The Star of Bethlehem, which according to biblical tradition heralded the coming of the Christ Child, was sighted in the sky over 2,000 years ago — around 7 BC — and people are still talking about it. But whether the star actually existed is a matter of view.
For Alex Storrs there is no doubt. The associate professor of astrophysics at Towson University's department of physics, astronomy and geosciences, and director of the university's planetarium, Storrs believes the Star of Bethlehem was an actual phenomenon. He's got the theory to prove it.
Storrs didn't invent the theory. It's been floating around astronomy circles for ages. But Storrs is convinced it provides scientific proof of the star's physical existence.
"I am looking at what astronomical things were happening at the time," Storrs said of his theory and the subsequent journey of the Three Wise Men, who, according to the Gospel of Matthew, observed the rise of the star at the birth of Jesus and came to bear homage to the him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
"Something set them off to trek across the Arabian desert," a dangerous and costly journey, Storrs said.
A class open to the public last week led by Storrs at Towson University's planetarium called "What Was the Christmas Star?" addressed that and other questions on the subject.
He talked about the star theories, the Three Wise Men and how they ended up in Bethlehem, a minuscule dot on the ancient world's map.
The planetarium, located on the top floor of Smith Hall, holds about 50 people, and the ceiling is a 24-foot dome onto which Storrs can project different skies at different times of the year. So popular is the class that two shows are needed and both fill up.
Storrs, a Catonsville resident, is tall and burly with a luxurious white beard, mustache and long hair tied in a ponytail. He is the first to tell you he looks like Santa Claus. And he does, so remarkably that it's a wonder little children don't come up and sit in his lap while he explained his theory at a coffee shop off-campus.
In 7 BC, he said, there was a rare gathering of planets. Jupiter, Saturn and Mars aligned in the Constellation Pisces, placing them in the right place at the right time. Astronomers can use modern tools to prove this event happened.
The Gospel of Matthew mentions a star in the sky although no other gospel or ancient historians do.
"It was probably an oral story that was written" in Matthew, said Storrs, who also has a theory about the identity of the Three Wise Men.
He said that they were Zoroasters, an astrology sect living in ancient Persia.
"We know they came from the East," Storrs said. "They saw the planets coming together and ascribed Pisces to the people of the eastern end of the Mediterranean. They saw it as a sign that sometime in the near future, a king would be born."
That gave the Three Wise Men a couple of years to organize a caravan and travel to Bethlehem where, Storrs estimated, Jesus Christ was born around 5 BC. He comes up with this date because of ancient calendar-makers' misunderstanding of chronology.
Storrs knows there are flaws in his theory. Given the distance in time and culture, it would be impossible to think otherwise.
There are other theories to explain the Star of Bethlehem, from novas and supernovas to comets. Unlike the three planets' alignment, though, none of them can be shown to have happened then and there.
Moreover, the Gospel of Luke, written about the same time, 60 AD, as Matthew, mentions the birth of Jesus but no stars or wise men.
"It could be a misunderstanding by Matthew [of the three planets] or a legend he heard about," Storrs said. "Matthew has a tendency to look for miraculous signs intended to show Jesus as the Old Testament messiah."
Star: symbol or event?
Elizabeth Warner, a faculty research assistant in the department of astronomy and observatory coordinator at the University of Maryland College Park, has her own ideas about the Star of Bethlehem.
Yes, the three-planet alignment can be proven but they weren't close enough to each other to be seen as a single body.
"They were well over a degree, about two full moons, apart," Warner said.
And yes, other events like comets and novas can be eliminated because none was recorded at the time, Warner said, referring to Chinese astrologers who kept excellent records. In 1054 AD, for example, they recorded an event that today's astronomers, working backward, recognize as a nova whose remnants became the Crab Nebula in the constellation of Taurus.
But Warner's main caution about applying modern science to events so long ago is interpretation. Astronomy didn't exist at the time. Astrology did and, depending on the culture, an event could have different meanings.
"We are trying to fit occurrences we know happened to what the descriptions say. But if we interpret these descriptions incorrectly, then it's meaningless," she said.
Take the Star of Bethlehem. "We've interpreted some words about it being seen in the eastern part of the sky," she said "But it could also be interpreted as being seen somewhere in the sky by easterners, that is, people from the East."
She added, "In any interpretation of the story of the Star of Bethlehem as being in the eastern part of the sky,the Zoroasters ... were people from the east, in now-Iraq/Iran. So you'd think the star would be to the west of them."
In the end, Warner said there is no way to know for sure what happened or, indeed, if anything happened.
"The Star of Bethlehem could be seen as a symbol rather than an actual event," she said.
The Rev. Dr. Henrietta L. Wiley would agree. From a theological point of view, it isn't necessary or important to prove the Star of Bethlehem, said the Episcopal priest, associate professor of sacred scriptures at Notre Dame of Maryland University and president of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars.
Books have been written about the Star story and the Gospel of Matthew. To Wiley, the star is important because of its message.
"It tells us about God's relationship with the whole world," she said. "It's the first revelation to the gentiles [non-Israelites] about the coming of this king, the messiah, who will bring justice and salvation from suffering."
Likewise, it doesn't matter to the Rev. Steven Roth, associate pastor at Church of the Immaculate Conception, in Towson, if the Star of Bethlehem can be proven or not.
If it can be and it helps someone struggling with their faith, "then great," the Roman Catholic priest said. "But the essential core of faith is that we cannot prove it. Faith requires trust."
Storrs realizes he walks the line between fact and faith when he teaches about the subject.
"I am a scientist dealing with a religious topic," he said. "I am sensitive to how I lay it out."