Pope Ratzinger and the Star of Bethlehem

In Autumn 2012 the media were full of the news of a new book, the last of a trilogy on the life of Jesus, about his infancy written by Joseph Ratzinger: Pope Benedict XVI. Given the date of publication, shortly before Christmas, it was not surprising that much of the interest centred on his views on the Nativity and the Star of Bethlehem. Many media reports circulated giving not very accurate synopses of his remarks.

A work of this kind often generates considerable scepticism. However, as has been pointed out, this book was published under the name Joseph Ratzinger, so it is intended as a scholarly work and not a work of religious dogma. Although the bibliography is not extensive and limited almost exclusively, and not unnaturally, to German authors, it is a serious attempt to reconcile faith, history and science when talking of the Nativity.

Joseph Ratzinger attempts to understand many of the puzzling elements of the Nativity story: the census; the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem; the Magi; and the nature of the Star. In doing so he accepts many of the things that are mentioned in these pages and that habitually surprise people about the Nativity story, such as the five year error in the Christian calendar. One extremely interesting contribution is his comments on the motivation for the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and the comment that elsewhere the gospels describe how Joseph, as a pious Jew, made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem every year at Passover, so this was hardly a unfamiliar journey for him. He also suggests that it is likely that, as a member of the House of David, he would have owned land in nearby Bethlehem just 10km south of Jerusalem that would have been taxed.

What is most interesting about the book though is the scientific explanation for the nature of the Star that, if he does not explicitly, state it, he implies that accepts. Joseph Ratzinger notes the 7BC triple conjunction as a sign to the Magi to expect the birth of the King of the Jews and then the planetary massing, but states that the trigger for the journey of the Magi had to be something else. For this something else he goes to the supernova theory attributed to Johannes Kepler, supporting it with the observation of a star by the Chinese in their Chronicles (we know that the Chinese star was not a supernova as there is no supernova remnant of the right age in the appropriate area of the sky, instead it was most likely a bright nova). However, it is precisely this conjunction of events that I have proposed in my own book, published in 1999, as the most likely explanation of the Star of Bethlehem. You can find out more about these theories and the evidence at: http://www.observadores-cometas.com/Star_of_Bethlehem/Index_principal.htm. It is nice to have powerful friends in these matters!