Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Christmas Star: What might the Christmas star have been?

The Greek word aster, translated “star” in Matthew 2:2–10, has a more general meaning than the English term. It can refer to any kind of heavenly body—star, planet, asteroid, comet, meteor, or other. Most of the books and DVDs produced by astronomers, theologians, and laypeople claiming to have determined the identity of the Christmas star focus on one or a combination of these objects.* The five most widely known and accepted explanations include:

1) a conjunction of planets (two planets coming close together in the sky)
2) a conjunction of a planet with a bright star
3) an “occultation” in which the Moon passes in front of a planet
4) a comet
5) a supernova

More imaginative suggestions include a flying saucer, an angel, and the Shekinah glory (the light or radiance of God occasionally made visible to humans).

Although we see aster in Revelation 1 as the symbol for a messenger, or angel, nothing in the Matthew 2 passage indicates a symbolic or metaphoric usage. Likewise, though New Testament references to Shekinah can be found (Matthew 17:1–3; Luke 2:9, Revelation 1:12–16), none is associated with the word aster. The “glory of the Lord” mentioned in Luke 2:9 refers to the radiance that surrounded the shepherds outside of Bethlehem, apparently seen by no one other than the shepherds. Thus, it seems reasonable to propose that the aster followed by the magi refers to an astronomical object or phenomenon.

One challenge to the supernova explanation is that such a phenomenon can be so spectacular as to be visible in broad daylight. Nearly all sky watchers everywhere would have seen and recorded it. Observers in China, India, and Egypt kept meticulous records of supernova events, and yet the Christmas star received no mention in their extensive documentation. King Herod and the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem seemed oblivious to the star (Matthew 2:1–3). The shepherds outside of Bethlehem “keeping watch over their flocks at night” on the eve of the Messiah’s birth made no note of any astonishingly brilliant star (Luke 2:8–20). Perhaps they would have been less startled and terrified by the angels’ visit (Luke 2:9–10) had a dazzling stellar object presaged that visit.

The explanation offered by lawyer Rick Larson in his DVD presentation encounters a similar challenge. Larson asserts that the star is a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus (the two brightest planets in the sky), a meeting so close that they merged in the sky to appear as a single object. Such an event, while brief, would have been so bright as to be visible in the daytime. Close conjunctions of Jupiter and Venus did occur in 2 BC (a separation of 1 arc minute at its closest moment, or one-thirtieth of the Moon’s diameter in the sky) and also in 3 BC (closest separation = 4 arc minutes, or one-seventh of the Moon’s diameter in the sky). However, such events would have made an indelible impression on the shepherds as well as on King Herod and the Jewish religious leaders. Further, they would have been observed as two objects, rather than one aster, and as two events, rather than as one and the same aster indicated by the text.

Another difficulty for Larson is that the dates for these two conjunctions by most scholars’ calculations come too late. The best historical scholarship places the date of Herod’s death at 4 BC. Further, the two conjunctions occurred only ten months apart. Herod’s command to kill boys “two years old and under in accordance with the time he had learned from the magi” (Matthew 2:16) seems out of alignment with this explanation.

Comets, too, seem unlikely candidates. They are typically so familiar as to warrant no special response from the magi. Further, comets are so well documented throughout history that if one did occur, especially an unusually bright one, at the time of Christ’s coming, it would likely show up in the records of Chinese, Indian, Egyptian, and Greek astronomers.

The lunar occultation explanation meets with the same difficulty. The Moon frequently passes in front of, or occults, a planet. In such an event the planet disappears from view only briefly—ranging from a few seconds up to 55 minutes. Such events seem too common and unspectacular to create a stir among the magi.

(Tomorrow: "Does any other option seem plausible?")

[This series is take from Hugh Ross on "Reasons To Believe"]

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