The Star of Bethlehem

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Brilliant Sirius, blazing bright in the Winter’s Night Sky is less than 9 light years distant and is the brightest star in the sky next to the sun

By James Daly, Ph.D

The following quote from the gospel according to Matthew is often found on holiday greeting cards and is heard around the world during this season as a message of peace and hope; the year is over and it’s time to rest, to be with family, friends and to prepare for the new year.

Los Reyes Magos

And having heard the king, they went their way; and lo, the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshiped Him; and opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Matt. 2:9-11)

Orion illustrating Los Tres Marias (the three Marys), the three belt stars. Image courtesy the author. Orion from rural Long Island, c 1970.

The Spanish often refer to the three belt stars of Orion as Los Reyes Magos or the Magic Kings. The seasonal significance of Orion’s visibility during Christmas is clear but why were these traveling kings considered “magicians”?

The Spanish tradition isn’t the only reference to these Magi; it is pervasive throughout the Eastern Mediterranean region and Western Asia through late antiquity and beyond.

These travelers were a group of distinguished foreigners who visited Jesus after his birth, presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh upon their arrival. They were learned men of science and mathematics, priests of Zoroaster and practitioners of astrology which, at the time, was considered a science in parallel with the real science of astronomy.

Being true to their character, these priests immersed themselves in the quest for wisdom grounded in goodness, an essential aspect and tenant of their religion of Zoroastrianism which, by some accounts, was the first world religion. That they sought out the “King of kings” in his infancy would be consistent with their vocation and wisdom, that they looked to the stars to guide them would be consistent with their learning, intelligence and insight.

But what was the “star”? Was it a “new” star, a comet, a meteor, a supernova? This question has persisted since biblical times for those who are inquisitive and seek the truth, for those who yearn for a connection to the larger cosmos, for those who seek a benevolent deity to save us from ourselves or for those who wish to link history and science and use that link as a bridge or gateway from the past, through the present and into the future.

 

Let’s take a look at each possibility.

Was it a Nova?

Was the Christmas star a “New Star”? A new star, or “nova”, is quite a rare event and is the lesser cousin to the far more powerful “supernova”. Novae are among a group of variable stars, collectively known as cataclysmic variables and thus, their physical dynamics would generally have caused them to have been observed before; they would thus have been discarded as being any meaningful celestial sign heralding a great event.

Was it a Supernova?

Was it a supernova? Supernovae are quite rare and occur within a given galaxy approximately once or twice every century. If there have been 15 or 20 to have occurred in the Milky Way galaxy since biblical times that would be a lot.

Moreover, supernovae are singular events whose light diminishes from a maximum to about half this value over about a 100-day period depending on the type. This “light curve” is inconsistent with the biblical account of what was observed: and lo, the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was“. There is no mention of the light of the “star” fading and that it “went on before them” or moved is another aspect of the event that is inconsistent with a supernova, an event that remains at a fixed point on the sky. So, it seems quite unlikely that the Christmas star was a supernova.

Was it a Comet?

Was the star actually a comet? With the ethereal beauty associated with a bright comet and all that this beauty could represent as a metaphor for the new light of hope that was born as a child in a lowly manger, it could be suggested that the star wasn’t a star at all but a comet. Additionally, comets do change their position on the sky from night to night as they move in their orbits around the sun but they don’t stop as is suggested of the biblical star: “until it came and stood over where the Child was“.

We should also note that comets also change in brightness as they approach the sun and then fade as they recede, an aspect inconsistent, like the supernova, with the biblical account of the star’s appearance; there is no mention in the biblical account that the “star” changed in brightness.

Remembering our discussion of the Magi, their education, intelligence, wisdom and insight, we would quickly conclude that they would never “follow a comet” as the appearance of a comet, historically, was always considered an omen or a harbinger of doom. For millennia, comets have inspired fear, dread and awe in many different societies and cultures and, in fact, the word “dis-aster” or “evil star” has its origins in Greek as “dys” evil and “astron” star. It is thus, unlikely that our star was a comet.

Was it a Meteor?

What about meteors, or “shooting stars”? First, to clarify, meteors aren’t stars at all but small rocks and debris remaining after the formation of the solar system that burn up from the heat of friction in the Earth’s atmosphere. Their appearance is so temporal and brief, behaving in a manner completely inconsistent with the biblical account of the star’s appearance, that they would never be considered as its candidate.

So what remains?

What other objects besides the fixed stars and those possibilities discussed thus far could be a candidate for this enigmatic star? Was it a single planet’s position? Not likely since the changing positions of the planets were well known to the Magi. Was the biblical “star” even a star at all or is the word “star” really a metaphor for something far deeper and more meaningful? It is the concerted opinion of many scholars that it was.

Additional Clues from the Bible

For additional clues, let’s return to the biblical passage in the gospel of Luke:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night” (Luke 2:8)

What can be inferred from this passage?

What season was it?

The passage suggests that the climate was mild and temperate as the shepherds wouldn’t have otherwise been living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night, nor would they have subjected their flocks to the cold of winter. One can infer from this passage that it was most likely the Spring, that the shepherds were guarding their flocks as they grazed at night during the early spring.

The Location of the Planets and the Constellations of the Zodiac

We need to take another look at the Magi. They were learned men and would be looking for deeper meaning and insight in the occurrence of natural events and, according to their religious vocation, would seek to attribute significance and meaning to those events. They were astute practitioners of astrology and keenly aware of the locations of the planets in specific constellations of the Zodiac.

Since the location of a single planet on the sky wouldn’t necessarily have resulted in the Magi mounting a long, arduous and perhaps perilous journey, the “star” or event would have to have been something far more rare and significant.

We have counted the centuries since the birth of Jesus as having started in the year 0. In our man-made calendars we mark his birth from the “year 0” as a convenience but astronomical events and the natural order aren’t bound by our calendars. Was he really born in the year 0? Not necessarily.

Modern technology has allowed us to recreate the sky forward or backwards and modern planetariums and software can recreate the sky at any conceivable time or place in history or in the future. Let’s take a look at the positions of the planets starting in the year 0 and work our way backward.

As far as the prominence or importance of the planets and their locations as would have been attributed to them by the Magi, there is nothing significant in their placement until the year -7 (7 BC) if we proceed backwards in time from the year 0.

The Star!

On February 4th in the year -7, a “Quadruple Conjunction” of the planets Mercury, Mars, Saturn and Uranus occurs in the constellation Pisces! The Magi would have been unaware of Uranus since it is invisible without a telescope and wouldn’t be discovered until March 13th, 1781 by the famous English astronomer William Herschel, 1,788 years later! But they would have been aware of the visible conjunction of Mercury, Mars and Saturn.

What’s more, the planet Venus is also in Pisces and Jupiter is in Aquarius, another zodiacally important constellation. A planetary “conjunction” occurs when two or more planets come within apparent close proximity to each other on the sky. A double conjunction is infrequent while a triple conjunction is exceedingly rare!

It is important also to remember that even though February technically is considered a winter month, the land of Judea is a semi-arid, desert climate and closer to the equator than much of Europe, something that would tend to mitigate the climate even during February.

This lends further credence to the idea that shepherdsliving out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by nightwould have been commonplace even in February. Moreover, that this very rare conjunction occurred in the constellation Pisces, a constellation considered holy and revered by the Jews adds to the significance of the event and is something the Magi would be aware of.

The Location of the Sun

During this time of year, the sun is in Aquarius (see image below), the constellation immediately to the west of Pisces and, although the conjunction was the closest on the fourth of February of that year, it would have actually occurred during daylight, rendering it completely invisible. Being scholars and men of learning, wisdom and insight, the Magi would have been keenly aware of the important implications of the event and, that it was invisible notwithstanding, they would have traveled to the east in search of the child. The knowledge of its occurrence and its significance was all that mattered.

The sky to the east as it appeared on February 4th in the year 7 BC (-7). Animation via Stellarium and the author.

Most scholars agree that this was the wondrous “Star of Bethlehem”.

A Cause for Hope

Whether it was or not isn’t really important, that there was this “star”, distant and bright, real or metaphor, everything good that a “star” represents, that there were these “wise men” who traveled a long, perilous journey to greet the infant child, is what matters; it is a cause for hope in a troubled world.

We too can look to the east as they did; upon the brilliant jewels of Orion, brilliant Sirius beckoning and know that there are others too who are gazing as you are; that this is the nexus that binds us all together, the oneness with that great canopy of stars above, fellow travelers upon this beautiful blue miracle in orbit about our home star. We, bound by a common origin, composed of elements forged in the nuclear cauldrons of long-dead stars, look up at the stars and, in humility, connect with each other. Having almost completed yet another circuit around that star, we are reminded that, in our smallness, we are great in that we have this common bond; let us concentrate on that, be one and be at peace.



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