Ordinary Meeting, 2005 December 17
The Star of Bethlehem
Mr Jenkins explained that his research into the Star of Bethlehem had started in response to his frustration at the apparent lack of any widely accepted studies in the literature of whether the star could be explained astronomically. He felt many of the existing studies to be rather unscientific in nature.
Setting the scene, he explained that only one source described the apparition of the star: the Gospel According to St Matthew (2:1-11). The other Gospels lacked any mention of the star, as did all known contemporary historical records. Furthermore, there was some vagueness about the exact translation of this one source from its original Greek: the description of a "star in the East" could also refer to a "star at its helical rising" – the day of the year upon which it, rising four minutes earlier each day, first became visible in dawn twilight.
Historical scholarship widely dated the nativity itself to 7-5 BC and the writing of St Matthew's Gospel to AD 85-90. Consequently, it was widely agreed that the text was unlikely to have been written by the Apostle Matthew, and in all probability the events described had preceded the lifespan of its true author.
The speaker then began looking for possible explanations of the star. Rejecting miracles, for the purposes of the argument, as untestable and unscientific, he began looking for astronomical events. Starting with planetary conjunctions, he could find three, in 523, 146 and 7 BC, to within 65', 10' and 58' respectively. All would have been trivially naked eye resolvable, and whilst some argued the third to explain the star, 58' was quite a large arc. One would have to ask why, if the Magi had set out upon seeing this 'star', why they had not set out in 146 BC instead; attempts to explain that seemed rapidly to grow too baroque for plausibility.
Alternative astronomical explanations included an apparition of Comet Halley in 12 BC. Elsewhere, the appearance of a nova and a comet in 5-4 BC were recorded – possibly confused accounts of a single event – but these seemed far too commonplace events to trigger such an extraordinary response.
Mr Jenkins argued the Gospel account, then, to be fictitious, and presented an alternative explanation of it. He noted that several sources, including Pliny the Elder, recorded a procession led by Tiridates, King of Armenia, travelling to pay homage to Nero, the Roman Emperor, in AD 66. This had coincided with an apparition of Comet Halley, whose circumstances would have matched those described by Matthew. Moreover, it was documented that Tiridates had returned home by a different route, as Matthew described the Magi to do. The speaker conjectured that the Gospel's author may have been inspired by accounts of this journey; he perhaps had such faith in the Old Testament prophesies that the appearance of a new star would herald the birth of the Messiah, that he was left in no doubt as to its having happened, and so had set it down as historical fact.
A full account of Mr Jenkins' research can be found in his paper on the subject.1 Following the applause for Mr Jenkins' thought-provoking talk, the President invited Mr Martin Mobberley to conclude the meeting with his regular Sky Notes.