An astronomical occultation is when one astrological object moves in the front of, or occults, another. Astronomer Michael R. Molnar, who is retired from the Physics and Astronomy Department at Rutgers University, has made a detailed case for his theory that the Star of Bethlehem, may have been a pair of astrologically significant lunar occultations. An occultation occurs when the Moon passes in front of another body, making it disappear from the sky. He writes of the Moon’s occultations of Jupiter in Aries on March 20 and April 17, 6 BCE, in his book,
The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi.
According to Molnar, the occultations signaled to the Magi that a “King of the Jews” was about to be born in Palestine. Hence, they soon embarked on one of the epic treks of the New Testament, with gifts in hand for the new king. Corresponding with Molnar, this was possible because astrologists, or Magi in this case, would view the Moon passing in front of Jupiter, a planet associated with royalty, while in Aries the Ram (the ram being the ancient symbol for Judea), indicating that a new king of Judea was about to be born, and under such rare circumstances, that he must be an especially important one.
Molnar’s theory connects somewhat well with the integral idea in that April 17, 6 BCE, would fall during the month of Nissan, the month in which the prophets were born and died, according to the belief from the Talmud, but it would not fall during the Passover celebration that commenced on April 4 of the year. One would have to decide how precise the integral idea needs to be, either by the exact month or by the exact Passover week to accept Molnar’s date. He does have his critics though. Mark Kidger points out many problems with the March 20 and April 17 occultations of 6 BCE. In this case, it was the planet Jupiter that the Moon moved in front of. If the Moon passes in front of a planet or star, when the celestial body suddenly reappears at the border of the Moon, particularly at the border of the Moon’s disk, which creates a shadow, the result is an amazing sight to behold. But Molnar’s occultation may not have been amazing. According to Kidger:
Although the March and April occultations were theoretically visible from Jerusalem, we must also consider practicality. The April 17 occultation occuured onear the heliacal rising of Jupiter, with the Moon exactly one day before the New moon, when it is unlikely to be visible . . . Furthermore, the occultation occurred around midday in Jerusalem and Babylon, and a thin crescent Moon would be totally invisible in the sky so close to the Sun during daylight . . . This occultation would thus have been totally invisible. The March 17 occultation occurred after sunset. It was not visible in Babylon because Jupiter had already set there at the time, but it was visible in Jerusalem, if only marginally . . . For Molnar’s theory to be tenable, we must assume that the Magi were able to interpret correctly an event that they could not have seen.
Consistent with a few of Kidger’s concerns is Arron Adair, who wrote the following in an article for Sky & Telescope:
When the book came out, the news media reported this idea as a major historical breakthrough. Ancient Babylonian tablets, however, state that this type of event foretold the death of a king. Talk about interpretive flexibility! Besides, the occultation was invisible, taking place in the daytime near the Sun.”
There are a few other issues with Molnar’s historical research. A significant part of his theory revolves around the purchase of coins from the region that show the zodiac Aries the Ram looking back at a star. The coins were supposedly issued to honor the rare occultations of 6 BCE and the coming of a new king in Judea. However, several other Roman coins from the time also show zodiacs with a star above them. Therefore, Molnar's coin was not minted to honor the Star of Bethlehem unless their were other "stars" in other Zodiacs. Molnar admits that Aries the Ram is often displayed as looking backward. He states, “The lore says that Aries is looking backward for Helle, and another interpretation says that Aries is admiring his Golden Fleece, not a star."
Therefore, a Roman coin is more likely to portray Aries looking backward at a Golden Fleece, not the occultation of Jupiter to proclaim the coming of Jesus. Perhaps Molnar gave too much significance to the coin with the imprint of Aries. Today, his theory provides readers only with questions about his true motives and research methods. Similar to conjunctions, there is no proof from ancient sources that can be used as possible evidence that the Magi used either to announce the coming of a new ruler. Until then neither should be used in theories on the Star due to lack of similar historical evidence.
171 Kider, The Star of Bethlehem, 106–9.
172 Aaron Michael Adair. "Science, Scholarship, & Bethlehem's Starry Night." Sky & Telescope 114, no. 6 (December 2007): 26. MasterFILE Complete, EBSCOhost.
173 Michael Molnar, The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi (New Brunswick, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 2000), 50.
14 years ago I became interested in the date that Jesus was born. This led to several years of research, I quickly realized that there was no valid information that provided any real answers to this question. Since this website is getting some interest I will post from time to time some of the information I learned during this quest.