Thursday, December 27, 2007

New Theories on Star of Bethlehem

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- It's long been a puzzle for Christian astronomers, and now a professor from the University of Notre Dame thinks he has it figured out -- almost, anyway.

His quest: discovering just what "the star in the East" was that led wise men to travel to Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.

As a theoretical astrophysicist, Grant Mathews had hoped the answer would be spectacular -- something like a supernova. But two years of research have led him to a more ordinary conclusion. The heavenly sign around the time of the birth of Jesus Christ was likely an unusual alignment of planets, the sun and the moon.

Not a lot was written about the star in the Bible. In the Gospel of Matthew it says: "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him."

The star, though, has long been immortalized in Christmas songs, plays and movies. Astronomers, theologians and historians for hundreds of years have been trying to determine exactly which star might have inspired the biblical writing. German astronomer Johannes Kepler proposed in 1604 that the star was a conjunction of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C.

The advantage Mathews has over Kepler and others who have pondered the question is that he had access to NASA's databases.

"In principle, we can see any star that was ever made from the beginning of time if we knew where to look. So the question is, could we find a star that could be a good candidate for what showed up then?" he said.

Mathews found several possibilities. He began by posing three questions he would ask when trying to find the answer to any astronomical event: When did it occur? What were its characteristics? Did anyone else see it?

The Gospel of Matthew indicates Jesus was born in Bethlehem when Herod was king. Roman historian Flavius Josephus wrote that Herod died after an eclipse of the moon before the Passover. Mathews said among the possibilities are 6 B.C., 5 B.C., 1 B.C. or 1 A.D. The star could have appeared up to two years before the wise men arrived in Jerusalem, he said.

Mathews believes that means the Christmas star could have appeared anywhere from 8 to 4 B.C.

Among the characteristics written about the star was that it appeared before sunrise and that it appeared to "rest in the sky." Mathews also found writings from Korean and Chinese astronomers of an event about 4 B.C. which described a comet with no tail that didn't move.

Using that set of facts, Mathews found several possibili ties, including supernovas, novas and planetary alignments.

The problem with novas and comets, though, is that they were believed in ancient times to be a sign of disaster, not a portent of good things to come

Source: Tulsa World