Christmas star cover-up

December 19, 2001

AN AMERICAN astronomer claims he has found the first mention of the star of Bethlehem outside the Bible. The reference is in a 4th-century manuscript written by a Roman astrologer and Christian convert called Firmicus Maternus.

Michael Molnar, formerly of Rutgers University in New Jersey, is the originator of the idea that the star of Bethlehem was not a spectacular astronomical event such as a supernova or a comet but an obscure astrological one. The event would nevertheless have been of great significance to ancient Roman astrologers. After studying the symbolism on Roman coins, he concluded that the "star" was in fact a double eclipse of Jupiter in a rare astrological conjunction that occurred in Aries on 20 March, 6 BC, and again on 17 April, 6 BC (New Scientist, 23/30 December 1995, p 34).

Molnar believed that Roman astrologers would have interpreted such an event as signifying the birth of a divine king in Judea. But he lacked proof. Now he says he has found it, in the Mathesis, a book written by Maternus in AD 334. Maternus described an astrological event involving an eclipse of Jupiter by the Moon in Aries, and said that it signified the birth of a divine king.

"Maternus did not mention Jesus's name," says Molnar. "But Roman astrology was a popular craze at the time and everyone reading the book would have known the reference was to Jesus and that the astrological event was the star of Bethlehem."

So why did Maternus not mention Jesus by name? According to Molnar, early Christians hated pagan beliefs and did not want to justify the Biblical story with astrological mumbo-jumbo. The idea that the stars govern our fate flew in the face of belief in a Christian God as the controlling force in the Universe. "Being a pagan who had converted to Christianity during his lifetime, Firmicus was torn," says Molnar. "Hence his use of astrology to support the Christian story, but in a veiled way."

According to Molnar, it was essential to early Christians that the true nature of the star be hidden, otherwise theologians would be mired in debate about celestial influences that were not part of Christianity. So they buried the knowledge of the star's astrological roots and in time it was forgotten.

"I take Molnar's work quite seriously," says Owen Gingerich, a historian of astronomy at Harvard University. "Anything he comes up with along these lines has to be considered as being very likely correct."
Author: Marcus Chown

New Scientist issue: 22/29 December 2001


New Scientist

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