A blog by Paul Wallace

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    Archive for "Dec 11 2010"

    Advent III: Behold the star, or comet, or supernova, or planetary conjunction, or UFO, or celestial trope, of Bethlehem

    Giotto di Bondone, The Adoration of the Magi, 1304-06. In Giotto’s time comets were considered to be harbingers of significant earthly events, so it’s not surprising that he chose a comet to play the role of the star. Entertaining note:  From 1985 to 1992, the European Space Agency managed a deep space mission named Giotto. Why Giotto? Because it was the first space probe to take an image of a comet’s nucleus (Halley‘s, it turns out). I am very impressed by those crazy-clever, multidisciplinary Europeans. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

    This is not a garden-variety Advent post. There’s nothing devotional or meditative here, nothng heavy. It is, instead, a modest commentary on that most wondrous of Christmas wonders (except for that Incarnation-of-God piece): The Star of Bethlehem. Was it a star? Was it a supernova? Was it a comet as Giotto suggests? Was it a planetary conjunction as some believe? Was it a UFO? Or was it just a nice symbol, a trope of a sort often used in antiquity to signify the birth of important people, usually royalty? Some folks really get jazzed about this, and the truth is, no one really knows.  We here at psnt.net tend toward the conjunction (see below), mainly because we think it’s cool.

    Here is a list of some of the possibilities. The shiny object in the sky could have been a…

    Star. But not really. A star doesn’t do things like appear out of nowhere, unless it explodes in a catastrophic…

    Supernova. This the “star” could have been, but a 2,000-year-old supernova should have left a pretty noticeable mark in the sky. There is no such mark — called a supernova remnant — of the right age anywhere that we know of in the part of the sky visible to observers in the Near East. So maybe it was a…

    Comet. This is still a pretty live option, because comets have all kinds of periods — that is, times required for a full orbit (Halley’s has a period of 76 years, which is really short). So a super-bright comet could have passed through the sky at the time of Jesus’ birth and it may not be back for 10,000 more years. Who knows? Not me. But it was described as a star, and most comets are pretty obviously not stars. But maybe that’s a difference that was lost on folks 2,000 years ago. Maybe their language did draw that distinction. In any case, it could also have been a… (scroll down)…

    Planetary conjunction. What you see above is the sky as it appeared looking east-northeast from Palestine at 5 AM on August 12, 3 B.C. No kidding. Well, except for the big floating words and neat mythical figures. And maybe the lake with the glowing blue letters in it. You get the idea. (We at psnt.net created the image using Starry Night Pro.) The really bright thing just above Leo‘s paws is not one thing, but two things: Jupiter and Venus. When planets appear this close together it’s called a conjunction. This would have been noticeable by anyone — these are the two brightest planets in our sky — and the wise men, who were astrologers (that’s astroLoGers, not astroNoMers), would have been very worked up about this event. And, occurring as it did in Leo, it would have signaled something of royalty to them (the brightest star in Leo is Regulus, as in regal).

    You may think that the fact that this conjunction happened in 3 BC would invalidate it as a possibility for the star. I mean, Jesus wasn’t born before he was born, right? Well, yes. There is some debate, but it is obvious that Jesus was born sometime between 8 BC and 3 BC, depending on who you ask. We here at psnt.net ask our man Johannes Kepler, and he tells us 4 BC. Kepler was the first to show that Jesus was born before the traditional year of A.D. 1. Choose whatever date you like, but as for me and my household, we’re sticking with Kepler.

    Now it gets good. Some say the “star” was actually an…

    Unidentified flying object. See here for all the information you need (and more) about this particular theory. While we’re on the topic of baby Jesus and UFO’s, though, you might check this out.

    As entertaining as it is to think of the Magi following Zaphod Beeblebrox to the modest collection of persons and barnyard animals surrounding the Holy Family, the star could also have been, of course, a…

    Literary trope. “Trope” is a word I have been pleased to learn in seminary. For our money it basically means metaphor or symbol or literary motif. Apparently there were lots of legends floating about concerning miracles and portents at the time Augustus was born, in 63 B.C.; maybe this tradition was picked up by Matthew, the only of the Four Evangelists to mention the star (Mark, widely believed to be the first gospel written, makes no mention of the star or the Magi.)

    This is the one favored by scholars, of course. Because it’s all literary and this way there’s no need for the scientists to horn in on the deal. And they like it because it makes the “most sense.” Which is fine; that’s what scholars are supposed to do. So more power to them.

    It’s tempting to write something at this point, indicating which one of these options we like the most and why, so I will: we like the planetary conjunction. This is so regardless of the problems with it, even aside from the timing: the Magi were supposed to come from the east (Babylonia), but the conjunction was only visible in the early morning hours in the east (see picture above). So it would have been behind them as they traveled east-to-west from Babylonia to Palestine. Hmm. Maybe their camels had rearview mirrors.

    But I’ll tell you: the most major problem with the planetary conjunction, at least for us here at psnt.net, is that it doesn’t square with the calculations of Kepler. And you know what? We trust the calculations of Kepler.

    Oh well. We also still like the conjunction explanation the best, whether or not it’s the “right answer.” And tonight, we think that’s just alright. Just like Jesus.


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