- Eric M. Vanden Eykel
- The Conversation*
On December 21, 2020, Jupiter and Saturn will intersect in the night sky and, for a brief moment, they will appear to shine together as a single celestial body.
While planetary conjunctions like this are not everyday events, they are not particularly rare either.
This year’s conjunction is different for at least two reasons. The first is the degree to which the two planets will be aligned. Experts predict that they will appear closer than in almost eight centuries and also brighter.
But the second factor, and the one that has put this event in the spotlight, is that it will occur in the winter solstice, just before Christmas.
The timing has led to speculation as to whether this could be the same astronomical event that the Bible says led the Magi to Joseph, Mary, and the newborn Jesus – the star of Bethlehem.
As a student of ancient texts in Christian literature and the writer of a book on the Three Wise Men, I argue that the next planetary conjunction is probably not the legendary star of Bethlehem.
The biblical story of the star is intended to convey theological rather than historical or astronomical truths.
The story of the star of Bethlehem has fascinated many readers, both ancient and modern.
Within the New Testament, it is found in the Gospel of Matthew, a first-century account of the life of Jesus that begins with the story of his birth.
In this story, the wise men come to Jerusalem and say to Herod, the king of Judea: “Where is the child who was born king of the Jews? We saw his star as he left and we have come to pay homage to him.” Then the star takes them to Bethlehem and stops over the house of Jesus and his family.
Many have interpreted this story with the assumption that Matthew must have referred to an actual astronomical event that occurred around the time of Jesus’ birth.
Astronomer Michael R. Molnar, for example, has argued that the star of Bethlehem was an eclipse of Jupiter within the constellation of Aries.
There are at least two problems with associating a specific event with the star of Matthew. The first is that scholars are not sure exactly when Jesus was born. The traditional date of your birth can differ up to six years.
The second is that measurable and predictable astronomical events occur relatively frequently.
The quest to discover what event, if anything, Matthew might have had in mind is therefore complicated.
The goal of the evangelist Matthew in telling the story (of the star of Bethlehem) was more theological than historical. “
Beliefs about the star
The theory that the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn may be the star of Bethlehem is not new.
It was proposed at the beginning of the 17th century by Johannes Kepler, a German astronomer and mathematician. Kepler argued that this same planetary conjunction around 6 BC could have served as the inspiration for the story of the star of Matthew.
Kepler was not the first to suggest that the Star of Bethlehem may have been a recognizable astronomical event.
400 years before Kepler, between 1303 and 1305, the Italian artist Giotto painted the star as a comet on the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy.
Some scholars suggested that what Giotto did as a tribute to Halley’s Comet, which astronomers determined was visible in 1301, on one of its regular flights beyond Earth.
Astronomers have also determined that Halley’s Comet passed through Earth around 12 BC, between five and 10 years before most scholars argued that Jesus was born.
It is possible that Giotto believed that Matthew was referring to Halley’s Comet in his story of the star.
Attempts to discover the identity of Mateo’s star are often creative and insightful, but I would say that too You are wrong.
The star of Matthew’s story may not be a “normal” natural phenomenon, and Matthew suggests it quite a bit in the way he describes it.
Matthew says that the Magi go to Jerusalem “from the East.” Then the star takes them to Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem. Therefore, the star makes a sharp turn to the left. And astronomers will agree that the stars don’t make sharp turns.
Also, when the magi arrive in Bethlehem, the star is low enough in the sky to lead them to a specific house.
As the physicist says Aaron Adair: “The star is said to stop in place and hover over a particular accommodation, acting like old GPS equipment.”
The “description of the star’s motions,” Adair noted, was “outside of what is physically possible for any observable astronomical object.”
In short, there does not seem to be anything “normal” or “natural” about the phenomenon Matthew describes. Perhaps the point Mateo was trying to get to is different.
The story of the star of Matthew is based on a set of traditions in which the stars are connected to the rulers. The rising of a star means that a ruler came to power.
In the biblical Book of Numbers, for example, dating from the 5th century BC, the prophet Balaam predicts the arrival of a ruler who will defeat the enemies of Israel. “A star will come out of Jacob, [es decir, Israel]… will crush the borders of Moab. “
One of the best known examples of this tradition since ancient times is the so-called Julius star or “Juliana star”, a comet that appeared a few months after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. C.
Roman authors Suetonius and Pliny the Elder said that the comet was so bright that it was visible in the late afternoon, and that many Romans interpreted the spectacle as evidence that Julius Caesar was now a god.
In light of such traditions, I believe that the story of the star of Matthew exists, not to inform readers about a specific astronomical event, but to back up the claims he makes about the character of Jesus.
In other words, I would say that Matthew’s goal in telling this story was more theological than historical.
Therefore, the next conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn is likely not a return of the star of Bethlehem, but Matthew would probably be pleased with the awe it inspires in those who anticipate it.
* Eric Vanden Eykel is adjunct professor of religion at Ferrum College, Virginia, USA.
This article was originally published on The Conversation and you can read it here.
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