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Bethlehem's Star

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him."...Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him." When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy, and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.

Matthew 2:1-2 and 2:7-10

For hundreds of years pundits have speculated about the nature of the star in the Christmas story. Some skeptics have suggested it never existed, but was added by the author of the gospel to show the significance of Jesus' birth. Others think that it was a special miracle of divine nature that cannot be explained. It was created by God for this one event and perhaps not visible to any but those who needed to see it.

However, there is a third possibility. Suppose the star was an actual astronomical event (though with divine timing)? Are there phenomena in space that could explain what the wise men saw? Can we find evidence beyond the scriptures of its existence?

The First Christmas

The first thing that needs to be established in a search for an astronomical star of Bethlehem is the date of Jesus' birth. This seems a simple matter, December 25th the year "0," right? Unfortunately there is reason to believe that neither the date nor the year is correct. Until what we refer to as 535 A.D., the years were numbered not from the birth of Christ, but by dates based on Roman history. By 535 A.D. Christian practices had replaced most of the pagan Roman religions that proceeded it and at that time the task to change the numbering of years was given to a Scythian monk named Dionysius Exiguus. Dionysius based his new calendar on the birth of Christ. He calculated the date of that event by working backwards through the reigns of Roman emperors.

While mostly successful in building this new calendar, it appears Dionysius made some mistakes. The first is that he omitted the year zero, making the calendar jump from 1 B.C. to 1 A.D.. Also, scholars working in the first and second century A.D. who had access to better documentation than Dionysius seem to place the birth of Christ up to five years earlier. Many modern scholars figure the birth to be somewhere between 6-4 B.C..

The day of the year we celebrate Christmas has little to do with Jesus' birth, but was chosen to replace pagan holidays that occurred during the winter. The Bible tells us that angels announced the birth of Christ to shepherds in the fields. It can be argued that it is most likely the shepherds were in the fields overnight with their sheep in the spring. During late March and early April, ewes would have been giving birth to lambs and would have needed the extra attention and protection of their keepers nearby. However, there were flocks whose shepherds slept with them in the fields almost year around, so it is hard to pinpoint any particular season for the nativity.

The Magi

The wise men, sometimes referred to as Magi, came from the "East" according to the book of Matthew. But where in the east? Tradition tells of the three "kings" that visited the baby Jesus bearing presents. Nowhere in the Bible, though, are either the number of wise men noted (early bible commentators probably inferred three from the number of gifts) or that they were of noble blood. In fact, the Bible does not even state that the wise men all came from the same place "in the East!"

Many authors on this subject believe that the wise men came from the area of Babylon and there is much to support this theory. Babylon is almost directly east of Jerusalem. The Babylonians were considered to be great astrologers that kept astronomical records reaching back two-thousand years before the birth of Christ. Perhaps, most importantly, in 586 B.C. the Babylonians invaded and captured Jerusalem. Thousands of Jews were forced to relocate and live in Babylon. Though many returned to Jerusalem at the end of this "Babylonian captivity," the area continued to have a large Jewish population for many centuries. This made it likely that wise men of Babylon knew of and were interested in the prophecies of a coming Jewish Messiah. It is even possible that the Magi themselves were descendants of original captive Jews that never left Babylon.

Some claims have been made that the Magi were Persian, Arabian, or even Greek. Whoever they were, they must have had a good understanding of the Hebrew messianic prophecy. In the Old Testament Book of Numbers, the soothsayer Balaam says, "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near-a star shall come forth out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel..." At least some Jewish scholars would have interpreted this passage and others to say that at the birth of the Messiah there would be a celestial sign. By the end of the first century B.C. they might have been looking for this sign for almost a thousand years. Whatever the sign was it would have to be unique, otherwise the wise men, or their predecessors, would have had made useless trips to Jerusalem many times during the millennia proceeding Jesus' birth.

Was the star a Comet?

Comets were sometimes known as "long-haired stars" (NASA)

Comets have often been mentioned as a possible candidate for the Bethlehem's star. These objects, composed of ice and rock, often move around the sun in highly elongated orbits that may take them out to the edge of the solar system before they swing back again toward the sun. As they enter the center of the solar system, the warmth of the sun slowly melts the ice, causing the head of the comet to be surrounded by a haze of vapor and dust. The solar wind catches the vapor and blows it back toward the edge of the solar system in a characteristic tail. Since comets change position in the sky (unlike regular stars), could explain how the magi's star was first seen in the east, then later was seen directly in front of the wise men as they traveled south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Many comets are visible for several months, just the amount of time the Magi would have needed to mount an expedition and travel to Jerusalem if they were coming from Babylon.

Some sixteenth century astronomers proposed that not only was the star of Bethlehem a comet, but an earlier appearance of the most famous comet of all time, Comet Halley. The famous English astronomer Edmond Halley had successful predicted the return of this visitor from the edge of interstellar space in 1759 (though Halley himself was dead by then) by noticing its reappearance every 76.5 years. By calculating backwards, it seemed likely that the comet had been visible around 1 B.C. or A.D..

Though most people were disappointed by the showing of the Comet Halley when it came by the Earth in 1986, its appearance in the skies at the beginning of the first millennia would have been a spectacular sight, making it an obvious candidate for the star. Unfortunately, further refinements of the orbital period of the Comet Halley show that it takes almost 77 years on average to travel around the sun. That means it would have appeared in the skies in 12 B.C., too early to be the star the Magi followed.

If not Comet Halley, could it have been some other comet? Records kept by Chinese astronomers through this period do not record any spectacular celestial object that would obviously be a comet. There are also some historical reasons to think the star was not a comet. In general, comets were thought to be evil omens. More often they would signal the death of a king, not a birth. When a comet appeared in 79 A.D., astrologers wondered if it would mean the death of Emperor Vespasian. Vespasion, alluding to the term "long-haired star" used for comets, joked that the comet must have been meant for the Parthian King, who wore his hair long, not for himself, Vespasian, who was bald. Despite his clever pun, Vespasian died within a year.

Conjunctions

Check out our Flash Movie: Conjuctions and Occultations.

Could the star have actually been a planet like Venus or Jupiter? It seems extremely unlikely. The Magi, as professional astrologers, would have been very familiar with these heavenly bodies and not mistaken them for a "star." However, there is a case to be made that the star was not a single planet, but a conjunction of two planets. Conjunctions occur when planets, which travel in roughly along the same circle through the sky, pass each other. Conjunctions are rather common and would not seem to be a significant enough event to send the Magi on a five-hundred mile trip to Jerusalem. More rare is a triple conjunction. This occurs when a planet appears to travel backward in the sky in a movement known as retrograde motion. This can cause two planet to pass each other, then one backs up and they pass each other again, and finally pass each other a third time as normal forward movement is resumed.

A triple conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn occurred in 7 B.C. and has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the star of Bethlehem. Even making the display more impressive was a massing (a massing is when several planets move into close proximity in the sky) of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn that immediately followed the conjunction. The conjunctions and massing also occurred in the constellation of Pisces which was often identified with the Jews.

Astronomer Mark Kidger, author of Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomer's View, argues that even a triple conjunction was too common to qualify, in itself, as the star. The interval between triple conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn can be as short as 40 years or as long as 377 years with an average of around 180 years. Kidger reasons that if the triple conjunction alone was the event for which the Magi were watching, a triple conjunction in 146 B.C. should have sent the wise men or their predecessors on their way almost 150 years too early.

Occultations

Michael Molnar, an astronomer at Rutgers University, has suggested that the star might have actually been an occultation of Jupiter by the moon. An occultation occurs when the moon passes in front of another body, making it disappear from the sky. Molnar, also an expert in ancient coins, came up with the theory after purchasing a coin minted in Antioch in 13 A.D.. The Antioch coin shows a ram looking at a bright star close to a crescent Moon. Molnar, author of The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi, thinks that the coin shows that occultations were of great significance to these ancient peoples. During 6 B.C. two occultations of Jupiter by the Moon occurred that were visible from the middle eastern region. The Magi would have seen Jupiter, the royal planet, disappear and reappear, perhaps signalling to them the birth of a King. The constellation that these occurred in, Ares the Ram, was associated with the Palestine area.

Does a coin from the ancient city of Antioch hold the key to the Christmas star?

One of the problems with this theory is that these particular occultations would have been very difficult to see from Jerusalem and one of them impossible to observe from Babylon. Molnar argues, however, that the Magi were skilled enough to know that the occultation had occurred without having seen it.

One difficulty of both the conjunction and occultation explanations is that both involve multiple objects in the sky. The passage from Matthew uses the Greek term "aster" the singular, not "asteres" the plural. It is likely that if the text referred to a group of objects in the sky the word "astron," which means constellation, would have been employed.. If the author knew that planets were involved he could have also used the word "planes aster" that specifically meant planet.

Meteors

Could the star be a meteor, sometimes referred to as a "shooting star?" These objects, most no larger than a grain of sand, appear as streaks in the sky usually lasting less than a second. They seem to be too common, however, to be considered a candidate for the star. Rarely a large meteor enters the atmosphere and does not burn up until it approaches the ground. Such a phenomenon is referred to as a "fireball" and may last 5 or 10 seconds, leaving a trail of glowing smoke behind it. On extremely infrequent occasions, fireballs can be seen for several minutes. Certainly an object observed in the sky like this would have created much interest among the Magi, especially if it appeared in the east and crossed to the west toward Jerusalem.

For this theory to match the Matthew account, two fireballs would be required, one to start the Magi on their journey and another appearing as they approached Bethlehem. Statistically this is unlikely, though it cannot be completely discounted.

Novae and Supernovae

Occasionally a white dwarf star, which is part of a binary system, can blow off its upper layers in a violent explosion that will increase its brightness. This is referred to as a nova and can be as much as 50,000 times as bright as our sun. The star could be nearly invisible to the naked eye and within a few days become a bright star in the night sky that may last from several months to over a year.

Sometimes stars end their lives by going supernova in an explosion whose force can barely be conceived. A supernova can be 100 billion times as bright as the sun and last up to two years. If it occurs within our own galaxy it may be brighter than the moon and visible in full daylight. Supernovas within our galaxy are very rare and the list of probable and possible supernova events that have been observed over the last 2000 years contains only nine entries. When supernovas do happen they are spectacular. A supernova seen in 1054 left behind an expanding cloud of gas and dust we now refer to as the Crab Nebula. Earth may be treated to a spectacular supernova in the near (next thousand years) future when Betelgeuse, a red giant star 500 light years away, explodes. It is nearing the end of its life and is very unstable. Indeed there is the possibility that Betelgeuse has already exploded, but the light from this event has not yet reached us.

M78 Nebula: The remnants of a supernova explosion. (Credit SDSS Collaboration)

Was the star of Bethlehem a nova or supernova? Chinese records show no supernovas around 5 BC, however they do report a new star appearing in the constellation of Capricorn between March 10th and April 27th. This could have been a nova or a comet on a peculiar path. Kidger argues that although this star was not particularly bright, when combined with the earlier sightings of conjunctions, massing and parings in the constellation Pisces (identified with the Jews) it would have been enough to send the wise men on their journey. Kidger points to the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C. as the first sign, a massing of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars together in the sky in 6 B.C. as the second sign, and the pairing of the Moon and Jupiter plus a pairing of Mars and Saturn in February 5 B.C. as the final sign proceeding the March appearance of the new star. Kidger also notes that if the Magi had taken about three months to make their journey, the star would have moved from a position in the east to a position in the south ( the direction of Bethlehem coming from Jerusalem) just because of the seasonal movement of the night sky.

So what was the Bethlehem's star? A conjunction? An occultation? A fireball? A nova or supernova? We can probably never really know for sure without being able to get into the Magi's heads to know what they thinking as they made their decision to set off for Jerusalem. It will remain a mystery for us to speculate on as we watch the beauty of the night sky and ponder what role it played in the Christmas story.

Books: Star of Bethlehem

Copyright Lee Krystek 2000. All Rights Reserved.

 

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