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JMU Planetarium Event To Examine The Science Behind The Star Of Bethlehem

Printed with permission of the Daily News-Record

Posted: November 17, 2012

By Kate Kersey

"After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, 'Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star in the East and have come to worship him.' " Matthew 2:1-2.

To Christians, these Magi are more often referred to as the "Three Wise Men," or the "Three Kings," according to the Rev. Robert Throckmorton, pastor of Toms Brook United Methodist Church.

"Magi were astronomers, scholars, sometimes magicians—but not in the sense we think of as a 'slight of hand' person."

These men, written into history for following a star, are as much a mystery as is exactly what it was they saw over 2,000 years ago: A mystery upon which modern day scholars and astronomers are working to shed light.

The John C. Wells Planetarium on the James Madison University campus will host a video throughout the Christmas season that seeks to explain some of these working theories.

"The Mystery of the Christmas Star" begins at 7 p.m. Nov. 23 and will play Friday and Saturday nights through Dec. 15.

We Three Kings

In all likelihood, according to Throckmorton and Shanil Virani, director of the planetarium, these Magi were likely Zoroastrian priests following the star from the eastern Babylonian settlement, in modern day Iraq.

"Many cultures looked to the stars for direction—not just horoscope type of stuff—the wise men may have been Zoroastrians, from a culture that paid a great deal of attention to the stars—stars doing something meant the gods were doing something," explained Throckmorton.

Though eastern cultures paid particular attention to the movement of the stars, few Jews lent similar credence to the celestial patterns, according to Rabbi Joe Blair. "Judaism generally rejects the validity of astrology—this whole focus on stars, alignments, signs, etc., is outside normative Judaism."

Be that as it may, the Magi moved west in pursuit of a celestial sign and set off a chain of events, culminating in the establishment of one of the world's largest religions.

Star Of Wonder

But was this sign actually a star? The Magi's careful study of astrology would lead one to assume that the birth of a simple star would not set such a massive undertaking into motion.

In a special pre-screening, DN-R staff learned these men would most certainly have noticed a compelling sign in the sky, but what could give impetus to a months-long journey over treacherous terrain?

Was it a comet? A nova? A supernova? A massive meteorite? An alignment of the planets? Or something else?

For many cultures of the era, changes in the heavens predicted and defined earthly events. These changes were viewed as divine messages, imparted from the gods to humans on Earth.

And for these Magi, this sign heralded the birth of an incredibly important figure in the land of the Jews.

The star, Throckmorton said, "was recorded as the heavens were announcing the birth of this child. We don't know why the wise men followed [it]."

These Magi were unsure of just what it was they saw, as are scholars today. Regardless, the iconic image of a bright ball of light hovering over a babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, surrounded by his virgin mother, his carpenter father and the shepherds from the fields has become as much a part of Christmas as the gifts we give.

Gifts that, arguably, commemorate those presented to the baby Jesus by these same wise men.

"Gold for a king, incense as a special spice used in the worship of gods, and myrrh as a gift for death," explained Throckmorton, listing the three gifts thought to have been bestowed.

Westward Leading

What it was, why they followed it—there are many questions surrounding both the wise men and the object of their fascination, but there is one answer that cannot be challenged: Their actions set in motion a chain of events still felt today.

The film, starting Friday, does not seek to challenge the basis of any religion, it simply asks those questions.

"[The producers] don't say 'it's this' or 'it's that' or 'it's all wrong.' It asks a simple, scientific question: What did they [the wise men] see 2,000 years ago in the Mid-East . . ." said Virani.

Last year, the film's first to be shown, Virani said he received phone calls from residents concerned the film would be offensive to those of various religious backgrounds. He asked them to come see the film, and call back if they found it troubling in any way.

"No one did," he said.

"Last year, over 100 people [came to one show]. It was a packed crowd, we only seat 72. I think that's a testament to the fact it's a great show," Virani added.

This particular program does differ from the usual planetarium offerings. "It's more appropriate for adults, it's a different kind of full-dome video," Virani explained.

Following the film, Virani plans to take full advantage of the $1.5-million dollar state-of-the-art planetarium by using the star projector situated in the center to offer additional scientific data to supplement the film.

But, for Virani and Throckmorton, the film is simply a piece of the equation. As the producers put it, "A truly miraculous event doesn't need a scientific explanation . . . peace on Earth, good will to men."

Staff writer Samantha Cole contributed to this story.

Contact Kate Kersey at 574-6218 or kkersey@dnronline.com.