December 7, 2009

The Star of Bethlehem

Prof David Hughes
Report by: Mike Dryland

Prof David Hughes

I never tire of hearing the evergreen Christmas story about the Star of Bethlehem and listening to the astronomers’ analysis of what it could have been!

David Hughes is a super speaker and entertainer.  His style is clear and witty, and he crams in tons of detail.   Now retired, David was for many years Professor of Astronomy at Sheffield.  Much of his work was concerned with comets and asteroids etc — “the bits left over after the formation of the solar system” as he puts it.   He actually has an asteroid named after him.  So why does he now find himself frequently interviewed and asked to speak about the Star of Bethlehem?  It seems he was once commissioned to write an 85,000 word book about it and offered an advance he couldn’t refuse!  To fill 85,000 words you have to have more than “St Matthew made it up”.

David’s was the second piece of analysis on the star presented to the Flamsteed.  Last time was in December 2007 when Rod Jenkins talked about his conclusions.  Rod does rather tend to the ‘St Matthew made it up’ line.   He thinks that when Matthew’s Gospel was written AD 85-90, the apparition of Halley’s comet in AD 66 provided the model for an appropriate fanfare at the birth of Jesus back around 4 BC.  St Matthew just wrote using images that would be quite familiar to contemporary readers in AD 90.

David doesn’t buy that at all.   Comets have long been associated with doom and gloom.  He thinks that nobody would want to associate a comet with such an important and joyful event in the Christian faith.   Moreover, despite Rod’s conclusions, David doesn’t see how a comet could have appeared and behaved as reported by the Wise Men in Matthew’s Gospel — a heliacal rising, disappeared for a couple of months while they travelled from the east to the Holy Land, then reappeared ‘before them’ as they made the final short journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem just to the south.

David’s conclusions are founded on a seemingly very thorough contextual analysis of the text and history.  Basically he concludes that the events had to have happened between 7 BC and 4 BC, and he reviews notable astronomical phenomena reported in that window.  He rules out comets and the odd puny nova.  David’s money is on a triple conjunction in Pisces of Jupiter and Saturn which happened during 7 BC,

A ‘triple conjunction’ is when two planets appear to move toward each other and come fairly close before moving away again, but then repeating this twice more.  This is a rare event and would be very spectacular for the Zoroastrian priest-astrologers who were the wise men of the Gospel.  Jupiter is king of the planets — very auspicious, and Pisces signified Israel in their astrology — hence the journey to Jerusalem.   David plotted the course of the conjunction which effectively resolved itself into two apparent approaches of the planets — the first which prompted the journey to start, followed by a gap as the planets moved apart.  But then another (close pair of) approaches when the wise men finally moved on to Bethlehem.

Great stuff!   In 2011 or 2012 we must find someone with Theory C !!

In our seasonal tradition, David’s excellent talk provided the kick-off to the annual Flamsteed Xmas party.  We had a terrific turn-out and the members tucked in to refreshments while we chatted or bashed David’s ear.  A great start to the Holiday season.

Pictures from the evening [by Mike Dear]:

Posted under: Flamsteed, Flamsteed Lecture, Meeting Report, Xmas Party