Auckland Unitarian Church, 7 January 2018.
There are many theories about a star that shone down on Bethlehem pointing the way to the baby Jesus. Most of them are quite mad; in particular, stars do not point to babies. But one of the theories, referred to in Wikipedia, appeals tme, and I hope you will like it.
It says Jesus could not have seen Halley’s comet, because he was not alive at any of the comet sighting times. It goes on to say that the gospel writer Matthew did see the comet, and he wrote parts of his real life experience into his fictional story of a star over Bethlehem 76 years earlier.
So in Matthew poetic mind, Jesus deserved to have a comet outside his stable. In Luke's gospel Jesus got a choir of angels instead, plus a few shepherds.
But the sighting that Matthew observed was just one of 30 sightings of this comet over the centuries, and all 30 of them made people wonder what they meant. And I am delighted to have found records and pictures of 10 of these observations, each with an interesting story, some Christian, some not.
And a warning not to treat our own particular fantasy as a guide to history.
AD 66 – Jewish historian sees a comet before the destruction of Jerusalem
The first observation of Halley’s comet near the time of Jesus was in 66 AD.
The Jewish historian Josephus recorded it and thousands of others observed it. Some thought it was a sign from God that he was about to destroy Jerusalem. Others thought it was a sign of a king.
So here is the comet like a death sentence hanging over Jerusalem. Note that it has a tail, so we would certainly not call it a star, but past observers may not have made that distinction.
Jerusalem was in fact destroyed four years later by the Romans.
So I believe this woodcarving is like a political cartoon. It shows Jerusalem, with the crosses of Jesus and two other victims on a nearby hill, so this is 66 AD from a Christian point of view. It is not a contemporary work of art. It is said to have been done in Amsterdam by Stanislas Lubienski in 1666.
AD 1066 – The Bayeux tapestry, another comet with a message
My second group of observers were a team of weavers in 1066.
They created the Bayeux tapestry 70 metres long, showing the Norman invaders fighting the people of England, with swords and horses.
And there in the middle of the Normans’ picture was a comet, that was seen by thousands of people that year. It clearly looks like a comet even to us, because it has a giant tail.
So this is a piece of history from the Norman point of view, and it’s still on display in Bayeux, Normandy. So this comet didn’t have a link to the baby Jesus; instead it had a military link, for the Normans.
But it can be compared with the 66AD comet, drawn by Lubienski; the tails are so similar.
AD 1301 – Italian painter draws a comet over the baby Jesus
My third observer was Italian painter, Giotto di Bondone, in 1301.
He too is a part of history, because he saw a comet that year and he drew a picture of it - as it was in 1301. But the rest of Bondoni's painting is a flashback to the baby Jesus and the wise men giving presents to him. But at the top of the picture is not a star, as Matthews gospel reports. It is very clearly a comet with a tail, very similar to the comet in the Bayeux tapestry.
So Bondone was merging into a single picture two historical events that were about 1300 years apart. Or to put it differently, he was taking a guess that the "star" mentioned by Matthew, some time in the first century, was in fact a comet and similar to the one he himself saw in 1301.
This was not just a work of art: it was a scientific theory, which could be tested, and later was tested.
This frescoe is still there on the wall of the Arena Chapel in Padua Italy. So that’s three artists who drew comets that they saw. They had very different interpretations of their comets but they all provided hard facts, of what they looked like, and what dates they were seen on Earth.
AD 1531 – German astronomer Apian draws nine comets with tails
My fourth observer was Peter Apian, an astronomer in Germany in 1531. He too saw a comet, but his picture is entirely different in style. He has drawn the comet nine times on the same page, to show how his angle of view of the comet changed over nine different days, like a multiple exposure. Each of his comet images has a tail; each of the tails points upwards, not downwards. And Apian has added a line from the head of each comet to the sun, which also changed its position between the nine sightings.
Those nine downward lines mark a new feature of his observation, not noted by earlier artists , that on each of those nine days, the comet’s tail was pointing away from the sun, and was pointing at a different angle.
We now know the reason why comet tails always point away from the sun, because the solar wind from the sun creates the tail, by blasting bits of debris from the comet, like a tornado. Comets are made of dust and ice; the heat of the sun turns the ice to vapour, and the pressure of the wind blasts huge amounts of dust out into space, never to return.
And Apian seem to have been one of the first people to notice this.
AD 1607 – Astronomer Kepler sees a comet, but was more interested in planets
My fifth observer was Johannes Kepler, another astronomer in Germany. He saw a comet in 1607, but he wasn’t very interested in it.
He was more famous for inventing the first rules of how planets move round the sun. Before Kepler, scientists thought planets move in circles, but Kepler said they moved in ellipses, as shown in the top picture. The sun is not in the centre of the planet's orbit: it is in one of the two foci of an ellipse. so the planets are always closer to the sun at one end of their orbit than the other.
Kepler’s second picture shows that these ellipses can be very stretched out very long and thin. And he has drawn segments of the orbits shaded blue. It may not be obvious, but he has drawn each of these segments with a different shape, but the same area. The reason for this is that when they are furthest from the sun they are travelling more slowly. So if you multiply the distance from the sun by the distance the comet travels in a given time, you get the same number. So if you know the distance you can calculate the speed, and vice versa. And you can use this to predict the orbit of any planet.
Kepler missed an important point. He didn’t think this theory applied to comets. He thought they zipped straight through the solar system and never came back. We now know that most comets too go in elliptic orbits.
However, in 2019 and 2020, astronomers discovered for the first time two comets that didn’t travel in ellipses. They both came from outside our solar system, at huge speeds missing the sun altogether. The first one, Oumuamua, was travelling at 87 kilometres a second.
Kepler was a Christian, and he had a different theory about the star of Bethlehem: he said it was a conjunction of two planets. And he reckoned there were three conjunctions of Jupiter and Venus near the birth of Jesus and that could have been what the wise men saw.
This theory still has supporters today. But conjunctions are a dime a dozen. There were 11 of them last year. I saw one, without any need for a telescope. It was the planet Jupiter right alongside Venus from my view and it was quite bright. But no brighter than two cars on the same road passing each other, which is exactly what a conjunction is. From our perspective, all the planets of our solar system travel in a single disk called the Zodiac, so it’s hardly surprising that they pass each other. There were probably 50 conjunctions while Jesus was a baby, but so what? Comets are rarer, and much more exciting.
AD 1682 – Edmund Halley joins the dots
My sixth observer is the English astronomer Edmund Halley, and this telescope he built (which I photographed) is still on display in Greenwich near London. He saw a comet in 1682, and it is now called Halley’s comet not because he was the first to see it, but because he was the first to realise it was the same comet that had been around before.
Halley’s first clue was that Kepler had seen a comet 75 years before he did, and that Peter Appian had seen one 76 years before that.
So Halley wondered: what if all three were the same comet? They were, and I think it was one of the most exciting discoveries of all time. But it still wasn’t the full story: It wasn’t precise enough to cover other comet sightings back to the time of Jesus.
The problem is that a comet’s orbit does not always take the same length of time (unlike a planet like the earth which covers each of its orbits in 365.25 days. Halley’s comet has taken anywhere from 75 to 79 years to come back. The reason is that it slows down or speeds up whenever it passes a large planet like Jupiter …. so for each of Halley's comet orbits, he had to work out not just where the comet was, but also where Jupiter and other large planets were at the time. Any error in his calculation was cumulative, so the further back in time, the bigger the potential error.
There was a particularly close approach of Halley’s comet to earth in AD 837. But that was the limit of the evidence available to him.
So Halley could not calculate when his comet visited the Earth as far back as the time of Jesus. But other observers could.
240 BC – Chinese astronomers kept a huge record of comets
A number of Halley’s gaps were filled in by observations in China back to 240 BC. This is a report from that year, and it’s now on display in the British Museum.
The Chinese sightings were faithfully recorded for hundreds of years, and they ranged 75 years to 79 years apart. So they had evidence that Halley could have dreamed for … because it supports his theory that there was a single comet that visited regularly.
This was not pure science. Like the Christians who thought comets were messages of Jesus, the Chinese thought comets were messages about their own rulers. So their purpose was astrology, but at the same time they built up a collection of hard facts that modern astronomers can still build on.
164 BC – Even older records from Babylon
An eighth piece of evidence, from 164 BC, is from Babylon. And it records another sighting of Halley’s comet that year. And that too I think is in the British Museum.
Thanks to those ancient observers, we can now say that every visit from Halleys comet as far back as 240 BC has been seen and recorded. There are no gaps. I think it’s a remarkable achievement of human determination. The Chinese and Babylonians were leaders, but viewers from other countries added further observations, all fitting Halley’s theory: some from Korea, some from Japan, some from ancient Americans. They didn’t need telescopes, but they did need calendars, to pin down their observations.
AD 1910 – The first photo of Halley’s comet, a near miss
Coming closer to our own time, with Halley’s comet coming past every 76 or so years, everybody who is 76 years or older, has a chance to see it. Mark Twain made the point that he was very qualified to observe it. He was born two days after Halley reached its closest to the sun in 1835, and said he would like to be alive when it went past in 1910. And he got his wish.
So about half the the members of the human race could have seen Halley’s comet once, and a few of us could have seen it twice. And we all could line our personal stories up with it, if we had the inclination. (My family did.)
This photo was taken in 1910 when my father was one year old, and he told me about it. So it’s part of my family history, and whether they told you or not, all of us have ancestors who lived at that time.
The 1910 visit was one of the most spectacular ever. It was also the first to be photographed. It came so close that the Earth crashed right through its tail. Newspapers warned their readers that there was cyanide in its tail, so some wore gas masks to stop being infected. But they didn’t need to worry; the tail was so thin that you would not have been seen or smelled it.
AD 1986 – I saw Halley’s comet!
1986 was the only visit of Halley’s comet people of my age are likely to see… and I did see it.. but it was one of the worst viewing years ever. It was on the far side of the sun from us, so very few people in the Northern hemisphere saw it with the naked eye.
At that time, I worked the night shift at Radio New Zealand in Wellington, and saw it on my way home. We knew it was going to be extremely faint, and astronomers had been telling journalists the positions in the night sky where we could look for it every night for about a month.
So about midnight after my shift ended I drove to Transmission Gully north of Wellington to get clear of the city lights, and tried to get a photo of it, but was too faint, so you only have my word for it. And I couldn’t see the head of the comet, just a very faint mist among the right stars.
AD 1986 – Halley's Comet seen from space
The 1986 visit was also the first one to be seen from space… So many countries sent spacecraft to photograph it, that it was called Halleys Armada. This one was from the European craft Giotto.
Right now it’s 15km long and 8 wide, and it loses about six metres of ice and dust every time it gets near the sun. But eventually it’s expected to break up completely, or depending on other near misses, it could get shoved out of our solar system completely. There are now bits of Halley’s comet that fall to earth as meteor showers every year.
So what chance did Jesus have to meet Halley’s comet?
So that is the history of Halley’s comet up to today.
Which brings me back to the question: what chance did Jesus have to meet Halley’s Comet?
And the answer is, he had no chance at all. But to draw that conclusion, you need to gather some historical data about Jesus.
Two of the Halley’s visits are relevant to the life of Jesus. One was the visit in AD 66, that Josephus saw. And the other was a visit in 12 BCE, a gap of 78 years. The life of Jesus is very shaky datewise, but we can safely say it must have been somewhere in this gap.
There was the fantastic view of Halley’s comet that Josephus recorded in AD 66 but Jesus was well and truly dead before then. We don’t have the exact year of his death, but it was around 30 AD. So we can safely say Jesus was dead and gone before that visit. There is a 36 year margin of error for that conclusion.
Jesus’ birth has not been accurately dated either, because the gospel writers didn’t use the Roman calendar to date it. But Matthew and Luke’s gospels both say he was born in the reign of Herod the Great, and that ended in 4 BC. And Matthew gives a further detail. He says Jesus and his family fled to Egypt because king Herod wanted to kill their son. And then, Matthew says, Herod died, and they returned back home. So any alleged star that fitted Matthew’s story must have been visible shortly before 4 BC.
So the star in Matthew’s story cannot have been Halley’s comet. It came 12 years too soon. So Jesus was one of the unlucky members of the human race who never saw Halley’s comet at all.
But that is not the end of Matthew’s story.
A further mystery, about the gospel writer
The final fact in my story is Matthew himself. Biblical scholars, including myself have studied long and hard, to find out when the four biblical gospels were written. It was one of the first Bible lessons I had in my theological training back in 1959.
We learned that Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels were related to each other, because they tell so many stories in identical words. And the consensus of Bible scholars is that Mark was written first, around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, because Mark makes vague hints about the destruction of Jerusalem, as if it was in the future. Matthew and Luke’s gospels appear to have been written after the destruction of Jerusalem, because they refer back to the destruction, and therefore had a very different emphasis on many issues. Among these issues: They quoted Mark’s gospel dozens of times, but they amended it heavily to fit their later experience. (John’s gospel was later again, so late that there is little point in mentioning it for historical purposes).
AD 70 was a turning point for Jews and Christians of that time for another reason. Many of them lived in or around Jerusalem, so in that year they escaped to neighbouring countries, and never came back. From that point on unpleasant rivalry grew up between them. In particular, the Christians claimed that the Jews had killed the Messiah, who had been "promised" in their own scriptures.
And would you believe, Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus is chock full of this argument, it is almost entirely based on Jewish prophecies, claiming that they came true in the life of Jesus.
Looking at the historical discrepancies:
Matthew claimed Jesus would be born in Bethlehem to fulfil a Jewish prophecy. That conclusion is debatable; there are texts in the Jewish scriptures which could refer to a Messiah being born in Bethlehem, but no way was it Jesus. Their idea of Messiah was based on king David, who was indeed born in Bethlehem, but he was a military hero, and these hints don’t fit Jesus very well at all:
The Jewish scriptures predict foreign kings would bring gold and incense to Jerusalem. But Matthew says the gold and frankincense were brought by astrologers, and that they also brought an embalming concoction, myrrh. This is not thought to be a matter of different memories from different observers: the changes are too big, and there's a pattern in them, a pattern of Christian propaganda.
The Jewish scriptures say God called his son out of Egypt…. referring to the Hebrew ancestors escaping from Egypt as described in the Book of Exodus. Matthew (let's face it) deliberately amends this story, and says it was about the baby Jesus, escaping from Herod because he wanted to murder all children in Bethlehem aged 6 or less, and then coming back after Herod died. This massacre never happened. The Jewish records don’t mention it. Neither do the other three gospels.
Jewish scriptures say the prophet Isaiah predicted a young woman would have a child in the time of king Hezekiah, and would call it Emmanuel (God is with us) as a sign that God would care for the people of Jerusalem which was under siege at the time. Matthew makes no mention of the siege, says the woman would be a virgin (using a mis-translation of the original Hebrew) and that it would happen in the time of Jesus. The word virgin doesn’t even appear in Isaiah’s prophecy. Luke’s gospel also says Jesus’ mother remained a virgin. But Luke has no comets, no stars, only angels visiting the baby Jesus.
Matthew's Christmas story was part of a public relations war with the Jewish community
So Matthew’s entire story about the birth of Jesus is part of his public relations war with Jews after the destruction of Jerusalem. There is hardly a single fact in it.
But the most significant discrepancies, relevant to my inquiry are:
Where did Matthew get the idea of a star from?
And where did he get the idea of astrologers following the star?
Neither of these are mentioned in the Jewish scriptures, or any other record of Jesus’ time.
However, they are both mentioned in other sources at the far later time of Matthew’s personal experience.
Writing about AD 80:
Matthew himself could have witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem. It was just 10 years before he wrote his gospel.
He could easily have witnessed Halley’s comet, four years before that.
Matthew could very likely have taken part in the discussion of whether this comet was part of a divine plan. There was widespread discussion of the comet signing of AD66.
And he could have read the story (which I learned of from Wikipedia!) … that the king of Armenia, east of Jerusalem saw Halley’s comet in AD66, and believed it was a sign predicting victory for the Roman emperor Nero. The king of Armenia figured it would be a good idea to get into Nero’s good books himself. So he sent a team of astrologers to Nero to ask for his support.
Nero was not very friendly to this approach. And the Armenian report says the astrologers went home another way.
So Matthew wrote these Armenian details into his own story about Jesus.
The evil emperor Nero becomes the evil king Herod who wants to kill the baby Jesus.
The astrologers visit Herod, not Nero.
The astrologers get offside with Herod, not Nero.
And the astrologers go back to their own country another way, in both versions of the story.
So I would say Matthew is a fiction writer on the grand scale. But he was not alone in wanting to claim Halley’s comet as a victory symbol for his own views.
The same was done by the Norman invaders, by Christian artists, and the Chinese astronomers who all in turn thought their comet sightings were signs of divine favour or fate.
So Matthew is part of the story of Halley’s comet, not as a witness, but as a science fiction writer: just as Star Wars reflects a style of fiction written in 1987, Matthew’s story reflects the views being debated in the Roman Empire cAD 80.
Our next rendezvous with Halley’s comet
Barring any collisions, our next encounter with Halleys Comet will be in 2061 – 41 years’ time. I expect our grandchildren will be around. And I expect they will see it close up, from space. Because we have already had space probes that followed comets. And six years ago, one actually landed on a comet.
This is a photo of a landing craft called Philae on a comet just four years ago. It was taken by the orbiting mother ship called Rosetta and the picture was radioed back to earth.
And maybe some of our descendants will actually walk on Halley’s comet
This is a picture of a stranded astronaut walking on Mars a few years ago, in the movie, The Martian (Oops, fiction again).
With the help of Photoshop, this is the same astronaut walking on Halley’s comet (If everyone's writing fiction, why shouldn't I do the same?
Fact and spin in the Christmas legend
There is an element of fun in all of these stories about magical stars. I think the scientific story is even more inspiring.
However, it comes with a warning. All the bits of fiction that Halley’s comet has gathered are rather self-serving. And that’s unfortunately true of the story in Matthew’s gospel. It is a story that blows a Christian trumpet, at the expense of the Jews and the expense of historical honesty. It is harmful; it has become part of a rationale of hatred of Jews that continues to our own time.
Repairing this distortion, we should insist that the Jews are not a community that “killed their own Messiah”. The whole idea of Jesus being Messiah is opinion, not fact. And it’s important with comets, and many other issues as well, to clearly separate the fact from the spin.
This is no trivial matter: Jerusalem is still a world hotspot for religious interpretations of history. A new outbreak of rocket fire has erupted this week as I write, between Hamas and Israel. Do the stars favour the Palestinians, the Jews or (looking at past battles) the Christians. We could do with a bit of science to give us perspective, history to warn us, and compassion to guide us.