Sunday, December 7, 2008

Is the Star of Bethlehem a Comet?

The subject is a perennial favorite at planetarium shows around the world during the Christmas Season. But is there irrefutable proof that the Star of Bethlehem that announced Jesus Christ’s birth is a comet?

By: Vanessa Uy

Though the comet theory of the Star of Bethlehem gained prominence when the Florentine painter Giotto di Bondone painted his “Adoration of the Magi” showing the Star of Bethlehem as a comet. Given that during Giotto’s lifetime that he and his fellow Florentine’s saw one of Halley’s Comet appearance in 1301, the “orientative” (head and tail) structure of a comet could – in theory – serve as a plausible “guiding star” for a precise point on Earth. Thus when Halley’s Comet returned back / made an appearance in 1986, the robotic spacecraft sent to analyze the comet was named Giotto, in honor of the Florentine painter who portrayed the Star of Bethlehem as a comet in his Adoration of the Magi. But does this serve as an irrefutable proof that the Star of Bethlehem is a comet?

The most prominent theory suggesting that the Star of Bethlehem is a comet is the most popular one. The famous Halley’s Comet was visible in 12 BC and was documented on records dating from that period, but other comets observed by stargazers around 5 BC could also be better candidates. Although there’s a problem about the comet theory, given that comets have a long history for being “portents of dire catastrophe” since recorded civilization began. It’s use to signify the fulfilled prophecy heralding the birth of an extremely important person is one nagging detail against the case of the Star of Bethlehem being a comet.

Other much rarer celestial phenomena like supernovae would also seem plausible as a Star of Bethlehem candidate. Archaeological records dating from 5 BC did show that Chinese and Korean stargazers noted observing a nova around that period. Some archeoastronomy scholars even suggest an extremely rare occultation of a periodic comet with that of a super-bright supernova.

Even though we can still see the Crab Nebula – one of the brightest supernova events during the entire human history – via a powerful enough telescope despite the event being completely ignored by European stargazers during the Dark Ages. Finding the supernova remnants of the Star of Bethlehem – if it is indeed a supernova event – will be difficult since ancient stargazers ability to document precise celestial coordinates leaves much to be desired. It wasn’t until Tycho Brahe created gigantic sextants and related instruments like the equatorial armillary that Western astronomy acquired the ability to make and measure “relatively accurate” celestial coordinates that are of use to present day astronomers.

The theory proposing that the Star of Bethlehem is a comet has no trouble being widely accepted because comets are relatively bright celestial occurrences. Most of them can easily exceed the absolute magnitude of the planet Venus as seen on Earth’s surface. Plus their head and tail structure can be interpreted – especially to the ancients – as pointing to a certain direction. Plus, given that the current academic studies suggest that the Three Wise Men in search of Jesus were probably Zoroastrians – i.e. the first adherents of monotheism. And since Zoroastrians see flame as a sacred symbol, Halley’s Comet arriving during the time of Jesus’ birth could suggest that this is a very important event to the Three Wise Men or Magi. Given that photos of Halley’s Comet visitations to our part of the Solar System does make the comet appear flame-shaped, the event will nonetheless seen as an event of auspicious significance, rather that the traditional view of comets being portents of dire catastrophe.