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.


WAR CHILD said...

Though Giotto di Bondone's painting of the Adoration o the Magi which shows the Star of Bethlehem as a comet - inspired by the 1301 appearance of Halley's Comet - is currently he most popular consensus on the nature of the Star of Behlehem. Many astronomers now believe that the Star of Bethlehem announcing Jesus' birth might be a very bright meteorite. Though this idea / conjecture was inspired by the Barnwell Meteorite that fell on Barnwell, England back in December 24, 1965, the idea of the Star of Bethlehem being a comet has now been questioned since during the reign of King Herod, no comes were scheduled to appear during the time o Jesus' birth. Or maybe - to me at least - the Star of Bethlehem is probably an extremely bright long-period comet that appears, maybe, one every 10,000 years or so. Longer than that of comet Hale-Bopp.

Lilith Fair said...

Did you mean the Barwell Christmas meteorite of December 24, 1965 that fell in Barwell, England? In my opinion, the meteorite explanation of the Star of Bethlehem is more plausible due to - like you said - no scheduled comets were said to appear during the time of King Herod's reign mentioned in the Bible. Noting that comets - especially Halley's Comet - have a fairly regular schedule by the way.

Vanessa said...

I do find that the meteor trail theory as the Star of Bethlehem has it's merits. But lets not forget that Jesus' birth was a prophecy by astrologers (note that astronomy and astrology were still considered as a single discipline during the time of Jesus) and the divinely ordained date of Jesus' birth could only have been foretold with the aid of an celestial body with a fairly regular schedule - namely a previously cataloged comet.
And it is well documented by various historical records that no comet was scheduled to appear during the reign of King Herod around the time of Jesus' birth. The Barwell Christmas meteorite that resulted from the meteor shower over Barwell, England on December 24, 1965 could be considered as just a fluke, but the odds of it happening during Christmas Eve is simply astronomical. Sadly, this celestial event failed to immortalize the town of Barwell, England for more than a few years after the incident.