Eminent theologian Dr Colin R Nicholl has written a sensational book which claims to unravel the mystery of the most famous star ever. The dad-of-two tells Una Brankin what inspired his research.
On Christmas Eve night, young Gabrielle and Evangelia Nicholl will go outside, look up at the sky and try to spot the first star, before they sit down to a special dinner at their grandparents' home in Coleraine.
Evangelia is convinced that she has seen the Star of Bethlehem from the back window of the family car on several occasions. And unlike most eight-year-olds, the schoolgirl knows the stellar spectacle was actually a comet - the Great Christ Comet, as it has been defined in a hugely significant study by her father, Dr Colin R Nicholl.
The highly learned scholar's eponymous book is being acclaimed, with excitement, by astronomers, theologians and historians from around the world. Beautifully illustrated by his wife and fellow academic, Sirscha, The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem, provides a compelling new take on the Biblical account of the Maji's journey to the birthplace of the Messiah.
Professor Nicholl has taught at the University of Cambridge and was a professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary before devoting himself to Biblical research. He already has one book under his belt, From Hope to Despair, and has had many articles appear in publications such as The Journal of Theological Studies and newspapers.
His current tome, though, has been a labour of love for sometime. He explains: "The book has taken four and a half years of research and it lays to rest the claims of sceptics. They (scientists) have insisted that what the Star of Bethlehem is said to have done, is impossible for an astronomical body. But every part of Matthew's description of the Star, as recorded in the Bible, can be shown to accord with modern astronomical knowledge. And no ancient could have invented such a complicated and unusual comet."
Heralded by the world's leading cosmetologist Gary W Kronk as "the most important book ever published on the Star of Bethlehem", the significance of Dr Nicholl's findings cannot be over-stated. With the backing of the internationally esteemed astronomers of the Armagh Observatory, the biblical scholar asserts that the Star of Bethlehem was no myth, but a very real, huge comet, "one of the icy balls of dirt and dust zipping around the solar system in eccentric orbits".
And with British astronaut Tim Peake jettisoning into space two days ago, 24 years after Sheffield's Helen Sharman journeyed into space, there is something timely, but purely coincidental about Professor Nicholl's book.
The comet hypothesis has a long history but no firm evidence until now. Some astronomers and other experts believed the Star of Bethlehem was actually Halley's Comet, or the 5 BC Comet. But Dr Nicholl argues that it was no run of the mill celestial entity.
"Only an intrinsically bright, very large, narrowly inclined, retrograde, long-period comet could have done what Matthew recounts concerning the Star of Bethlehem," he says, Chicago inflections in his voice, from his years of study at the University of Illinois. "For the first time, we have been able to show how the Star satisfies the criteria for cometary greatness, with a thorough review of the Biblical, historical, and scientific evidence. It is, I believe, the greatest comet seen for many thousands of years."
The youngest of a family of four, Dr Nicholl returned with his family to live in his parents' Coleraine home, after several years teaching at Cambridge University, to write The Great Christ Comet. His interest was sparked back in 2007 when his father-in-law gave him a DVD on the mystery of The Star of Bethlehem, made by US lawyer and amateur biblical scholar Rick Larsson, who believes a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus (in 2 BC) marked the birth of Jesus.
"I wasn't really interested in the Star at that stage, but my father-in-law is a nice guy and I didn't want to offend him," admits Dr Nicholl. "The Larsson DVD was a beautiful production but some of it was implausible. I went back to the Bible and looked up Matthew, Chapter Two. My faith had always been strong; this is what Matthew said happened. I asked myself, 'can I prove it?'
"So, over the next couple of years, I learned about astronomy in general and comets in particular, and I came to realise that the Star could only be a comet - only a comet could move as the Star moved and remain visible for over a year.
"Then, in 2011, it dawned on me that another passage in the Bible (Revelations Chapter 12) revealed what the Star did, to so impress the Magi. After some initial discussions with astronomers, I was convinced that fully resolving the mystery was very possible: not just proving that it was a comet, but also working out as much as I could about it."
Enter the Armagh Observatory. For the past four years, Dr Nicholl has been collaborating with the astronomers there, working on computer models that could fit the description of the astronomical body in the Gospel of Matthew.
So how did typically sceptical scientists respond to the ground-breaking theory of a Bible expert?
"I am delighted to say they were open-minded and respectful," he says. "It's fair to say they were excited and fascinated by my research. They spent time making major calculations for me, and in one case even writing a computer program to figure things out. Working with astronomers was an absolutely thrilling privilege and gave me some of the most invigorating experiences in my life.
"They were also appreciative of the fresh perspective I brought to the table - especially in reading historical texts, in finding fresh ways to explain complex astronomical concepts simply, and in drawing attention to overlooked astronomical events in history."
Dr Nicholl's daughters were equally fascinated by the Star, and his work on the book became a family affair.
"Gabriella (10) became my astronomy buddy and came with me on research trips to see the Northern Lights, comets, planets and meteor showers. Evangelia would gaze at the sky from the back seat of our car when we were travelling somewhere at night and frequently thought she'd spotted the Star itself. And my wife Sirscha, who is very patient and meticulous, did the beautiful illustrations in the book."
The Great Christ Comet is dedicated to Dr Nicholl's Baptist parents, Drew, a frozen foods retailer, and Florence, who always encouraged his childhood interest in the Bible.
After a "very happy" upbringing and secondary education at Coleraine Institute, Colin left at 18 to study in Illinois, while his three older brothers opted variously for optometry, study of the classics and forestry.
"I had an enquiring mind as a kid and wrote a couple of little books as an 11 or 12-year-old," Dr Nicholl recalls.
"God is, in essence, beyond contemplation, but I have a great desire to penetrate the Divine Mysteries - many of them can be understood and He expects us to engage with Him.
"We are led to believe that as far as faith and religion go, it has all been said.
"That's very mistaken; there is so much to learn and fresh discoveries to be made. It's a very challenging discipline and I'm convinced there is a lot out there still must be said."
With The Great Christ Comet, this unassuming scholar has opened up one of the greatest mysteries in astronomy and in the Bible, the most celebrated religious symbol in history, which has long fascinated Christians and non-Christians alike. In a nutshell, the Gospel of Matthew tells us that the Star appeared suddenly and remained visible for over a year.
Then it had an extraordinary rising in the eastern sky that prompted the famous trio of wise men to travel hundreds of miles to Judea in search of the Jewish Messiah.
"As we know from Matthew, when the Maji were making their way southwards from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, the Star seemed to be going ahead of them," explains Dr Nicholl.
"Later that night, it appeared to stand over one particular house. Now, this may not seem like a lot of information, but it actually is sufficient to rule out all of the existing proposals and enable us to identify the Star with confidence.
"Despite what some radical theologians may try to tell you, recent Gospels scholarship has tended to the view that Matthew is an ancient biography, characterised by a strong concern for historical accuracy. Matthew wrote an ancient biography about the life and career of someone in the relatively recent past, with the intention of being faithful to history.
He drew upon sources - generally written sources - which were carefully preserved by the early Christians, whose faith depended on accurate reporting of history.
"The Star is also mentioned by Luke and described by Ignatius, a contemporary of Matthew.
Also, the story of the Star has many of the characteristics of a trustworthy eyewitness account, according to recent psychology of memory research.
Every part of Matthew's description of the Star can be shown to accord with modern astronomical knowledge. And no ancient could have invented such a complicated and unusual comet."
The Nativity story is a familiar one in the Nicholl household. During advent, the family take turns to read a part of it and sing carols, or read from a Christmas storybook, before the children get their daily chocolate treat.
Dr Nicholl says: "We go to at least one Christmas carol service in the run-up to Christmas. Our church always has a Narnia display that we make a point of visiting.
"Another local church does a live Nativity, with a donkey, goats, calves and so on, which we always take our kids to.
"After Christmas Eve dinner, we always let the girls open one present. Then, Christmas Day is very much a family day. Before the rest of the presents are opened, we take the time to read the Nativity story from either Matthew or Luke and give thanks to God for the coming of Jesus.
"My faith has never wavered," he concludes. I recognise the challenge others have with faith, but personally mine is strong.
"I do find the Bible very compelling, and powerful and profound. I don't have any doubts in any serious way.
"I'm very confident that my faith is based upon what I know from careful study and analysis. And it is such an enriching realisation to look up into the sky and see the same thing that was there 2000 years ago."
An iconic symbol of Christmas, The Star of Bethlehem is the most celebrated astronomical entity in history. But, while the modern academic quest to identify the star can be traced back to Johannes Keppler in the 17th century, questions remained: How did the Star prompt the Magi to set out on a long journey to Judea? How did it lead them to the birthplace of Jesus?
In his ground-breaking book, Dr Nicholl provides a decisive breakthrough in providing a verifiable scientific explanation for the appearance of the Star recorded in the Bible. With the help of top astronomical researchers, and drawing on recent astronomical research, cutting-edge computer software, and key documents from the ancient world, he argues that the star was actually one of the brightest comets in history
The rave reviews of his book include:
"The definitive treatment of the subject." Philosopher JP Moreland
"An historic discovery and nothing less." US author and broadcaster Eric Metaxas
"Quite breathtaking in the range of its scholarship, yet a page-turner in terms of its accessibility." John Lennox, Northern Ireland-born Professor of Mathematics, Oxford University