Monday 4 December 2023

The Star of Bethlehem What did the Magi See? - Father Douglas McGonagle - CTS Books

The Star of Bethlehem: What did the Magi See?
Fr Douglas McGonagle
ISBN 9781784697648
eISBN 9781784697143
CTS Booklet D848

A few years back I stumbled upon the books and booklets from the Catholic Truth Society. I instantly fell in love with the clear and concise writing; the wonderful lives of Saints and Blesseds, amazing histories and the church teaching. I have read over 375 books from the CTS, and I have been blessed and benefited from almost all of them. There are many wonderful series. This volume is a little different than anything else I have read to date. The description of this book is:

“The Christmas story traditionally shows a giant star hovering above the stable in Bethlehem, guiding the wise men to the infant Christ. What was this star and how did it lead the Magi? An astrophysicist turned priest offers a fascinating explanation.

The traditional imagery of the Christmas story paints a vivid scene: a bright star suspended above the Bethlehem stable, like a pinpoint on a vast map, orchestrating the path of the wise men as they journey to honour the newborn Christ. This star has been a source of fascination to many, evoking questions about its true nature. Was it simply a bright light in the sky? A planet or comet? How did it effectively guide the Magi to a humble village in Judea?

Before he became a priest, Fr Douglas McGonagle was an astronomer who wondered about the astral phenomenon described in the Gospel account of the Magi. Starting with his knowledge of stars and the Gospels, Fr McGonagle follows a trail of clues through the history and politics of first-century Judea, the principles of ancient astronomy, and even the coinage that circulated in the Roman Empire at the time. What ensues is a compelling account of what the Magi might have seen in the night sky, how it led them to discern the birth of the King of the Jews, and what this means for Christians today.”

And the chapters in this little volume are:

Possible Explanations for the Star
From Babylonian Exile to News of a Newborn King
Astronomy, Astrometry and Astrology
Philosophy: Rational Reflection
Astrology in the First Century BC
Playing Astrological Detective
What Makes a Portent Regal?
It Is All Greek to Me
What Did the Magi See?

I highlighted numerous passages while reading this volume, some of them are:

“A bright star shining in the night sky, its rays of light streaming down onto a stable in Bethlehem, is a classic Christmas tableau, and yet the star only appears in one brief and puzzling account in the Gospel of Matthew. As Pope Benedict XVI notes in his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, “Hardly any biblical narrative has so caught the imagination or stimulated so much research and reflection as the account of the “Magi’ from the “land of the sunrise”, which the evangelist Matthew adds directly after the story of Jesus’s birth.””

“Now, we moderns are biased towards wondering what the star was physically. We wonder whether it could it have been a comet, or a close clustering of bright objects in the night sky such as the Moon, Jupiter, and Venus. Or might it even have been a supernova? All these modern speculations reveal our bias towards associating important events with visually spectacular displays.”

“Personally, I had no strong preference for one physical explanation for the star over another. How the star manifested itself was always secondary. To me it always seemed that the star’s importance derived from the role it played astrologically. After all, the Magi, the fellows who show up in Jerusalem asking for the whereabouts of the new-born king of the Jews, were astrologers. Since the Wise Men were astrologers, it always seemed logical to me that the star’s significance lay in it being an astrological omen of a regal birth. It might still have been an impressive visual display, perhaps even one worthy of a big budget sci-fi movie, but even so the display would remain secondary to what the star signified: the birth of a king.”

“Again, for me, the physical manifestation of the star was always secondary to the notion that the very” powers of the heavens”( Mt 24: 29 ) took note of the Incarnation and arranged themselves in such a way as to draw the Gentiles, represented by the Magi, into the presence of the one true God. That is, it was secondary to me, until I read the book The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi, by Dr Michael Molnar, then at Rutgers University.”

“On reading this, I too became intrigued. Whereas previously the physical nature of the star was only a mere curiosity to me, now that there might be hard physical evidence for the star’s historicity I became very interested in the star’s physical phenomena.”

“Based on the evidence and arguments presented in Dr Molnar’s book, I am quite willing to believe that the coins could be linked to the Star of Bethlehem and are a “legacy of the Magi”. I say “could be”, because, as a trained scientist like Dr Molnar, I know that it only takes one inconsistent datum to destroy the most cherished of theories. Scientific theories, whether astronomical or historical, are always tentative. As a scientist, I know it is dangerous to get too attached to a theory.”

“Provisional or not, I felt that Dr Molnar was on to something. I decided to write a public talk – a book report, really – that I could deliver to groups and so get the word out about the possible discovery of material evidence for the Star of Bethlehem. It was the autumn of 2004, and I was a parochial vicar in a suburban parish. My first talks, complete with PowerPoint eye candy, were given to my parishioners. Soon I was being invited to parishes in my Diocese, usually during Advent and Christmastide, to give what was becoming known as the “Star Talk”. I have given the Star Talk in many venues, including a science museum and a Benedictine abbey – both in the same week.”

“We will try to get ourselves into a first-century frame of mind by looking at the history that preceded the meeting of King Herod and the Magi. The so-called deuterocanonical or intertestamental period, the time between the return of the Israelites from Babylonian exile to the appearance of John the Baptist, spans about four hundred years. During this time, the scriptures are practically silent.”

“The story that we are entering into is convoluted, nuanced and confusing. I am sure that some of the confusion will be a result of my own shortcomings; for that, I ask up front for your forbearance, and I encourage the reader to persevere.”

“Dr Molnar begins his study by noting that there are four types of explanations for the Star of Bethlehem. These categories are supernatural, natural, mythical or astrological.”

“So, it is clear that Matthew is familiar with the role of angels as messengers and is apparently quite willing to use them to help move the plot line along. Even so, the Magi insist that it is a star, not an angel, that brought them to Jerusalem in search of the newborn king of the Jews: “For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him”( Mt 2: 2 ). Matthew does not say that the star is miraculous, let alone an angel; he just calls it a star and leaves it at that.”

“When we finish reading the Hebrew Scriptures and then pick up the New Testament, it is as if the Jewish people return from the Babylonian exile and, suddenly, it is four hundred years later. The Magi from the east are arriving in Jerusalem asking King Herod to kindly direct them to the newborn king of the Jews. However, a whole lot of interesting things have happened in those intervening years that have a direct impact on that meeting between the Wise Men and Herod.”

“It was around this time that work began on the Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. The mere fact that such an effort was undertaken suggests that there was a significant population of Greek-speaking Jews and Gentiles who were interested in the Hebrew Scriptures.”

“Even so, I will be using our modern concepts of Earth revolving on its axis while orbiting the Sun in order to explain what we see in the sky. Having these astronomical concepts and related terminology at our command will also aid in understanding the nature of the Star. Just keep in mind, though, that the ancient astronomers were still trying to figure all this out. One final note: one thing the ancients did know is that Earth is a sphere. Their estimated value of Earth’s diameter is very close to the value we know today. Chalk one up for our ancestors.”

“For the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, reliably knowing when to plant their crops, move their flocks to different pastures or even venture out on ocean voyages required accurate knowledge of the time of year. The annual parade of constellations across the night sky provided them with a yearly calendar. When Leo was in the evening sky, it was getting close to planting time. It was surely summertime when Scorpius appeared. Likewise, when Orion the Hunter was high in the night sky, it was winter. In addition to constellations, individual stars could also be used. For instance, the Egyptians knew that when the bright star, Sirius, in the constellation Canis Major, first became visible in the east just before sunrise ( referred to as a “heliacal rising”), the Nile would soon flood. The heliacal rising of Sirius would signal that the time had come to plant crops.”

“The Judeo-Christian view of time might very well be unique. Be that as it may, I would suggest that a culture with a linear view of time finds it harder to believe in divination and astrology than a culture with a cyclical idea of time. For those who have a cyclical view of time, with human events recurring endlessly over and over again, the ideas of divination and astrology may seem much more plausible than they do to us. If cyclical time is also coupled with the concept of a deterministic universe, where there is no room for free will, then divination and astrology may seem not only plausible, but probable.”

“Well, whatever the star’s meaning turns out to be, always remember this key point: “Roman provincial coinage served as a primary medium for disseminating propaganda supporting the goals of Rome.”( Dr Molnar )”

“Molnar now knew where to look for the star – the zodiac sign of Aries – but he still needed to know when Jesus was born and what, exactly, would the Magi have considered an iron-clad portent for the birth of a king.”

“Another example of an eclipse helping to determine the date of a historical event is the death of Herod the Great. In his book, Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus tells how Herod died shortly after a lunar eclipse and just before the Passover. Though several lunar eclipses occurred during this period, the eclipse of 13th March 4 BC seems to be the best fit. I think the reader can now begin to see the problem: in Dionysius’s system of numbering the years from the Incarnation, Herod has apparently been dead for four years prior to the Incarnation in AD 1, yet both Matthew and Luke assure us that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. It would appear, therefore, that Dionysius’s numbering system is a bit off.”

“Both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod.”

“From the Judaean perspective, then, we will say that Herod’s reign begins when he attains practical authority in 37 BC and ends with his death in 4 BC. The birth of Jesus could have occurred anytime during the reign of King Herod and so 37-4 BC is our first “benchmark” or range of years for the birth of Jesus.”

“So, after adding up all the data, we can be reasonably confident that Jesus was born sometime between the years 9-5 BC. As I have been careful to note, we have been following an analysis laid out by Dr Molnar in his study. Reassuringly, Dr Molnar derived a similar range of 8-4 BC.”

“I want to be very clear that, in speaking of astrology, particularly the first-century Hellenistic form of astrology that was in vogue at the time of Christ’s birth, I am in no way condoning the practice of astrology. As the above warning states, and it comes straight out of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, all forms of divination are to be rejected: primarily because such practices undermine the Christian belief that we are free moral agents who possess free will and are not merely victims to the will of an all-powerful and capricious fate.”

“So, you have been warned: stay away from astrology!”

“There are many aspects to a regal birth, but we will, mercifully, limit ourselves to examining five major ones: 1. Exaltations 2. Rulers of the trines 3. Attendant planets 4. Masculine signs 5. Conjunctions and occultations.”

“Knowing that it was probable that Jesus was born sometime between 8 BC and 4 BC (9 BC-5 BC by our analysis ), Dr Molnar cranked up his computers to see if, indeed, the Moon had occulted Jupiter in the sign of Aries during this time period. Amazingly, not one but two lunar occultations of Jupiter occurred in Aries during this period, and both occurred in the year 6 BC, during the reign of King Herod, within our estimated range of years for Jesus’s birth. Just before sunset in Judaea on 20th March 6 BC and then again, a month later, on 17th April 6 BC, the Moon occulted Jupiter while in Aries. But which, if either, of these events would the Magi have considered the star?”

“The Romans were also well aware of a conviction held by their Jewish subjects that a Messiah, a king, was to appear who would lead them to independence from foreign rule. For eleven years, now, Jerusalem had been abuzz with rumours that a sign had appeared in the heavens signalling the birth of this long-expected king and deliverer. With the passage of years, this putative Messiah was getting older and would soon come into his manhood. Persistent rumours of a regal birth coupled with a restive people with a history of rebellion – this definitely required that some action be taken by local authorities to mollify the situation.”

“So, if this is true and the coins were intended to counter widespread rumours of an astrological portent in Aries signalling the birth of a Jewish Messiah, then we now have tangible proof that Matthew’s star is an historical event.”

“There is one last historical curiosity that might provide a little more substantiation that the coins may be linked to the Nativity. Antioch uses Aries on their coins for nearly two centuries, well into the mid-third century AD. Reportedly, they died out because of civil wars. 68 The tumult of the third century, referred to as the Military Anarchy or the Imperial Crisis, nearly destroyed the Roman Empire. It seems plausible that in the commotion, minting of provincial coins in Syria may have been affected.”

“The Peace is called “little”to differentiate it from the Peace of the Church resulting from the Christian conversion of Constantine the Great. Emperor Gallienus, in AD 259, promulgated the first declaration of tolerance with regard to Christians. So, could the relaxation of hostility towards Christianity, during the Little Peace, possibly have something to do with the fading away of the polemical anti-Christian coins? Perhaps.”

“Epilogue Have you ever wanted to experience the world just as Jesus, Mary and Joseph knew it? Have you wanted to look out and see the same things they saw two thousand years ago? Well, then, this is what I want you to do. On the next clear night, travel away from the glow of city lights to a rural spot with good horizons and look up. What you will see spread above you is the night sky appearing almost exactly as the people of Old and New Testament times saw it. The shepherds in the fields watching their flocks by night would recognise the constellations that you see and probably call many of them by the same names, albeit in a different language. Go out tonight and look up, for “the heavens proclaim the glory of God and the firmament shows forth the work of His hands”( Ps 19: 1 ).”

I hope those quotes give you a feel for this volume. I greatly appreciated the details in the charts and the extensive research incorporated in this volume. It presents a very strong case. But I have also read some very strong evidence for the December 25th date. It was an interesting volume to read at the beginning of Advent. It is far more academic than many of the volumes from the CTS. It was a good read and I can recommend it to those academically inclined, or with a personal interest in the subject.

Note: This book is part of a series of reviews: 2023 Catholic Reading Plan! For other reviews of books from the Catholic Truth Society click here.

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