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December 26, 2006 > What was the Star of Bethlehem?

What was the Star of Bethlehem?

This question has been the subject of debate among historians, astronomers, astrologers, and theologians for centuries.  It has spawned hundreds of research papers.  For many Christians, the star has become a vital part of the mysticism surrounding the birth of Christ.

The Bible mentions the star only twice.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage."

This quote from Matthew and another brief mention a few sentences later, indicating the star appeared over Bethlehem, comprise the only historical record of the star of Bethlehem.  None of the other accounts of these events mention the wise men or a guiding star.

Before addressing the question of what the wise men may have seen, let's place them in historical context.  The wise men, or Magi, as some translations refer to them, came from east of Judea.  They may have been Persian or Babylonian.  They probably traveled several months to reach Jerusalem, where they explained to King Herod and others what they had seen, and then proceeded the few miles south to Bethlehem where they found Jesus.

It is interesting to note that Jesus is described in the Bible as a small child when the Magi arrived, not a newborn, as often depicted in nativity scenes.  This is consistent with the lengthy journey they undertook after seeing the signs of his birth, as well as Herod's order, shortly following their arrival, to kill all children age two and younger.  Matthew makes no mention of the number of Magi.  The number three was introduced many centuries later, perhaps simply because three gifts were mentioned: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  These were the traditional gifts for royalty.

At the time, there was no distinction between astronomy and astrology.  The Magi watched the night sky very carefully and recorded the movement of stars and planets, as well as any other phenomena they observed.  Unlike modern astronomers, however, they would have attached mystic significance to any unusual celestial occurrences, interpreting them as omens and messages relating directly to human events.  Most of the people would have indeed considered them wise men, and looked to them to explain the underlying meanings of comets, meteors, and other signs in the sky.

It seems only those who watched the night sky very carefully noticed this star-no extraordinary lights were recorded by historians of the time, but people (such as Herod) were able to see it when it was pointed out to them, so let's proceed under the assumption it was a relatively subtle astronomical event of some sort, and not a blazing beacon above Bethlehem.

Historians have had considerable difficulty dating the birth of Jesus.  All agree it was late in the reign of King Herod, but accounts differ as to when Herod died, some indicating 4 B.C. and some 1 B.C.  Historians have utilized several other milestones in an attempt to pinpoint the birth date, including backdating from events such as the beginning of his ministry, probably at age 30 or 31, and the birth of his cousin, John the Baptist (or Baptizer).  Most scholars agree that Jesus was likely born between 7-2 B.C., based on our current calendar.

There are four astronomical events that might have caught the attention of the Magi: meteor, comet, nova or supernova, and planetary conjunction.  We can quickly dispense with the first three.  A meteor is a piece of space debris that burns up on entering earth's atmosphere.  While it can be spectacular, the entire event lasts only a few seconds.  The star of Bethlehem was still visible after the Magi traveled to Jerusalem.

A comet is an icy and/or rocky object whose orbit brings it close to the sun at long intervals, at which times it is visible from earth.  It also can hang in the sky for weeks or months.  Halley's is the most famous comet.  Halley made an appearance in 11 B.C., far too early for the birth of Jesus.  No comets were recorded in the 7-2 B.C. timeframe.  In any event, comets were universally perceived as omens of evil, and would not have been interpreted as heralding the birth of a king.

A nova or supernova is the spectacular death of a star, in which it literally explodes, sometimes creating a bright star in the sky where none was previously visible, and burning brightly for weeks before disappearing entirely.  This seems a likely candidate, but no bright novae were recorded during this window of time.  Chinese astronomers did record a rather weak nova in the spring of 5 B.C., but such a mundane nova is not uncommon, and it is unlikely to have sent the Magi on a quest.

This leaves us with a planetary conjunction.  The Magi referred to what we now know are planets as "wandering stars" since they move in entirely different and less predictable ways than the other stars.  Conjunctions occur when planets move very close together with each other or with bright stars.  With the help of software able to "turn back time" and display the night sky as it appeared at any moment in history, astronomers have been able to look back to the period of 7-2 B.C.  What they found was not just one, but an abundance of planetary conjunctions.  In fact, there are perhaps more visually spectacular and astrologically significant conjunctions during this period than at any time since.

Here is a quick summary of what the Magi would have seen.  Jupiter passed very close to Saturn three times in May-December of 7 B.C., a rare "triple conjunction."  In February of 6 B.C. Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter all grouped closely together.  A few years later, May of 3 B.C. saw a conjunction of Saturn and Mercury.  Saturn continued on, to pass alongside Venus in June.  In August of 3 B.C., Venus and Jupiter made a close pass, and then in June of 2 B.C. they returned to join so closely together that they appeared to the naked eye as a single, bright star above the western horizon.  This final event is so rare that modern planetariums often recreate it.

In addition to these "pure" planetary conjunctions, several planet-star conjunctions also occurred.  One series of such conjunctions has been cited as another possible impetus for the Magi to mount up and head west.  In August of 3 B.C., Jupiter made a very close approach to the star Regulus.  Over the next eight months, Jupiter returned twice to pass next to Regulus, in February and May of 2 B.C., another rare triple conjunction, followed in June by the Jupiter/Venus conjunction described above.

By the way, the occasional eastward movement of planets in opposition to the westward movement of the stars is normal.  It is termed retrograde movement, and is caused by our perspective from earth, as we move in our own orbit at a different rate than the orbits of other planets.  As we sweep around the sun, the outer planets appear to "reverse course" and move east for a time.

The conjunctions of 3-2 B.C. were rife with potential astrological significance.  For example, both Jupiter and Regulus were astrologically associated with kings, so the Magi would have observed the portentous vision of the planet of kings passing repeatedly past the star of kings.  That this occurred in the constellation Leo (the lion) may have been important to the Magi as well.  Jewish prophets had foretold the birth of their king from the tribe of Judah, which is traditionally associated with the lion.

These events were subtle enough to go unnoticed by most people, and lasted long enough to have motivated the Magi to travel to Jerusalem and still be proceeding when they arrived.  These facts fit with the sparse Biblical account.  The Magi would undoubtedly have been awed by these celestial dances, far exceeding any series of conjunctions observed in their lifetimes.  Did they interpret them to signify the birth of a Jewish king in Judea, and set out to find him?  No one can be certain, and the star of Bethlehem will likely always remain a subject of debate.

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