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Professor researches origin of Star of Bethlehem

| Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The story of the birth of Jesus is among the most well-known stories in the Bible, and details, such as the star over Bethlehem that led the Magi to Christ’s manger, are familiar to nearly everyone with some knowledge of Christianity. However, these details, such as whether the star of Bethlehem was even a star at all, may not be fully understood.

Grant Mathews, professor of physics, believes the sign that the Magi followed was actually and extremely rare planetary alignment and that the “star” was, in fact, Jupiter. Since 2005, Mathews has been interested in finding a possible scientific explanation for the legendary biblical occurrence.

“We looked at a bunch of things — whether there was a comet or an asteroid or a supernova or a nova,” Mathews said. “Historically, it’s possible, but you have to look at what the Magi would have actually been thinking, since they’re the ones that show up and say, ‘Well, we saw this thing. Where’s the newborn king of the Jews?’ And nobody else in Judea apparently had noticed it, so it had to be something fairly subtle, not something bright in the sky.”

Mathews said he believes the Magi were likely Zoroastrian astronomers from Babylonia or Mesopotamia and would likely have primarily been interested in the planets, which were believed to determine destinies as they moved. 

Mathews said first-century astronomer Claudius Ptolemy wrote a book about how the constellation Aries corresponded with Judea. Astronomical occurrences with Aries, then, would have been interpreted as relating to Judea, Jesus’ homeland in modern-day Palestine.

“There were several things that happened in this rare alignment: Jupiter, Saturn, the moon, the sun are all there at once and the other planets — Venus, Mercury — are nearby,” Mathews said. “What was significant is that Jupiter is in what’s called retrograde motion, and it actually comes to stop [relative to Earth]. Translating from the Greek in the old testament ‘and the star came to rest over where the child was’ [from Matthew 2:9].

“Jupiter literally comes to a stop in its retrograde motion in the place where the child is born, in Bethlehem, it comes to a rest in Aries, so it’s kind of consistent with that whole description. Jupiter was the symbol of the ruler, Saturn was about bringing life, and Aries was on the vernal equinox, so Aries meant the bringing of spring and the bringing of life, that sort of thing. It had all the significance of a life-giving ruler appearing in Judea at this time.”

This theory of a planetary alignment was initially proposed by Michael Molnar, former professor of astronomy at Rutgers University, and described in his 2000 book, “The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi,” which Mathews cites as one of his inspirations for beginning his own inquiries into the Star of Bethlehem and writing a book on the subject, which has not yet been published. After considering other possible astronomical explanations, Mathews believes Molnar’s theory to be the most plausible.

“I worked on some other ideas, the comets, the supernova thing, because we had a lot of new NASA archives to scan, but in the end, I think [Molnar] hit on the right conclusion,” he said.

Mathews ran his own calculations to determine when this alignment might occur again.

“The planets are like cars going around a racetrack, and they’re all going different speeds,” he said. “How often is it that they all line up within this little 30 degree patch of the sky along with the sun and the moon at the same time. It’s not that complicated of a calculation. Assuming I did it right, the next alignment was 16 thousand years or so, but it wasn’t in Aries, and it wasn’t in the vernal equinox, so it wouldn’t have the same significance. I ran it forward, and I didn’t see anything for 500,000 years, so it looked really rare.”

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