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Bethlehem star: both natural & miraculous?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The star of Bethlehem: Natural occurrence or miraculous event? Rick Larson believes it’s not an either/or answer.

An attorney and legal professor, Larson has spent the last eight years devoted to showing how he believes astronomical events in the years 3 and 2 B.C. fulfill the Bible’s description of the star the Magi followed to find the young Jesus. Having given numerous PowerPoint presentations on the subject at churches, Larson has helped put together a 63-minute DVD just in time for Christmas called “The Star of Bethlehem,” detailing — with the help of a computer program — what he believes the wise men actually saw.

“I have heard objections from clergy who say they don’t like what I’m doing because it removes the miraculous,” Larson told Baptist Press. “… The reason that is wrong is because if the star was part of the natural order, and our solar system and the universe is like a great clock — mathematically precise and predictable — then that means that the star was a clockwork star, and that of course means that God built the star into the structure of the solar system in the universe from the beginning of time.

“From the moment He flung the universe into existence He had installed the marker that said, ‘Messiah has come.’ What’s miraculous if that’s not miraculous?”

The fast-paced DVD is a biblical, astronomical and historical presentation combined with a semi-documentary showing how Larson — doubtful at first — came to believe the star had an astronomical explanation and even, he said, was able to “stop” over Bethlehem.

People at the time of Christ’s birth paid far more attention to stars than people do today, Larson said, in part because in today’s world the stars often are unseen by people living in and around cities.

“It takes a series of events to satisfy all nine clues from Matthew, and those events have to last over a period of time sufficient to travel from the east — probably Babylon — to Jerusalem,” he said. “So we’re talking about months. The star lasted for months.”

Larson asserts the Magi — who many scholars believe had an interest in astronomy and even astrology — would have seen the following:

— Jupiter, the king planet, “crowning” Regulus, the king star, in the constellation of Leo the Lion, representing the tribe of Judah — symbolizing that a king was set to be born, Larson said. The crowning would have involved Jupiter going back and forth across the sky so that over a series of months it would have had a triple conjunction — that is, a close encounter — with Regulus, so as to appear as a “crown.” Other signs in the sky would have involved Virgo the Virgin, representing the mother of the king. The Magi would have seen all this from their home, possibly in modern-day Iraq.

— Jupiter and Venus in conjunction — and appearing as one “star” — toward the west, over Judea. Upon seeing this sign, which would have happened nine months after the original one, the Magi would have left their home and begun their journey, Larson said. It would have been the brightest “star” anyone had seen, he said.

— Jupiter “stopping” over the town of Bethlehem as seen from Jerusalem, where the Magi passed through on their way to see Jesus. This “stopping” would have involved what astronomers call retrograde motion. After seeing Jupiter stop, the Magi would have headed south on the five-mile journey to Bethlehem.

Using his computer program — a popular one called “Starry Night” — Larson said Jupiter would have stopped over Bethlehem on Dec. 25, 2 B.C.

“I think it was the first Christmas — not when Christ was born, but when the first Christmas occurred, the presentation of the gifts,” he said. “I really don’t like to make a big deal of it. Of course, it had no significance to them. They didn’t even know what the word December meant. But to us it can be a sign.”

Using a series of other clues from Scripture, Larson also believes Jesus was crucified on April 3, A.D. 33 — the same day as a lunar eclipse.

Scholars long have known Jupiter and Venus were in conjunction around the time of Christ’s birth, but few have gone so far as Larson in describing it in such detail.

Denny Burk, professor of New Testament at Criswell College in Dallas, said he believes Larson’s theory has some problems but applauded him for putting together a “fascinating” DVD.

Among concerns Burk has with Larson’s theory is that Larson “goes beyond what the Bible teaches was the symbolic significance of the Bethlehem star,” and that Matthew “gives some indications that the Bethlehem star was a miraculous sign” and not a “natural (though unusual) alignment of the stars.” Additionally, Burk said, the “vast majority of scholars” date Herod’s death to 4 B.C., although he said there is a minority viewpoint putting it at 1 B.C. If Herod died in 4 B.C., Larson’s theory would have a significant problem, since Herod would be dead by the time the Magi arrive.

“If Larson’s thesis is correct, then the primary value of his discovery would be apologetic,” said Burk, who disagrees with Larson’s theory. “It shows that the Bible’s depiction of a star over Bethlehem at Christ’s birth is corroborated by what we now know about the position of Jupiter on the night of Jesus’ birth. Also, Larson’s presentation would highlight the sovereign, meticulous care with which God created the heavens and set the stars on their regular courses.”

Larson said he had been wanting to put the DVD together for some time. He gives the presentation at churches throughout the year, particularly around Christmas.

“I wanted to preserve the story so that if I’m not here somebody could stand on my shoulders,” he said. “I didn’t want the story to die with me. Because the next guy’s going to come along and see things I didn’t see.”
Michael Foust is assistant editor of Baptist Press. For more information about the DVD visit www.thestarofbethlehemmovie.com.

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  • Michael Foust