Dec 25

Star of Bethlehem

by Peter Burkey

Many of the world’s religions, both current and historical, have connections with things astronomical. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the earth’s ancient people all observed the same sky full of awe inspiring objects. It is no wonder,then, that stars play an important role in many religions and to Christians the Star of Bethlehem is the best known example.

Although we have very little historical information about the Star (only two sentences in the Book of Matthew refer to it) hundreds if not thousands of books and articles have been written on possible astronomical interpretations of the event. In fact, the December issue of Sky and Telescope magazine contained an article by an astronomy student at Michigan State University, Aaron Adair, that summarizes nicely the various theories. His conclusions may surprise you.

Some proposed explanations, such as ball lightning or meteors, never gained acceptance. More popular theories include comets, novae (stars that “flare up”), or planetary alignments, but Adair argues “a closer examination finds severe weaknesses in all of these.”

The comet hypothesis does not seem plausible because comets were most often regarded as omens of evil. A nova or supernova could have been bright enough and lasted long enough to guide the Magi to Jerusalem. But a nova or supernovae would have been recorded by observers in the Far East and no such reports have been found. Also, it is difficult to imagine a comet or supernova behaving as described in the Scriptures.

One of the most popular explanations involves what is known as a planetary conjunction, a gathering of two or more planets in the same area of the sky. With modern planetarium software we can easily recreate these events at the exact time and position in which they occurred. One such example is the very close conjunction of Venus and Jupiter near the star Regulus in the constellation Leo on June 17, 2 BC. This explanation assumes Leo is the constellation representing Judea at that time, but scholars do not agree on this point.
Planetary conjunctions, however, usually had astrological meanings and Adair makes a good argument that Jesus’ Jewish followers probably would not have heeded the warnings of astrologers.

Another recent explanation was put forth by Michael Molnar in his 1999 book The Star of Bethlehem. On April 17, 6 BC, the Moon occulted (passed in front of) the planet Jupiter. He argues this could have been interpreted as a good sign that later became the Star. Unfortunately, evidence suggests an occultation such as this would have predicted a King’s death! Equally unfortunate is the fact that the occultation took place in the daytime and would not have been visible to the Magi.

Adair, who is also a show presenter at the Abrams Planetarium at MSU, offers an alternate viewpoint at the end of his article. Since all of the astronomical explanations have serious flaws, perhaps we should rely on faith in this case. To read comments on the article go to SkyandTelescope.com/starofbethlehem.

Now, if we could just see some stars around here once, it would be a brighter Holiday Season.