Was Christmas star a double eclipse of Jupiter?
By Richard Stenger
(CNN) -- A U.S. astronomer said he has uncovered the first reference to the star of Bethlehem outside the Bible, in the 4th-century writings of a Christian convert who wanted to hide the astrological roots of the celestial phenomenon.
For centuries, scientists and scholars have debated about the nature of the Biblical light that led the Magi to the newborn Jesus. Some have suggested a comet or supernova.
But Michael Molnar concluded that the star was actually a double eclipse of Jupiter roughly 2,000 years ago.
The former Rutgers University researcher came up with the idea while studying a symbolic star map on an ancient Roman empire coin from Syria, which depicts Aries the ram and other celestial symbols.
Molnar, deducing that Aries was the sign of the Jews, figured that ancient astrologers would have searched that constellation for a sign of a savior of the kingdom of Judea.
Computer modeling backed up his claim. But Molnar lacked historical proof until now, he said.
The Mathesis, a book written in 334 A.D. by Firmicus Maternus, an astrologer of Constantine the Great, 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' name," Molnar said. "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."
He failed to bring up the name because he did not wish to offend the sensibilities of members of his new religion, who thought that the Christian God, not the stars, governed the destiny of humankind.
But old beliefs still held great sway in the Roman Empire.
"Being a pagan who had converted to Christianity in his lifetime, Firmicus was torn. Hence his use of astrology to support the Christian story, but in a veiled way," Molnar said.
The unconventional astronomer has gained the respect of notable Biblical historians.
"I take Molnar's work quite seriously," said Owen Gingerich of Harvard University. "Anything he comes up with along these lines has to be considered as being very likely correct."
Gushed Bradley Schaefer of Yale University, in a review Molnar's book, 'The Star of Bethlehem': "(It) has stunning new insight and approach, which finally gives a confident answer to a question that has fascinated all Christians through the ages."
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