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The star of Bethlehem.

During December every year one question that is frequently asked is “What was the Star of Bethlehem”. The answer to that question is the one that the famous Sir Patrick Moore would articulate, “WE JUST DON’T KNOW”.

One problem is that the word STAR is more restricted now than it was a couple of thousand years ago, then, it was used for all things celestial, i.e. meteor was a shooting star, a planet was a wondering star, a comet was a hairy star.

Another way of putting the question is, “Was there an actual astronomical event that could account for the star appearing as in the Nativity story?” To answer this, a number of theories based on historically proven astronomical facts of the time in question where developed. You may have heard of most of them that I shall look at, but it will do no harm to go over them again, and it may bring to mind a question of your own that you could research.

I am not going to try a prove or disprove any aspect of the Nativity story, I shall leave that to people more qualified that I am to debate that.

So first, let just look at the “WHEN?” part of the puzzle, this is important because it restricts the number of actual astronomical event that need to be discussed. So, when was Jesus born, in other words, what was the date of the Nativity?

The Bible gives us some clues, but few, if any, seem to appear in the writings of contemporary authors or the records that have survived of the early Roman Empire.

One biblical clue is in Luke 2 v 1-2 which states in the English translation, (I can’t comment on the accuracy of this) “A decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed” and that this occurred when “when Cyrenius was governor of Syria”. It appears from what I have read that it is not clear when this actually occurred.

Then again, in Matthew 2 v1 he says that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King”. Now it seems that traditionally, this is dated to 4BC as recorded by the 1st century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, from his statement “that very night there was an eclipse of the Moon”. Problem, there were two lunar eclipses in the year 4BC. Unusually, both eclipses happen to be total and visible from the Middle East, so which one do we choose?

Also, Josephus states that Herod died during that same year; most scholars take it that Jesus was also born that year, and as it was Caesar Augustus’s 25th year on the throne, it could be reasonable to conjecture that he did order a census of all people under Roman’s control. This may or may not have been the case; at least it gives a reasonable indication of the year date that we are looking for.

But what about the 25th December, which is fixed traditionally to be the accepted date. Unlikely, if you think back to 1752 when 11 days were cut from the year to bring our calendar into lone with the Gregorian time line. So the festival of Christmas should really be on the 6th January instead. But the description of the Nativity in the bible does throw some light on the season that the birth took place. Does not the “Shepherds in the fields minding their sheep” indicate that they may have been watching over the sheep during the lambing season?

Now, what about the “WHAT” part of the conundrum? There are many theories regarding astronomical events that would have signified the “Birth of the King of the Jews”, such as a Supernova, a Comet, or even a triple conjunction of a planet with a bright star. So let have a look at each in turn.

Supernova: We all know that a supernova is an exploding star, usually’ but not always; the star is not visible to the naked eye before it explodes, and so, to the ancient observers it would have been a new star. Today we know that supernovae leaves a tell-tell record in the form of a gas and dust remnant in the form of a planetary nebula, (i.e. the Crab nebula, which appeared during the year 1054). If a supernova appeared around 4 BC it would surely still be showing somewhere in the area of sky that would have been seen in the Middle East then. More damming for this idea is that the Chinese, who were the best and most fastidious record keepers at that time, show no record for a supernova. So it seems a fair bet that a supernova is not our object.

Next on the list is a comet: As we know, Edmund Halley found that some comets make return journeys to the Sun after a number of years in orbit, the main one being the comet that we now call by his name. It was calculated that Halley’s comet returned during 1305, and it seems that the idea that the Star of Bethlehem was a comet stems for a painting produced in 1305 by the Italian painter, Giotto di Bondone, called “The Adoration of the Magi”, because of the comet like object that he inserted in the sky over his Nativity scene. The only problem with this is that Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky during AD12, much too late to have been seen in the lifetime of King Herod.

The physicist Sir Colin Humphreys has studied a number of historical sources, including Chinese records and had come to the conclusion that the Star of Bethlehem might have been a comet. He had found that there were three comets between the years 12BC and 4BC that were recorded by the Chinese, who apparently, described comets as “with a tail” or “without a tail”. Now the two comets in 12BC and 4BC were comets without a tail, but a comet that appeared in the constellation of Capricornus in the year 5BC had a tail, which could have been a much more spectacular object in the sky, and apparently was visible in the sky for 70 days. I’ll come back to this later.

So what about the triple conjunction theory? It relate to a very rare conjunction of Jupiter with the star Regulus. (Alpha Leonis) At very infrequent intervals, Jupiter carries out a triple pass of the star Regulus in its forward and retrograde movement as seen from Earth. It can be shown that such a triple pass occurred from September 3BC to May 2BC, this would have been a significant astrological symbol. Let’s not forget that astronomy two thousand years ago was steeped in what we consider to be astrology nowadays, and this event would only have meant anything to the astrologers of the day, and not to the average man, or woman, in the street.

However, a conjunction is not a star, but an alignment. So, can we count it? Well possibly. We could even add in a planetary alignment and a comet into the story. As I mentioned earlier, astrology might even enter into the puzzle.

Something must have set the three wise men (if they existed) on their journey. Could what I next want to describe have been the sequence of events? I don’t know.

In 7BC another triple conjunction occurred, this time by the two planets, Jupiter and Saturn. Apparently, in Persian astrology of the time, Saturn represented a “Divine Father” and Jupiter was his son, and the conjunction occurred in the constellation of Pisces which was associated with Israel. See the connection? Now, the following year, 6BC, these two planets were joined by Mars in a planetary alignment all within 8° of each other, and still in the constellation of Pisces. All this was associated with a divine birth.  Incidentally, Kepler observed a similar alignment in 1504, and calculated that this alignment happened every 805 years, but also considered it to be an important astrological event.

Low and behold the next year the great comet of 5BC that I mentioned earlier appeared in the constellation of Capricornus, and comets in those days were connected with great kings, not doom and gloom that were to be the norm later on. The significance of all these signs was enough to set the Magi off on their travels which would have taken two or three months, and several changes of camels. It was their interpretation of the three signs that a messiah-king would be born in Israel, hence their unannounced call on King Herod which led to the unpleasant business that followed with the killing of all the children under two years old.

A very neat theory, but is it true?  You may have your own ideas. All the theories have their compelling points, but none really fit all the facts, both scientifically and scripturally. But one thing is clear, that as described in the Bible, the Star of Bethlehem did not behave as any type of natural celestial body that we know.