Deep Space LIVE: The Star of Bethlehem

Theological legend or astronomical celestial event? The Bible story about the Star of Bethlehem and the Three Wise Men is widely discussed. At our Deep Space LIVE "The Star of Bethlehem" on December 13, 2018, astronomer Peter Habison brings light into the darkness.

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The story is well known: A long time ago, a little more than 2018 years to be exact, a bright star rose on the horizon. Wise men from the Orient – astrologers, scholars – made their way to Bethlehem, always following the star, because there, they interpreted, a king, a prophet was born. We now know the scholars as the Three Wise Men, the prophet as Jesus Christ. But what’s the truth behind the story of the Star of Bethlehem? What celestial event could have served as a point of orientation for the travelling men at that time?

Astronomer Peter Habison sets out to explore the story at Deep Space LIVE “The Star of Bethlehem – The Story of a Heavenly Encounter” on Thursday, December 13, 2018. Here, he tells us more about the historical, theological and astronomical aspects of the famous star.

Credit: Ars Electronica / Robert Bauernhansl

What stories are circulating around this celestial event, the Star of Bethlehem?

Peter Habison: The starting point, of course, is the Bible account of the Gospel of Matthew, where the famous words appear: “When Jesus was born in the time of King Herod in Bethlehem, Judea, astrologers came to Jerusalem from the East…” They asked where the new-born king was, then explained: “We have seen his star rise and have come to pay homage to him.” In the original text they were Magoi, that is, magicians from the East. The interesting thing is that the Gospel of Matthew is the only Gospel that tells this story. All the other gospels do not tell a word about it. The gospel of Matthew is one of the, I would say, middle-aged gospels, written about 80 to 90 AD. If you look at this magician report from the point of view of biblical exegesis, meaning the interpretation of the Bible, you realize that the report is a thoroughly composed narrative, there are several acts, it increases, and there is an introduction and a conclusion. So it is nothing that was simply written down quickly.

So the question arises: what kind of literary genre is it? Is it a historical report? Is it a theological narrative? Or is it something different? Most interpretations go to the effect that this part of the Gospel of Matthew is a theological narrative with a so-called historical substrate. This means that the writer did indeed consider a theological aspect, but at the same time embedded the narrative in a historical event. One such example is the life of Herod. King Herod is a well secured historical personality, we know he lived from 73 to 4 BC. So what are we dealing with here? With a theological narrative, but embedded in historical realities. Why is that important? Because the whole theme, the Star of Bethlehem, comes out of this Magician account.

This gives rise to several subsequent questions: the question of the time of Christ’s dates of birth in the Gospels, the question of the identity of these magicians, the question of their origin and their motives. One must not understand this theological-historical prehistory as scientific, historical, scientific facts. Rather, one has to consider this in the light of time – how did people at that time live, how were stories handed down, and what did life look like, historically speaking, at that time? One simply cannot compare this with today’s time. These were very mythical places, stories handed down orally, and Matthew falls back on them. And also on apocryphal writings, so to speak extra-canonical writings, which are not recognized as parts of today’s biblical text, but which do report about this time.

So what scientific theories exist today to explain the events?

Peter Habison: There is a variety of theories and experiments. When it comes to the star, it becomes relatively complicated because different aspects play into it. On the one hand, it is about the magicians – where did they come from? This immediately leads to the topic of astronomy and astrology in ancient Babylon, because we know that a great deal of astrological-astronomical knowledge has developed there. This science, astronomy-astrology, was already 2000 years old at the time of Christ’s birth. People already had star maps at that time, knew about stars, there was a whole combination of astronomical knowledge in large collections. One of these collections is called MUL.APIN, for example, where astronomical knowledge was collected from the prediction of the moon to the calculation of eclipses and the twelve signs of the zodiac that we know today. That was the astronomical-astrological starting point – astronomy and astrology were merged in this time. However, the sub-area of astrology alone could not be compared with the astrology of our modern times. Back then, it was something we today call omen-astrology, today’s astrology is completely different. Through this astronomical-historical insight one can speculate who these magicians were. Today it is often assumed that they were astronomer-astrologers, possibly from the Babylonian area, possibly Babylonian high priests or perhaps even scribes.

The occupation of the astrologer – can this be compared to an independent profession or would one rather call it a hobby today?

Peter Habison: That’s difficult. There were no professions in their present form at that time. The magicians were certainly people from a very high social class. They were certainly at court, very close to the king, because they had to make predictions. They were not simple people, but people who were intellectually but also socially very close to the royal courts or the ruling structure. This was very closely connected with the priesthood or the scribes. But we do not know exactly! Just as it is not written anywhere that there were three magicians, this number developed much later. In the folk tradition the magicians became the Holy Three Kings, although in the writings nobody speaks of kings, let alone of three. That is a later interpretation, so there were three people who on the one hand came from the three continents known at that time, Africa, Asia and Europe, and on the other hand are always represented in three different stages of life. A young man, an adult and an old man, three men of every age. There is a lot of symbolism in these narratives, also here with the wise men. These three magicians stand for many things, courage, daring, faithfulness, consistency, strength…

Courage is a good keyword – why would the three magicians have set out at all, if heavenly events were strongly connected with disaster at that time?

Peter Habison: That’s a very good question. There is something fundamental behind it: How is this magician report to be interpreted? If I interpret it to mean that it has historical authenticity, I can examine where the wise men actually came from, which caste or social class they belonged to, and from where exactly they left. But that is a precondition – to say it was really a historical event and real historical persons. For example, we have no tradition of these names, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, which came into being much, much, much later. The same pattern is repeated in the interpretation of the star.

But if we do that, if we say that they really, historically started travelling to Bethlehem, we must also give a reason. So the magicians weren’t just on the move, on a whim, but in search of the new king or the new prophet. According to the Bible account, then, this star is to be the pioneering and explanatory element. If we again assume that this star was indeed a celestial phenomenon at that time, then we can begin to think about what exactly it could have been.

So we begin, then, by defining the event historically. What year are we looking at exactly? When was Jesus born? This question is not quite as easy to answer as one might assume – the year zero is not correct, because our Gregorian calendar did not even exist at that time. This zero point was set wrong, as we know today. We didn’t know that then, but it prevailed. If you calculate everything through, you are most likely to get four to seven years before zero. If you don’t take that into account, you can’t look for anything in the sky. One of the first who seriously dealt with this was the German astronomer Johannes Kepler. Around 1604, Kepler discovered that Jesus was probably born earlier than assumed for astronomical reasons.

Giotto di Bondone, The Adoration of the Magi. Via Wikimedia Commons

What I’m trying to do with the lecture at Deep Space is to address these different aspects. More than the theories, I am interested in the whole. An interesting cultural-historical aspect, for example, is why the star appears today as a comet in nativity scenes. The comet comes from a historical representation of Giotto di Bondone, a great Italian painter of the High or Late Middle Ages. At that time he painted a chapel in Padua with a cycle of frescoes, including a scene of the Adoration of the Magi. He began in 1301 and completed it in 1306. In 1301, there was a big comet visible on earth, today we know it was the Halley comet, which comes back to Earth again and again. It was very bright to see and impressive, so Giotto put it over the crib. This was picked up by art and folklore. So the star of Bethlehem is now known as a comet, as this tail star, although it has nothing at all to do with the star from history. This depiction comes from the history of art and originated 1300 years later.

So in the lecture I start at the theological starting point, tell a bit about the perspective of astronomy-astrology in ancient Babylon, how this fits in and where problems of tradition exist, then go on to the theme of the calculation of time and finally come to the theories about the star of Bethlehem, which are embedded in all this. If I were to speak of these theories right away, no one would understand a thing, one really needs this context. Only then do theories like comet theory, conjunction theory, supernova theory or horoscope theory make sense.

But outside of that, there is also the theory that the star of Bethlehem did not exist as an actual celestial phenomenon?

Peter Habison: This is one of the overarching approaches. Of course, there is also the possibility that it was actually not a star at all, but that everything is based on a theological-historical legend. From this point of view, then, there was no star in the sky, no astronomical-astrological starting point for this story, but it is based on a historical-theological narrative that has developed on the basis of ancient scriptures, traditions and traditions. The star, for instance, would be a symbol for a king, for power, for the future. In the Scriptures and in the Testament there are also quotations like “I am the light of the world” or “Jesus, the shining morning star”. There are also coins from that time which clearly symbolize or show a star. The star is a symbol and does not necessarily have to have been an astronomical event. We simply do not know. You can turn that around as you like, but the search here is varied.

Don’t astronomical events often play a role in history?

Peter Habison: That’s true, it happens again and again in history, although I have to say that it’s a marginal phenomenon. What is interesting about the star of Bethlehem is that it is the other way round. Here you can’t deduce an event from a really existing phenomenon, but try to find an event in the sky from a historical or theological-historical narrative. Often it is the other way round, one knows about a historical event, but not exactly when it was. But some things can be determined very precisely, such as solar or lunar eclipses. If such eclipses are historically described, you can see if there was really an eclipse at that time. With astronomy and astronomical phenomena, historical events can be classified chronologically. In this sense astronomy can serve as an auxiliary science for historical science to make a decision in chronology.

With the star of Bethlehem it would be nice if one could clearly classify it. But it is not possible, the interpretation does not allow it. We have too little information, the texts leave too much room for interpretation.

Peter Habison studied technical physics, astronomy and the history of science in Vienna, Innsbruck, Brussels and Tenerife. Since 2009 he has headed the Science Outreach Network of the European Southern Observatory in Austria as well as numerous national and international projects in cooperation with the Austrian Aerospace Agency, ESA and NASA and the Research Executive Agency of the EU. His areas of expertise include the history of astronomy and space travel in Austria. In 2006 he founded the Austrian Planetarium Society together with colleagues from Klagenfurt and Schwaz.

At the Deep Space LIVE “The Star of Bethlehem – The Story of a Heavenly Encounter” on Thursday, 13 December 2018, astronomer Peter Habison talks more about the famous celestial event. Find out more here.

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