Michael Molnar, an astronomer formerly from Rutgers University in New Jersey, says he?s found the first mention of the star of Bethlehem outside the Bible. The reference is in a 4th-century manuscript written by a Roman astrologer and Christian convert named Firmicus Maternus.

Molnar believes that the star of Bethlehem was not a spectacular astronomical event such as a supernova or a comet but an obscure astrological one that would nevertheless have been of great significance to ancient Roman astrologers.

After studying the symbolism on Roman coins, he concluded that the ?star? was in fact a double eclipse of Jupiter in a rare astrological conjunction that occurred in Aries on March, 20, 6 BC, and again on April 17, 6 BC. He believed Roman astrologers would have interpreted such an event as signifying the birth of a divine king in Judea, but he lacked proof. Now he?s found it in the Mathesis, a book written by Maternus in 334 AD, who described an astrological event involving an eclipse of Jupiter by the Moon in Aries, and said it signified the birth of a divine king. ?Maternus did not mention Jesus?s name,? says Molnar. ?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.?

Why didn?t Maternus mention Jesus by name? According to Molnar, early Christians hated pagan beliefs and did not want to justify the Biblical story with what they considered to be astrological superstitions. They felt that the idea that the stars govern our fate contradicted belief in a Christian God as the controlling force in the Universe. ?Being a pagan who had converted to Christianity during his lifetime, Firmicus was torn,? says Molnar. ?Hence his use of astrology to support the Christian story, but in a veiled way.?

According to Molnar, it was essential to early Christians that the true nature of the star be hidden, otherwise theologians would become mired down in a debate about celestial influences. So they buried the knowledge of the star?s astrological origins and in time it was forgotten.

?I take Molnar?s work quite seriously,? says Owen Gingerich, an historian of astronomy at Harvard University. ?Anything he comes up with along these lines has to be considered as being very likely correct.?

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