Russellings

Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Where Was That Star?

Let’s assume that The Star of Bethlehem was a real event. Why is it that hardly anybody noticed it? It isn’t mentioned anywhere in the general historical record, and even in the Bible it appears in only 1 of the 4 gospels, that of Matthew, in Chapter 2:

1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying,
2 "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him."
3-6 [King Herod learns that prophecy predicted a “ruler” would be born in Bethlehem of Judea.]
7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared;
8 and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him."
9 When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; ...

Most people, without giving it much thot, probably think that the phrase “we have seen his star in the East” means that the sages were looking toward the east when they sighted the star. (This view has been reinforced by the lyrics of “The First Noel”: “They looked up and saw a star / Shining in the East beyond them far”.) But a little reflection will reveal that the phrase would have been more appropriately translated as “we in the East have seen his star”, and that the star itself was visible toward their west.

The “wise men” were probably astrologers from the Zoroastrian tradition of the Persian Empire. Here’s what that empire looked like in its heyday, half a millennium before the nativity story:

So what were they looking at? Let’s posit the confluence of 3 circumstances:
  • The Milky Way Galaxy experienced one of its periodic supernovas, in which a very large star, under gravitational collapse, burns off all of its remaining nuclear fuel over a period of about two weeks, causing a titanic explosion that results in its absolute magnitude (intrinsic brightness) being equal to an entire galaxy.
  • Not at all unreasonably, the supernova was considerably more distant than the one in 1054 CE (the remnants of which constitute the Crab Nebula, ~6500 light-years away), which was visible to Chinese astronomers in the daytime sky; in such a case, its relative magnitude (brightness as seen from Earth) would’ve been attenuated by distance.
  • It occurred in a part of the sky very close to the Sun, as seen from Earth, and appeared to be “trailing behind” the Sun in its daily trip across the sky.
Combine all these factors, and you have a transitory “new” star that didn’t glow particularly brightly in the Earth’s sky (so that by day its light would’ve been lost in the glare of the Sun) and in a direction that most people would normally avoid looking at, because bright sunshine hurts the eyes. The star would start becoming visible only late in the day, when the Sun dims as it reddens on the horizon. It would shine its brightest for only its few minutes of above-the-horizon visibility at dusk, when stars are coming out everywhere, and the one newbie would scarcely attract the attention of the common people. (“The First Noel” has it that “... to the earth it gave great light / And so it continued both day and night”, but it’s just a song.)
Sunrise, looking east

Daytime, looking up

Sunset, looking west

Dusk, looking west

But astrologers, constantly scanning the heavens for signs and portents, would’ve paid attention to anything unusual happening up there. Supernovas are rare events, occurring on average at a rate of only one every half-century, and most of those only visible thru telescopes, which they didn’t have. This particular supernova, appearing late in the day and heading straight down toward the western horizon, might have seemed to them to be saying “Here. Over here. This way. Come look and see. See where I’m pointing. Follow me.” And, if they did mount right up and head off toward the west (which is where all heavenly bodies appear to be heading as the Earth rotates toward the east), so that the star “went before them”, they’d see the same thing every night for a couple of weeks, before (a) the supernova finally faded away naturally, (b) they ran into the Mediterranean Sea and couldn’t follow it any farther, (c) something out of the ordinary satisfied their vague, ill defined conceptions of what constituted a portent, or (d) all of the above.

This has been an attempt to create a plausible naturalistic explanation for the Star of Bethlehem. Of course, by far the most plausible explanation is that the whole tale is a myth, completely fabricated (or stolen from other sources) to overawe the gullible.

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