Tracking the Star of Bethlehem

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AN Ulster author has completed a book about the Star of Bethlehem, that took him seven years to research and write.

David Collins, from east Belfast, says he tried to “take an unbiased approach to the birth of Jesus” in his quest to find out as much information as possible about the event.

David, who retired almost a decade ago and is an amateur astronomer, has divided the book into two parts: the first half sifts the biblical and historical evidence, while the second half examines the astronomy relating to the star.

“The only book within the New Testament which makes any reference to the Star of Bethlehem is the Gospel of Matthew,” says David, a former chartered accountant who is aged 60.

“To achieve an insight into the nature of the star it seemed appropriate to attempt to penetrate and understand the mind of its author through his writings and the effect on him of the prevailing conditions, and events, of his time. It examines the possibility that the author fashioned certain texts within the Old Testament to produce a birth narrative in order to introduce Jesus as the Messiah.”

David adds: “It is a topic that completely fascinated me since I was very young, and I became absolutely determined to attempt to find out the truth behind the story in Matthew.”

Luke is the only other gospel to even mention the birth of Jesus.

David points out that the only mention of the star is confined to chapter two of Matthew.

“Therefore it was considered appropriate to investigate the origin of the Gospel of Matthew and to question the historical reliability of the nativity story in chapter two.”

He says that most of the story of the nativity is Midrash, which is a way of interpreting biblical stories.

“It combines pieces of Old Testament narrative to create a new story to introduce Jesus at his birth. It is possible that the author may have simply borrowed from certain texts within the Old Testament and fashioned them to produce a narrative that would introduce Jesus as the Messiah by going right back to his early infancy. However the reference to the star may, nevertheless, have some historical foundation,

“It also seems that the author of Matthew completed the Gospel in Greek sometime in the AD 80’s and it was partially based upon an earlier version originally in Aramaic, which is ancient Hebrew. However both chapter one, which deals with the genealogy of Joseph, and chapter two would seem to have been added at some later stage and almost by way of a preface to the rest of the Gospel.”

David’s main sources of information were around 30 different books or articles on the subject, the most important of which was by a Jesuit and biblical scholar called Raymond Brown.

The references to the star itself may, David says, have some historical foundation and the second part of the book concentrates on the various celestial contenders. This includes a discussion about an unusual comet which in 2007 made a spectacular re-appearance.

“Consideration is given to images of astronomical objects depicted on contemporary Roman and Celtic (ancient British) coins,” says David, who is interested in archaeology and the study of ancient coins.

“Could, however, the author of chapter two, who was not the Apostle Matthew, and who was writing circa AD 80-85, have been influenced by events within his own lifetime?

“Living through turbulent times, he would have been well aware of the political and religious upheavals that had taken place within Palestine. He would also have witnessed spectacular comets in the years AD65 and 66. These may have inspired him to identify, and associate a similar object, with the birth of Jesus.”

The book includes original sketches prepared for it by the local artist Colin Watson, such as the one on this page in which King Herod questions the Three Wise Men.

The book concludes that the nativity story is symbolic of the times that the author of chapter two lived in, and that the Star of Bethlehem is an interpretation of one of two comets in 12BC or 5BC, which would have been regarded as being within the general timeframe of the birth of Jesus.

Terry Moseley, former president of the Irish Astronomical Association, read the book on a flight to Australia, and “was very impressed”.

Mr Moseley said: “I’ve read many other books on this subject, and in my opinion this is the most comprehensive, analytical, unbiased and best presented of the lot. He looks at everything from all the original source material, including other ancient non-biblical texts, the mythology, the social background, the theology, to the astronomy.”

He adds: “It should be read by anyone with an interest in the astronomical angle, and by anyone with an interest in biblical scholarship and interpretation.”

n The Star of Bethlehem by David Collins has recently been published by Amberley Publishing based in Stroud, Gloucestershire and is available on the internet and from major bookshops.