New insights into the Star of Bethlehem

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Like many astronomers, I’ve always been intrigued by the Star of Bethlehem. It’s the best-known star. People who cannot name a single luminary in the actual night sky readily acknowledge familiarity with the legendary Bethlehem Star and its religious role. No wonder it has inspired vast scientific speculation. For more than a century, various natural explanations have gained and then lost fashion, periodically making mainstream headlines. It has been a staple of yuletide planetarium shows since the 1930s.

For me personally, this celestial topic began in earnest with my very first column in Discover magazine in 1989: a two-page spread about the Star. Basically I summarized the various “explanations” shown to the public during planetariums’ annual “Star of Wonder” shows, then noted that planetarium directors (I had interviewed quite a few) were well aware that each was impossible. No celestial object can move, stop and then hover over Bethlehem or anywhere else. Thus all searches for rational celestial explanations – a conjunction, comet, supernova, whatever – are fraudulent from the get-go.

Nonetheless the shows remain popular, and have become such a tradition by themselves that few seem bothered by make-believe science annually offered to the unwary public. The normally verboten mishmash of science and religion gets a free pass, too.

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Back in 1989 I did not have the research time, nor did I find it appropriate, to delve into such important aspects of the Star as how the nativity account in Matthew is so utterly different from the gospel of Luke, or how astrological explanations might (or might not) solve the puzzle, or the hard evidence that Matthew, when he wrote his gospel a full century after the fact, may have simply borrowed the Star story from specific popular contemporary literature.

Aaron Adair, a newly minted Ohio State PhD, did this and much more, in an immensely readable way. Thus I was honored to be asked to write the foreword to his new book, The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View. Adair’s wonderfully meticulous, thoroughly engaging “final word” leaves the reader not with nagging questions or dangling what-ifs, but with a strong sense that the case may finally be closed.

Dr. Adair dissects each science “explanation” with astronomical insights both accurate and inarguable, and, refreshingly, does not disparage religion in general or Christianity in particular. He does not cross the hubris line, as a few popular physicists do, by suggesting that as a scientist, he possesses a superior “take” on theology. Nowhere do we feel smugness, or regard his brushstrokes as too wide.

His bottom line? The account was make-believe – not just because the far more meticulous and historically accurate Luke mentions no star at all, nor because Matthew’s tale so closely matches contemporary fiction literature, but because many of the “facts” in Matthew are either inarguably wrong or downright impossible.

But let’s leave the “Bah, humbug” portion of today’s column and slip into the dreamy and lovely. Namely, there’s a tradition that whatever is the most brilliant star at this time of year is this year’s Christmas or holiday star. In 2013 it’s Venus. Though low in the southwest at dusk, it attained its greatest brilliancy this past week and remains at a dazzling shadow-casting magnitude -4.8. Through steadily braced or image-stabilized binoculars in deepening twilight, the Evening Star’s eerie crescent shape is obvious.

Venus will plunge into the Sun’s glare and essentially be absent this entire next year. Its apparition will last only another two weeks. But its timing is perfect. During Christmas week, as the evening’s brightest luminary, Venus gives us an eye-catching prelude to December’s long nights and holiday festivities.

Its loveliness is incontestable.

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