The Star of Bethlehem: An astronomer, astrophysicist, and theologian’s perspective
Take Two blog
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Where stores are decked out in garlands and bows, aisles of ornaments glisten and glow, and rolls of gift wrap rise like hands to be chosen. Inevitably, tucked somewhere in the sea of snowmen and reindeer, sits the familiar image of three wise men and their guiding star.
This same scene also appears on Christmas cards, window clings, and other holiday décor. So it’s no surprise, then, that people begin to wonder what the bright light was that led the magi to Bethlehem. A supernova? A regular nova? A ’67 Nova?
Over the centuries a number of explanations have been brought forth, adjusted, expanded, or scrapped altogether. The latest theory to grab people’s attention is presented in Rick Larson’s DVD documentary The Star of Bethlehem. The film has been seen by tens of millions of people worldwide, and producers hope to further broaden their audience by developing children’s books. (Their Facebook page indicates two are currently in production.)
Recently emails and letters started flowing in to RTB asking for our perspective on The Star of Bethlehem—specifically regarding the science. (Larson, an amateur astronomer, holds a BA in philosophy and a Juris Doctor degree.) So I sat down with a few members of RTB’s scholar team, astronomer Hugh Ross, astrophysicist Jeff Zweerink, and philosopher/theologian Kenneth Samples, to get their observations on this überpopular film.
What is the basic premise of Larson’s argument and how does it differ from previously established theories?
Jeff: Larson’s basic premise is that a 3 BC conjunction of Jupiter (the “king” planet) and Regulus (the “king” star) marked Jesus’ conception and a later conjunction of Jupiter and Venus (in 2 BC) marked his birth. Larson then argues that, after the magi had traveled to Jerusalem, Jupiter reached a stopping point in its retrograde motion. At this point, according to Larson, Jupiter would have led the magi south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
The main difference between Larson’s model and other theories is the date (most historians contend that Herod died in 4 BC but Larson argues for 1 BC) and the types of astronomical phenomena involved. Larson argues for conjunctions, but others suggest a nova-type event where a star would appear for a while, disappear, and then reappear later…
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