Michael Molnar photograph courtesy Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
And thus does a hobby of collecting antiquities turn into a fun research project.
When a dealer at a New York coin show showed astronomer Michael Molnar an ancient Roman coin minted in Syria that featured a picture of Zeus on one side and Aries the ram on the other, he bought it for $50.A new hypothesis about the Star of Bethlehem follows.
A few months later, Molnar noticed a star on the coin, which was minted in A.D. 13. An earlier version had been issued by Quirinius, the governor of Syria who's mentioned in the Gospel of Luke as ordering a census at the time of the birth of Jesus.
And so began a quest by the University of Wisconsin-Madison alum to see if a most unlikely source — his own coin collection — held a clue to the identity of the Star of Bethlehem that drew the three wise men to see the infant king, an event known as Epiphany, which this year is celebrated Sunday in many churches.
Molnar collects ancient coins featuring astronomical or astrological symbols. While researching a story for a coin collecting magazine, he learned that astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, who lived in Egypt in the 2nd century A.D., wrote that Judea was ruled by the constellation Aries.
"I thought: What could have attracted stargazers to the birth of a king? I knew from reading ancient texts that these ancient stargazers watched for Jupiter and its relationship with the moon," Molnar said in a phone interview from his New Jersey home. At the time, planets were called stars.
"They felt that when Jupiter was close to the moon, Jupiter's powers to create kings were strongest," Molnar said. "There was one particular event they were trying to calculate — when the moon would get so close it would pass in front of Jupiter. This was considered magical in ancient times."
In the course of a year, as the planets revolve around the sun, Jupiter gets closer to the sun and eventually disappears. When it emerges on the other side — in the east — it can be seen from Earth.All because of a chance purchase at a coin show. And perhaps because of a chance failure of a vending machine in Madison in August, 1970.
"Ancient people thought this was a magical moment and the powers of the planet were at their maximum," Molnar said.
Molnar checked the dates of an eclipse of Jupiter by Earth's moon when Jupiter was in the east and the constellation of Aries the Ram was close, then referenced them against the years when scholars believe Jesus was born. Only one date popped up: April 17, 6 B.C.