The age-long controversy over the Star of Bethlehem -- arguably the most famous celestial event in history -- took a new turn today with the publication, in the New Scientist magazine, of a theory by U.S. astronomer Michael Molnar. What the three Magi saw, Molnar believes, was a double eclipse (or occultation) of Jupiter by the moon, an event that would have had exceptional meaning to astrologers of the time.
Molnar studied ancient writings and astrological symbols on Roman coins in coming to his startling conclusion, the magazine reported.
"Molnar has come up with an interesting and very original explanation,... certainly the best I've come across for at least a decade," said Owen Gingerich of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
Working at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Molnar examined coins from Antioch, capital of the Roman province of Syria, which were made around 10 years after Christ's birth. The coins had a bust of Jupiter on one side and Aries the ram looking back at a star on the other. Combining those facts with written observations of the astrologer Ptolemy, Molnar surmised that the star on the coin might signify a lunar occultation of Jupiter.
Checking astronomical records for the period 10 BC to 1 BC, Molnar found that on March 20, 6 BC, the moon occulted Jupiter -- which symbolised kings or emperors in Roman astrology -- in Aries. Further research showed a second occultation only a month after the first.
Molnar now believes that the first occultation corresponded to the birth of Jesus and prompted the Magi to begin their journey, either from Syria or Babylon. Reaching Jerusalem, they visited King Herod in hopes of learning the whereabouts of the new "king." Referring to old Hebrew prophecy, Herod might have told them to look in Bethlehem. The second occultation of Jupiter would have occurred in the direction of Bethlehem, as seen from Jerusalem.
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