THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM
THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM
The Christmas Star is embedded in many of our Christmas carols and has become an integral part of the Christmas Story.
In order to ascertain what the Star of Bethlehem really was, we must realise that 2,000
years ago any object in the sky, other than the sun and the moon, were considered to be stars. There were meteors (falling stars), comets (hairy stars), novae (new stars), and planets (wandering stars). The Star of Bethlehem could have been any one of these.
We can immediately dismiss a shooting star as a possibility. A meteor is visible for only a fraction of a second as it rushes through the atmosphere to be vaporized in the process. Even a large meteor or fireball could shine for a few seconds only. The wise men were impelled to leave their own country and travel for months, apparently with the "Star" in view.
Modern estimates place the date of Christ's Birth in the spring of the year 6 BC, but we cannot be absolutely certain about that. No bright comets have been recorded around that time. Halley's comet, which returns to Earth every 76 years, had been seen in 11.B.C. but that was several years too soon!
Novae are faint stars, which suddenly flare up and increase drastically in brightness. Supernovae can be brighter still. They can occasionally outshine every star in the sky and remain bright for several weeks or even months before slowly subsiding and becoming faint once again. Ancient Chinese astronomers recorded one such nova in the constellation of Capricornus in the year 5-B.C. and so this could be a possible candidate. However, the wise men were astrologers from the Persian area who were more interested in the positions of the ‘wandering stars’ or planets, and the clue to the true identity of the Star of Bethlehem could lie here.
Astrology is the belief that events occurring in heaven, amongst the planets, affect the lives of people and situations upon the Earth. Astrology was a major part of the religion of the Middle East at the time of Christ's birth and the wise men were most probably astrologer-priests. In the year 7.B.C., on May 29th, September 30th and December 5th, there occurred three conjunctions of the planets Jupiter and Saturn against the stars of the faint constellation of Pisces, the Fishes. A conjunction of planets is where they seem to lie close together in the same part of the sky. Although not particularly outstanding to the casual observer, the three conjunctions would have been of immense importance to astrologers. According to ancient astrological tradition, Jupiter was the 'Royal Star' of Kings, and Saturn was the ruling 'Star' of the Jews, as was the constellation of Pisces in which the triple conjunction occurred. To the eastern astrologers, the message of this series of events could have been that a new king of the Jews had been born.
The above explanation does not tell of a beautiful star though, the sort of star we see on our Christmas cards; so we ask the question – Was there something ‘shining with royal beauty bright’ in the skies above the middle east around the time of Christ’s birth? The answer is yes - there was!
There were two very close conjunctions of Venus and Jupiter, the first at dawn on August 12th 3 BC, and the second, even closer one, on the evening of June 17th 2 BC. I have created graphics for both conjunctions, so that you can see what they would have looked like in the skies above the Judean desert, One graphic shows what the two planets would have looked like in a telescope, had such things been around! These two planets are the two brightest, and outshine by many times even the brightest stars. Both can be seen shining brightly in the early evening sky, Venus, low in the southwest, and Jupiter higher in the south eastern sky. When they are very close together they must make a superb, and brilliant star-like object. The 3 BC conjunction was close, but the one in the dusk sky of that far away June night in 2 BC, was even closer; so close in fact, that there would have appeared, in the evening a singularly beautiful ‘star of wonder, star of night’, indeed, a star ‘with royal beauty, bright!’