Astronomy Briefly

brought to you by Duane Dunkerson



  If a Nova Came to Bethlehem
by Duane Dunkerson

In astrology a star can be a portent that marks the influence of what can be one's destiny. For others, a star is luminous gas. In Christian tradition, if not belief, a star guided the Magi to Jesus at Bethlehem. What were the antecedents for the Magi? Why did they concern themselves with this star? When did they set upon their famous journey and what led them on that journey?

The Magi, Gentile wise men, were on a search for the King of the Jews. The political impact of such a designation by the Magi alarmed Herod, puppet of the Romans, who ruled in Jerusalem at the time of the birth of Jesus. He saw the event not as a cause for celebration. As a cause for celebration, the Church Fathers thought that what became Christmas was not to be indulged in because it carried with it an association to a pagan natal feast. Others thought Christmas could subvert and overlap the pagan ways, modifying and using the pagan base to further Christian interests.

It became in the Christian interest to have a star direct the Magi to Jesus. These Magi were members of a religious caste. They were in such numbers as to be one of the six tribes of Media. The Magi magic persisted after the Medes were conquered by the Persians. Prominent among actions of the Magi were the interpretation of omens.

Such augurious interpretation was being undertaken by Magi in Babylon, capital of Babylonia. The Babylonians had made note of heavenly apparitions for 16 centuries before the birth of Jesus. Their observations became much more systematic in the 7th century BC. Their main interest in the sky was with heliacal risings- the first time a star can be seen again in the light of dawn.These Babylonian night sky observations go back 2,000 years before Jesus. A great library of Babylonian sky knowledge was in the main library of King Ashurbanipal (668-626 BC). Only fragments remain of this library. Other Babylonian tablets that do exist now are also bits and very small pieces. This remainder may very well be what the Babylonians thought to be superfluous.
The last sure date for Babylonian observations was 46 AD. Near 586 BC the Babylonians took Jerusalem. Thousands of Jews were removed to Babylonia. It is presumed the Babylonians came to know of Jewish concerns for a messiah, a king to come to rectify the gross worldly situation.

A Jewish prophecy could have interested the Magi somewhat. Numerous astronomical manifestations would come and go, but in 7 BC there was an extremely rare triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. In the night sky they approached and receded from each other three times. Both were bright objects and they appeared to come very close together. The conjunctions occurred in the constellation of Pisces. The Magi thought Pisces was a constellation of significance for Jewish aspirations. In 6 BC came a planetary massing of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn - again in Pisces. Then in February of 5 BC occurred a nova, close to the star now known as Theta Aquilae, a portent of birth and, as bright as it was, signifying the birth of a king. The nova first appeared in the east, at dawn.

The Magi had seen enough, off they went to the capital of the Jews, Jerusalem. Herod contacted them. They had come in search of a new King of the Jews,a prophecy was being fulfilled. Check it out and fill me in said Herod. Sure thing said the Magi.

To the south of Jerusalem was a star, brightly above the Magi as they set out on the road south. Their journey of weeks had brought them slowly across the desert. The time span meant the earth's rotation had caused the star to appear farther and farther toward the South each day at dawn. It was Passover. The inn was full. A child was encountered at Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem. The star was at an altitude in the sky so as to appear to be poised over Bethlehem.

Biblical sources place the star there in accounts written about 65-95 AD. Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, the Four Gospels, contain the Jesus tradition of decades before. A detailed chronology of the life of Jesus, drawn from the Gospels has not been successful. Schweitzer's , The Quest of the Historical Jesus, marks the failure of such an attempt. It failed because all ancient biographical material was not part of an effort to mark selected tick's of a personage's clock. The Gospels were recollections of the Jesus tradition and interpretations of him for the brethren of the 1st century AD. Where in time did the Gospels place the birth of Jesus?

Rather ask where have others placed his birth? The date of his birth now can't stand alone. The date of Easter has affected its placement in time. For the early Church, Easter, the halt, was far more important than birth, the start. It was so important in Christendom that those who did not observe Easter on the same day were excommunicated.The excommunicators were working under Roman influence regarding calendars. The Romans numbered since the founding of Rome. Then in March, 46 BC, Julius Caesar added two months so that December (tenth month) moved up to twelfth. Julius was advised in this matter by a Greek named Sosigenes. This Julian calendar was used until 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII made a small change.

Before that, in 526 AD, Dionysius Exiguus fixed the year and date of Christmas. Actually he was more concerned about the Easter cycle. Easter had been moving through weeks and days of the week. Different Christians in different parts of the world were not in synchronization as to when to celebrate this movable Easter. Dionysius based his fixing of Easter on the birth date of Jesus. He calculated back through the reigns of Roman emperors to arrive at a date for the birth of Jesus, but more importantly, for Easter.In 1605, Lauretius Suslyga found that Dionysius was off by 5 years. Dionysius had forgotten that Caesar Augustus had ruled for a time under his other name of Octavian. Augustus ruled at the time of the birth of Jesus.

Dionysius did not want to support Roman calculation for the date of Easter. The Romans used the Augustalis cycle of 84 years in figuring dates. Computers based in Alexandria used a 19 year cycle. Bishop Cyril of Alexandria put forth a table for 5 cycles of 19 years each. When Easter arrived differently in Roman and Alexandrian calculation, Pope Saint Leo I in 455 AD told Victorius of Aquitaine to set it straight. He went with the 19 year cycle and placed Spring's arrival earlier in the year. Dionysius also liked the 19 year cycle and put Spring where 318 bishops of the Nicene Council said it was, March 21. Dionysius also forged the last cycle of Cyril and used the Nicaean hammer to pound out compliance. Dionysius was not putting dates about for historical purposes. He wanted an Easter upon which all could agree.

With that out of the way, what of an agreed upon Christmas? Simply a date does not suffice, not now. There was mention of accompanying demonstrations in the night sky. Demonstrations were present to show the way and announce His coming. Few knew the way or could understand the announcement.

A good case can be made for having the triple conjunction, a planetary gathering, and a nova all seeming to announce and show the way. Others have disagreed and suppose a conjunction a la Sinnott, 1968, in 3 and 2 BC. Others stick by Molnar's occultation of Jupiter in Aries in 6 BC. Lastly, Moore champions two meteors - one to think on, one to guide. All these others miss in meaning of sufficient duration or placement in the sky. Another possibility would involve a supernova. But a Type I supernova erupts and fades in around 300 days. Type II supernovas take 400 days. The star was there for Jesus for a shorter interval of time.

A nova fits the bill. Non-Christian sources, Chinese and Korean, tell of a bright star in 5 BC between March 10 and April 7 that blazed for 70 days before going out. Before it was extinguished it was noted in the Chinese Ch'ien-han-shu. It is presumed that it was a fast nova. Best guesses today identify it as being DO Aquilae, now a very faint star.

No novas or other spectacular astral effects were on display at Easter. The date for Easter became a major problem for the Church. Pegged on the calendar as it was to emperors and Christian persecution by them, its coming again each year could not be left to chance and its reliable occurrence needed to be found out and maintained. But if this could not be done, then when was the historical Jesus here? As more time piled up after that first Easter it became more important to find and locate his time among us. There was less and less concern with ecclesiastical time and more attention paid to physical time.

Ordinary time, as opposed to ecclesiastical time, required an enumeration in more quantity. More numbers had to be brought in. One year became two, then a decade. Centuries came, millennia followed. Where, in time, had been Jesus? When did he first come into existence?

Probably 5 BC. Planets and a nova help to locate him in his earthly advent. Beyond earth, our necessities with regard to numbers have put time in the Universe on a scale of billions of years, of infinity too. The Church of long ago had the rather more humble preoccupation of numbers for accounting for an event then more immediate. They also saw an ability to calculate as being a distinction setting them off from the animals. More here and now, less there and infinity.

As human beings, very early Christians had no need of infinity. Then, there were no manifestations of such. Much later, science triumphed over religion, scientists say. They waged war against religion. They should have battled theology. Technology more sensibly opposes religion. Science can never be true or whole until it rids itself of infinity.

Without need of infinity came planets and a nova. And at the death of Jesus there came a darkness about noon, according to the Bible. In Luke is found this contention. Belief? Doctrine? No appeal to great numbers is made. No ranging out far and wide, calculation heaped upon calculation, to unknown places to record it throughout stupendous causal distances. Without fanfare this darkness is mentioned.

On November 24, 29 AD, there was an eclipse of the sun visible from Jerusalem at about 11:04 AM , local time.






Copyright © 2004
by Duane Dunkerson

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