The star of Bethlehem



For centuries star-lit skies have guided humans across seas, through deserts, over mountains and, now, around space. The recent discovery there of a star, Kepler -62e, and its planet, Kepler -62f, by a handful of men and women using a huge telescope orbiting 93 million miles beyond Earth has excited the scientific community.

That planet is “by far the best candidate for habitability of any found so far,” explained William Barucki, of the Ames Research Center, which operates the Kepler Space Telescope for NASA, writing in the National Geographic News last April. Many believe such a place holds hope for life outside of the world we know.

But the star seen probably 2,000 years ago by a handful of men familiar with old documents predicting the coming of the Messiah points the way to the best hope, says Dr. Hugh Ross, a well-known astrophysicist and Christian defender, in an interview about what is known as the Bethlehem star or the Christmas star because it signaled the time and place of the birth of Jesus.

Sketchy as some details remain, that event is considered by many as the most important in the history of mankind. All time is divided into “before” and “after” His birth. For those who believe the Biblical accounts, Jesus is “the Savior” implied by his name, or Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” Globally, they make up the largest faith group (32 percent of the world’s population), a recent survey by the highly respected Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life confirms.

Consequently, this season, with its message of “peace on Earth and good will toward men,” has become the most widely celebrated — by non-believers as well as believers — holiday in the world. This despite the latest report from the Pew organization and Open Doors, a non-denominational religious agency, that an estimated 100 million men, women and children are being harshly persecuted in 111 countries because they believe and share the message associated with that star and the coming of Jesus Christ, whom they call Lord.

Even the date of the birth of Jesus is uncertain. We know it was not in December. Most scholars say, based on the location of the shepherds, it was in the spring, — probably March or April. The year is debatable since calendars have varied over the years. The Dec. 25 date was set in the early Fourth Century by Emperor Constantine to “Christianize” a traditional Roman holiday celebrating “the birth of the Sun.”

And nobody — including himself, Ross said — really can explain the star of Bethlehem, which is mentioned only in the Gospel of Matthew, and not in the other gospels nor in Egyptian, Chinese or other ancient archives. “Most speculation has centered on a comet, a supernova or a conjunction,” he said. “I believe a recurring nova seems to fit the circumstances. It had to be unusually visible twice at an interval of a year and a half to two years. It had to be bright enough to attract experienced sky watchers but not so bright as to attract and excite crowds.”

People still follow the lead of the magi — scientific intellectuals from the area of Babylonia (present day Iraq and Syria) — who were expecting the momentous event, Ross believes, because they had the ancient writings of Daniel. He was the Israelite expert in astronomy and chief counselor to their king who, years ago, had predicted the time of the coming of the Messiah.

Since the Pharisees and Sadducees in Israel had the prophecy of Micah naming the place of the birth of “the Prince of Peace,” the entourage of perhaps a dozen dignitaries and their attendants headed for Jerusalem, an 18-month or so trip of at least 700 miles, to get further directions that led them to Bethlehem looking, as many still do, “for that blessed hope and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior, Jesus Christ.” (Titus 2:13)

Adon Taft was the religion editor of the Miami Herald for 37 years. He is retired in Brooksville.

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