* The mystery of the star of Bethlehem continues

A scientific, very respectful and well-thought reply to the popular question "Do you believe in UFOs?"  This book evolved as a reply to one of the most frequent questions that I used to hear from the public when I was working in an astronomical observatory: "Do you believe in UFOs?". That seems an odd question to ask to scientists, but after researching conscientiously for about a full year, I discovered, to my surprise, that mainstream Science has a few things to say about the topic.  This book is not about conspiracy theory, "NASA is hiding the truth", or much less, that flying saucers have already landed on the lawn of the White House. Rather, it is a book about what is the most rational reply that a scientist, or in my case, a science writer, can offer when people insist on asking that question.  As one advances through the chapters, explores the following rationale: Is there life in the Universe? The answer is yes: us. Are there civilizations capable of spaceflight? The answer is again yes: us. Can we expand those two questions? Can we answer also: "them" and "them"?  All illustrations are also available at naturapop.com











Illustration: The famous fresco "The Adoration of the Magi" by Giotto, ca. 1305. It is thought to contain the oldest known portrait of Comet Halley. This beautiful panel of 185 cm X 200 cm adorns the south wall of the Arena Chapel (built by the Scrovegni family of usurers and dedicated to Our Lady of Charity) in Padua, Italy. Credit: Giotto di Bondone, via Bijbels Museum, http://www.bijbelsmuseum.nl. With permission from the Museum and Library Sector of the Municipality of Padua.

MYTH OR ASTRONOMICAL REALITY?: THE MYSTERY OF THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM CONTINUES


At the time of year's end, many observatories around the world often have special Christmas lectures. But despite the historical records and sophisticated computer programs that recreate the sky of 2 thousands years ago, a consensus on what that object placed in the mangers is has not yet been reached.

Part of the problem is that the only document we have about the star of Bethlehem is the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2, verses 1 to 16. To begin the analysis, it would be good to crumble exhaustively and detailedly the said text:

"[2:1] After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, [2:2] saying, 'Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.' [2:3] When King Herod heard this he was alarmed, and all Jerusalem with him. [2:4] After assembling all the chief priests and experts in the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born . [2:5] 'In Bethlehem of Judea,' they said, 'for it is written this way by the prophet:' "

"[2:6] ' 'And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,' ' "

" ' 'are in no any way least among the rulers of Judah,' ' "

" ' 'for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel' ' "

"[2:7] Then Herod privately summoned the wise men and determined from them when the star had appeared. [2:8] He sent them to Bethlehem and said, 'Go and look carefully for the child. When you find him, inform me so I can go and worship him as well.' [2:9] After listening to the king they left, and once again the star they saw when it rose led them until it stopped above the place where the child was. [2:10] When they saw the star they shouted joyfully. [2:11] As they came into the house and saw the child with Mary his mother, they bowed down and worshiped him. They opened their treasure boxes and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. [2:12] After been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back by another route to their own country."

"[2:13] After they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, 'Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to look for the child to kill him.' [2:14] And he got up, took the child and his mother during the night, and went to Egypt. [2:15] He stayed there until Herod died. In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: 'I called my Son out of Egypt.' "

"[2:16] When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he became enraged. He sent men to kill all the children in Bethlehem and throughout the surrounding region from the age of two and under, according to the time he had learned from the wise men." (NET [New English Translation] Bible, Biblical Studies Press, Richardson, Texas, 2005. Scripture and/or notes quoted by permission. Quotations designated (NET) are from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://bible.org All rights reserved.)

In verse 2, many versions and translations of the Bible say "For we saw his star in the Orient and we come to worship him" ("The New Latin America Bible" [sic], of Bernardo Hurault and the International Catholic Biblical Society [SOBICAIN], co-edited by San Pablo, Madrid, and Editorial Verbo Divino, Estella, Navarra, 104th. edition, 1995, and 106th. edition, revised, 2004), or even "For his star we have seen in the orient, and we come to worship him" ("The New Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ with Psalms and Proverbs." Antique version of Casiodoro de Reina (1569). Revised by Cipriano de Valera (1602). Other Revisions: 1862, 1909 and 1960. Copyright © 1960 Bible Societies in Latin America. Copyright renewed 1988, United Bible Societies. Edition of The Gideons International, Nashville, Tennessee. Printed by National Publishing Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Reina-Valera Version 1960™ is a registered trademark ®.) The "Authorized King James Version Pure Cambridge Edition", ca. 1900, published by Bible Protector, The Guardians of the Pure Cambridge Edition, based in Australia, says: "for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him." The Bible of the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil ("Holy Bible. CNBB Translation." Editions CNBB, Brasília, 2008) says: "We saw his star in the orient and we came to worship him." The Clementine Vulgate ("Biblia Sacra juxta Vulgatam Clementinam", edition of Pope Clement VIII, 1592, republished with the approval of The Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, 2006) clearly states: "we actually saw the star of him in the orient, and we came to worship him."

The latter references cited create a problem, because if the wise men were from the East and they saw the star in the east, they could hardly follow it until reaching Bethlehem, since this place is to the opposite side, to the west. The NET (New English Translation) Bible brings the solution, as a footnote to verse 2: "Or 'in its rising', referring to the astrological significance of a star in a particular portion of the sky. The term used for the 'East' in verse 1 is 'anatolai', a plural form that is typically used of the rising of the sun, while in verses 2 and 9 the singular 'anatole' is used. The singular is typically used of the rising [or appearance over the horizon] of a star and as such should not normally be translated as 'in the east'." The note cites Walter Bauer ("A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature", 3rd. Edition, revised and edited by Frederick Danker, translated by William Arndt, Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick Danker, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2000), who explains that, unlike in verse 1, the word in verse 2 probably refers to an astronomical term rather than a geographical location. This note also applies to verse 9. (Notes taken from the NET Bible® footnotes, copyright (c) 1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press L.L.C. All rights reserved. Used by permission from http://bible.org)

The quotation in verse 6 is from the Book of the Prophet Micah, chapter 5, verse 2 (or 1): 

" 'And as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,' "

" 'seemingly insignificant among the clans of Judah,' "

" 'from you a king will emerge who will rule over Israel on my behalf,' "

" 'one whose origins are in the distant past.' " 

(NET [New English Translation] Bible, above). 

The Hebrew version of the Bible translated into Greek, the Septuagint, from which the evangelists probably quoted, says: 

" 'And you, O Bethlehem, house of Ephratha, are very few in number to be among the thousands of Ioudas;' "

" 'one from you shall come forth for me to become a ruler in Israel,' "

" 'and his goings forth are from old, from years of yore.' "

Ioudas might be Judah. (Quotations are taken from "A New English Translation of the Septuagint", ©2007 by the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies, Inc. Used by permission of Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. )

The quote in verse 15 is from the Book of the Prophet Hosea, chapter 11, verse 1 (NET [New English Translation] Bible, above):

" 'When Israel was a young man, I loved him like a son,' "

" 'and I summoned my son out of Egypt.' "

The Septuagint has differences ("A New English Translation of the Septuagint", above):

"At dawn they were cast out; Israel's king was cast out."

(1) " 'For Israel was an infant, and I loved him, and out of Egypt I recalled his children.' "

It is known that at that time many Jews were waiting for the fulfillment of the prophecy of the coming of a Messiah. Even in the Book of Numbers, chapter 24, verse 17, the fourth prophecy of Balaam son of Beor speaks of a star that should rise announcing this arrival (NET [New English Translation] Bible, above):

" 'I see him, but not now;' "

" 'I behold him, but not close at hand.' "

" 'A star will march forth out of Jacob,' "

" 'and a scepter will rise out of Israel.' "

" 'He will crush the skulls of Moab,' "

" 'and the heads of all the sons of Sheth.' "

Moab and Sheth might be geographical places. The Septuagint ("A New English Translation of the Septuagint", above) says:

" 'I will point to him, and not now; I deem him happy, but he is not at hand.' "

" 'A star shall dawn out of Iakob, and a person shall rise up out of Israel,' "

" 'And he shall crush the chiefs of Moab, and he shall plunder all Seth's sons.' "

Little is known about the wise men (Latin, "magi", plural of "magus", from Greek, "magos", foreignness from the Persian "magus"), because although Matthew writes that they were from the East he does not tell their names, does not say there were three, nor that they were kings. That term refers to an occupational title of the priestly caste of a branch of Zoroastrianism known as Zurvanism, active in ancient Iran and Iraq. As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars, and gained an international reputation as astrologers. It is very likely that they had knowledge of Jewish traditions because these latter people had been captive in Babylon (80 km south of Baghdad) several centuries before. Indeed, in this latter context the Hebrew prophet Daniel eventually became counselor of King Nebuchadnezzar II, the Great, who ruled between 605 B.C.E. and 562 B.C.E.. A famous (and debated) prophecy from the Book of Daniel is the one from Chapter 9, verses 24 through 27, where the Archangel Gabriel speaks to him of the coming of an anointed one in seventy weeks:

"[9:24] 'Seventy weeks have been determined' "

" 'concerning your people and your holy city' "

" 'to put an end to rebellion,' "

" 'to bring sin to completion,' "

" 'to atone for iniquity,' "

" 'to bring in perpetual righteousness,' "

" 'to seal up the prophetic vision,' "

" 'and to anoint a most holy place.' "

"[9:25] 'So know and understand:' "

" 'From the issuing of the command to restore and rebuild' "

" 'Jerusalem until an anointed one, a prince arrives,' "

" 'there will be a period of seven weeks and sixty-two weeks.' "

" 'It will again be built, with plaza and moat,' "

" 'but in distressful times.' "

"[9:26] 'Now after the sixty-two weeks,' "

" 'an anointed one will be cut off and have nothing.' "

" 'As for the city and the sanctuary;' "

" 'the people of the coming prince will destroy them.' "

" 'But his end will come speedily like a flood.' "

" 'Until the end of the war that has been decreed' "

" 'there will be destruction.' "

"[9:27] 'He will confirm a covenant with many for one week.' "

" 'But in the middle of that week' "

" 'he will bring sacrifices and offerings to a halt.' "

" 'On the wings of abominations will come one who destroys,' "

" 'until the decreed end is poured out on the one who destroys.' "

(NET [New English Translation] Bible, above). 

The Book of Daniel in Greek has two traditions, ancient Greek, completed before 132 B.C.E. in Alexandria, Egypt, and that of Theodotion (¿ ? - ca. 200 C.E.) written ca. 150 C.E., probably in the Greco-Roman city of Ephesus, located in present day Turkey. This latter version was used in 382 C.E. by Jerome (Eusebius Hieronymus of Stridon, St. Jerome to Christians) for compiling the Latin Vulgate Bible, i.e. the official Vatican Bible. Both versions have differences with the Hebrew Masoretic Text of Protestant Bibles, so it would be interesting to quote from them (excerpts from "A New English Translation of the Septuagint", above):

Ancient Greek: "[9:24] 'Seventy weeks have been decided for your people and for the city, Sion: for sin to be consummated and to make iniquities scarce and to blot out iniquities and to comprehend the vision and for everlasting righteousness to be given and for the vision to be consummated and to gladden a holy of holies. [9:25] And you shall understand and will rejoice and will discover ordinances to respond, and you will build Ierousalem as a city for the Lord. [9:26] And after seven and seventy and sixty-two weeks, an anointing will be removed and will not be. And a king of nations will demolish the city and the sanctuary along with the anointed one, and his consummation will come with wrath even until the time of consummation. He will be attacked through war. [9:27] And the covenant will prevail for many, and it will return again and be rebuilt broad and long. And at the consummation of times {even after seven years and seventy times and sixty-two times} {until the time of the consummation of the war even desolation will be removed} {when the covenant prevails for many weeks}. And in half of the week the sacrifice and the libation will cease, and in the temple there will be an abomination of desolations until the consummation of a season, and a consummation will be given for the desolation.' "

Theodotion: "[9:24] 'Seventy weeks have been cut short for your people and for the holy city: for sin to be consummated and to seal sins and to atone for iniquities and to bring everlasting righteousness and to seal vision and prophet and to anoint a holy of holies. [9:25] And you shall know and shall understand: from the going forth of the word to respond to and to rebuild Ierousalem until an anointed leader, there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks, and it {or 'he', antecedent unclear} will return, and streets and a wall will be built, and the seasons will be emptied out. [9:26] And after the sixty-two weeks, an anointing will be destroyed, and there is no judgment in it. And it {or 'he', antecedent unclear} will destroy the city and the sanctuary along with the leader who is to come. And they will be cut off by a flood, and there will be annihilations to the finish of a shortened war. [9:27] And it {antecedent unclear} will strengthen a covenant with many, one week, and by half of the week sacrifice and libation will cease, and in the temple there will be an abomination of desolations even until a consummation, and a consummation will be given for the desolation.' "

The version available to the evangelist was possibly the version in the middle, the ancient-Greek one. However, this is precisely the version that is not reproduced neither by the Catholic Bible nor by the Hebrew Bible (the latter used in turn by the Protestant Bible).

On the practice of anointing, in the book of Exodus, chapter 30, verses 22-33, it is explained how the priests of the Israelites should be anointed with a scented liquid based in olive oil. In Hebrew "anointed" is spoken "mshchth" ("Concordant Hebrew English Sublinear for the Westminster Leningrad Codex", Copyright ©Scripture4all Foundation, The Netherlands, 2009), from which the word messiah comes, translated into Greek as "khristós" ("The New Covenant. The Greek New Testament with 8928 notes and 9971 alternate readings, containing all the variations of five printed editions and variants from the manuscripts and ancient versions", second edition, draft, Tigran Aivazian, Bible.org.uk, London, 2005; "A concise dictionary of the words in The Greek Testament; with their renderings in the Authorized English Version", James Strong, Madison, New Jersey, 1890).

Returning to Daniel chapter 9, page footnote to the word "weeks" of verse 24, the NET (New English Translation) Bible (above) says: "Hebrew: 'sevens'. Elsewhere the term is used of a literal week (a period of seven days), see Genesis 29:27-28, Exodus 34:22, Leviticus 12:5, Numbers 28:26, Deuteronomy 16:9-10, Chronicles 8:13, Jeremiah 5:24, Daniel 10:2-3. Gabriel unfolds the future as if it were a calendar of successive weeks. Most understand the reference here as periods of seventy 'sevens' of years, or a total of 490 years." Depending on how literally you take the date of the making of the Book of Daniel, this would mean a period between the end of the times of Nebuchadnezzar II until close to the time of Herod the Great.

Which reminds us of another problem: although we can calculate the date of many astronomical phenomena mathematically, we do not have the exact date of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. It is known that Herod the Great died between a lunar eclipse and Passover (Josephus, "Antiquities of the Jews", Book 17, Chapter 6, paragraph 4, through Chapter 9, paragraph 3) and that one of the tetrarchs who inherited (or took) a share of his kingdom ruled for 37 years until when the government of the Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar turned 19 years (i.e. after the twentieth year of it already begun) (Josephus, "Antiquities of the Jews", Book 18, Chapter 4, paragraph 6). As the first year of Tiberius as emperor was 14 C.E., the date of death of the aforementioned tetrarch (Philip) would be 33 C.E.. To this latter date, we must subtract the 37 years of his regime and we see that he succeeded Herod the Great in 4 B.C.E.. But Luke the Evangelist describes to us that the Nativity would have happened (without he remembering the Magi and the star) during a census of Caesar Augustus (the Roman emperor Octavian) made ​​"when Quirinius was governor of Syria" (NET) (Luke 2:1-2). Titus Flavius ​​Josephus, in "Antiquities of the Jews", Book 18, Chapter 1, paragraph 1, confirms the now debated census and in Chapter 2, paragraph 1, says that it was completed in the year 37 of Octavian's victory over Mark Antony at the Battle of Aktion. This happened in the year 31 B.C.E. ("Pequeño Larousse Ilustrado", Ramón García-Pelayo y Gross, Editions Larousse Argentina, 1972 printing), so that the referred date would be 6 C.E.. There is another more date that Luke gives but is quite vague: in Chapter 3 he talks about the beginnings of the ministry of John the Baptist: "[Luke 3:1] In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod [Antipas, son of the Great and husband of Herodias, the bigamous wife of Herod Philip I] was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother [Herod] Philip [II, husband of Salome, daughter of Herodias] was tetrarch of the region of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, [3:2] during the high priesthood of Annas and [his son-in-law Joseph, son of or named] Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of [the priest] Zechariah in the wilderness." (NET). The chapter talks about how Jesus of Nazareth became a follower (and later successor) of his relative: "[3:23] So Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years old." (NET). The fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar was 28 C.E. and the priestly dynasty of Annas and Caiaphas extended to 36 C.E. (Josephus, in the same place, chapter 2, paragraph 2; Chapter 4, paragraphs 2 and 3; and Chapter 6 , paragraph 5). Therefore Jesus was "about 30" (from 25 through 35?) between 28 C.E. and 36 C.E., since he was baptized by John the Baptist and was tried by Caiaphas. With these and other various data, all unfortunately insufficient for the accurate calculation, we can not but speculate that Jesus of Nazareth would have been born at the earliest in 8 B.C.E. and at the latest in 6 C.E.. More likely, between 6 B.C.E. and 2 B.C.E..

A COMET?

That the Star of Bethlehem was a comet is the most popular explanation, and it is the object we all have in our mangers. The most famous comet of all is Halley's comet, for two very good reasons: it is extremely bright (though in 1986 passed by too far away) and has a relatively short period of 76 years. That's why the first space probes sent to a comet were sent to comet 1P/Halley. One of them, the European Space Agency's, was baptized with the name of Giotto, in homage to Giotto di Bondone, a Florentine who in 1305 completed a series of frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy, one of which, "The Adoration of the Magi", depicts the Star of Bethlehem as a comet, probably using Halley's as the model, which was visible in 1301. Modern calculations (of which Giotto the artist knew nothing) indicate that Halley's comet passed by Earth in 12 B.C.E.

There are other comets that have much longer periods, thousands of years, so it may be that another comet unknown to us passed by in those years. The Babylonians, the Chinese and Koreans have very accurate records of the sky (Mark Kidger, "The Star of Bethlehem. An astronomer's view", Princeton University Press, 1999). One candidate is the one appeared in the region of the sky known as Capricorn or maybe in Eagle, in the first months of the year 5 B.C.E. ("The Annals of [the Emperor Hsiao]-Ai", in "History of the former Han Dynasty", chapter 11, published by The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, Copyright © Anne Kinney and the University of Virginia, 2003). There are Korean records ("Annals of Silla", ca. 57 B.C.E. - 925, in "Samguk Sagi [A History of the Three Kingdoms]", 1145, quoted by Kidger, above) describing something similar, although there is a discrepancy of 1 year in the date (4 B.C.E.)

In ancient times (before the invention of the astronomical telescope, and of the discoveries in orbital physics by Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley, XVIIth and XVIIIth Centuries) the appearances of comets were not predictable and were considered ominous signs announcing disasters (word that comes from "dis": denial, disappointment, separation, and "astro": star, "Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary", Merriam-Webster Incorporated, 2011; "Pequeño Larousse Ilustrado", by Ramón García-Pelayo y Gross, Editions Larousse Argentina, 1972 printing), so it is very unlikely that this is what the Jews and the Magi have expected to find in the sky in relation to a Messiah. However, this apparent contradiction is resolved if we see the story from the sandals of Herod the Great: the comet would be announcing his own personal destruction and not that of others.

A SUPERNOVA?

Some think that the comet of the year 5 B.C.E. or 4 B.C.E. was actually a supernova (Mark Kidger, above), due to an apparent lack of detail about tails or proper motions in the chronicles cited.

A supernova is a star that explodes due to violent pulsations in its interior, when its fuel runs out at the end of its life. If the star is far away and not visible to the naked eye, when it explodes it suddenly becomes visible, appearing in the sky as if it were a new star, hence the name nova. If the new brightness is much higher than it was before, it is called supernova. The phenomenon may last several months.

However, like any true star, a supernova hardly moves (noticeably) in relation to the other stars, and can not wander and stop above a house.

An alternative explanation speaks of two consecutive supernovae, one when the Magi departed from the East and another when they were arriving at Bethlehem, but this would be a tremendous coincidence, because naked-eye supernova events are very rare: the last is from the year 1987 and before this from the year 1604.

A CONJUNCTION OF PLANETS?

If we consider that the Magi were astrologers and were engaged in drawing up horoscopes, then most likely were paying attention to the constellations and planets in them.

A phenomenon that until today, in the 21st century, seems striking to the public that attend astronomical observatories is the conjunction, that is when two planets cross in the sky. The planets all go at different speeds: Mercury takes 88 days to go around the Sun, Venus 225 days, Mars 687 days, Jupiter 12 years, Saturn 29 years. Considering also that the Earth moves around the Sun, the movements that we see from Earth are further complicated: the planets wander among the stars, sometimes overtaking one another, sometimes, as we approach them from behind, seem to go in reverse, and there are even times when they seem to stop. This attracted a lot of attention to astrologers, but only in the seventeenth century Johannes Kepler got to explain the mechanics of these movements.

In 1604 a supernova appeared in the region of the sky called Ophiuchus. Kepler noted that the planets Jupiter and Saturn crossed each other three times in a period of a few months. He calculated that something similar happened in the year 7 B.C.E., and as he knew nothing about subatomic physics, suggested that this event is the one that gives rise to supernovae.

Leaning more to the mythological side of things, Roger Sinnott suggested in an article in the magazine "Sky and Telescope" of December 1968 that the Magi were paying attention to a conjunction between Jupiter and Venus (the two brightest planets) in the year 2 B.C.E. and to a triple conjunction of Jupiter (nicknamed by ancient people "king of the planets") with the star Regulus ("the royal star", according to the ancients) of the asterism, or figure that the human mind playfully forms with the stars, of the Lion.

Michael Molnar suggested in 1999 that the constellation that the Magi were paying attention to was that of Aries the Lamb, traditionally associated with the Jews. In 6 B.C.E. Jupiter was in Aries, and not only that, the Moon occulted this planet twice.

Arguments in favor that the Magi were reading a horoscope is that they did not follow the star directly, but rather they went to meet Herod in his capital Jerusalem to ask him where the new king of the Jews had been born. The priests explained that the prophecy of the Book of Micah, chapter 5, verses 1 through 4 indicates that they had to go to Bethlehem.

HISTORICAL REALITY OF THE STORY IN MATTHEW'S GOSPEL

That there are many candidates paradoxically may mean that nothing extraordinary happened, nothing that really stands out from a pile of normal astronomical events. Even the slaughter of the innocent does not have any independent evidence, although the Jewish historian Flavius ​​Josephus, in his book "Antiquities of the Jews" from the year 93 C.E., speaks of the reign of Herod the Great and describes him as a man who killed his wife Mariamne I, and some time later two of his children with her ​​and another son, this latter one his firstborn.

However, there is the possibility that Matthew's account is mixing several stories. First, the so-called Matthew the Evangelist is hardly Matthew the publican, disciple of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew was written between the year 70 C.E. and the year 100 C.E.

However, there are other stories similar to that of the Star of Bethlehem in unthinkable documents: stories of the Romans. Pliny the Elder, in his "Natural History", XXX, Section VI, relates that in the year 66 C.E. Tiridates I, king of Armenia, led a remarkable procession of Magi to pay homage to the Emperor Nero. Dio Cassius, in his "Roman History", Vol. VIII, Book LXII, adds that they came down a road and returned to their country following another way, as in Matthew's account. And precisely in this year comet Halley passed by, performing movements very similar to those described in Matthew.

In "The New Latin America Bible" (sic), of Bernard Hurault and the International Catholic Bible Society (SOBICAIN), co-edited by San Pablo, Madrid, and Editorial Verbo Divino, Estella, Navarra, 104th. edition, 1995, the passage about the Star of Bethlehem received the following commentary: "From the earliest Christian generations there were popular stories trying to say everything that no one knew about Jesus and is not in the Gospels. And this was very much alike the Jewish stories about the childhood of Abraham and of Moses. Hence came certainly the star of the Magi and the slaughter of children in Bethlehem, and leaning over astronomical tables now to find a comet that passed by at that time is useless."

"In this chapter, then, Matthew uses these stories without the slightest concern for their suspicious authenticity. He uses them to show how Jesus revived, his way, what his people had lived. Hence these ten quotations from the Old Testament in which each time it is said: 'This was to fulfill'.", the biblical commentators add.

In the 106th. edition, revised, from 2004, the commentary is the following:

"2:1) At the time the Gospels were written, the Jewish literature was happy imagining the childhood of Bible heroes. They had just written that of Abraham and that of Moses. A star, it was said, had warned the Pharaoh of the birth of the savior of the Jews, and so he had decided to kill all children, but Moses was saved."

"Matthew adapts these known images to paint a somewhat artificial picture of Jesus' childhood. These give us a first approach to its mission: ignored and persecuted by his own people, he will give the Gospel to non-Jews. Matthew quotes Scripture several times, and each time adds: 'This was to fulfill'. Thus he invites to reread the ancient texts that spoke of the people of Israel, but also announcing Jesus. He had to redo the experiences of his people: marches, exile, sorrows, but finally everything would acquire a new meaning."

"The Magi, described according to the image held about the priest astrologers from Chaldea (Book of Daniel, chapter 2, verse 2), here represent foreign nations who come to worship the true God (Book of Isaiah, chapter 60). The priests and chiefs of God's people did not expect anything and had not been informed, but God calls his friends of the pagan world: Jesus, savior of the Jews, saves the entire humankind."

"2:9) The star guided them: because they often have to seek God in the night. They believed in the stars, and God had sought one for them."

The Book of Daniel, chapter 2, verse 2 says (NET [New English Translation] Bible, above): "The king issued an order to summon the magicians, astrologers, sorcerers and wise men in order to explain his dream to him. So they came and awaited the king's instructions."

In the Book of Isaiah, chapter 60, the LORD (Yahweh) says (NET [New English Translation] Bible, above) to Zion (the city of Jerusalem and by extension the biblical land of Israel), among other things:

"[60:1] 'Arise! Shine! For your light arrives!' "

" 'The splendor of the LORD [Yahweh] shines on you!' "

"[60:2] 'For look, darkness covers the earth' "

" 'and deep darkness covers the nations, ' "

" 'but the LORD [Yahweh] shines on you;' "

" 'his splendor appears over you.' "

"[60:3] 'Nations come to your light,' "

" 'kings to your bright light.' "

"[60:4] 'Look all around you!' "

" 'They all gather and come to you,' "

" 'your sons come from far away' "

" 'and your daughters are escorted by guardians.' "

"[60:5] 'Then you will look and smile,' "

" 'you will be excited and your heart will swell with pride.' "

" 'For the riches of distant lands will belong to you' "

" 'and the wealth of nations will come to you.' "

"[60:6] 'Camel caravans will cover your roads,' "

" 'young camels from Midian and Ephah.' "

" 'All the merchants of Sheba will come,' "

" 'bringing gold and incense' "

" 'and singing praises to the LORD [Yahweh].' "

(...)

"[60:11] 'Your gates will remain open at all times;' "

" 'they will not be shut during the day or at night,' "

" 'so that the wealth of nations may be delivered,' "

" 'with their kings leading the way.' "

"[60:12] 'Indeed, nations or kingdoms that will not serve you will perish;' "

" 'such nations will be totally destroyed.' "

"[60:13] 'The splendor of Lebanon will come to you,' "

" 'its evergreens, firs, and cypresses together,' "

" 'to beautify my palace;' "

" 'I will bestow honor on my throne room.' "

"[60:14] 'The children of your oppressors will come bowing to you;' "

" 'all who treated you with disrespect will bow down at your feet.' "

" 'They will call you, 'The City of the LORD [Yahweh], Zion of the Holy One of Israel.' ' "

(...)

"[60:22] 'The least of you will multiply into a thousand; ' "

" 'the smallest of you will become a large nation.' "

" 'When the right time comes, I the LORD [Yahweh] will quickly do this!' "

The Septuagint, not uncommon, has differences. Overall differences are minor, but some are outstanding ("A New English Translation of the Septuagint", above): 60:1: "... shine {Possibly 'Be enlightened'}, O Ierousalem ..."; 60:4 " ... and your daughters shall be carried on shoulders."; 60:6 " ... and the camels of Midian and Gaiphar ... "; 60:11: " ... and kings who are being led away." 60:13a: "... with cypress and pine and cedar together, to glorify my holy place."; 60:13b omits "'I will bestow honor on my throne room.'"; 6:22 ".. . I, the Lord, will gather them in due time."

Midian (Madiam in the Septuagint) was the fourth son of Abraham and Keturah, his wife after the death of Sarah. Ephah (Gaiphar in the Septuagint) was the first son of Midian and therefore grandson of Abraham. Sheba was Ephah's cousin and grandson, also, of Abraham and Keturah, being the first son of the second son, Jokshan, of this couple. Abraham's heir was Isaac, so to the rest of his offspring the patriarch (after giving them some gifts) sent them away to the east (Genesis 25:6). The Midianite branch established as a tribe in what is now northwestern Saudi Arabia. Moses got asylum among them after killing an Egyptian (Exodus 2:11-22) and it was in this vicinity where the burning bush appeared (Exodus 3:1-15). The Kingdom of Sheba lied further south, toward Yemen or even Eritrea and Ethiopia, in the Horn of Africa. In this latter regard it is worth remembering that the tradition says that one of the Magi, Balthazar, was of black race, as probably also was that famous Queen of Sheba, which made ​​a courtesy visit to King Solomon (1 Kings 10:1-13, 2 Chronicles 9:1-13), carrying as gifts 120 talents of gold (1 talent ~ 30 kg, if not more, that is, three and a half tons of gold, if not more), a amount of spices that "has never been equaled" and gems. The honoree was able to correspond very chivalrously.

Regarding the childhood stories about Abraham, the situation seems more complicated. There are no contemporary records of those stories. The most that we have are well subsequent publications, although one of them, the Book of Jasher, has a small probability of being contemporary, if it can overcome the suspicions of fraud.

The most recent of those records is "Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends" by Gertrude Landa, London, 1919, republished by Forgotten Books, 2008, 2010, chapter "The star-child", page 47 and followings. It recounts a version for young audiences supposedly based on rabbinic oral traditions, with many similarities to the Book of Jasher.

Another written record is that of Rabbi Louis Ginzberg, "The Legends of the Jews", New York, 1909, republished by Forgotten Books, 2008, 2010, chapter 5, pages 123-124 and 136-138. The author cites as bibliographical sources a huge amount of scripture commentaries, and the scriptures themselves, both Jewish and Christian, starting from the second century C.E.. Unfortunately, he assembles the text by doing a general collation but without the corresponding critical apparatus, so we do not know which sources he used to narrate this or that specific legend. Again, the similarity to the Book of Jasher is remarkable.

The now controversial Book of Jasher is quoted in the Bible, precisely in one of the most famous verses: Joshua 10:13: "The sun stood still and the moon stood motionless while the nation took vengeance on its enemies. The event is recorded in the Scroll of the Upright One. The sun stood motionless in the middle of the sky and did not set for about a full day." (NET [New English Translation] Bible, above). "The Upright One" in Hebrew is "ishr" ("Concordant Hebrew English Sublinear", above), also transliterated as "jashar" or "Jasher" ("Authorized King James Version Pure Cambridge Edition", above). There is another biblical reference about jasher: the Second Book of Samuel, chapter 1, verse 18: "(He gave instructions that the people of Judah should be taught 'The Bow'. Indeed, it is written down in the Scroll of the Upright One.)" (NET [New English Translation] Bible, above). In the Septuagint, Joshua 10:13 omits "The event is recorded in the Scroll of the Upright One." and 2 Samuel (2 Reigns) 1:18 omits "The Bow" ("A New English Translation of the Septuagint", above). Thus the Book of The Upright One or of Jasher is one of the famous and mysterious "lost books of the Old Testament." And indeed it was lost until a print edition appeared in Venice in 1625, which in turn referred to a previous edition, printed in Naples in 1552.

Here we must take a deep breath and handle this no less mysterious "reappearance" of the Book of Jasher with tweezers. No manuscript of the same exist, only the printed version, and we do not have a record of the past history of this text, no genealogy connecting it to biblical times, let alone to the Book of Samuel or of Joshua. The book appeared in Venice could be a falsification and the real Book of Jasher might continue lost. However, this is the best we have so far about it.

Having said this, let's see what this book says concerning the issue that summons us. Chapter 8 says: "[8:1] And it was in the night that Abram was born, that all the servants of Terah, and all the wise men of Nimrod, and his conjurors came and ate and drank in the house of Terah, and they rejoiced with him on that night."

"[8:2] And when all the wise men and conjurors went out from the house of Terah, they lifted up their eyes toward heaven that night to look at the stars, and they saw, and behold one very large star came from the east and ran in the heavens, and he swallowed up the four stars from the four sides of the heavens."

"[8:3] And all the wise men of the king and his conjurors were astonished at the sight, and the sages understood this matter, and they knew its import."

"[8:4] And they said to each other, This only betokens the child that has been born to Terah this night, who will grow up and be fruitful, and multiply, and possess all the earth, he and his children for ever, and he and his seed will slay great kings, and inherit their lands."

The story goes, of course, with King Nimrod being very concerned by this prophecy and finding ways to eliminate Abram. The end we intuit it correctly: he kills an innocent but not Abram, who grows up and becomes Abraham. ("The Book of Jasher. Referred to in Joshua and Second Samuel. Faithfully translated {1840} from the original Hebrew into English", J.H. Parry & Company, Salt Lake City, 1887. The translator was Moses Samuel, of Liverpool, England, although his name was not originally included due to disputes).

Luckily we step on better ground when speaking of Moses' childhood, since we now have the written testimony of the Jewish aristocrat, naturalized Roman citizen, Titus Flavius ​​Josephus, the famous Josephus, who lived between the years 37 C.E. and ca. 100 C.E. and therefore was a contemporary of the evangelists. In "The Antiquities of the Jews", Book 4, Chapter 9, paragraph 2, he tells us about the beginning of the end of the Hebrew slavery in Egypt: "While they were in this plight, a further Egyptian incident had the effect of stimulating the Egyptians of birth yet more to exterminate our race. One of the sacred scribes {Egyptian priests, keepers and interpreters of the sacred records. A Rabbinic allusion to a similar prediction of the Egyptian astrologers is quoted by Weill.} — persons with considerable skill in accurately predicting the future — announced to the king that there would be born to the Israelites at that time one who would abase the sovereignty of the Egyptians and exalt the Israelites, were he reared to manhood, and would surpass all men in virtue and win everlasting renown. Alarmed thereat, the king, on this sage's advice, ordered that every male child born to the Israelites should be destroyed by being cast into the river" ("Josephus, with an English translation by Henry St. John Thackeray", in nine volumes, Volume 4, "Jewish Antiquities", The Loeb Classical Library, William Heinemann Ltd., London, 1930, 1957, 1961, 1961 reprint, p. 253).

A secondary source, not as solid as Titus Flavius ​​Josephus' documents, is the work of Gustav Weil entitled "The Bible, the Koran and the Talmud; or, Biblical legends of the Mussulmans. Compiled from Arabic sources, and compared with Jewish traditions." (translated from the German, with occasional notes. Harper & Brothers, New York, 1846). On page 117 of the book, chapter "Moses and Aaron", the head of astrologers says to Pharaoh: " 'I read last night in the stars that the lad who shall one day deprive thee of life and empire has been conceived.' " (in this scene, the movie "The Ten Commandments" by Cecil B. de Mille, with Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner and Anne Baxter, Paramount Pictures, 1956, depicts the star as a comet, à la "The Adoration of the Magi" by Giotto, perhaps inspired by a fictional letter sent from Memphis by the legendary Prince Sesostris [probably the pharaoh Senusret III, but could also be a compound of Seti I and Ramses II, Moses pursuers according to the film] to his purported mother Queen Epiphia of Phoenicia, in Joseph Ingraham's novel "Pillars of fire: or, Israel in bondage", Pudney & Russell, editors, New York, 1859, letter 17, p. 278, one of the works used to produce the Hollywood screenplay). The (terrible) usual slaughter follows, until on page 124 of the book "The Bible, the Koran and the Talmud" there is another interesting detail: the Pharaoh had learned that their unhappy daughters were cured of leprosy, after the oldest of them had rescued a child from a canal extending from the Nile River to the Palace. The powerful ruler was overjoyed and for the first time in his life he had embraced his beloved daughters. But later he refleted and told his wife Asia: " 'This child must not live: who knows whether his mother be not an Israelite, and he the child of whom both my dreams, as well as my astrologers, have foreboded me so much evil?' ". To which his virtuous wife replied," 'Dost thou still believe in idle dreams, the mere whispers of Satan, and in the still more idle interpretations given by men who boast of reading the future in the stars? Hast thou not slain the young mothers of Israel and their children; and even searched their houses?' ". So, Asia and the seven princesses got that Pharaoh accept Moses in the Palace. Of course, all Muslims documents are later than the Gospels, so that this source should be considered peripheral to our cause.

These two stories are not listed in the Book of Exodus, but the one by Titus Flavius ​​Josephus is certainly historically important, because it proves that the tradition was alive in a time when there was the possibility of influencing the making of the Gospels.

Titus Flavius ​​Josephus' documents are useful to analyze other important historical point: the slaughter of the innocents under King Herod the Great. Immediately after finishing the story about the star, in verses 17 and 18 of Matthew chapter 2, we read (NET [New English Translation] Bible, above): "[2:17] Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:"

"[2:18] 'A voice was heard in Ramah,' "

" 'weeping and loud wailing,' "

" 'Rachel weeping for her children,' "

" 'and she did not want to be comforted, because they were gone.' "

The quote is from Jeremiah 31:15: "The LORD [Yahweh] says,"

" 'A sound is heard in Ramah,' "

" 'a sound of crying in bitter grief.' "

" 'It is the sound of Rachel weeping for her children' "

" 'and refusing to be comforted, because her children are gone.' "

In the Septuagint, Chapter 31 of the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible is Chapter 38 of the Greek version. Verse 15 says ("A New English Translation of the Septuagint", above): "Thus did the Lord say:"

" 'A voice of lamentation and weeping and mourning was heard in Rama;' "

" 'Rachel did not want to stop weeping for her sons, because they are not.' "

The NET (New English Translation) Bible has the following footnote at this point: "Rama is a town in Benjamin approximately 5 miles (8 km) north of Jerusalem. It was on the road between Bethel and Bethlehem. Traditionally, Rachel's tomb was located near there at a place called Zelzah (1 Samuel 10:2). Rachel was the mother of Joseph and Benjamin and was very concerned about having children because she was barren (Genesis 30:1-2) and went to great lengths to have them (Genesis 30:3, 14-15, 22-24). She was the grandmother of Ephraim and Manasseh which were two of the major tribes in northern Israel. Here Rachel is viewed metaphorically as weeping for her 'children', the descendants of Ephraim and Manasseh, who had been carried away into captivity in 722 B.C.E,"

Significantly, our reporter Titus Flavius ​​Josephus does not bring us any news of a large-scale killing of children either in Ramah or in Bethlehem. In analyzing this we must not forget that these villages were very small, so there is the possibility of the killing having involved a few unfortunate families and therefore has not been as "spectacular" as to attract the attention of the historian. .. specially compared to other atrocities of Herod the Great which our Josephus does bother to register. However, something that he does report to us is that, to avoid them taking the throne from him, Herod the Great went as far as to kill his own children: in the year 7 B.C.E., Aristobulus IV ("Antiquities of the Jews", Book 15 , Chapter 3, paragraph 3) and Alexander (in the same work, Book 16, chapter 11, paragraph 7), children of him with his second wife, the previously executed Mariamne I, daughter of Alexander the Hasmonean, and in 4 B.C.E. Antipater III of Judea (in the same work, Book 17, Chapter 7, paragraph 1), his eldest son, by his first wife, Doris. The dates of these three filicides, murders that should have been very noticeable to the local population, are consistent with the probable dates of the Massacre of the Innocents of the Gospel of Matthew. (Note that Lucas, who places the Nativity in another date, distant nearly a decade after the date of Matthew, says nothing about any killing of innocents.)

CONCLUSION

So we have three possible explanations for the Star of Bethlehem.

The first hypothesis is that the phenomenon indeed actually occurred as related by Matthew, and the coincidences with previous similar stories are just that, coincidences. The first candidate for the astronomical object would be the comet of 5 B.C.E. or 4 B.C.E. seen and recorded in written documents by Chinese and Korean astronomers, as specified above.

The second hypothesis is that a somewhat similar phenomenon, at least in essence, happened around the time mentioned, but the evangelist, as he had not been a witness and had limited data, fumbled along and across the prophetic literature and even in "popular gossips" from the time of Herod the Great (if we may call these that way) and additional secular events to complete the details of his narrative. The Synoptic Gospels, in general, seem to follow this line constantly.

The third hypothesis is that none of these ever happened and they existed only in the mind of the evangelist. Matthew's intentions are clear if we compare the finished work with the works of Mark and Luke, that is, if we compare the three Synoptic Gospels. It is well known that the Gospel of Mark is a memory of personally experienced events according to Simon Peter and the Gospel of Luke pretends to be a historiographical document. It is also known that the Gospel of Matthew is an apology to the alleged Messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth. It tries by all means to convince the Jews that the various prophecies of the ancestors had been fulfilled. The timing when this latter gospel was first written were very sensitive years in Jewish history, in the midst of the debacle over the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem with its "Sanctum Sanctorum" and everything, and the beginning of the Diaspora. The "End of Days" might have come, the right time to fulfill all of the remaining Jewish prophecies. The biography of Jesus might had been caught into this whirlpool and there they would have stuck to it, like strips of paper pasted to make a collage, the tales of the star marking his arrival, the visitors from distant nations that offer tributes, the evil king who does not want to hand over power and the consequent slaughter in a futile attempt to stop him. It should not be unconceivable that this was the way ​​this biblical passage was produced, since in fact much of the Bible has been made ​​(both before and after Matthew) precisely by the collage technique.

Be it or not "illusionist's magic" the final answer, the data we currently have on the Star of Bethlehem have brought us no further than thus far. The conclusion, if one is possible, is left at the discretion of each individual reader.

A. L.

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An abridged version was originally published in ABC Color, on 24 December 2006. Illustration: The famous fresco "The Adoration of the Magi" by Giotto, ca. 1305. It is thought to contain the oldest known portrait of Comet Halley. This beautiful panel of 185 cm X 200 cm adorns the south wall of the Arena Chapel (built by the Scrovegni family of usurers and dedicated to Our Lady of Charity) in Padua, Italy. Credit: Giotto di Bondone, via Bijbels Museum, http://www.bijbelsmuseum.nl. With permission from the Museum and Library Sector of the Municipality of Padua.

A scientific, very respectful and well-thought reply to the popular question "Do you believe in UFOs?"  This book evolved as a reply to one of the most frequent questions that I used to hear from the public when I was working in an astronomical observatory: "Do you believe in UFOs?". That seems an odd question to ask to scientists, but after researching conscientiously for about a full year, I discovered, to my surprise, that mainstream Science has a few things to say about the topic.  This book is not about conspiracy theory, "NASA is hiding the truth", or much less, that flying saucers have already landed on the lawn of the White House. Rather, it is a book about what is the most rational reply that a scientist, or in my case, a science writer, can offer when people insist on asking that question.  Of course, "Do you believe in UFOs?" is, understandable, one of the most popular questions that common people ask (even if silently, to themselves) when they raise their eyes and look at the stars. So it has to be treated respectfully, and why not, given a well-thought reply.

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