a burst of light hundreds of times their normal brightness. While the light from a supernova would have lasted 3-5 weeks at best, the wise men would have had to have made record time to make it to Jerusalem before the light faded. Supernovas also leave behind trace dust clouds that can be seen today with special astronomy equipment, and also many of them have been recorded in history. No mention was made in history of a supernova occurring at this time. The Chinese called them guess stars, and astronomer Tycho Brahe in 1572 made the first scientific records of supernova behavior. The supernova of 1054 AD was recorded by ancient peoples around the world, and is now known as the Crab Nebula in the constellation Taurus the bull. No supernovas are recorded in the time frame surrounding the period during which Jesus was born (somewhere between 8 BC and 4 AD), but then again it is very likely that not all novas and supernovas are recorded. Astronomers have recently discovered that a supernova occurred about 400 years ago that would have been visible in Earth’s southern hemisphere, yet it somehow went without being recorded by a single historian (that they know of). In a period so plentiful with scholars and with such a wide network of communication provided by the Roman Empire at the time, it is curious that no written record of a supernova remains. The absolute lack of such a record makes us more likely to lean towards no such observation having been made in the first place.

As for a comet, that theory is laughable. In this day and age, comets are regarded as something unique and special, especially since some comets only pass by earth once and are never to be seen again. Just a few hundred years ago, however, comets were regarded as something to be feared. How much more so for people thousands of years ago who lacked equipment for their closer observation? Comets were often considered heralds of doom and destruction. Even our own Nelson Tift, one of the founders of Albany, GA, had the opportunity to observe a comet in 1835 and recorded some of the reactions of people around the town in his personal diary. He writes:
I saw the comet this evening about 7 o’clock, I think about west 45 degrees above the horizon…it was asserted by some that it would some so near the earth as to set it on fire! & by others that they would come in contact!
If people not even 200 years ago were terrified at the sight of a comet, how much more might have been the people thousands of years ago. Least of all, comets have tails. The wise men referred to the object they saw as a star, and stars simply do not have tails.

Now for the most plausible theory, but by no means a sure bet: a planetary conjunction. A planetary conjunction including Jupiter and Saturn, next to the star Regulus in the constellation Leo the lion would have been highly steeped in symbolism for the magi. The three of them also would have made a great show, but a conjunction is extremely predictable and the wise men, being very familiar with the course of the planets, would have known it was coming for months. Granted,  Jupiter is considered a kingly planet and Regulus, the star, is also associated with kings, but it is a far stretch of interpretation to bring the Greek word used in Matthew chapter 2 for the star, astare’, to mean planet. Several months later the planet Venus and the star Regulus overlap, but that is still just a conjunction.

In fact, just to have a better understanding of just what the Matthew meant when he recorded his Gospel 2,000 years ago, let us examine the word he used for “star.” When the book was first written, it was recorded in an ancient Greek dialect. Could something have been lost in translation?

The word he used was άστήρ, which pronunciation we mentioned before is astare’. According to the New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, a long respected resource by Bible scholars, the Greek word can either literally or figuratively mean a star. According to E.W. Bullinger’s Critical Lexicon of the English and Greek New Testment, there is a very slim chance the word could also mean planet or even meteor, but more digging into the roots of the word itself back in Strong’s lends more insight. According to Strong’s, astare’ comes from the roots of another Greek word, strōnnumi, which relates the idea of “strewing” or spreading something out in a space, which certainly brings up images of the stars laid out across the heavens. That word, in turn, is connected to another word, stĕrĕŏs, which have more connotations of something that is “stedfast, strong,” or “sure.” So, now we know that whatever the star was, we can rest assured it was not some fleeting or flickering object. It was solidly there.

Stĕrĕŏs, Strong’s claims, is connected to another word, histēmi,  and its primary word staō, which can be used “in various applications” either literally or figuratively, to mean bide or appoint, among other things.

The last stop is tithēmi, a word tied to histēmi, from the primary word thĕō, with the widest application as an “upright and active position” of placing something. A curious ending, indeed. It would seem that the etymological trail of the word used for “star” in the book of Matthew, at its deepest roots, means that the “star” really was some object that was deliberately placed, as a solid, enduring object, for a particular appointment. This is what the etymology of that particular word for “star” tells us. Science may lead us to believe otherwise. 

Despite all of the theories and conjecture, there really is no way to know for sure. Anything is possible, though, whether you favor a scientific theory or just choose to believe in a miracle. One fact does remain, though: the star has stood for over 2,000 years as a symbol of the coming of the Messiah to people worldwide. That the imagery of stars to Christmas and the subsequent importance that is placed on stars as shining beacons of hope and light in a dark world is undeniable. Perhaps the star is meant to remain a mystery, symbolic in its very nature of the paradox that was the Christ child Jesus, a person fully God yet fully man, ruler of the world born to a poor teenage girl and a carpenter in a stable among the filth and stench of pack animals.  A beacon of hope that defies all reason, it is only fitting that it ushered in the single most controversial figure in history.

Credit: The Bible, E.W. Bullinger (1999), the New Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (2003).

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