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December 20, 2011 > The mystery of the Bethlehem star

The mystery of the Bethlehem star

By Mauricio Segura

With all the lodgings in Bethlehem at capacity, Joseph and his very pregnant wife Mary had to settle for a stable. It was there that their child, Jesus, the promised messiah was born, bringing hope and life for all who believed, changing the world forever.

Three Magi, or Wise Men, visited the baby and brought gifts to celebrate his birth. They had known for some time that this future savior would be born, and traveled hundreds of miles to see him. But this was two thousand years before Google and GPS - how were they able to find his precise location? The Bible says that they followed a star each night which settled over the place where the child lay. And therein lies a mystery.

Is there a reasonable explanation for the star that appeared over Bethlehem announcing the birth of this baby and marking where he was? If you're a Christian and believe Jesus was the son of God, there isn't much debate in this matter, as God is capable of anything and this was simply a supernatural event. However, scholars, astronomers, and non-Christians have debated for years if there truly was a celestial event visible over the Middle East all those years ago, or if it was simply a fabrication to make a good story sound even more majestic.

Of the most plausible possibilities, there are many to choose from: typical new star, a planet, meteor, comet, a nova, or any miscellaneous documented celestial event. Great astronomers like Brahe, Galileo, and Kepler among others spent hours using complex mathematics to figure out what the sky looked like on any particular night. The only drawback was that their calculations could only pinpoint a single day in time, at a time. Today however, simple computer programs and even smart phone apps take these same calculations and, in seconds, map out the sky in any place on Earth, thousands of years in the past or future. With these extraordinary tools, only one key thing is missing... the date(s) to search.

Upon hearing of Jesus' birth, King Herod ordered that all male children under three years of age be killed throughout the land. King Herod himself died shortly after Jesus' birth. Taking that into consideration, scholars studying manuscripts held by the British Library in London have determined Herod's death at 1 B.C. With that as a starting point, it is feasible to determine that Jesus was born between 5 and 2 B.C. Were any other physical phenomenon applicable during that time?

Star? A star is a ball of fiery gas. Our own sun is a star. A new star can appear at any given point in the night sky. The star the Magi followed rose and set in the east each evening, keeping in line with the rest of the celestial bodies. But the problem is this: Had a star bright enough and situated over Bethlehem suddenly appeared, it would still be there, and there isn't one.

Planet? Even an untrained astronomical eye can see and tell the difference between a star and a planet. Planets move and change positions night after night behind the relatively stable stars. Had the Magi (professional astronomers themselves who would never make such a mistake) been following a planet, they would have ended up zig-zagging through the desert, never reaching their destination.

Meteor? Commonly called a shooting star, a meteor is particles or rocks that burn up through our atmosphere. They race across the sky and although a sight to see, usually only last a few seconds before disappearing. It's safe to say the Bethlehem Star was not a meteor.

Comet? Comets are among the most impressive astronomical objects to see. Like planets in our solar system, comets orbit the sun and for the most part are very predictable. For example, the famous Halley's Comet has been faithfully putting on a show for Earth viewers every 75.5 years. For the Magi, the return of a predictable comet would not be important enough to follow. A new comet might peak interest, but according to searches in computer programs, there were no comets viewable from Earth between 5 and 2 B.C. Furthermore, the Chinese, who still hold ancient writings and astronomical records, also mention that no visible comets sailed by the Earth during those years.

Nova? A nova is a very rare event that could have definitely been attributed as the Bethlehem Star. A nova is a star that explodes. At the end of their lives, stars begin to lose their nuclear energy and simply explode. In some instances and depending on the proximity to Earth, the brightness could be a celestial show like any other. The last major nova explosion on record happened in 1054. This nova, leaving behind what can now be seen through a telescope as the Crab Nebulae, was bright enough to be seen during the day for 23 days and remained the brightest object in the night sky (aside from the moon) for the next two years. No novas were visible from Earth between 5 and 2 B.C.

So where does that leave this entire debate? Planets by themselves zig-zag from night to night and should be ruled out. Regular stars are nothing out of the ordinary. But what about a combination of both? A conjunction in space is when two or more objects align between each other, making the star or object in the front appear brighter than normal. Could this be the answer? It's highly likely. As it turns out, Jupiter (a very bright planet on its own) took the time to waltz though the night sky with a very bright star called Regulus. For months, the planet and the star carried on this dance that would have definitely caught the Magis' eyes. Jupiter eventually reached full retrograde, giving it the appearance of stopping right in front of Regulus; a celestial phenomenon that viewed by a Magi in Jerusalem would have appeared as a bright object resting in the sky right above the little town of Bethlehem. The date... December 25, 2 B.C.

Believing the legitimacy of the Christmas story is up to the individual. But there is no denying the fact that you can't fake what happened in the night sky. The proof is there for anyone to see with their own eyes on a computer or iPad screen. Whatever explanation might be ascribed to that light, that wondrous star has stayed with us through the ages, serving as a symbol of guidance, hope, and great joy.

Merry Christmas!

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