Seeing the Bible Through the Eyes of a Historian

Have you ever wondered whether Mary was really a virgin? Or if there actually was a Christmas Star? Jonathan L. Reed, a religion professor at the University of La Verne in California and author of "Excavating Jesus" and "In Search of Paul," is addressing questions like these and many more in a new series on the National Geographic Channel called "Science of the Bible."

The series is not about disproving the stories of the Bible, Reed said.

"The heart of the series is to be informative," Reed said. "We want to stress that this is not about being destructive to people's beliefs, and we're not trying to say someone's faith is wrong."

"We did this project to add depth and context to the stories of the Bible so that the true meaning comes through," he added.

In the Gospels, the Magi followed a star that they believed signaled the birth of the king of the Jews. Science and history have both looked into the Christmas Star, as an astrological event, but have not found anything, Reed said. However, at the time, shooting stars were rife with meaning, which explains its inclusion in the Gospel.

"Historically, at that time, shooting stars signified rulers or kings," Reed said. "Julius Caesar's adopted son, Augustus, believed that a shooting star at the time of Caesar's death proclaimed Caesar's divinity. Augustus minted coins with Caesar's image on one side and a star on the other."

"In order not to bow down to Augustus, the Gospel writers may have introduced the notion of the Christmas Star to show that Jesus was divine, as great if not greater than the Roman rulers," he added.

Whether Jesus' mother, Mary, was truly a virgin has been discussed through the ages. By looking at the original language of the Bible, Reed offered one explanation.

"In the Gospels, the Hebrew world 'almah' is used to describe Mary, which means 'young girl,' " Reed said. "When that passage is translated into Greek, the Greek word meaning 'virgin' is used. So, we don't know if the author meant that Mary was indeed a virgin or if it is confusion caused by the translation."

"The series doesn't try to prove or disprove beliefs like this," Reed added. "But what we do know of a woman at the time Mary lived is that she was probably very young -- maybe as young as 12."