An American astronomer claims he has found the first mention of the
star of Bethlehem outside the Bible. The reference is in a 4th-century
manuscript written by a Roman astrologer and Christian convert called
Firmicus Maternus.

Michael Molnar, formerly of Rutgers University in New Jersey, is the
originator of the idea that the star of Bethlehem was not a spectacular
astronomical event such as a supernova or a comet but an obscure
astrological one. The event would nevertheless have been of great
significance to ancient Roman astrologers. After studying the symbolism
on Roman coins, he concluded that the "star" was in fact a double
eclipse of Jupiter in a rare astrological conjunction that occurred in
Aries on 20 March, 6 BC, and again on 17 April, 6 BC (New Scientist,
23/30 December 1995, p 34).

Molnar believed that Roman astrologers would have interpreted such an
event as signifying the birth of a divine king in Judea. But he lacked
proof. Now he says he has found it, in the Mathesis, a book written by
Maternus in AD 334. Maternus described an astrological event involving
an eclipse of Jupiter by the Moon in Aries, and said that it signified
the birth of a divine king.

"Maternus did not mention Jesus’s name," says Molnar. "But Roman
astrology was a popular craze at the time and everyone reading
the book would have known the reference was to Jesus and that the
astrological event was the star of Bethlehem."

So why did Maternus not mention Jesus by name? According to Molnar,
early Christians hated pagan beliefs and did not want to justify the
Biblical story with astrological mumbo-jumbo. The idea that the stars
govern our fate flew in the face of belief in a Christian God as the
controlling force in the Universe. "Being a pagan who had converted
to Christianity during his lifetime, Firmicus was torn," says Molnar.
"Hence his use of astrology to support the Christian story, but in a
veiled way."

According to Molnar, it was essential to early Christians that the
true nature of the star be hidden, otherwise theologians would be
mired in debate about celestial influences that were not part of
Christianity. So they buried the knowledge of the star’s astrological
roots and in time it was forgotten.

"I take Molnar’s work quite seriously," says Owen Gingerich, a
historian of astronomy at Harvard University. "Anything he comes up
with along these lines has to be considered as being very likely


Author: Marcus Chown

New Scientist issue: 22/29 December 2001