Jesus meets Halley’s Comet

David Hines

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David Hines © 7th January 2018

Yesterday was the day when Christians celebrate the story of the wise men visiting the baby Jesus. The gospel writer referred to as Matthew says they had been guided there by a star. Since then, there have been numerous theories about whether this really was a star, or a supernova, or a comet, or just a piece of fiction.

I’d like to compare a dozen of these stories, and I was intrigued to find that several of them do link up with Jesus in the minds of the observers. but are they links of fact, or just wishful thinking.

My first actual observer was in the year 66 AD, illustrated in this woodcarving of 1666.

Jerusalem with comet. Stanislas Lubienski. 17th century,
Jerusalem with comet. Stanislas Lubienski. 17th century,

Josephus was a Jewish historian, and at the time, he and thousands of others observed a bright comet. Josephus was not the only person to see this comet. Far from it, but he deserves credit for recording it, and noting the date. The early Christians wrote before and after this date, but it was in all their minds.

Some of them thought this comet was a sign from God that he was about to destroy Jerusalem. So there is the comet like a death sentence hanging over the city. And Jerusalem was in fact destroyed four years later, after a war between Jews and Romans.

I think this woodcarving is like a political cartoon, It captures that moment from a Christian point of view. It is said to have been done in Amsterdam by Stanislas Lubienski. It was done in the 17th century, but it reflects the time 66AD, a few years before the writing of Matthew’s gospel.

My second group of observers were a team of weavers in 1066.

Section of Bayeux Tapestry showing comet of 1066
Bayeux Tapestry

They wove a huge rug 70 metres long showing the Normans fighting the people of England, with swords and horses. This was the famous Bayeux tapestry. The Normans made it to celebrate their victory.

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 because it has a giant tail.

It’s a piece of history from the Norman point of view. And this tapestry still on display there in Bayeux, in Normandy.

My third observer was a an Italian painter, Giotto di Bondone, in 1301.

The Adoration of the Magi, Giotto di Bondone, 1305, showing comet.
The Adoration of the Magi, Giotto di Bondone, 1305.

And he too is a part of history. Because he too saw a comet and he drew a picture of it. But the rest of the picture is a flashback to the Baby Jesus and the wise men. But at the top of the picture is not a star, as Matthews gospel says It is very clearly a comet with a tail, very similar to the comet shown in the Bayeux tapestry.

This frescoe is still there on the wall of the Arena Chapel in Padua Italy. So that’s two artists who have drawn a comet that they saw, and they provided us with dates, as well as pictures.

My fourth observer was Peter Apian, an astronomer in Germany, in 1531.

Peter Apian's illustration of the comet of 1531 (Halley's).described in text.
Peter Apian’s illustration of the comet of 1531 (Halley’s).

And 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 it changed over nine different days, like a multiple exposure. And each of comet images is at a different angle, and each of them is connect by a line to an image of the sun.

And all of them have their tails pointing away from the sun.

Now comets tails always point away from the sun, but Apian seem to have been the first person to notice.

This picture starts from the righthand side, so the comet is travelling left, but its tails are pointing up, at different angles as the comet went round the sun

The tails are not produced out of the back of the comets like the exhaust of a rocket. They are blasted out sideways, whichever direction is opposite to the sun, because it’s the heat fro the sun that heats up the ice in them, and it’s the solar wind that blows it away.

This happens to comets every time they approach the sun, and the lose many tonnes of dust and ice every time.

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 ellipse, as shown in the top picture.

2 illustrations showing planets, comets, move in an elipse around the sun.
2 illustrations showing planets, comets, move in an elipse around the sun.

The sun is not in the centre, it’s 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

The second picture shows that the ellipses can be very stretched out. And at the far end from the sun, they will be travelling much slower, and when they get near to the sun, they’ll be going much faster. But he missed an important point. He didn’t think this applied to comets. He thought they zipped straight through the solar system and never come back.

And he was a religious man, and he also thought about the star of Bethlehem, but he thought it was a conjunction of two planets. And he reckoned there were three conjunctons of Jupiter and Venus near the birth of Jesus that could have been what the wise men saw.

History still has people who think the star was a conjunction. But conjunctions are a dime a dozen. there were 11 of them last year. I saw one which was Jupiter meeting with Venus and it was quite bright, but but no brighter than two cars on the same road passing each other, which is what a conjunction is. All the planets are in a straight line from our angle of looking at them, so it’s not surprising that they pass each other.

My sixth observer is an English astronomer called Edmund Halley, and this is his telescope still on display in Greenwich near London.

Halley's telescope at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England.
Halley’s telescope at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England.

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.

His first clue was that Kepler had seen a comet 75 years before him, and that Peter Appian’s comet was seen 76 years before that.

So what if all three were the same planet?

It wasn’t enough to measure the times between them, because these vary whenever the comet passes a planet like Jupiter …. he had to calculate the whole orbit, back through past orbits.

There was particularly close approach to earth in the year 837AD. And Halley’s theory needed more observations to predict anything further back than that. But how can you observe the past??

So Halley could not have predicted his comet visits back to the time of Jesus.

But these gaps were filled in by observations in China back to 240 BC. This is a report from that year, and it’s on display in the British Museum.

Chinese record from 240BC of Halley's comet.
Chinese record from 240BC of Halley’s comet.

And Chinese sightings were faithfully recorded ever since, ranging from 75 years to 79 apart.

Like the Christians wishing that comets would tell of the time of Jesus, the Chinese were wishing they would tell the fortune of their rulers. So out of astrology grew the facts that made up the new science.

And 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.

Babylonian record of Halley's comet in 164BC
Babylonian record of Halley’s comet in 164BC

Thanks to those ancient observers, we can now say that every visit from Halley’s comet since then has been seen and recorded. There are no gaps. I think it’s a remarkable achievement of human determination. Other countries added bits, some from Korea, some from Japan, some from ancient indigenous Americans.

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 qualified very well. He was born two days after Halley reached its closest to the sun, in 1835, and he said he would like to be alive when it went past in 1910. And would you believe he died one day after the comet reached its brightest in 1910.

So just about anybody could draw links of their own life story with Halleys’ comet if they wished.

Would you believe this photo was taken in 1910 when my father was one year old.

Picture of Halley's comet from 1910, accompanied by article about (unfounded) fears people would die from the poisonous gases in its tail.
Picture of Halley’s comet from 1910

So it’s part of my history, and probably all of us if you have ancestors who read about the stars.

The 1910 visit was one of the most spectacular views of Halleys comet ever. And it was also the first to be photographed. And it was so close to earth that Earth went right through its tail, and people were warned that there was cyanide in its tail, so people wore gas masks to save being infected. They didn’t need to worry, the tail is so thin that you would not even be aware of it.

But the 1986 visit was also the first one to be seen from space… and so many countries sent spacecraft to photograph it, that it was called Halley’s Armada. This picture was from the Russian Vega craft, and people commented that it looks rather like a peanut.

Picture of 1986 visit of Halley's comet from Russian Vega craft.
Picture of 1986 visit of Halley’s comet from Russian Vega craft.

Right now it’s 15km long and 8 wide. 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.

So how much chance did Jesus have to meet Halleys’ comet?

Well thanks to the Chinese observations, we can say he had no chance at all.

There was a fantastic view in AD 66 but Jesus was well and truly dead before then. We don’t have the exct year of his death, around 30 AD, but that’s a 36 year margin of error.

Jesus’ birth has not been accurately dated either, because the gospel writers did not use the Roman calendar to date it. But Matthew and Luke both say he was born in the reign of Herod the Great, and that equates to 4BC. And Matthew puts it more finely. He says Jesus and his family fled to Egypt because of Herod wanting to kill their baby. And then he says Herod died, and they returned back home. So the alleged star must have been shortly before 4 BC,

And that means it was nowhere near the visit of Halley’s comet in 12BC.

So there was no meeting. Sorry to have misled you, I hadn’t finished my study when I announced this topic.

There is a link, but it is a link with Matthew, not Jesus. The date for Matthew/s gospel is put about 80 AD, 14 year after Halley’s comet…. So Matthew certainly could have seen it, thousands did, including Josephus.

Jerusalem with comet. Stanislas Lubienski. 17th century,
Jerusalem with comet. Stanislas Lubienski. 17th century,

But it’s stronger than that. Matthew’s gospel was frequently referring to the destruction of Jerusalem. It is a large part of the way we put a date on the gospels, that Mark was looking forward to the destruction of Jerusalem, and Matthew and Luke were looking back at it.

The Jews and Christians were driven out of their home country by it. Their fortunes started heading in two directions. They became critical of each other.

And it shows, in Mathews gospel in particular.

So if we switch back to Bondone’s picture again, but with the destruction of Jerusalem in mind.

The Adoration of the Magi, Giotto di Bondone, 1305, showing comet.
The Adoration of the Magi, Giotto di Bondone, 1305.

Matthew’s story has numerous things that would have annoyed the Jews.

    • It predicts Jesus would be born in Bethlehem to fulfil a Jewish prophecy. The Jews don’t believe that. It’s their prophecy, but Matthew was misquoting it.
    • Jewish scriptures predict foreign kings would bring Gold and frankincense to Jerusalem. But Matthew has turned them into astrologers.
    • Jewish scriptures say God called his son out of Egypt…. referring to the exodus. Matthew says it wasn’t about the Exodus; it was about the baby Jesus.
    • Jewish scriptures say Isaiah predixtesd young WOMAN would have a child in the time of king Hezekiah. Matthew says the woman would be a virgin and it would be in the time of Jesus. The word virgin doesn’t even appear in Isaiah’s prophecy.

All of these things are still points of argument between Christians and Jews. And they annoyed the jews so much that they stopped using the Greek translation of the Jewish bible, that the Christians were using; and went back to using the Hebrew version as they do today.

So this entire story is Matthew’s public relations war with Jews after the destruction of Jerusalem.

And there’s one strange reference that doesn’t come from the Jewish bible at all. It talks about astrologers following a star. Where did Matthew get astrologers from?

It happened in AD66. The king of Armenia saw Halley’s comet and wanted to claim it as a good sign for himself, and wanted to get confirmation of this from the Roman emperor Nero. 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.

And surprisingly that very line appers in Matthew’s gospel, when he says the astrologers from the east came to worship Jesus, went first to visit King Herod. Herod did not give them a very friendly reception, and they too went home another way.

So Wikipedias article about the star of Bethlehem offers this as a solution as to where Matthew got the idea of astrologers from. I think it’s very plausible.

It is not science; but it is science fiction; there could have been a comet at the birth of Jesus, but there wasn’t.

But Matthew wasn’t the only superstitious person back then. The Chinese astromers who recorded star observations every yesr, were doing it to get astrological information about their emperors. So were the Normans, the Christians and many others.

and out of all this superstition an amazing story of science emerges. Halley’s comet has visited earth exactly 30 times since 240BC. Every one of them has been reliably witnessed.

It has engaged some of the brightest minds of China, Babylon, Japan, Korea, Italy, France, England, South America, America, Russia. All did their bit.

And some of our children can look forward to the next visit in 2061 – 43 years time

I think it might look a bit like this.

European Space Agency craft Philae on Comet 67P.
European Space Agency craft Philae on Comet 67P.

Instead of following the comet, our children might land on it.

This is a picture of a landing craft called Philae on a comet just four years ago. Its not an artist’s impression. It was taken by the orbiting mother ship called Rosetta and the picture radioed back to earth.

Our children will surely send a landing craft to on Halley. It has already been done, though with mixed success. Philae bounced off it’s target, floated out to space a few km, floated back in again, and got stuck in a crack where it couldn’t get enough sunlight to charge its batteries.

Artists impression of lander on a comet.
Artists impression of lander on a comet.

And we can probably send a man or woman there as well.

Man walks on comet - well Mars supposedly. From the movie 'The Martian'
Man walks on comet – well Mars supposedly. From the movie ‘The Martian’

That would really be a milestone. This is a picture of a man walking on Mars a few years back. It was not really Mars; it was just a cute story, like the star over Bethlehem. But it could happen, if there is peace on earth.

And here’s hoping that the countries which each contributed to the Halley story, will continue to cooperate over the next 43 years as they did over the last.

Several of them are planning war as we speak.