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Popular “Plate Coin” published in New York Times, on History Channel, in The Celator, The Numismatist: Roman Antioch AE c. 13/14 CE, Zeus/Ram, "Star of Bethlehem"


Curtis JJ

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Note: Please share other "bibliographic coins," or Astronomy-themed coins, or coins of similar types or images, or anything that seems relevant!

 

Edit: Just realized the Youtube videos can be embedded! First 50 seconds is what's relevant (beginning at 0:50:45 thru 0:51:35):

 

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My goal is a “bibliographic collection”: ancient coins representing important numismatic literature and the biographies of interesting collectors and scholars. I posted some favorite new “lost & found provenances” from 2023 on CT (10-16X Greek + 10X Provincial).

But I acquired one coin in 2023 that has all my others beaten. (Possibly combined!)

It’s my only New York Times “plate coin.” Or “plate coin” in a History Channel documentary (if it’s still called "plate coin" in a video). Among dozens of others.

It’s neither expensive nor rare nor beautiful. Better examples can be found for $100. But it’s the one specimen in my collection with the greatest impact on the modern “audience reception” of ancient coins. Which makes it my favorite new "lost (partly) & found provenance" of 2023.

image.jpeg.54eabe5182244e0a4296beea043548b0.jpeg

 

It is Michael Molnar’s (1945-2023) bronze “Star of Bethlehem” coin from Antioch. 

Molnar was an astronomy professor at Rutgers University at one time and a long time ancient coin collector. (He got his PhD at University of Wisconsin-Madison [Astronomy, 1971], where I studied sociology. Wayne Sayles went there, too.) He died almost one year ago (7 Feb 2023). His obituary & photo are on Legacy.com.

Molnar's book, The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi, must be one of the better selling books featuring ancient coins in the past generation. (First published in 1999, with several translations and later editions, still in print.) 

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He had first published the coin eight years earlier in The Celator (Dec 1991), for which he wrote a dozen articles about astronomical themes on ancient coins (1991-1998, titles below, at very end):

MolnarTheCelator1991Fig1.png.53e6dd4342038576ba3e2605d7650ca2.png

His theory was that the “Christmas Star” or “Star of Bethlehem” was a series of remarkable celestial events involving the planets and the constellation Aries in April of 6 BCE (represented on the coin by the leaping ram, looking back at the star; see RPC I 4269 for type).

Many others have written about his theory. Colloquia and conference proceedings followed. And, every December, Molnar appeared on TV or in newspapers and magazines talking about it. 

And the coin – always this one. Perhaps a bit of scholarly mythmaking, his “Eureka moment” always centered on this particular specimen.

It happened, he wrote, when “I found the piece at a New York City coin show in 1970” (The Numismatist, Dec 2002, p. 1421):

"Little did I realize that one astrologically themed specimen would provide an unexpected clue to what many stargazers consider the ‘Holy Grail’-the Star of Bethlehem. My coin turned out to be a key to the famous Christmas star that Christians believe guided the Magi, Zoroastrian priests known as the Three Wise Men, to the newborn Messiah."

The New York Times article (21 Dec 1999, “Coin May Link Star of Bethlehem to King of Planets”) even shows it a second time. In addition to a captioned photo of the reverse, Molnar is shown holding up a print copy of the same photo!

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In a documentary that aired on the History Channel in December 2001, Molnar handles the coin and shows a digital image of it. The relevant portion of the episodes begins here at 50:45, continuing until 51:35 (for Molnar’s full segment continues to 54:06; he also talks at ~46:27-47:00 & again at 48:03-48:28). (If I did it correctly, this link should give just the 50 second clip with the coin: 50:45 through 51:35.)

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He connected other Syrian coins to the same celestial events and published several specimens from his collection in the book. His website made all of them free to publish. They're still available on his Archived Website.

But he always gave this one coin a place of prominence. He used a large photo of the reverse on the front of his site to explain the theory:

MolnarStarofBethlehemCoverPageEd.jpg.4746504f93c2333ebe9780a9c5bd989c.jpg

 

While I have no strong opinions on Molnar’s scientific explanation (I don’t feel qualified to judge) or its underlying subject matter, I believe we do agree on something important:

There is something special – even mystical – about a coin’s “object biography.” (On modern object bio.: Elkins 2022.) Just as ancient coins permit us to commune with members of long dead cultures, they also allow us to connect with the modern collectors and scholars who previously handled and pondered them – that is, to briefly reincarnate their perspectives on the spirit of antiquity.

 

A few representative publications illustrating this coin (chronologically):

The Celator v. 5, n. 12 (Dec 1991): pp. 8ff. https://social.vcoins.com/files/file/55-vol-05-no-12-december-1991/

New York Times 21 Dec 1999: “Coin May Link Star of Bethlehem to King of Planets

The Numismatist, Dec 2002: 1421 ff., “A Clue to the Christmas Star,” by Molnar, enlargements of rev. on p. 1379 (T.O.C.) & p. 1422.

Christianity Today: 22 Dec 2014.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: 1 Jan 2016.

Wisconsin Life Magazine: 6 Jan 2017 “The Astronomy Behind The Fabled Star Of Bethlehem.” https://wisconsinlife.org/story/the-astronomy-behind-the-fabled-star-of-bethlehem/

History Channel, Dec 2021, “In Search of Christmas,” Episode 1: “Evidence of Jesus Birth Revealed." Starting at 50:45 (Michael Molnar…) or Clip: 50:45-51:35

 

Other references:

Groningen University Colloquium (Oct 2014) page on Molnar’s theory:

Wikipedia Discussion in "Star of Bethlehem" article: Double occultation on Saturday (Sabbath) April 17, 6 BC

Citations to Molnar’s book on Google Scholar: https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=bj4UeQcAAAAJ&hl=en

Beast Coins page, w/ T.B. Cartwright (dated 1 Oct 2014), on the topic:

 

See also:

CNG Listing for coin (EA 543 [2 Aug 2023], 340)

Molnar’s “Revealing the Star of Bethlehem” website (Archived): https://web.archive.org/web/20151208112311/http://www.eclipse.net/~molnar/index.html

Molnar’s obituary on Legacy.com

Twelves articles by "Molnar, Michael R." in The Celator 1987-1998 [index by W. Sayles?]; the PDF on Valentinian's site: http://augustuscoins.com/ed/catalogs/notes.html For the issues: https://social.vcoins.com/thecelator/

  • An explanation of the Christmas star determined from Roman coins of Antioch Dec., 1991
  • Christmas star research relies on ancient astrology Feb., 1992
  • Trajan’s celestial omen Feb., 1993
  • Astrological omens commemorated on Roman coinage: The solar eclipse of 120 B.C. April, 1993
  • Astrological omens commemorated on Roman coins: Tarpeia and the Omina Lunae Aug., 1993
  • The case for astrologic Roman coins Nov., 1993
  • Astrological omens commemorated on Roman coins: Capricorn April, 1994
  • Astrological omens commemorated on Roman Coins: The Ides of March Nov., 1994
  • Blood on the Moon in Aquarius: The assassination of Domitian May, 1995
  • Astrological omens commemorated on Roman coins: Clues to Caesar’s fortune March, 1996
  • Mithradates used comets on coins as a propaganda device June, 1997
  • Symbolism of the sphere June, 1998
Edited by Curtis JJ
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