Nov 29 2004 David Williamson, Western Mail
A WELSH university is carrying out research into one of the world's most enduring mysteries - the star of Bethlehem.
Martin Griffiths, from the University of Glamorgan, is fascinated by the Biblical story which led the mysterious Magi from the East to the infant Christ.
Rather than dismissing the story as pure mythology, he thinks that it is likely something extraordinary did appear in the night sky 2,000 years ago.
The bright light, he speculates, may not have been an actual star but could have been caused by a unique conjunction of the planets.
Sir Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler both sought explanations for this key event in the Christmas story. Now, computer software used to map the paths of constellations has revealed several possibilities.
Mr Griffiths said, "There were a series of significant events across a period of a few years which would all have been clearly visible and may have created an air of anticipation on the part of the Magi."
A triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn was seen in the constellation Pisces in 7BC. This blaze of light would have excited peoples in neighbouring cultures who looked for signs in the skies.
Jews were banned in their scriptures from practising astrology, but a leading theory is that the legendary Wise Men who visited Jesus at birth may have been Persian Zoroastrians.
Mr Griffiths said, "The Jews were a nation bound to God via the law of Moses. This law specifically forbade the foretelling of events, divination or consulting astrologers, so no Jew would realise the import of such a star as their culture was not steeped in the lore of ancient astrology, where celestial events would have major significance.
"The Chaldeans [whom the Wise Men are referred to as in certain sources] however would be examining the heavens and interpreting events according to their own definitions, and realised that this occurrence would have consequences for the Jews and thus travelled to Israel."
Some scholars have suggested that the story of the Magi is a literary invention, deliberately alluding to Old Testament prophecy.
"This of course is a possibility as Matthew did write his gospel long after the event, and is the only gospel writer to mention the star and the events surrounding the birth," Mr Griffiths said.
"However, I think it is more likely to have been an astronomical event, since unusual celestial events in history can have ambiguous interpretations.
"Most explanations for an astronomical occurrence focus upon comets, supernovae or planetary conjunctions."
The story of the Magi has excited new interest in recent years because it represents an interaction between different faiths at the birth of Christianity.
Some religious scholars embrace the idea of the planets being deliberately set in course to come into alignment at the time of Christ's birth. Others prefer to think of the star as a wholly supernatural sign.
Mr Griffiths acknowledges that the mystery will never be conclusively solved.
He said, "Checking these phenomena via commonly available astronomy software will enable an amateur sleuth to enjoy a rewarding hour or so contemplating this ancient thriller, and still leaves one to ponder the religious significance of this mysterious event."
Members of the public are invited to attend a free lecture on December 6 at the University of Glamorgan at which Mr Griffiths will detail different ways of approaching this story. Anyone interested in attending should contact him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.