The Star of Bethlehem

Every Christmas planetariums across the country present a "Star of Bethlehem" show which breaks attendance records and balances their budget for the year. They are pandering to naive public fascination with the question, and generally trot out a whole parade of scenarios about astronomical events which might have been the stimulus for the Biblical story.

But the Biblical account of this story is brief, unclear, and subject to multiple interpretations. So meager is the independent historical confirmation that it's hard to defend the view that the Christmas star is anything more than a fictional or metaphorical fable invented well after the time of the alleged events. Certainly every physical explanation has serious difficulties. Such speculations have negligible scientific or historical value.

The story of Jesus' birth, as related every Christmastime, is a mish-mash of contradictory biblical accounts and other non-biblical embellishments that have been added over the centuries. The story itself is clearly borrowed from myths of other earlier miraculous births. Hardly any detail can be regarded as factual. Here's some web accounts that document these problems, but a web search with keywords "Jesus, birth, myth" will give many more.

So, one wonders why there's so much interest in the particular detail of the "Christmas star" and its possible astronomical "explanation". Why should a possibly invented detail of a myth even require an explanation? One can understand this as an interesting historical puzzle, for myths are often constructed from details that are derived from observed events and phenomena. But the attention paid to this by planetariums, supposedly institutions devoted to scientific education, is unconscionable. It gives the general impression that the "problem of the Star of Bethlehem" is a legitimate and important scientific question. It isn't. It isn't even an inportant historical question. I liken it to all the recent hoopla of television documentaries about the book of fiction titled "The Da Vinci Code".

Here's some web sites with more information about the astronomical events.

References

  1. Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. Doubleday (Image Books), 1977.
  2. Freitag, Ruth S. The Star of Bethlehem, a List of References. Library of Congress, 1979. Booklet, 44 pages.
  3. Humphreys, Colin J. "The Star of Bethlehem—a Comet in 5 BC—and the Date of the Birth of Christ." Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 32, 389-407 (1991).
  4. Kanagy, Sherman P. "Religion and Pseudoscience in Christmas Star Shows: A Report on Attitudes Within the Planetarium Community." The Planetarian October 1987.
  5. LaRue, Gerald. "Astronomy and the Star of Bethlehem." Free Inquiry, Winter 1982/93, pp. 25-28.
  6. Lord, Garman. "Myth of the Christmas Star." Fate, Dec. 1985, pp. 72-76.
  7. Meyer, Earl R. "The Christmas Star." The Physics Teacher, 15, 533-549, (Dec. 1977).
  8. Molnar, Michael R. "Greek Astrology as a Source of the Messianic Portent," The Ancient World, vol 29, no. 2, (1998), 139-150.
  9. Trevor-Roper, Hugh. "The Creation of Christ." The Spectator, 1971.
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