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December 30, 2000
Column #1009

WHAT WAS THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM?

     On January 6, Christians celebrate the ''coming of the Magi,'' or Wise Men from the east asking, ''Where is the one who was born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him,'' as reported in Matthew, Chapter 2:1-12.

     Many skeptics have dismissed the story as an invention of Jesus' followers.

     However, there is new scientific evidence, compellingly written by a lawyer, Frederick Larson, on the faculty of Texas A&M., on the website, bethlehemstar.net, which explains what the Star of Bethlehem was. I have corroborated its essential facts with John Mosley, a supervisor at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, who confirms Larson's thesis:

  1. Johannes Kepler discovered in 1609 that the planets move in elliptical orbits around the sun, and the mathematical calculations which make it possible to show the exact location of all the stars and planets for ANY DATE in history. As a deeply committed Christian, Kepler tried to identify what the Wise Men saw in the sky, but saw nothing unusual in 5-6 BC, a year or so before Herod supposedly died in 4 BC. Says who? The ancient Jewish historian, Josephus.  However, recent research surfaced an error transcribing Josephus in 1544, who had actually said Herod's death was 1 BC.

  2. If so, Jesus's birth had to occur about 2-3 BC, when extraordinary things did happen in the sky. With new computers, it is possible to quickly visualize the sky which reveals that on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year in September 3 BC, Jupiter, which is 300 times more massive than earth and is known as King Planet, moved close to the bright star Regulus, which the Romans called Rex or king. When the Planet of Kings neared the Star of Kings, it was very bright, indeed.

  3. Normally, planets move against the field of fixed stars. Jupiter rises in the east, and if watched nightly over several weeks, moves eastward. But occasionally, planets appear to reverse course and move backward through the other stars. This ''retrograde wandering'' is caused by the fact we watch the planets from a moving position, as the earth is in its own orbit. (When you pass a car on the highway, it appears that the car being passed is moving backwards. It is an illusion.)

    In 3/2 BC, Jupiter's retrograde wandering would have attracted attention of the Wise Men,  who were probably astrologers from Babylon (present day Iraq). After Jupiter and Regulus had their kingly encounter, Jupiter ''entered retrograde,'' appearing to ''change its mind and headed back to Regulus for a second conjunction,'' Larson writes. ''After this second pass it reversed course again for a yet a third rendezvous with Regulus, a triple conjunction,'' which is quite rare.

    Over a period of months, the Wise Men would have ''seen the planet of kings dance out a halo above the Star of Kings. A coronation.''

    Could this ''sheer concentration of symbolism'' have persuaded the Wise Men that a Jewish  king had been born? asks Larson. There is more. Jupiter continued the pageantry in June of 2 BC.

    Normally, planets move against the field of fixed stars. Jupiter rises in the east, and if watched nightly over several weeks, moves eastward. But occasionally, planets appear to reverse course and move backward through the other stars. This ''retrograde wandering'' is caused by the fact we watch the planets from a moving position, as the earth is in its own orbit. (When you pass a car on the highway, it appears that the car being passed is moving backwards. It is an illusion.)

    In 3/2 BC, Jupiter's retrograde wandering would have attracted attention of the Wise Men,   who were probably astrologers from Babylon (present day Iraq). After Jupiter and Regulus had their kingly encounter, Jupiter ''entered retrograde,'' appearing to ''change its mind and headed back to Regulus for a second conjunction,'' Larson writes. ''After this second pass it reversed course again for a yet a third rendezvous with Regulus, a triple conjunction,'' which is quite rare.

    Over a period of months, the Wise Men would have ''seen the planet of kings dance out a halo above the Star of Kings. A coronation.''

    Could this ''sheer concentration of symbolism'' have persuaded the Wise Men that a Jewish   king had been born? asks Larson. There is more. Jupiter continued the pageantry in June of 2 BC.

  4. After crowning Regulus, the Planet of Kings traveled through the star field toward another ''spectacular rendezvous, this time with Venus, the Mother Planet. Jupiter came so close to Venus that the two planets seemed joined by the naked eye. If the Wise Men had a telescope, they could have ''seen that the planets sat one atop the other like a figure eight. Each contributed its full brightness to what became the most brilliant star'' the Wise Men had ever seen.

    (John Mosely says the last time this rare event happened was 1818, and it will not be seen again until 2039.)

    Frederick Larson believes the crowning of Regulus, which began in September, marked the conception of Jesus, and the joining of Jupiter with Venus marked His birth, nine months later! If the Wise Men began considering traveling to see the Messiah in September, would they not have been moved to mount up their camels in June?

  5. If they arrived months later and described these events to Herod, perhaps in December of 2 BC. Herod asked his priests where the Christ or Messiah was to be born. Citing Micah's prophecy, they said Bethlehem. The Wise Men, looked at the night sky and the star they had been following ''went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was,'' Bethlehem, five miles south of Jerusalem, writes Matthew.

    How could a planet stop? Remember retrograde motion? Larson notes, ''On December 25 of 2 BC, Jupiter reached full stop in its travel through the fixed stars. Wise Men viewing from Jerusalem would have seen it stopped in the sky above the little town of Bethlehem.''

     When Larson tells this story to audiences, many weep.

     As David wrote, ''The heavens declare the glory of God.''

     Why not show this column to your pastor as secular evidence of biblical truth?

Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.

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