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SCIENCE: What the “Wise Men” Saw…

Mark Weisenmiller

TAMPA., Florida, Dec 19 2007 (IPS) - The Biblical tale of the “three wise men” who followed a particularly bright star to the birthplace of the Baby Jesus continues to fascinate amateur and professional astronomers more than two millennia after the event allegedly occurred.

A comet is one of many theories for the Star of Bethlehem. Credit: NASA

A comet is one of many theories for the Star of Bethlehem. Credit: NASA

Thanks to Galileo Galilei, whose 1610 invention of the first telescope made star-gazing a more finite science, astronomers ranging in experience from full-time university professors to weekend hobbyists have speculated on what the fabled Star of Bethlehem could have been.

Many are divided over whether the story is pure allegory, or based on a real-world phenomenon, such a comet, supernova, or lunar eclipse.

Michael Bakich, a senior editor for Astronomy magazine, tends toward the former. “There’s just no compelling case for a natural event; that’s why we don’t cover this in the magazine,” he said.

“The first attempts at publicly discussing this occurred here in America during the 1930s and 1940s, and planetariums have been putting on these shows [about the Star of Bethlehem], usually about this time of year, ever since, as these shows are very popular.”

Different hypotheses have been circulating for years – one is a shooting star. This theory was made popular in 2001, when the book “The Star of Bethlehem” was published by Sir Patrick Moore. For decades, the long-time astronomer hosted “The Sky at Night”, one of the most popular television series ever aired by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Yet a number of astronomers dismiss this proposition. “It (a shooting star) only lasts a short period of time, not long enough for the Three Wise Men to follow it for days,” said Dr. Stan Dermott, chairman of the University of Florida Department of Astronomy.

“A shooting star, which is actually a meteor, doesn’t last long, so you can throw that out,” echoed Debra L. David, founder of The Woman Astronomer web site.

Because Halley’s Comet, named after the English astronomer, once appeared on Christmas Day in 1758, for decades a belief persisted that it was the Star of Bethlehem. However, no historical or scientific evidence backs this supposition.

“The idea of a comet doesn’t really make sense,” said Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer for the Fels Planetarium in Philadelphia. “It doesn’t hold up well under scientific scrutiny.”

Comets are comprised mostly of dust and gases, and have cores of ice and “tails” that always point away from the sun. They “were believed to be signs of doom by people back then,” said Geza Gyuk, director of astronomy at the Adler Observatory in Chicago. “People in prior times were a lot more attuned to the skies and seeing [the] reflection of human events there.”

As for a lunar eclipse? “It only lasts an hour or two, not for an extended period of time,” explained Dermott.

“It’s not rare enough of an event where people back then, all over the world, would have taken notice,” said Bakich.

The theory of a supernova, or super-bright dying star, appears to hold more promise.

“During the night, anything in the sky would seem to move with the stars as the Earth rotates. So a supernova could have led them [the Magi] to a particular direction, although I’m somewhat sceptical about that, but it certainly would lead them to an exact spot, as the Three Wise Men were said to be led,” Gyuk said.

“You also have to remember that many Biblical scholars, after years of research, now believe that Christ was born in Nazareth (Israel) not Bethlehem. That point also needs to be considered,” he said.

The supernova theory interests Dermott: “Sometimes, but not always, they take place over a long period of time, and its possible that [people living at the time] may have thought that it was some sort of symbol – although that doesn’t explain why they [the wise men] would follow it to one particular place,” he said.

Astronomers know that in June 2 B.C., there was a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus, when the two planets appeared near one another in the sky. For this reason, some say the planetary conjunction theory is the most plausible.

“For years, we had a programme for the public that dealt with this, in which we talked about, in terms of astronomy, what the Star of Bethlehem could have been. What we determined was that the theory of the planetary conjunction seems to make the most sense, as it relates back to Scriptures and everything in the Bible,” said Pitts.

“Only planetary conjunction, besides the supernova theory, makes sense to me. These people had good knowledge of the movement of the planets back then and they may have even been able to predict it somehow,” Dermott agreed.

But however lively the debate, it is unlikely to ever be settled.

“My feeling is that this an allegorical story to mark the birth of a person that many people considered, and still consider, important. This is a theological question, because only [the Gospel of] Matthew mentions it at all and really, not too much. Most theologians see this as an allegorical story, possibly because there’s not a good sense of the movement in the sky as it’s described in the Gospel according to Matthew,” Gyuk said.

“It’s highly likely that the story was an allegory because back then people were often telling stories and stories tend to get embellished as they are retold,” offered Davis.

“Of course it’s possible that the story is an allegory because nothing exists that says that the Bible, without question, is history. It was written for faith. Faith works well for billions of people but that doesn’t make the Bible scientific. That’s not a denigration of the Bible but Scriptures doesn’t provide enough information for us to form any sort of a starting reference point,” explained Pitts.

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